Guest Blog: Under the Baobab Tree (Grace Killian)

I have always tried to fill my life with cross-cultural experiences. Among other things, I am very active in the interfaith movement at Brandeis University, and I spent a summer as an intern on the Navajo Nation in 2011. I have taken classes in anthropology and global studies, and I know that suspending judgments until deeper understandings are reached is key to cross-cultural interactions. However, I underestimated the importance of avoiding judgments in intercultural relationships until I spent some time in the shade of a baobab tree.

I spent the fall semester of 2011 studying international development in Senegal. I spent eight weeks in the capital, Dakar, taking classes and learning Wolof, the principal language of the country, before moving to the village of Toubacouta for six weeks where I interned with a traditional dance and drumming troupe at a local kindergarten. I was dropped off in Toubacouta, waving goodbye to my fellow American students, who were each assigned to a different village – the last familiar faces and English speakers I would see for six weeks.

I was equally terrified and excited on my first day at Garderie Baobab, a kindergarten that included kids as young as five-year old. In the morning, my host sister walked me to the school, where I awkwardly sat as the center of attention, surrounded by children fascinated by my white skin.

The first day did not go as I had planned. In fact, in my mind, everything was wrong. I often found myself alone in the classroom with the children, and I quickly learned that I held absolutely no authority in the classroom. My very basic Wolof was not sufficient to control the classroom – but some the children did not know much Wolof either. Rather, they spoke Mendinke or Seerer, two other ethnic languages.

Moreover, the novelty of a white person in the classroom discredited any kind of influence I might have. I was clearly not able to lead them on my own. However, day after day, I found myself in charge of classrooms all by myself.

Nothing ever seemed to get done. I felt as if the children never learned anything. In the classrooms, the alphabet and the numbers would be repeated again and again, and then everyone would sit in silence for half the day. There were supplies that were never used, and when I tried to go through them I found cockroaches and earwigs. The teachers often sat in the shade of the baobab tree in the courtyard, drinking tea or simply sitting.

I felt alone and alienated. In my mind, I knew the teachers were trying to be polite, but it was lost in cross-cultural translation. They thought they were engaging me when they asked me if I had a husband, if I had children, and then why didn’t I have a husband and children. But I felt that my privacy was being invaded.

I hated it. I was trying to find solutions to the problems I saw, but I felt that nothing was changing. I felt helpless and useless. Moreover, in my quest for solutions, I found myself constantly judging the other teachers. They were lazy – they only wanted to sit and drink tea. They did not care about the children. I resented them, but ultimately, I did not understand them.

Finally, I realized that I had to stop trying to make everything go according to my plans. As open-minded as I had tried to be going into this experience, my definitions of hard work and success were still incredibly Western. So I stopped trying to find solutions, and instead I began to model the other teachers. I sat with them in the classroom and under the tree when they were too tired to teach. Inevitably, as we sat we began to talk, and as we talked I began to hear their stories. Tales of waking up long before the sun rises to clean the village dispensary before school, doing laundry all afternoon after school, working desperately to make ends meet. Tales of the people they had welcomed into their houses, regardless of how little they had. Tales of hardship, community, and undeniable strength. These women were becoming some of my best friends in the village, and I looked forward to spending every morning with them. My time in Toubacouta began to fly.

Stopping to listen was the key. A vast cultural divide made our relationships extremely difficult and seemingly impossible. But when I stopped trying to find solutions that fit with my expectations and my definitions, I truly began to hear these women and their stories. Once I genuinely pushed my judgments aside, I could move forward with personal relationships. It was the formation of these relationships that eventually enabled me to help the school. Through listening, I saw the constant exhaustion of the teachers, and then when I stepped in to assist them – going over the alphabet or leading songs with the children – I was truly helping. Our conversations revealed their illiteracy, and finally I realized that the school supplies sat unused because the teachers could not understand the instructions. Knowing this, I was able to show them how to use the supplies, which added color, variety and creativity to their classrooms.

As my last day in Toubacouta arrived, I bought the tea for the teachers, and we all sat together for the final time. We joked and laughed, and I took pictures. As I walked away from Garderie Baobab, there were hugs all around, and tears began to fall. Looking back at the school for one last moment, I was struck by how much I would truly miss these people. My relationship with them had come so far, and I thanked God for this incredible experience and indeed for their remarkable friendship.


Grace Killian is a senior at Brandeis University double majoring in international and global studies and music. She is originally from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Posted in Baobab, Brandeis, Dakar, Grace Killian, Navajo, Senegal, Uncategorized, Wolof | 1 Comment

Lunch with Gabriela: The Abraham’s Path Initiative

Gabriela Saucedo Mercer, who is running for congress in Arizona’s 3rd district, has recently come under fire for her comments regarding persons from the Middle East . A native of Mexico who is now a naturalized U.S. citizen, Saucedo Mercer stated in a past interview:  ‘And those people [Middle Easterners], their only goal in life is to, to cause harm to the United States. So why do we want them here, either legally or illegally?’

Persons like Saucedo Mercer should take a long walk before making such comments – Abraham’s Path would do nicely.

Abraham’s Path is a ‘womb to tomb’ walking route following the footsteps of Abraham, or Ibrahim, for some 1,200 km through the Middle East. Saucedo Mercer may have been born in Mexico, but she also shares in the origins story of the Middle East – four thousand years ago a man and his family walked across the Middle East, and the world has never been the same. It is the common story that unites some three and a half billion persons around the world – Jews, Christians and Moslems alike – and reminds us that we are a part of a greater whole.

