How sure are you of right and wrong?

Thirty years after the war was over, a young father and history buff bought the shell of a house in the hills near a hotly contested border. He was a poor factory worker, but it cost only the equivalent of a month's salary because the old stone and timber dwelling was in desolate disrepair and the local fire department had been planning to destroy it in a practice drill. 

The new owner started to rebuild the house bit by bit. He wanted his children to grow up in the beautiful natural surroundings and he loved to learn about the tragic history of the land. He saved to buy new tools and materials and slowly over many years he rebuilt the old house to look like the pre-war photographs in the village archives. 

Creative Commons image by Heather Katsoulis

Creative Commons image by Heather Katsoulis

Then one day after the border was reopened, a middle-aged woman approached the house. She said she had lived there as a child, that the house belonged to her parents. Forty five years earlier when she was a child, militia men had come with guns and forced her family to flee. The armed men had stolen the family's bicycle, their only means of transportation, and forced them to walk over the mountains into the neighboring country with only those few things they could take with fifteen minutes warning. 

This is a real story. I knew both the man and the woman. They are real people. It's the kind of story that happens on contested borders. 

Ordinary people looking for a place of home and safety buy or stake a claim to land and homes. Other ordinary people are caught on the wrong side of a political, national, linguistic, racial, religious or economic divide are killed or forced to leave their homes. And so it goes.

And now tell me this. Who should own that house?

Should the man own it? He bought it with his hard earned wages, worked on it with his own hands and saved it from destruction. 

Should the woman own it? She was an innocent child forced to flee her home and she still has the birth certificates, deeds and other documents to prove that she should have inherited it. 

Your answer will probably depend on which border, which side of that border and which war you think I'm talking about. This isn't ancient history but a relatively modern and well-documented situation in which most of the questions can be answered. 

Take note of your instinctive answer and then consider whether the following facts change it.

The woman was part of a German-speaking minority and the house stands in the border region of the Czech Republic, then Czechoslovakia. The war was World War Two. Hitler annexed this border region of Czechoslovakia at the beginning of the war and the German-speaking minority was noted for significantly supporting the Nazis. 

That was the reason for their mass expulsion. Many, probably most, of the woman's group supported and cheered on the Nazis. And so--brutal and indiscriminate as it may have been--some people justify the forced expulsion of German-speaking people from Czechoslovakia.

But this woman was a child at the time, living in a remote rural cabin, no more to blame than any other child and less powerful than some.

I tell this story not to win sympathy for the Sudetten Germans. But rather to promote the practice of skeptical, mindful ethics.

If you were sure in the beginning of the story that the new owner should be compensated but the house should be returned to the old owner and then you changed your mind based on the added facts, you must admit that moral certainty is hard to come by. 

We want children of about ten years old to "know right from wrong." And yet educated and caring adults often find it difficult to say exactly what is right or wrong in a complex situation and which way the scales turn can depend on details that require an understanding of social, political, economic and historical forces. 

I don't personally have a definite answer for which is right or wrong in this real-life story that I stumbled upon as a teenager new to Czechoslovakia twenty-five years ago. The law here has retained the rights of new owners in that case. The man's claim is upheld by the law. But if the house had been confiscated by the Communist authorities and the family expelled after the Soviet invasion in 1968, the law would favored the old owners.

The law is not ethics. It's just the law. And one would be naive to believe that laws are consistent. 

Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

I am happy to say that this woman did not demand her house returned or even seem bitter about the law. Instead she was thankful that the house had been preserved and reconstructed, so that it looked much like her beloved childhood home. The man invited her to come and stay and lovingly helped her to reclaim her memories and a family treasure buried on the property. Theirs was a story with a happy ending.

But so many similar stories are not. 

The past few weeks have had me thinking a lot about ethical dilemmas. The news has hit on story after story in which passions run high and there is more than one side with a claim. 

