Hello Neighbor – Up close and personal with a refugee family

It all started with a Thanksgiving dinner last November, when Sloane Davidson, a Pittsburgh native, hosted a family of Syrian refugees to share in the great American tradition of roast turkey, cranberry sauce, and pecan pie.

“They are such kind and sweet people,” Davidson said, recalling the November evening. “I would sit with them and drink Turkish coffee and they would tell me about their journey” from Turkey, where the family had spent two years after fleeing from Syria.

The two families kept in touch, and soon Davidson invited them to more of her family gatherings. The friendship has now grown into something bigger: Hello Neighbor, a mentorship program that matches American families with refugee and immigrant families who have recently arrived in the United States.

Refugees arriving in the United States are assisted by one of nine resettlement agencies, which help families with essential services like housing, employment, food, medical care, and counseling. But the agencies only provide assistance for the first 90 days, after which the refugees are basically on their own.

It is here that Hello Neighbor steps in, helping refugees with the long process of adjusting to a new culture and integrating into life in the United States. So far, twenty-five families from Bhutan, Myanmar, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan have been matched with 25 American families through Hello Neighbor’s pilot program in Pittsburgh. Over a four-month period, the mentor families are encouraged to have “one quality interaction a week” with their assigned refugee family. Hello Neighbor also organizes regular get-togethers, like potluck dinners, picnics, and a Pittsburgh Pirates baseball game.

Hello Neighbor taps into “this feeling of neighborhood, of community, and this longing for how we used to support new people who moved into our neighborhood,” said Davidson. “We are social creatures, and we like to share, and we like to be there for each other,” she added.

While the program establishes mentor-mentee relationships between families, Davidson said that the goal is to educate and empower both sides. “There’s as much to learn on one side as there is on the other,” she said. The refugees “are people to look up to. These are people who have persevered,” she added.

[Washington Post]

Honoring a great humanitarian Dr. Ruth Pfau

Very few Americans are familiar with the work of one our greatest humanitarians, the late Dr. Ruth Pfau. The German-born nun and physician devoted more than half a century of her life to the cause of eradicating leprosy in Pakistan and died last week at the age of 87.

Pfau was born in Leipzig, Germany, in 1929. Her earliest memories were of a world disfigured by evil: the flash of swastikas, the inexplicable disappearance of Jewish schoolmates, the screams of friends and neighbors during Allied bombing campaigns. As an undergraduate studying medicine at Mainz she met a Dutch concentration camp survivor who spoke of her ability to forgive those who had imprisoned her. Her encounter with this exemplar of mercy changed Pfau indelibly. She was received into the Catholic Church and after completing her medical studies she joined the Daughters of the Heart of Mary.

Later, as a missionary nun assigned to work in Bombay she found herself held up with visa issues in Karachi, Pakistan. Here by another providential turn of events she happened to visit a so-called leper colony in which sufferers from Hansen’s disease had been left to die in conditions of indescribable agony. Pfau saw this and refused to leave. At first she worked with nothing but a tent. Three years later she was able to found a clinic, the first of what would eventually be more than 150, many of them in areas of astonishing remoteness. Her patients, many of them children, often came to her from caves or remote hills where they had been left by relations who feared that seeking treatment for them would spread their infection.

In 1996, Pakistan was declared officially leprosy-free, and the vast network of hospitals and clinics Pfau established continue to this day to provide treatment for a variety of illnesses, including tuberculosis, and to coordinate relief services in the event of natural disasters.

In the words of Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, Pfau “may have been born in Germany, but her heart was always in Pakistan,” where she came “at the dawn of a young nation, looking to make lives better for those afflicted by disease, and in doing so, found herself a home.” It is unsurprising that in her adopted country she was one of the most admired living people or that, in this officially Muslim nation, her Catholic requiem at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Karachi will be an official state funeral.

In the rotting flesh of Pakistan’s lepers Pfau saw the beauty of men and women made in the image of God. Her example reminds us that the world, even at the worst of times and in the most wretched and miserable of places, can be full of light.