According to William Ury, the founder and chair of The Abraham’s Path Initiative, Abraham symbolizes the unity of the human family. Abraham’s message is one of interconnectedness, and he represents the values of respect, kindness towards strangers and hospitality.

Ury sees the story of Abraham as an antidote to terrorism and as a vaccine against religious intolerance. Terrorism is ‘taking an innocent stranger and treating them as a enemy whom you kill in order to create fear’, while the opposite of terrorism is ‘taking an innocent stranger and treating them as a friend whom you welcome into your home in order to create understanding, respect and love’.

To experience this story, Ury believes that people need to take a walk in the footsteps of Abraham. It is walking, after all, that makes us human. By retracing this journey – from Abraham’s traditional birthplace in Harran (Turkey) to his tomb in Hebron (Palestine) or various sections along the way – Abraham’s Path, which offers pilgrims local home stays, provides a place of meeting and connection for people of all faiths and cultures, while supporting the economy of local communities along the route.

Where people may have expected to receive hostility, they are receiving hospitality.

Kevin Rushby of The Guardian shares the following story from his walk through Palestine:

Out in the street a shopkeeper invited me to have coffee. He was sitting with Micha, a former Israeli soldier turned peace activist, a young freckle-faced man with a friendly smile. What had convinced him to adopt what many Israelis see as a traitorous approach?

“Small things. It started when I was a soldier, talking at checkpoints to Palestinians, seeing what the settlers were doing, and what we were doing to protect them.”

At that moment a Palestinian lady came over. They introduced themselves. “So now you work for peace?” she asked. “But I have to ask: did you kill any Palestinians?”

Around the shopfront where people were taking coffee and chatting, everyone froze. There was a long silence while Micha considered his reply. “I’d rather not say.”

“I think you should,” the woman said. “For any reconciliation, you have to.”

A murmur of agreement passed through the small crowd. Micha thought again. “The truth is, I don’t know. At Abu Sinaina we did shoot, but it was from far away.”

“At Abu Sinaina? Then you killed at least five.”

There was a pause and then Micha nodded. The Palestinian lady smiled. “You are welcome at my house. You must come for lunch.”

Gabriela Saucedo Mercer, I’m sure, would be invited as well.


The Abraham’s Path Mission Statement: To provide a place of meeting and connection for people of all faiths and cultures, inviting us to remember our common origins, to respect our cultural differences, and to recognize our shared humanity. The Path also serves as a catalyst for sustainable tourism and economic development; a platform for the energy and idealism of young people; and a focus for positive media highlighting the rich culture and hospitable people of the Middle East. The Abraham’s Path invites us all to remember our common origins, to respect our differences, and to recognize our shared humanity.

Visit The Abraham’s Path Initiative at and on facebook.


Posted in Abraham's Path, Harran, Hebron, Middle East, Palestine, Saucedo Mercer, Uncategorized, William Ury | 2 Comments

Euro 2012

The streets of Italy were eerily quiet Sunday night in wake of Italy’s 4-0 drubbing by Spain in the finals of the 2012 European Football Championships held in Poland and the Ukraine. In the midnight silence of Milan, one could almost still hear the echoes of celebration and expectation from the previous 72 hours after Italy’s impressive 2-1 defeat of Germany in the tournament’s semi-final in which Italian striker, Mario Bolatelli, who is of Ghanaian descent and the first black player to appear for Italy in a major tournament, outscored the German side with two scintillating first-half goals.

During Euro 2012, Respect Diversity, an initiative of the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA), included monitoring matches for racist chanting and displays of far-right banners. Anti-discrimination messages were broadcast at every game. UEFA’s Declaration against Racism ‘categorically condemns all types of racism and reiterates its policy of zero tolerance towards any form of discrimination within European football’. It adds that ‘racism and discrimination have their roots in society but are often articulated through [football]’. While Bolatelli was being hailed as a national hero, UEFA was handing down fines to Croatia (€80,000) and Spain (€20,000 for an previous match) for racial abuse hurled at Bolatelli by their respective fans. Russia has been similarly fined for racist chants aimed at Czech defender Theodor Gebre Selassie, who is of Ethiopian origins. Throwing bananas and making monkey chants are the abusive actions of choice. Germany was also fined €25,000 for displays of Neo-Nazi symbols.

On one hand, national team football has forced certain countries to confront their national identities, their attitudes towards race and culture, and their own colonial past. Bolatelli has become a hero in Italy, Germany is immensely-proud of its Polish-born players, Miroslav Klose and Lukas Podolski, as well as Mesut Özil, who is of Turkish heritage. In the recent past, France basked in the success of Zinedine Zadine, the son of Algerian immigrants. And yet for the pride home nations feel – regardless of race, culture or origins – towards their individual team members, racism against opponents continues to plague the sport.