It isn't that I don't have strong opinions. I can clearly say that the killing of unarmed Palestinian protesters by Israeli soldiers is wrong, even a crime against humanity. But what exactly should be done to solve the situation? Whose homes should be sacrificed in a small country with limited land and water? 

That isn't so simple. One way or another in our crowded world, there are people in need without homes, often with a valid right to the land or homes where others, including those innocent and unaware of any injustice, are now living.

My entire native country is based on stolen land. And yes, we can say that those who have been wronged should be compensated, but by whom? Some of the descendants of those who stole from or enslaved others are wealthy from the profits of exploitation. Others are barely scraping by. And yet if there is a debt to pay, shouldn't everyone be required to pay all the same?

Even the question of the infamous Chinese prom dress leaves me befuddled. A white girl decided to go to the prom in a traditional Chinese dress, which she wore in inappropriate ways and seemed to mock in one photo. Many people are furious over this. It's called cultural appropriation, taking something from another culture, particularly one that has been exploited by your own in the past or present, and either claiming it as your own or using it inappropriately or mockingly.

Don't get me wrong, I can't abide people who set up shop as a "Shaman" or pen books on Native American spirituality who have no legitimate connection to either Siberian or Native American culture. Making a profit off of a stereotyped fakery poached from the struggling remnants of cultures nearly destroyed by exploitation is clearly wrong. 

But as I put Vietnamese spring rolls made with my own fresh garden greens down on the table for my children, while wearing a shirt with Guatamalan patterns, I am not so sure where the line is. I know where these things come from. I love them and treat them with respect. I want those cultures which have been endangered to be represented and kept alive. And I simply prefer the cuisine and color coordination of some cultures over others. But I can't say in every instance what is right and what is wrong.

If the girl with the Chinese prom dress had not publicly shared a mocking photograph of her dress, would it still have been wrong? Western prom dresses are, in my not-so-humble opinion, a fashion travesty of modern times. Please any culture that is willing to save us from them, please  step forward! Despite the problems, I still say the Chinese dress was the--hands down--prettiest in those photos.

Looking at all these less-than-clear-cut situations and modern problems, one is tempted to say that it all depends. Certainly, we should be critical thinkers and respect the opinions of others. It is tempting to say that there is no absolute right or wrong. Even when we teach children right from wrong when they are ten years old, we end up pointing out that a child in a storybook who steals food to survive is not really so bad. 

But these are terrible times to abandon ethics and claim moral relativism. Are the opinions of Neonazis equal to all other political opinions in political discourse? And if not theirs, then where is the line? 

We live in a time when political leaders preach an extreme religious doctrine and claim to be for high morals, while dallying with pornography, blatantly lying, taking and giving out huge bribes, poisoning their rivals, fixing elections and claiming it's legal, and abusing anyone vulnerable they can touch--without the scandals even making a large ripple. Gods help us, if we don't even know what is right and wrong anymore ourselves. 

Many intellectuals I have discussed this with say that an opinion is valid in so far as it is not against someone else or does not harm someone else. That seems like a good rule, but it is easier to to say than to apply.

Among the most vicious arguments I have seen in the past few days have been over the silent and non-violent actions of people protesting what they saw as deeply wrong. A week ago, dozens of graduates and their family members silently stood up and walked out of their own graduation ceremony at Notre Dame in protest as Mike Pence gave a graduation address.

When questioned, the protesters specifically mentioned Pence's support for extreme racist organizations and for Donald Trump's rabidly anti-Muslim policies. Pence is also noted for pushing extreme religious agendas and promoting the interests of large corporations, specifically the Koch brothers, in public policy. But regardless of whether one agrees with the reasons the protesting students walked out, the vicious verbal attacks and threats against them imply a certainty of the wrongness of protest. 

Pence himself called the banning of athletes who kneel to mourn the killing of unarmed African Americans during the National Anthem "winning." There is no question of right or wrong in that statement. It implies a game with winners and losers 

The actions taken to penalize the protesting and mourning athletes and their teams and the words often deployed against them are extreme, while their actions are mild, respectful and silent. 

