Tag: Syria

What We Can Do to Help Syria

I was in college during the genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia. As a theatre major/dance minor at a liberal arts school who was admittedly immersed in herself, in Millikin-world,  in a strong education and new ways of thinking, I barely remember the news. Class assignments and rehearsals and flirting and friendships all took priority of my consciousness. The closest I got to thinking deeply about others and about being a global citizen was when I took Ethics with Dr. Money. I loved the class discussions about abortion, corporal punishment and more…  we did not, however, talk about wars and the U.S.’s indirect or direct contributions to  conflicts such as Iraq, nor our responsibility to help. No class or professor or classmate even mentioned Bosnia, Rwanda, Palestine, Northern Ireland, Sudan…; if they did, I wasn’t listening.

I have no defense. Being an artist (or a student, or both) is no excuse for being completely arts-absorbed, deaf to the world.

Decades later when I read “A Problem from Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide by Samantha Power and traveled to Bosnia, and also Occupied Palestinian Territories, and Northern Ireland, I was devasted by how much was happening in the 1990s that I had been unaware of at the time. I didn’t even know when I was party to gentrification or privilege. I didn’t even see what was happening on the other side of the river in Saginaw, MI.

Well, now one big world crises is Syria. And it is serious. It is devasting. And I hope we as artists are listening.

 

IMG_5254

Photo by Mohamed Radwan

 

According to the UN and Amnesty International

  • More than 50% of Syria’s population is currently displaced.
  • Around 250,000 people have been killed and 13.5 million people are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance inside Syria.
  • One-in-every-two of those crossing the Mediterranean this year – half a million people – were Syrians escaping the conflict in their country.
  • While waiting out the long resettlement application process, more than 4.5 million refugees from Syria are in just five countries: Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt.
  • Funding shortages mean that the most vulnerable Syrian refugees in Lebanon receive just US$0.70 cent a day for food assistance, well below the UN’s poverty line of US$1.90.
  • The United States has approved only around 2,500 Syrian refugees for resettlement here, mostly women and children whose fathers and older brothers are still in process and living abroad.
  • Shamefully, the high-income countries of Russia, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Bahrain have offered zero resettlement places.

The U.S. could set a better example by welcoming more refugees and also strongarming the leaders of the high-income countries mentioned to do something.

We, as the artist community, might not be rich and may be (like me) unemployed or underemployed, but we are wealthy in potential contributions of another kind.

 

Photo by Mohamed Radwan

Photo by Mohamed Radwan

 

In Chicago, there are 25 refugee families; my friend and I found out during a holiday event for the cause. Their services are managed by Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago and the Syrian Community Network (a small, local nonprofit organization run by an amazing woman and her mother). You can read example stories of the families on their website. We asked what they needed: English tutoring, quarters for laundry, gift cards for groceries, and feeling welcome among their new neighbors, new homes.

After some further investigation, I found out the families live within walking distance of the small dance studio where I used to teach for nearly a decade and continue to sub. I love this school. They said yes right away to my proposal of hosting the Syrian refugees in the studio.

I have volunteered to offer a series of English language learning dance workshops (free of charge) in this space (also donated) where the children and their parents will mingle with other dance parents (mostly Jewish and Christian), as well as to collaborate on a community performance opportunity in June.

 

Photo by Mohamed Radwan

Photo by Mohamed Radwan

We started last week and it was amazing.

One of the students I supported in Egypt is now in Chicago getting his masters as a Fulbrighter; he is volunteering to help with translation and facilitation during the workshops.  Other guest teachers and facilitators have also signed on to volunteer.

We just need a little help.

Photo by Mohamed Radwan

Photo by Mohamed Radwan

One of my intentions is to make the experience as authentic as possible. I want the workshops and performance to be as close to what the paying students get. The Syrian refugees are real dancers and I want to treat them as such, Although we incorporate certain social-emotional skills and language goals for these particular students, we provide them disciplined dance classes in ballet and jazz, fused with the assets of their traditional Syrian dances and culture. Sweaters and jeans won’t do.

Plus, I cannot fathom the visual of all the other dance students in polished outfits while the “poor refugees” are on stage in t-shirts and socks.

What we need…

  • 10 sets of skirted leotards and tights for the younger girls (in process)
  • 5 sets of long-sleeve leotards, long ballet skirts, and dark tights for the older girls – size adult S, M
  • 15 sets of boys’ white or black t-shirts and black dance pants – child S, M, L
  • Girls’ and boys’ jazz and ballet shoes in a range of sizes
  • Girls’ and boys’ costumes (in matching sets of 3+) or a connection to a costume company who could donate matching costumes for the entire group
  • Monetary donations or gift cards for the volunteers and the families

Donations can be sent to my name at Performing Arts Limited, 2740 W. Touhy Ave., Chicago, IL 60645.