In Great Britain, where Chelsea and England national team player John Terry awaits trial for alleged on-the-pitch racial abuse, the BBC is embroiled in a controversy of its own regarding the May 28 airing of the documentary, Euro 2012: Stadiums of Hate. According to the documentary’s promo, ‘with days to go before the kick-off of the Euro 2012 Championships, [BBC investigative program] Panorama reveals evidence of racist violence and anti-semitism at the heart of Polish and Ukrainian football’. On the program, former England national team player Sol Campbell goes so far as to warn black English fans not to travel to Euro 2012, claiming that ‘you could end up coming back in a coffin’. In light of such negative expectations, save for clashes between Polish and Russian fans, the host countries fared better than the pre-tournament prognosis. The Ukrainian ambassador to the UK, Volodymyr Khandogiy, has now spoken out against the BBC claiming that the program was ‘biased and unfair’; yet, he, nonetheless, admits to ‘instances of undesirable behavior’ within the Ukraine. Perhaps more cynically, the English Football Association is expected to make a formal complaint against the BBC, believing that the documentary kept English fans from traveling to the Ukraine to support the national team.

While anecdotal perceptions – if not statistical measures – continue to expose concerns of racism in Eastern Europe, the lessons of Euro 2012 is that the acceptance of racial and cultural diversity remains an ongoing challenge for the entire continent. In a co-ed piece by American freelance journalist, Ian Bateson, which was published in the July 2 online edition of the KyivPost, Bateson writes: ‘What Euro 2012 failed to provide was a clear cut East-West geographic divide between racists and non-racists.  Whatever the reason, racism does seem to be an increasing part of football, but not just in Poland and Ukraine.  The challenge as the sport moves forward is for the beautiful game to continue to bridge racial divides and not reinforce them’.

While the integrity of football lies, in part, in its ability to positively address the challenges of racism, the sport itself provides an extremely important and often positive forum for intercultural encounters, particularly at the grassroots level. Alex, a German now living in Milan, was on business in France during the France – England match and showed up at a local French pub wearing an England jersey – the lone England supporter that night – where he had a great evening interacting with the local French fans. Stories like these are repeated around the world uniting cultures and races around a single talking point – football. As Alex observed, ‘Euro 2012 is simply a wonderful event and football can really serve as an icebreaker through cultural barriers unifying people everywhere’.

As a bridge for overcoming racial divisions and as an icebreaker for cultural discourse, football can reflect society, reinforce society or challenge society. But as with all forums, in the end, the content of the conversation ultimately remains the responsibility of its participants.

Posted in Bolatelli, Croatia, Euro 2012, football, Germany, Italy, John Terry, Lukas Podolski, Mesut Özil, Miroslav Klose, Poland, Respect Diversity, soccer, Sol Campbell, Spain, UEFA, Ukraine, Uncategorized, Zinedine Zadine | 2 Comments

Navajo Treaty Day

On June 1, 1868, the Treaty of 1868 was signed between the United States Government and the Navajo Tribe, establishing under Federal Law, the Navajo Nation.

It would still be decades before the Navajo Nation Tribal Council would be established (1922), and even today, after a century and a half of shifting federal policy towards Native American tribes, tribal sovereignty continues to be defined  – and too often restricted  – by the U.S. Supreme Court.

But the Treaty of 1868 had one immediate implication. The Navajo people, imprisoned in the wasteland of Bosque Redondo at Fort Sumner in Eastern Mexico, could return the 450 miles to their traditional homeland in the Four Corners region of the United States.

Beginning in 1863, the U.S. Army under the leadership of Kit Carson rounded up Navajos and force-marched them through winter conditions, in what is now known as ‘The Long Walk’.

There, at Bosque Redondo, they were interned together with 500 Mescalero Apache. The water was unclean and full of alkaline. The barren land offered little firewood. There was insufficient shelter from the winter cold and the summer heat. Crops failed; disease spread, and some 3,000 of the 8,500 Navajos died in exile. The Navajos refer to Bosque Redondo as H’weeldi, or ‘the place of suffering’.

For a storytelling culture such as the Navajo, H’weeldi is a recent memory, and  people remain personally connected to the Long Walk through the personalities and stories of their own families. For the Navajo, it is a story of death and suffering but one that ends with the birth of a nation.

Home on the Navajo Nation, Navajo Treaty Day is being celebrated with a three-day festival, but hundred of miles away, the Bosque Redondo Memorial at Fort Sumner is now a New Mexico State Monument dedicated to respectfully interpreting the ‘history of two cultures, the Diné (Navajo) and the N’de (Mescalero Apache) during the United States government’s military campaign of ethnic persecution in the 1860’s’.  At Bosque Redondo, the state of New Mexico is taking an honest look at its past. According to the monument’s official brochure, ‘the 19th century in the United States was a time of expansion, driven by Manifest Destiny, the doctrine that a dominant culture had the God-given right to spread across a continent, regardless of any preceding culture. In New Mexico, the policy was directed especially against the Navajo and Mescalero Apache’.

Words, events, memories and landscape – to experience the Bosque Redondo State Monument is to experience a place that is self-consciously allowing itself to be exposed;  then again, it has always been a place of exposure.

Along with its role as an interpretative center, the Bosque Redondo State Monument also functions as a memorial and, as such, as a place of Navajo pilgrimage. Among its many commemorations is a Navajo shrine first created in 1971 from rocks carried from the Navajo Nation in memory of those who suffered and died at H’weeldi.  Although the sense of barrenness is never far away, it is now conjoined with the sacredness and suffering of the human spirit, and ever-pervading the site is a spirituality that transcends written interpretations, self-directed audio guides and the well-manicured pathways.

In the end, it is the land that speaks, and along the banks of the Pecos River, Bosque Redondo will continue to speak to those who will listen.