I can understand a parent being upset if their child walked out of graduation to protest something the parent didn't understand or feel is important. I can even understand people brought up to believe that the National Anthem is sacred disagreeing with someone kneeling during it. But none of these are violent acts that harm another, and yet violence is threatened against those who take quiet actions in defense of their ethics. 

There are plenty of situations where I cannot say with certainty that I am right and another is wrong. Ddetails and historical context do matter. But I hope we will not lose the most basic concepts of right and wrong through this. If a person quietly stands, sits, walks or kneels to protest violence and hatred, they should have that right. I may not always agree with their side of the story, but I can always respect a quiet statement of ethical concern.

"Virtue signalling" versus "This is my life"

I go pick up my six-year-old son from kindergarten and he says a big kid from another class chased him and hit him repeatedly on the playground. Then he says another kid is calling him a racial slur.

I delicately ask the teacher if there have been any issues, and she explodes at me. "I don't want to hear it! I know for a fact that if there is any conflict, then your son started it. I don't care what anyone saw or what he says. He did something first. I know that. It's the way he is. It's in his background." 

Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

I should have known not to bring anything up with this teacher. The other teacher swears my son is no more rambunctious than any of the other boys. She says they're all difficult. But mine is the only one not considered "white" by the standards of the country where we live.

He hides behind the shelves in the kindergarten boot room, eyes wide and mouth trembling. That night we have the discussion I've been dreading. Sex? Are you kidding? Imagine being afraid of discussing the birds and the bees!

Parents of black boys in America know this discussion though and I wonder if they dread it as much as I have. It goes like this: "I know it isn't fair, but for your own protection, you must never ever hit back. They will judge you more harshly because of the color of your skin and eyes." 

Again. this is kindergarten.

After the kids are in bed, I get online. It's work but it also involves blogging and discussing issues with people around the world. One of those issues is the ban on people from seven majority Muslim countries entering the US. And someone throws the accusation of "virtue signalling" at me because I express support for refugees who are affected by the ban. 

Initially I didn't even know what the epithet meant, I've been out of the country so long. But I looked it up and the gist of it is that I'm white so there is no way I could really be against racism and Islamophobia. I just say I am in order to "signal" how "virtuous" I am in an attempt to avoid anti-white backlash. So goes the logic of smug white commentators.

The absurdity of the past two weeks is staggering. I pride myself on being able to engage "the other side" with compassion but, dear goddess, how do you communicate across this canyon? 

If I tried to explain my day to the "virtue signalling" slinger, I might as well be speaking Urdu. 

I don't claim to know what it is like to be Black or Muslim in America. But I do have this little window into the issue of race because of the fluke of weird Czech attitudes toward ethnicity. I get enough of a window to know that I'm not experiencing the full extent of it by far.

And here's what my week is like:  

Refugees - Creative Commons image by Steve Thompson 

Refugees - Creative Commons image by Steve Thompson 

A gay lawyer friend and I helped a disabled immigrant with housing and paperwork the other night. After all, he was one of only a handful of people who stayed on a tough job with us one time. Then I go downhill skiing and I steer primarily by the sound of skis scraping on either side of me. I miss the days when I had a guide for blind skiers.

Then I come home and my good friend born in Syria who I've known for fifteen years and who ten years ago married an American and moved there is worried about whether or not she'll ever see the rest of her family again. (Oh, and her family is Christian, as are more than 20 percent of Syrians). I wish I could hug her long distance. I wish I could do anything but feel helpless.

I plan to go for a weekend to the home of the transgender friend with kids who I didn't used to know is trans. I have a short and pleasant Facebook conversation with a colleague I once went through a war zone with, who is also a Muslim and a former refugee. I'm glad to know he and his family are safe and well. Then I go out in subzero temperatures to feed animals and water overwintering plants in the urban homesteading that keeps our carbon footprint low.