[The Week]

Why migrant flow to Italy shrinking dramatically

Italy’s top law enforcement official recently said that his nation’s aggressive approach to halting migration across the Mediterranean was making progress, amid a steep drop in the number of migrants arriving on Italy’s shores in the past month.

The sharp drop in the number of asylum seekers entering Italy comes as migrant advocates warn of rising dangers for those who remain in Libya or who set out into the Mediterranean for the perilous voyage. There are fewer ships rescuing migrants after several aid organizations suspended their operations in recent days, following a muscular declaration by the Libyan coast guard that it plans to expand its patrol zone beyond national waters.

If the traffic holds steady, migration pressures on Europe could significantly ease after years of mounting strain. But a calmer Europe probably means worse conditions for the asylum seekers in Libya, a war-torn society where migrants have been subjected to torture, slavery and imprisonment, critics say.

Italy’s stepped-up approach to the migrant flow came after a June ballot-box blow to the governing center-left party in local elections, when a wave of anti-migrant mayors and local councilors were swept into office around the country. Italian leaders have imposed strict rules on rescue ships, and they have also pushed the Libyan government to do more to patrol its frontiers. The pressure from the Italians has been accompanied by promises of aid to Libya. But critics say that Italian leaders are pursuing short-term electoral gain at the cost of migrants’ lives.

Doctors Without Borders and Save the Children also suspended their rescue operations after the Libyan decision. The aid groups are concerned that the Libyan coast guard might menace their ships. The coast guard has boarded and impounded rescue vessels in past years, and it has also fired warning shots at rescuers.

[Washington Post]

South Sudan refugees in Uganda exceed one million

As the number of refugees from South Sudan in Uganda passes one million – the vast majority of whom are women and children – the United Nations refugee agency reiterated its call for urgent additional support.

“Over the past 12 months, an average of 1,800 South Sudanese have been arriving in Uganda every day,” said the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in a statement to the press. “In addition to the million there, a million or even more South Sudanese refugees are being hosted by Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Central African Republic,” it added.

More than 85 per cent of the refugees who have arrived in Uganda are women and children, below age 18 years.

“Recent arrivals continue to speak of barbaric violence, with armed groups reportedly burning down houses with civilians inside, people being killed in front of family members, sexual assaults of women and girls, and kidnapping of boys for forced conscription,” emphasized UNHCR, explaining that even as thousands of refugees arrive, aid deliveries are increasingly falling short.

The UN agency underscored that although $674 million is needed for South Sudanese refugees in Uganda this year, so far only a fifth of this amount, or 21 per cent, has been received. “Elsewhere in the region, the picture is only marginally better,” the statement continued, saying that while a total of $883.5 million is needed for the South Sudan situation, only $250 million has been received.

The funding shortfall in Uganda is now significantly impacting the abilities to deliver life-saving aid and key basic services.

[UN News Centre]

August 19 celebrates World Humanitarian Day

Every year on August 19, the international community recognizes World Humanitarian Day—a day to celebrate the hard work of aid workers everywhere, to remember the friends and colleagues our community has lost, to advocate for stronger protections and better and safer access to people in need, and to demand accountability and justice for violations of international humanitarian law.

Worldwide, attacks against aid workers have tripled in the past ten years. In 2016 alone, statistics on major attacks against aid workers are alarming:

  • Attacks against national aid workers in 2016 are almost triple the number of attacks against international humanitarian personnel, with 245 national victims and 43 international victims.
  • In 2016, 158 major attacks against aid operations were documented, in which 288 aid workers were victims: 101 aid workers were killed, 98 were wounded, and 89 were kidnapped.

This year, the global community is coming together for World Humanitarian Day to stand against attacks on aid workers and civilians: because the people who put their lives on the line to help those in need and the civilian men, women, and children who live in the midst of war and conflict are #NotATarget.