We are the Dinè. Our endurance lies in our beliefs, prayers, chants, language and wisdom. Holding these truths, we return to our homeland within our sacred mountains. Our strength endures everlasting. In Beauty, we walk. In Beauty, we walk. In Beauty, we walk. 


For more information on the Long Walk, I recommend the documentary, The Long Walk: Tears of the Navajo, produced by KUED (Salt Lake City). The DVD is also on display at the Navajo Nation Museum in Window Rock, Arizona.

Posted in Bosque Redondo, Manifest Destiny, Navajo, New Mexico, The Long Walk, U.S. Supreme Court, Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Brown v. Board of Education

This week marks the anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the seminal legal decision that has shaped United States social and racial policy for the last fifty-eight years. Does segregation deprive the minority group equal opportunities? Is segregation inherently unequal? On May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that they do, rejecting the prevailing legalized myth of ‘separate but equal’. While Brown remains an ongoing topic of public discourse regarding race relations in the United States, this week’s anniversary provides an opportunity to revisit the background and legacy of the Brown decision and its unanimous rejection of race-based segregation.

Racial segregation became institutionalized after the Civil War despite amendments to the U.S. Constitution abolishing slavery (the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865), ensuring ‘equal protection of the laws’ (the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868) and guaranteeing the right to vote for all citizens (the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870). In 1896, segregatist policy became sanctioned by the U.S. Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson.  Plessy, an African-American, was arrested on a New Orleans – Covington train for occupying a seat in a ‘whites only’ car. Attorneys for the plaintiff argued that ‘equal protection of the laws’ under the Fourteenth Amendment had been violated, but the case was rejected in a seven-to-one ruling against Plessy.

According to Justice Henry Billings Brown, writing for the majority opinion in Plessy, ‘the object of the [Fourteenth] Amendment was undoubtedly to enforce the equality of the two races before the law, but in the nature of things it could not have been intended to abolish distinctions based upon color, or to endorse social, as distinguished from political, equality. . .  If one race be inferior to the other socially, the Constitution of the United States cannot put them upon the same place’. Plessy was a resounding victory for racial segregation. Nonetheless, it set a quantifiable precedent: segregation was legal as long as everything was ‘equal’.

Meanwhile, the legal myth of ‘separate but equal’ systematically denied African Americans jobs, housing and access to wealth and property. In terms of education, the areas of inequalities encountered by African-American students included physical infrastructure, transportation, curriculum, pupil-teacher ratio, teaching training and extracurricular activities.

The Brown case came to court after years of legal groundwork laid by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and involved five separate cases that were consolidated into a single case, Oliver Brown et al. v. the Board of Education of Topeka. The other four cases were in South Carolina (Briggs v. Elliot), Virginia (Davis v. Board of Education of Prince Edward County), the District of Columbia (Boiling v. Sharpe) and Delaware (Gebhart v. Ethel). Brown specifically challenged an 1879 Kansas law that allowed racially segregated elementary schools. In the mid-1950s, Topeka had eighteen primary schools for white children, while African American children, denied access to these schools, had only four.

In February 1951 the Topeka NAACP filed a class suit on their behalf, naming the case after Oliver Brown, one of the plaintiffs. The case was originally heard in spring 1953, but unable to reach a decision by the summer, the Court decided to rehear the case in December. A different court, however, would decide the case. In September, Chief Justice Fred Vinson unexpectedly died of a heart attack, leading President Dwight Eisenhower to appoint Governor Earl Warren of California as Vinson’s replacement. In a unanimous decision, the Warren Court subsequently declared school segregation unconstitutional: ‘We come then to the question presented: Does segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race, even though the physical facilities and other “tangible” factors may be equal, deprive the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities? We believe that it does’ (Brown v. Board of Education). A year later, in 1955, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a follow-up decision (Brown II), which ruled that desegregation was to proceed ‘with all deliberate speed’.

The impact of Brown on American society continues to be discussed by scholars, educators, politicians and legal experts, and this week, the 1954 decision is receiving additional attention in the public media.

In many ways, Supreme Court cases represent the most official form of public discourse, and despite the country’s ongoing discomfort with issues of race and culture, Brown continues to provide an important and much-needed forum for the national conversation on race relations and American identity (On March 23, BBC North American editor, Mark Mardell, rightfully observed that ‘just talking about race in the US is potentially politically explosive’).

This forum has found a home in Brown’s own backyard of Topeka, Kansas.  On May 4, 1987, Monroe Elementary School, one of the four African American elementary schools in Topeka in the 1950s, achieved National Historic Landmark designation, and on October 26, 1992, President George H.W. Bush signed the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site Act of 1992, which established the school, now restored to its 1954 appearance, as a national park and interpretative center (visit on facebook).

While the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site is Topeka’s federal commemoration of the story, the State of Kansas has likewise embraced the importance of Brown. Just one mile away from the Monroe Elementary School, the Kansas State Capitol is currently under construction. As a part of these renovations, the Kansas State Legislature has created the Capitol Preservation Committee with the mandate to include a large wall mural within the capitol honoring the history and legacy of Brown (see project parameters; artist applications were due May 1). According to Rep. Valdenia Winn, the committee’s chairperson, ‘the significance of Oliver L. Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas is known throughout the world and one that has paved the way for the modern revolution for human rights in the United States. . . . This mural will be a legacy for all!’