When I say I am against racism, homophobia, ableism and other forms of bigotry and when I say I care about humanitarian and environmental issues, I'm only standing up for myself, my friends and my family just as you would if the storm troopers were at your door. 

Now I hear that there are protests in airports against the immigration ban for people from those seven countries which have lots of Muslims but oddly not nearly as many terrorists as the countries not banned. There are crowds of people standing on guard while Muslims pray in US airports.

I'm glad there is this outpouring of support for people who have had it rough for many years and who have generally suffered through it in silence and alone, trying to be nicer and less physical than everyone else, even while they were attacked, so that they wouldn't be labeled as "aggressive Muslims."  

I can't help but remember a trip back to the US five years ago. I was standing in an interminable security line with my kids--then no more than toddlers. I finally reached the point at which we were to enter the machines and checks and I noticed a family standing near by outside the line.

"We'll miss the flight," the woman said quietly but I heard. I am legally blind but I also made out the scarf around her head, wrapped in that way that I know usually means a Muslim. Her husband and two small children stood pressed near her, but he said nothing. All of their faces were a deep golden brown, likely with Middle Eastern or South Asian background.

I thought I understood. They had been held up and knew they didn't have time to stand in the line. Many other people would have begged to be allowed to cut in line, and with small children most would have been allowed. But they were too terrified to draw attention to themselves. 

I made a quick decision and stopped inching forward. Then I beckoned to them to join the line. The man's head jerked up and I thought he must be amazed, even though I couldn't see his expression well. The woman pushed him forward a little and the slid into the line in front of my kids. I heard a rumble behind me, coughs and someone pushed me roughly from behind. There were some coughs but nothing overt, yet.

My heart hammered in my throat. I am not a coward about most things but I have had plenty of reason to be afraid of public judgment and crowd disapproval. I whipped around, ready to defend myself and thrust my white cane, which I carry in confusing environments like airports, even though I can walk without it out to the side and demanded of the people behind me in line, "Have you got something to say?" 

The crowd stilled and I turned back around, the back of my neck and head burning as if their gaze could light me on fire. Still I felt a thrill inside. I had managed it. The Muslim family moved off quickly with only mumbled thanks. I gained no public approval or virtuous status that day. I did gain a bit more courage to act on my conscience, even when I may be publicly judged however.

This isn't "virtue signalling." This is my life. These are my people. You slander and malign them or you threaten to take away our basic rights, you ban people of another minority faith even if it isn't the exact same one as mine or you mock someone who shares a profession AND disability status with me, and you are much more likely to see my not-so-virtuous side. 

No longer a foreigner: identity, loyalty and collective responsibility

My husband takes the kids home, while I stop by city hall to register. I've lived in this country for eighteen years, but I've been on the special list for foreign residents.

No longer.

The sky is gently overcast and the air is so cold it makes my teeth ache if I open my mouth too wide. I walk the back way home, through the trees, along the backs of houses where people keep chickens and ducks in little snowbound coups. It is dusk by the time I reach the hill above our house and all the lights of the town glow golden against electric blue snow. 

It's idyllic: small, gabled Central European houses set along crooked streets with muted lamps. The snow is just deep enough to blanket everything cleanly and the birches creak in the cold. A fast train to Prague whistles by on the tracks at my back, flashing warm light from its windows.. 

It all reminds me of the reasons why I came here in the first place--the simple beauty, the values of frugality and modest comfort, the public transportation, the ancient hills that echo Celto-slavic folk tales and medieval history. I have almost come to take these blessings for granted.

And sure, this place has it's warts--rigid social rules, an impersonal and often harsh norm for interactions and the very mono-culture that allows for such a uniformly pretty view.  But it isn't just familiar to me now. It has become inseparable from who i am.

As of this week, I am no longer a foreigner in the place where I have lived for eighteen years. I've become fluent in the language and culture of the Czech Republic. I have built a family and a house here. I've held various jobs and participated in public life as a moderately well-known anti-war activist for a few years. 