[Action Against Hunger]

Global warming and crop harvests

Each degree of global warming will cut into harvests of the world’s staple crops, according to a new study that takes a broad view of the agricultural research field. Twenty-nine researchers published the paper this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Wheat, corn, rice and soybeans make up two-thirds of humans’ caloric intake. Each crop reacts differently to rising temperatures, and the effects vary from place to place. On average, though, the world can expect 3.1 to 7.4 percent less yield per degree Celsius of warming, according to the research.

The Paris climate agreement, which the United States plans to quit, has committed the international community to less than 2 degrees Celsius of warming by the end of the century.

Rice, a main food source for developing countries, could decline an average of 3.2 percent. Some research pointed toward an even greater impact — as much as 6 percent. Soybeans, the world’s fourth-most important commodity crop, could yield 3.1 percent less per degree.

The researchers only studied the direct effect of rising average temperatures, but indirect effects could change things, too. Water stress and drier soils might drag down harvests. So could more frequent heat waves. Climate change could also affect pests, weeds and diseases.

The United Nations predicts the world’s population will grow to 9.8 billion by 2050 from 7.6 billion today. Warmer conditions could make it harder to grow enough food for so many mouths, and the crops that do grow could offer fewer nutrients.

[Climatewire]

3 things US medicine can learn from Doctors Without Borders

On any given day, Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres) stations up to 30,000 doctors, nurses and other volunteer personnel in more than 60 countries. In recognition of its pioneering efforts across several continents, the nonprofit was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999.

Meanwhile the United States is suffering a major health crisis. Tens of millions of Americans live without health insurance while the uncertain future of healthcare policy threatens the coverage and well-being of millions more. Hundreds of thousands of patients die each year from avoidable medical errors, preventable diseases and unnecessary complications from chronic illness. Our medical technology is outdated, our drug prices continue to skyrocket, and our physicians have become so frustrated that most (58 percent) would discourage their children from pursuing a career in medicine.

I am optimistic that our problems can be solved. To that end, I believe Doctors Without Borders can teach us three valuable lessons.

  1. The Power of Mission. On volunteer trips, physicians work 14 to 16 hours each day, often in scorching heat and without pay. Upon returning home, they almost never mentioned the travails. Instead, they spoke of the camaraderie, their sense of purpose, and the memories they will cherish for the rest of their lives. Compared to working in hot, dirty and under-resourced environments, you’d think the American medical office – with its air conditioning and running water – would feel like a vacation. Surveys demonstrate the opposite. One-third of doctors are dissatisfied with their work. Many describe being depressed. They lament all the time spent filling out forms, the isolation of working alone, and their frequent battles with health plans over prior-approvals and reimbursements. Unless physicians can reconnect with the fundamental purpose of their profession – helping patients – the cynicism and “burnout” afflicting doctors today will only worsen. Understanding how Doctors Without Borders has revived and nurtured this sense of purpose in its physician volunteers would be a great place for our country to start.
  2. The Essentials of Organization. Inefficiencies in U.S. medical centers have become the norm. The failings of U.S. healthcare – namely, its high costs and under-performance – aren’t the result of flawed doctors, nurses and staff. They’re the consequences of a broken delivery system, one that lacks operational efficiency and clinical effectiveness. Relief organizations like Doctors Without Borders place great importance on getting the right support in the right place at the right time. If our nation did the same, we could raise clinical quality and make health coverage more affordable for all.
  3. The Importance of Clarity. During volunteer endeavors, all doctors understand what they are doing and why. To a person, the goal is clear: Save as many human lives as possible. It’s hard to imagine a clearer “metric.” We may want to believe the U.S. healthcare system is designed to maximize the lives saved. But if that were true, we would not trail the 10 other wealthiest nations in health outcomes – not when we spend 18 percent of our GDP ($3 trillion annually) on healthcare.

Doctors Without Borders, and its tens of thousands of volunteers, has much to teach American medicine. … I hope my donations to Doctors Without Borders will serve as an investment in the health and medical education of both our country and our planet.

[Excerpts of Forbes article by Dr. Robert Pearl, a clinical professor of surgery at Stanford University]

The human agenda to remove greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere

The Drawdown project, led by Paul Hawken, details 80 ways we can take greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere.