Due to be dedicated on October 1, 2014, The Kansas Capital Mural project not only highlights the importance of Brown as an active and living legacy, but the project allows readers to anticipate how Brown will be monumentally represented on the carte blanche surface of Kansas’ most significant public space. In the end, the success of the project has less to do with the aesthetic qualities of the mural and more to do with its ability to tell stories and provoke conversations. As stated in the project’s Call for Artists, ‘each year thousands of Kansas children tour the Capitol and take with them powerful, enduring images of the people and events which shaped their state’. The Kansas State Legislature is doing their part to ensure that Brown and the struggle for racial equality in the United States is a conversation that will be treasured for generations.

Posted in Brown v. the Board of Education, Kansas, NAACP, Plessy, U.S. Supreme Court, Uncategorized | 3 Comments

The 1889 Land Rush

Today marks the 123rd anniversary of the 1889 Oklahoma Land Rush. The occasion is being commemorated this weekend with parades, festivals and a wagon trail re-enactment of the event. Images of the 1889 Land Rush linger in the American imagination through the figure of the ‘Sooner’, long since adopted as the state nickname and the mascot of the University of Oklahoma.

The 1889 Land Rush concerns the opening of the Oklahoma District, commonly referred to as ‘The Unassigned Lands’, which comprised some two million acres of public land in the heart of Indian Territory and the center of present-day Oklahoma. The area was ceded to the United States government in the wake of the Civil War by the Creek and Seminole tribes, who had allied themselves with the Confederacy. These tribes, having been previously relocated from their native homelands in the American Southeast, were then forced to relinquish a substantial portion of their Oklahoma landholdings.

Despite the language in the post-Civil War treaties, no other Indian tribes were relocated on or assigned to the area, which subsequently became known as The Unassigned Lands, and by the 1880s, there was a growing clamor to open the territory to non-Indian settlement. Advocates of this policy became known as ‘Boomers’.

The legal foundation for the 1889 Land Rush came earlier that year when Congressman William Springer (Illinois) amended the annual Indian Appropriations Bill, authorizing President Benjamin Harrison to open The Unassigned Lands to settlement, which he signed into law on March 23, 1889. The law followed the terms of The Homestead Act of 1862, which allowed settlers to claim 160 acres of public land and then to qualify for land title in five years time pending the occupation and ‘improvement’ of the land.

According to the proclamation, the area would be opened to the non-Indian public on a first-come, first-served basis beginning at twelve noon on April 22, 1889. Some 50,000 hopeful settlers, ostensibly monitored by the United States Army, gathered along the periphery of the district, waiting to vie for the 12,000 newly-available homesteads. The event attracted national and international attention (see The New York Times article from April 22, 1889). Those who illegally entered the area early – many did so at night, hiding out in ravines until the appointed time – became known as ‘Sooners’, an epithet that also applied to marshals, land surveyors and railroad employees who were able to enter the territory beforehand in an official capacity.

Although the 1889 Land Rush resulted in the permanent transfer of land from Indian to non-Indian hands, not all of the homesteads were claimed by Anglo settlers. While an unknown number of African-Americans were among the 50,000 participants, some fifty families were successful in staking claims, primary in the Cimarron River Valley in present-day Kingfisher County. Three African-American towns, Red Wing, Wanamaker and Lincoln City, were established.

The 1889 Land Run, creating literally overnight the cities of Guthrie, Norman and Oklahoma City, established a legal and demographic footprint in the heart of Oklahoma, which would achieve statehood in 1907.

Today, the 1889 Land Rush remains an important part of Oklahoma’s commemorative imagination. Several local festivals are celebrating the occasion this weekend, including the 82nd Annual ’89 Celebration in Guthrie, the 2012 Norman 89er Day, and the 9th Annual Choctaw Land Run Festival. Among the festivals’ activities are land rush re-enactments for children, who will receive replicas of a historic land deed. Festivities also include a commemorative pilgrimage – the 34th Annual Land Run Ride, comprised of about 100 people and 25 wagons, will make a three-day trek from Lebanon to Norman.

The Land Rush commemorations range from the festive to the monumental. Upon completion in 2015, The Centennial Land Run Monument, located in downtown Oklahoma City, will be one of the largest bronze sculptures in the world. Comprised of forty-five Land Rush participants, though absent of Native American representation, the monument will span a distance of 365 feet in length by 36 feet in width and over 16 feet in height. For the hobbyists, there is a Lucky Luke comic book dedicated to the Land Rush, while geocache fans can cross the entire state following the caches of The Oklahoma Land Run.

According to an April 19, 2012 editorial published in The Oklahoma Daily, ‘around this time each year, many students in Oklahoma schools are treated to re-enactments of their own, celebrating Land Run Day by racing to stake their claim on sections of the playground. The native-Oklahoman members of the editorial board have fond memories of this excuse to play outside. What those memories don’t include is any mention of the native peoples who lived on the land those settlers claimed.

Don’t get us wrong: We understand these celebrations are important traditions that celebrate Oklahoma’s history. They have an important place in many people’s lives and memories, which cannot be ignored.

But they come at a heavy price. In order to enjoy these celebrations comfortably, Oklahomans sanitize the real events. They focus on the land claiming and the Western cultural trappings of the land-runners, ignoring the native peoples who — already displaced once and forced to settle in Oklahoma — were then displaced once again to make way for settlers’ land claims. . . . A cursory glance at the media coverage and advertising for this year’s land run celebrations reveals not one mention of a Native American event, a native speaker or any attempt to educate the crowds about the other side of these events — those who lost everything to encroaching foreign settlers’.