It takes awhile to really become part of another country, It isn't as simple as planting a flag and declaring it yours. But whether or not officialdom recognizes it there comes a time, after many years when a foreigner is no longer a foreigner.

Identity

It's an odd feeling not to be a foreigner anymore. Since I left my home at age sixteen, my identity was that of a foreigner and an American abroad.  Like a traditional marriage, I was caught up in it for better and for worse, in sickness and in health. 

In the course of my travels, I was detained by both Ukrainian and Belarussian soldiers because of how my passport played in international politics, I survived a targeted attack by an anti-American mob, I saw others beaten because they were mistakenly believed to be Americans, I was harangued and insulted over misguided US military policies, and I withstood endless assumptions and false preconceptions. I was also given refuge by American soldiers in a war zone and was occasionally let through a barrier when my equals and peers were not, because I was an American and they were not. 

So, I already know that passports and national acceptance come with strings attached. A year ago, I was asked to swear loyalty to the United States on behalf of my adopted children as they received their US citizenship. That started me thinking about what national identity means these days.

The United States is not a classical nation state. We have no one culture. Not even one language much anymore. If you know only that a stranger is an American, you actually know almost nothing about them. They could be anything from an Islamic fundamentalist living in Chicago to a second-generation Hippie living in Prague and everything and anything beyond those options.

By contrast, the country that has adopted me is fairly homogeneous. Almost everyone speaks Czech, including  naturalized citizens who have to take a pretty tough test. Everyone is steeped in a similar culture and the only way a foreigner can become a citizen is by putting down firm roots in the country for many years. Thus a Czech passport implies a lot about one's identity. 

Loyalty

But what about that loyalty bit? In the United States, we are often chastised as anti-American or disloyal if we criticize our president or military engagements.  In the Czech Republic, no one tends to yell "anti-Czech" at people who disagree on politics and we are never the ones to start wars, so that isn't really an issue. But still a newly minted citizen must swear "loyalty" to the country in addition to swearing to abide by its laws and constitution.

I have never felt disloyal to the United States, although I have protested the policies of several administrations and every military adventure since 1990.

The thing is that to me loyalty isn't exclusive. Loyalty means that I will stand up for my home country. I will speak up when it is in danger, even if that danger comes from a corrupt or inept leader. I will work to make it stronger. And I won't aid those who would harm my country. I have no problem pledging this loyalty to my home country. And I have no problem pledging it to my adopted country either. 

When I graduated from college in linguistics I was asked to apply for a job at the CIA or the DIA (the Defense Intelligence Agency). I didn't really consider it, not only because I had my heart set on journalism, but more importantly because my research and acquaintances in the intelligence field told me that within these organizations loyalty means a willingness to harm or deceive others in order to advance one's own country.  It means unquestioning allignment, even when temporary policies may be unethical. It also entails a belief that the lives of fellow citizens are of greater value than the lives of foreigners.

I am loyal in that I want the best for my country.  I will take the time to go be politically active and strive for the betterment of my country. I hope Peru does well too, but I'm not loyal to Peru, just because I don't live there and I am not personally invested in that country. I wish them no ill though. 

So, this is the thing. When I pledge loyalty to my adopted country, I mean this. I will stand with you. I tie my fate to the fortunes of this nation. I will sacrifice my time and energy for this country. I will not remain silent when this country is in danger from within or from the outside. I will be active, not passive and my heart is with this country. 

People ask what a person who has two countries does if those countries ever go to war. I certainly hope they never will and see no indication that they might. But if it were to happen, I very much doubt that war would be in the interests of either. If one were the aggressor that regime would be as harmful to the aggressing country as it would to the victim. If neither was the aggressor then it would be a harmful folly for both. By being against such a war and doing all one could to prevent it, one would still be true to the spirit of loyalty. To throw one's country into a war, that would seem the height of disloyalty to me, even if you wrap yourself in a flag while you do it.