Photo by Mohamed Radwan

Photo by Mohamed Radwan

If you can, I ask you to also look for the refugee communities in your area and see what they need. Welcome them into your dance, music, theatre, and visual arts worlds. Look into the possibility of bringing ourselves as artists to refugee camps. At the very least, continue to open our ears to crises and to be a voice in the face of fear and Trumped policy.

Photo by Mohamed Radwan

Photo by Mohamed Radwan

Men’s Sensibilities and a Syrian Girl

Page 43 of Cairo: The Practical Guide by The American University in Cairo Press

“Women’s Lib[eration] has not had quite the same impact in Egypt as it has in some Western countries. This produces some charmingly chivalrous behavior towards women on the part of men–opening doors, carrying packages, etc.–but can also cause the poor things some embarrassment if a woman offers to or insists upon paying for dinner.”

Yup.

That is happening.

Very often.

Nearly driving me crazy.

Even good friends of mine in Cairo are bothered by where I choose to walk in relation to them on the street. Yes, I hop up and down curbs, sometimes even skip and dance in public. Friends and strangers both get upset, when I get upset, when they insist on taking the heavier bags out of my hands. Sometimes the challenge of carrying things is extremely enjoyable. Can’t be the only woman or girl here to think so.

I’m not lady-like and don’t aspire to be. Once in awhile I can pass it off, almost like playing a character, but it doesn’t last long. Please understand this is not just a gender issue for me. I prefer to try to things on my own and then ask for the help I need. Whenever someone, male or female, has the job of tending to me, I get mighty uncomfortable. Asked to fetch my tea, prep my seat, clean up after I leave. My dad is a school custodian. But more than that, a community builder. He taught me everyone lends a hand.

The Cairo Guide goes on to say, “Defer to the custom of the country or your male companion’s sensibilities on this issue.”

Oh yes, men’s sensibilities. I apologize in advance, gentlemen and authors of the Cairo Guide. Couldn’t defer if I tried. And I did try. Will probably offend your sensibilities often and I probably won’t participate well in these aspects of Egyptian culture.

Yes, I asked a male stranger to take a photo of me posing alone in Tahrir Square.

 

For reference on where I’m coming from on this matter, here I am with one of my favorite dance students back in Chicago. I once lifted him on my back so that he could feel some weightlessness, release, and the dance concept of weight-sharing. He is an amazing guy and an amazing dancer. We found a way to be equals, as teacher/student, as different body-types, helping each other.

Darius and I.

 

Back to Cairo.

Last night I had planned a Hello Cairo party. 10 people RSVPd. 9 said maybe. 1 showed up. Me. That’s ok.

Actually it was more than ok. It was one of the coolest things.

I was enjoying my shrimp fajitas alone at TGIFriday’s on the Nile when a brilliant, nearly 14-yr-old girl from Aleppo, Syria came over and sat with me. Confidently and out of nowhere. Bright pink hijab and a bright smile. She and I chatted for nearly an hour. We had a blast.

She wanted to practice her English. And her entire family was at a nearby table: only her father speaks English but not to her level. Someday she wants to study in America or Europe. Her friends don’t seem to understand that she will be safe and that not everyone in those countries hates Muslims. That’s what she told me.

She asked me how old I was. 34. She asked me if I was married. When I said no, she asked what was wrong. I told her about failed attempts at relationships, and about doing good things in the world. We gossiped a bit about guys. She told me about a fight she had with her boyfriend back in Syria. She asked me why I had short hair. Shaved my head for St. Baldrick’s. I told her about Donna and Shea and the other children who have battled, will battle, are battling cancer; she lit up and said she wants to be a doctor and volunteer.

We laughed about how slow the male waiter was with bringing the check, even though I asked several times. I said I might just do it myself, write down on a piece of scrap paper what I ordered and leave the paper on the table with the cash.

It was in this silly moment that I felt like a real role model. An amazing feeling. And in one mere hour, she taught me a lot about being a powerful teen, Muslim young woman, aspiring doctor. She told me she likes Jennifer Lopez and Eminem. I told her about Lupe Fiasco. She said she was worried about her friends back in Syria and that she wants to keep in touch with me on Facebook or e-mail.

Hope she has a great birthday on Tuesday. And I hope she knows that my writing about her is because of how much our conversation meant to me. We are 20 years apart but kindred spirits. Her family has been here 20 days and I hope they can return to a safe and bright Syria soon.

 

***The views and information presented in my blog are my own and do not represent the U.S. Department of State or the Fulbright Scholar Program.

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