Having laid out its position, the editorial advocates an honest and inclusive dialogue as a way forward in remembering and commemorating its state history:

‘The land run is Oklahoma’s history, and no matter how tarnished, it should be remembered. But that’s exactly the point: No matter how tarnished, our real history should be remembered. Being proud of this state means acknowledging its true legacy — all the good and the bad. It may be difficult to love something while recognizing its faults, but Oklahomans owe that much to the people hurt and the cultures all but destroyed by those ’89ers’.

The dialogue that is needed is one that acknowledges all parties while denying the experiences of none. The annual Land Rush celebrations seem to be a perfect venue for such future conversations.

Posted in 1889, Homestead Act, Land Run, Land Rush, Oklahoma, Sooner, Unassigned Lands, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

The Phantom Shipwreck, Christmas 1996

In a small storefront bookshop in Milan, some two dozen people gathered earlier this month for a dramatic reading recounting a shipwreck that took place nineteen miles off the coast of southern Sicily on Christmas night 1996. The tragedy, which claimed the lives of at least 283 undocumented immigrants from India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, is the worst shipping disaster on the Mediterranean since the Second World War. It has also been known as the Phantom Shipwreck, because, despite persistent rumors of the calamity, it took four and a half years for the incident to be officially acknowledged.

It’s a story of vanished hope. A story of human trafficking in a globalized world. A story of death and silence, fear and indifference. The victims of the tragedy were finally given a voice in 2001, when the story was broken by the Italian newspaper, La Repubblica. Books and rebuttals have since been published. Documentaries made, and the story has appeared on stage and in verse.

I attended the Friday night event, which was sponsored by a human rights organization, upon the invitation of an Italian gentleman in my church. A young woman read the dramatic script, accompanied by the timbre of a Celtic harp. The room was filled with sound and silence.

The story itself . . . as if the lives of 283 people born in lands far from the shores of Italy can form a single story?

Organizations engaged in human trafficking on the Mediterranean often transfer their human cargo from a ‘mother ship’ to a smaller vessel upon nearing their final destination in order to avoid risking damage to or capture of the larger ship. The Yiohan was the bigger vessel. Built in Poland in 1961, the Greek-owned ship was flying a Honduras flag. It was captained by a Lebanese man and had an international crew that included a Syrian cook and a Russian officer. The ship was carrying a human payload of some 450 clandestine passengers from Greece to Italy. The Yiohan was met by a smaller ferry, simply known as F174. It was a wooden boat, eighteen meters long, owned by the same Greek organization, and was flying a Maltese flag.

While off-loading its human cargo onto the fiercely cramped F174, the two boats collided in the rough, dark seas of that Christmas night sinking the smaller boat and some 283 of its passengers. Reports claim that the crew of the Yiohan not only refused to assist the victims but forcibly obstructed any attempt to rescue the drowning passengers. With some of the original passengers still on board, the Yiohan fled the scene and returned to the shores of Greece. Once there, some of the immigrant survivors were able to elude their human traffickers and managed to alert the Greek police. While Reuters initially reported the claims, the story was ignored by the Italian media. Death on the high seas was now giving birth to the Phantom Shipwreck.

. . . soon afterwards, Sicilian fishermen literally became ‘fishers of men’ (cf. Matthew 4:19, Mark 1:17). Human remains – including entire human corpses – began showing up in the nets of local fishermen. Fearing interruptions to their livelihood which would result from an ensuing investigation, they returned the remains to the sea.  Some reports indicate that local officials also intimated fishermen to remain quiet. The shipwreck became very controversial for the Sicilian village of Portapalo, where a monument erected by the local priest now commemorates the victims.

Four years later, in April 2001, a local fisherman, Salvatore Lupe, recovered the clothes and ID card of a seventeen-year-old Tamil victim, named Ampalagan Ganeshu. Journalist Giovanni Marie Bellu of La Repubblica was contacted, and the wreckage of F174 was consequently discovered in 108 meters of water. After four and a half years of silence, the tragedy was finally confirmed in a story that broke on June 15, 2001.

The inquiry that followed was further complicated by the fact that the incident took place in international waters. Two men – a Pakistani human trafficker and the Greek captain and owner of F174 – were eventually sentenced by the Italian courts, both, however, in absentiaCalls for a full recovery of the wreck and its corpses have been ignored. Human rights organizations decry the international silence on human trafficking and view many of the laws on illegal immigration as inhumane. 

Fifteen years after the event — and a decade after the Phantom Shipwreck was finally discovered — the story of the Portapalo Tragedy is still being told and told well. But how should such a story be remembered? The international and multicultural character of the story is pronounced in terms of the victims and the perpetrators as well as the relationship between the would-be immigrants and their would-be host country. The story is also not without significant interreligious connotations — a shipwreck of mostly Muslim immigrants on the night of a major Christian holiday.

But are these cultural and religious categories useful in remembering and interpreting the events of the story? Intercultural dialogue must also include conversations on when categories of race, culture and religion are germane to a respective topic and when they are not applicable or are actually counterproductive. Bloggers, for example, have been debating whether or not the recent media attention given to Jeremy Lin of the New York Knicks basketball team has broken down stereotypes of Asian-Americans or actually reinforced them. Some phenomena are by definition cultural in nature — others are not. Sometimes it is hard to tell.