Collective Responsibility

My last issue with this quietly momentous change is that of collective responsibility, even guilt by association and the assumptions of others..

Once before 9/11, I landed in Pakistan on a flight to Bangladesh. I sat next to a young Pakistani man whose body hummed with tension. I got him talking but I was savvy enough to say "I'm coming from Prague" and let him assume I was Czech, rather than wave around my American passport. It wasn't ten minutes before the young Pakistani was telling me all the reasons he hated Americans--all of them having to do with what various American politicians had done or ordered our military to do. None of his reasons were actually reasons to hate Americans. There was nothing about loose American values, bad movies or un-Islamic dress codes.

It was far from the only time I encountered the idea of collective responsibility or guilt for the actions of political and military leaders. For a good part of the twenty years I've spent abroad in all, I have seen my fellow Americans wearing Canadian stickers on their backpacks to avoid trouble.

So, now that I have adopted a new country and still claim loyalty to the first, it is likely that I will at times be held to blame for the missteps of both nations. And believe me, the Czech Republic may be small but we still have ways of making ourselves unpopular internationally. For starters, the Czech Republic is known as one of the most racist countries in Europe. It is also known for having a lot of hackers and some dangerous I.P. addresses. As a Czech, 

I have never lied about being an American, except in two cases when I really thought my life might be in danger. Part of loyalty to me is that if we let our leaders go so far astray that it causes this kind of flak, then generally we ought to take it, try to explain and then try to redress things our leaders did that really were against our values. So, I'll take the collective responsibility of my adopted country as well. This is why it is an identity I don't take lightly.

I won't lie about my Czech identity. Instead I'll try to make it an identity to be proud of, just as I do with my American identity.

The 2017 List: 13 things to bring into the new year

With some truly depressing 2017 lists out there, I want to add a couple that might actually come in handy... or at least crack a smile.

Here is the Rebel With a Pen list of what to take with you when leaping into 2017:

  1. Chocolate
  2. A solar panel
  3. A manual for communicating with racists
  4. A Canadian passport or at least least a maple leaf bumper sticker
  5. Your entire library of books
  6. Wool socks
  7. A couple of 1960s protest albums
  8. Food stockpiles
  9. A bomb shelter
  10. Your family and near neighbors
  11. A first aid kit with extra bandages
  12. Your ability to laugh in the face of disaster
  13. Your generosity of spirit when it comes to people you might feel like judging

And with some of the bizarre wish lists out there, I figured that my brand of fantasy wouldn't seem far fetched at all. Here's my wish list for 2017:

  1. I wish Donald Trump would get on TV, laugh really loud and say, "Just kidding!" And then go back to his moocher lifestyle and leave us in peace.
  2. I wish everyone in the media would suddenly realize they should actually listen to scientists. Then science and climate discussions would be at the top of the news cycle all year long.
  3. I wish oil executives would realize the Indians own that land in North Dakota and that squeezing every last drop of oil out of the sand in Texas is not going to prolong their gluttonous lifestyle for very long anyway so they might as well start thinking about long-term survival.
  4. I wish my kids would wake up January 1 and realize that bickering defeats fun.
  5. I wish the next president would declare a new New Deal consisting of building solar panels to go on every roof and a light-rail system serving the entire country.
  6. I wish all the teenage ISIS fighters would get a deep hankering to go live with their mothers and watch TV until they're forty. 
  7. I wish all bombs, missiles and munitions as well as all guns not in a safe under lock and key would mysteriously disappear on January 1.
  8. I wish someone brilliant would invent a way for writers and artists to make a living at their craft.
  9. I wish Microsoft would go bankrupt and have to sell off all of its parts to independent programmers who want to make an honest living.
  10. I wish our society would begin taxing the use of natural resources instead of the labor of the working poor and the funds would be put toward educational opportunity, urban greenspaces, rural public transit and subsidies for high quality cottage industries. 
  11. I wish a benign virus would evolve and spread among humans which deactivates the part of the brain that categorizes according to skin color, speech pattern and the appearance of a person's eyes.