The project groups the 80 interventions into 7 clusters, and the cluster that can generate the highest reduction – 31 percent – is “food”! (Between 2020 and 2050, food initiatives that are already underway can reduce greenhouse gases by 321.9 gigatonnes.) Food is followed by “energy” at 23 percent.

Surprisingly, “efficiencies in refrigeration management” is the single biggest item in the top ten CO2-equivalent reducers. “Reduced food waste” comes in at number three, with a “plant-rich diet” coming in fourth. At number six and seven on the list is “educating girls” and “family planning.”

For those who feel like climate change is too big for them to have impact, this provides lots of options for action.

What is also encouraging is the optimistic tone of the New York Times Bestseller book, “Drawdown – The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming”. Paul Hawken writes: “If we change the preposition, and consider that global warming is happening for us – an atmospheric transformation that inspires us to change and re-imagine everything we make and do – we begin to live in a different world.

“We take 100 percent responsibility and stop blaming others. We see global warming not as an inevitability but as an invitation to build, innovate, and effect change, a pathway that awakens creativity, compassion, and genius. This is not a liberal agenda, nor is it a conservative one. This is a human agenda.”

600,000 displaced Syrians returned home in first 7 months of 2017

Between January and July 2017, 602,759 displaced Syrians returned home according to reports from International Organization for Migration (IOM), the UN Migration Agency.

Findings indicate that the vast majority of the people returning (84 per cent) had been displaced within Syria. The next highest number of people (16 per cent) returned from Turkey, followed by Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. Refugees returning from Turkey and Jordan reportedly returned mainly to Aleppo and Al Hasakeh Governorates.

An estimated 27 per cent of the returnees stated that they did so to protect their assets or properties and 25 per cent referred to the improved economic situation in their area of origin. Other factors people gave IOM and partners as their reasons for returning included the worsening economic situation in the place where they have been seeking refuge (14 per cent).

An estimated 67 per cent of the returnees returned to Aleppo Governorate (405,420 individuals).

According to reports, almost all (97 per cent) returned to their own house, 1.8 per cent are living with hosts, 1.4 per cent in abandoned houses, 0.14 per cent in informal settlements and 0.03 per cent in rented accommodation.

Access of returnees to food and household items is 83 per cent and 80 per cent respectively. Access to water (41 per cent) and health services (39 per cent) is dangerously low as the country’s infrastructure has been extremely damaged by the conflict.

[International Organization for Migration]

Let compassion heal us and others

As part of my ServiceSpace summer internship, I interviewed various people about their relationship to pain and suffering. The individuals I talked to were willing to reflect on pain and suffering, unfold decades of their lives and share insights with a young stranger whom they had never met before.

In a conversation with John Malloy, he said, “Sharing is our nature. When we share, we heal suffering.” John’s life is dedicated to tending to people who suffer. After working as a counselor for prisoners and troubled youth, to leading The American Indian Spiritual Marathon for nearly four decades, John said, “None of the kids had criminal minds. I was never fooled by the personality of the kid — it’s a veil to the soul. I always went for the soul.”

Towards the end of our conversation, I asked John how he faces his own sufferings while always serving others. John revealed that he had experienced a great deal of loss in his life, including the passing of his only son and the loss of sight in his left eye. However, “we have an innate capacity to heal”. After two years of grieving, he grew stronger through his losses, not weaker. “As we face our pain and suffering, we see what we are supposed to do is to care for others,” said John.

When we hurt others, we are not only responsible for ourselves or the ones we hurt, but also for the ones they are going to hurt. If instead we choose compassion, this world turns brighter. As Audrey Lin beautifully puts it, “In the end there is only kindness. At the end of the day we are all going to go, but what stays behind are those small acts; those are acts maybe paid forward by so many others. […It’s] what inspires me to keep living.”

Sharing makes us more human; becoming more human leads us towards the compassion that is inherent in our nature.

[Daily Good]