Perhaps one simple standard for discerning the relevance of the categories of race and culture is how such categories contribute to or diminish the dignity of the respective subject. Thus, it is important to talk about race and religion when violence or prejudice is being perpetrated against a person or a group of people specifically due to these categories. Positively, appreciation of the cultural other is a recognition of their human dignity.

Yet, there are times when cultural categories only function to distance us from the other. While the voices of the 283 victims of the Phantom Shipwreck continue to rise from the depths of their maritime grave, perhaps this story can only be told in terms of a common, if too often unshared, humanity.

Posted in 1996, Christmas, Phantom Shipwreck, Portapalo, Salvatore Lupe, Sicily, Uncategorized | 3 Comments

From Istanbul to Munich

Earlier this month as I rode the train from Stuttgart to Frankfurt, Germany, I recalled a conversation that I had on an overnight train along the same route some twenty years ago. Two of us were stretched out in an unlit compartment made for six – myself, a young American theological student returning to Bonn after a weekend in Bavaria, and a young Turkish man who was on his way to work the early morning shift at the Frankfurt airport. We spoke in German as the train cut through the shadows of the passing night.

My fellow sojourner spoke of the life and struggles of the Turkish community in Germany, and then shook his head as he recounted an image as elusive to him as it was irreconcilable – when his parents’ generation first arrived as guest workers, they were officially greeted in the Munich train station by musical bands warmly welcoming them to Germany.

Turkish guest workers arrive in Munich (1973)

Although Turkish workers were already coming to West Germany in the aftermath of World War II, the two countries signed an agreement on October 30, 1961, creating a government-sponsored program for the recruitment of Turkish workers for the German economy. Thousands of Turks soon boarded special trains in Ankara and Istanbul bound for Germany. They first arrived in Munich, from where they were sent to industrial centers throughout the country.

Germany, officially referred to the Turkish immigrant as a ‘Gastarbeiter’, or ‘guest worker’, and always expected the Turkish workers to return home. Factories employed interpreters, and many schools introduced supplementary lessons in Turkish to prepare children for a future life back in Turkey. Learning German seemed unnecessary to many Turks, and an effective immigration policy was never established by the German government.

The recruitment of Turkish workers officially ended in 1973, and today, some two and a half million German residents have Turkish roots, comprising the country’s most prominent minority group. Although over half of all workers returned to Turkey, others established families in Germany and decided to stay. Only recently has it been realized that their grandchildren are there to stay.

The tension between the two cultures is well-documented, and the Turkish question has become an emotional issue in Germany. Various studies indicate that Turks living in Germany are less effectively integrated than other immigrant groups, and on average, they are more likely than other minorities to be poorly educated, underpaid and unemployed. They are also less integrated into Germany society than, for example, their fellow compatriots living in Great Britain. In October 2010, German Chancellor Angela Merkel admitted somewhat controversially that multiculturalism in Germany has ‘utterly failed’. Explanations for these failures range from Turkish intransigency against assimilation to shortsighted political strategies by the host country. Today, German and Turkish politicians still spar over the treatment of Turks in Germany, particularly on issues of assimilation and integration, and language and education. Many of the statements coming out of Ankara are driving by internal Turkish politics, while Turkish accession to the European Union forms the larger context of German – Turkish relations.

Amidst the realpolitik of the German-Turkish question, ongoing dialogue and a shared historical memory between the parties remain essential – as does the need to acknowledge certain realities: Turks living in Germany are a people whose hearts are now divided between two countries, and their children and grandchildren are growing up feeling connected to neither.

The fiftieth anniversary of the labor agreement between Turkey and Germany was marked on October 30, 2011 by a commemorative train excursion between Istanbul and Munich, which included among its passengers Turkish politicians and some of their German counterparts. The five day event – the original journey took just three days – ended once again in the Munich train station where a red carpet welcome awaited the party. Politicians made obligatory speeches, while others danced. Turkish tea, fresh fruit and baklava were handed out to the passengers, while Turkish and German bands played throughout the station – all reminiscent of the reception that greeted actual Turkish guest workers decades ago.

The commemorative re-enactment of the Gastarbeiter journey to Munich exemplifies the creative role that pilgrimage can play not only in remembering a common past but also as a powerful tool for cross-cultural dialogue. Communal journeys provide a means for expressing public and personal emotions, while inviting the ‘other’ to participate in the experience. In the end, such journeys are ultimately about the future. As one journalist put it, while the five-day pilgrimage acknowledged the years that have passed since the first Turks left for Germany, above all, it will help lay the foundation for the next fifty years of Turkish life abroad.

Posted in Angela Merkel, Germany, Immigration, Pilgrimage, Turkey | 2 Comments

A Day Down Under

Australians celebrated Australia Day yesterday, marking the anniversary of the arrival of the First Fleet to the Sydney Cove on 26 January 1788. Two hundred and twenty-four years later, the relationship between Australia’s European inhabitants and its Aboriginal people remains unresolved, yet was a topic of some attention in the nation’s public discourse, even before Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, lost her shoe yesterday.

How do dominate cultures and indigenous societies have dialogues that address past grievances, present realities and future aspirations? Should relationships between cultures within a society be ultimately transacted at a legal level, or can public conversations in and of themselves ameliorate cross-cultural relations? Are relations between dominant society and minority groups ultimately subject to economic factors and political expediencies? How do contemporary cultures address the events of previous generations? Most simply, what does a public dialogue on issues of race and culture look like? The national conversation in Australia provides a context for exploring some of these questions.  