With those sweet and optimistic thoughts in mind, I wish you a very happy (and peaceful) new year!

The breaking of humanity: What can we do about the refugee crisis in Europe?

One cold, wet night in February of 2003, I sat on the steps of a church on Náměstí Míru (the Square of Peace) in Prague. I was half frozen and almost ready to cry. Two years earlier I had been a rising star as a young journalist, but 9/11 had put an end to journalism as we knew it and my career was as good as over.

The war in Afghanistan had already killed several of my journalist friends and the drums of war were beating a frenzy again in the media. This time the target was Iraq. The pretext was clearly fabricated and the results were easily predictable to those of us who had been through conflicts. I couldn't go there and write heartbreaking accounts of this war because this was a new sort of hyper-technological war, where only journalists with big budgets could hope to survive. I had the deaths of friends who tried to cover the war to prove it. 

Original image creative commons by Photog_at of Flickr.com - Refugees near Hungarian border in Sept. 2015 

Original image creative commons by Photog_at of Flickr.com - Refugees near Hungarian border in Sept. 2015 

So, instead of being a journalist, I was sitting on those church steps by a line of candles in the freezing rain. I was an American expat in Europe - in a country politically beholden to the US. The media was gung ho for war. None of the journalists I knew who still had jobs were saying anything dissenting.  But I was out of a job, so I could speak my mind... not in print, not to any sort of audience, but to the night. 

Throwing bombs at a problem will only make it worse. I'm not a pacifist on absolute principle. There are times to fight - when aggression is clear. And this was not one of them. I was against the war in Afghanistan and against the looming war in Iraq. I had spent the entire previous winter going to frigid candlelight vigils with a small group of hard-core peace activists--an Egyptian carpenter, a German lawyer, a female Czech-Syrian business professional, a Romanian teenager and a handful of fellow American expats. 

Creative Commons image by  Anand Krishnamoorthi

Creative Commons image by Anand Krishnamoorthi

I wasn't doing it for the Afghans or the Iraqis. I cared and I knew what war is. I had seen a small war in Kosovo and Macedonia. But I was there more for my own country than for theirs. I may be an American living outside America, but I care what happens to my country. I could see no good could come from a continued reliance on the economy of the military budget and fossil fuels. Beyond that the very politics of war would poison us and our much touted freedom.

And I didn't want my friends who were soldiers to come back in body bags. I also didn't want them to come back with PTSD and nightmares about the horrors they would have to participate in with such a war. Little could I imagine over 120,000 veteran suicides at the time, but that was in the mix of reasons.

But I knew that there was no turning the media and political direction of my country and I was in despair that night. I sat apart from the small group of activists at the vigil with my head in my hands, until someone came and sat down beside me.

I looked up, forcing myself to be polite. I hadn't seen him before. He was brown-skinned with long curly black hair. We got to talking and he turned out to be a refugee from Iraq. He wasn't a Muslim or into religion at all. He understood my perspective on things and he agreed that war would solve nothing. 

Smiling sheepishly--obviously self-conscious but braver than me--he started to sing the old American spiritual "We Shall Overcome" there on the steps of an ancient Czech church in the rain.  I'm not brave enough to start such a thing, but I did have the gumption to join him. And soon we were both singing for all we were worth and hanging onto each other's shoulders. 

"Deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall live in peace some day."

It was corny and it was incredibly deep at the same time. That one moment probably gave me half the strength I needed over the next four years of antiwar activism. We didn't win. None of us won. Not the peace activists and not the soldiers who went to war and not the people whose homes were ripped apart by the war that we couldn't stop. Sometimes you don't win. 

Creative Commons image by CAFOD Photo Library

Creative Commons image by CAFOD Photo Library

It's been more than ten years. The friends of that night are scattered to the winds. And this week started on Sunday morning with a horrific article and series of photos from the beaches of Lesvos, Greece where thousands upon thousands of refugees from the destroyed nations of Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria are landing in tiny rubber boats. They are so desperate to avoid being sent back that when people in motorboats approach them to try to rescue them, many of the refugees throw themselves into the water in a panic.

They are fleeing certain death, whether by violence or starvation. Local people say they see drowned people - including the bodies of children - in the water every day. It is a massive humanitarian crisis but the media and the large international aid organizations are largely silent about it. No one wants to touch this political hot potato. 

This is what came of those wars that we protested. The brochures I formatted for Czech anti-war organizations on my clunky computer warned about the inevitable waves of refugees, about the deaths by violence and hunger that would drive them.  And very unfortunately those scenarios are being born out.

Climate change has played a role in spurring on the current wave of refugees. On top of war, the region has been hit with several years of drought and what little ability to recover there might have been has been swept away by hunger and economic desperation. And that desperation has fueled the violence begun in 2001 and 2003. 

Even here in Prague, I'm close enough to randomly run into people who describe scenes of terror and grief as adults and children alike drown or splash onto the rocky shore of Greece. And as I write about it, I am often asked by people back in the US and Western Europe what we as individuals can do to help. They want to know which aid organizations are credible and where they can send donations. And this once I had few answers. 

What I hear from eye witnesses is that many of the volunteers - many of them doctors, nurses and swimming lifeguards from other countries - are simply individuals. Many of them have taken unpaid leave from work to go to Lesvos to pull people from the gray water and try to revive them. 

Helpful links:

Doctors Without Borders campaign on the emergency in the Mediterranean

 A group of sea rescue workers from Spain called Open Arms, who have bought rescue boats with small donations and use them to pick up drowning refugees

Refugee Child: a Facebook group with members who are volunteers in Lesvos

What can we do?  Realistically?  Some may be able to leave their everyday lives and homes behind and go to Lesvos, if they have significant resources and the necessary skills (mostly medical and boating). There are a few places to send donations. But these activities are tiny against the mountain of this problem. Even those refugees who reach land in Greece have a long road ahead of them, often walking across entire countries to places where they might be able to get asylum.

Meanwhile, both the wars and the drought continue and there are tens of millions of others teetering on the edges of this disaster. Another flare up of conflict or another year of drought and the next wave of refugees could easily be ten times this flood. It's a situation that breeds hopelessness, among ordinary people and political leaders alike - a problem so enormous it defies all logical problem solving. This is the result of those wars.

I can't predict exact events. What I know is that people in history have stood at such moments before and their words have helped us avoid disaster, when we listened. And that is why I say that sending a donation is good and  volunteering is necessary, but these things are not enough. When I feel the despairing pull of depression over these issues, I recall the primary thing we have to do. We have to tell our friends and neighbors why we should oppose the next war, even when we war met with hostility and patriotic fervor or ridiculed for holding unpopular views.

We owe this because we are warm and dry and not starving. Tell others what the inevitable wages of war are. Waves of refugees are simply the echoes of too much silence.

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Arie Farnam

Arie Farnam is a war correspondent turned peace organizer, a tree-hugging herbalist, a legally blind bike rider, the off-road mama of two awesome kids, an idealist with a practical streak and author of the Kyrennei Series. She grew up outside La Grande, Oregon and now lives in a small town near Prague in the Czech Republic.

One morning in the Eastern Ukraine

One morning in the Eastern Ukraine

"We walked through the mist outside a town in the Eastern Ukraine into a stand of endless straight aspens. Finally, we came to the village near the mines. An old man took us in. He had a few potatoes. He even had a bit of lard. He fried them up and fed them to us. Possibly the last food around for a long time, but he wouldn't hear of our refusal and by then our stomachs were gnawing at our backbones." - A post about the Ukraine conflict in 2014 and memories good friends their courage to keep going through despair. 

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