The Official Flag of the Australian Aboriginal People

In the Aborigine communities of Australia, Australia Day has been variously known as Invasion Day and Survival Day, and this year marked the fortieth anniversary of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, established on the grounds of the Old Parliament House in Canberra, to promote issues of Australian Aboriginal sovereignty. Comments by Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, stating that it was probably time for the Tent Embassy to ‘move on’, provoked yesterday’s confrontation at the Lobby Restaurant where Abbot was in attendance with the Prime Minister.

Along with the lost of land and resources, today Aboriginal Australians have a life expectancy seventeen years shorter than non-aboriginal Australians. Aboriginal Australians make up two percent of the Australian population but twenty-five percent of its prison population. Many Aborigines live in abject poverty.

Amid these social and economic disparities, the conversation in Australia largely revolves around legal and constitutional issues. The Australian Constitution still contains explicit provisions legalizing racial discrimination. Section 25 allows States to disenfranchise people based upon race, while Section 50.26 gives Parliament the power to ‘make special laws’ for ‘the people of any race, for whom it is deemed necessary’. These sections were originally written in the late nineteenth century to deny non-white Australians access to certain occupations and geographicalareas. This year’s Australia Day has taken place against the backdrop of a tentative government proposal calling for a public referendum later this year that would recognize the Aboriginal people of Australia as the nation’s first occupations, while amending the racially discriminatory provisions in the constitution. These proposals were presented on January 19 to Prime Minister Gillard by the government’s ‘Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Indigenous Australians’.

The government has launched a program, YouMeUnity, ‘the national conversation about updating our constitution to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders peoples and culture for the benefit of all Australians’. The program acknowledges and respects ‘the vision of a nation that recognizes the culture and history of Aborginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, values their participation and provides equal life chances for all’. The website includes profiles and blogs from members of the ‘Expert Panel’ as well as information and resources on the Australian Constitution and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

There is a recognition in Australia of the need for constitutional reform. The exact nature of these reforms, and, more importantly, the future legal and social status of the Indigenous people of Australia remains in balance.

Not everyone is sold on the government’s position. Australia’s legal dilemma extends beyond its constitution. Australia does not have any treaties with its original inhabitants, which means that this week’s celebrations are taking place on lands that have never been legally ceded. Michael Anderson, a founding member of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, believes that the government’s proposed constitutional reforms do not go far enough in promoting indigenous rights and said that Aboriginal leaders would be meeting this week to draft a proposed treaty. They believe they have some leverage. Australia is currently seeking a temporary seat on the UN Security Council, which Anderson does not believe the UN would grant without such a treaty in place.

Posted in Aboriginal, Aborigine, Australia, Indigenous Peoples, Julia Gillard, United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples | 1 Comment

Neighbor: Christian Encounters with ‘Illegal’ Immigration by Ben Daniel (Book Review)

Below is my review of Neighbor: Christian Encounters with “Illegal” Immigration by Ben Daniel (Louisville: 2010), which recently appeared in the Theological Book Review (Liverpool). ISBN 978-0-664-23651-9, 166p, $20.00

Neighbor: Christian Encounters with “Illegal” Immigration by Ben Daniel addresses how American Christians have and should respond to undocumented migration. Combining years of personal experience with book-related research, Daniel focuses on the personal stories of immigrant pilgrims. Daniel emphasizes that immigration is a religious phenomenon with its own distinct spirituality, embodied for many in the unofficial patron saint of immigrants, St Toribio Romo González (d. 1928). The biblical story, the author argues, is ‘a tapestry woven of immigration stories and immigration-related themes’, providing spiritual and theological language ‘to talk about what it means to live as strangers in a strange land’ (p. 16).

The theme of the book, the definition of neighbor as portrayed by the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-36), is a ‘person from outside our community who saves and blesses us despite the walls erected by long-held hostility’ (p. xix). This idea is the linchpin to Daniel’s discourse: namely, rather than invoking arguments for Christian hospitality and charity per se, he challenges his readers to ‘recognize in undocumented immigrants the potential for long-lasting, life-giving friendship’ (p. xix). Daniel is also unapologetic about the effects of immigration at the societal and national level, seeing in his own neighborhood of East San José, California, peopled by immigrants with roots in Europe, Latin America and southeast Asia, a vibrant, healthy community that ‘embodies the future America that so many Americans fear’ (p. 149).

Daniel provides the reader with a number of rich narratives, including a trip to the Mexican side of the Mexican-U.S. border, a weekly prayer vigil for deceased migrants, observations from a federal courtroom in Las Cruces, New Mexico and the work of the New Sanctuary Movement. Throughout, Daniel discusses U.S. immigration policy and immigrant education, while striking an effective balance between statistics, reflections and narrative.

The book is about people rather than policy. Yet, Daniel is honest enough to admit that the two are linked. Over and again, Daniel introduces the reader to real people, using their stories to ‘confront a set of common misconceptions and prejudices, born of ignorance and xenophobia that are pervasive in the United States today and that drive the national debate around immigration’ (p. xvii). Complete with study questions and sections for reflection and action, the book is highly recommended for groups or individuals within the United States. However, the book would also appeal to an international readership interested in American culture, faith and policy, particularly as it relates the U.S. immigration debate.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment