Monday, December 25, 2017

Refugee story from 2015

During the summer of 2015, about a million refugees from war-torn Syria and the surrounding area came pouring into Germany. For journalists, especially in Germany, this was a big deal. I mean, tectonic plates were shifting and the influx of people created thousands of story opportunities. How, for example, were the refugees fitting in? Where were they being housed? What problems were they facing? How had the journey been? The opportunities for stories were endless. 
Now enter me. The only real thought I had to myself during this time, journalism-wise, was, "Dude, if you don't write at least a few stories off this, there is something wrong with you." Well, in the end I did write a few stories related to the refugee situation, but I'm most proud of the one below.
A bit of backstory: around Christmas 2015, I would always pass this one particular area at the main railway station in Hamburg. It was this makeshift command post for refugees who were just arriving or stuck in limbo or just needed some help. What struck me about this command post was how ragtag, yet efficient it seemed. They had translators at the place, supplies, bulletin boards, and there would always be people manning the area, even around the clock. 
I became intrigued about the people working at this station. Below is a story I wrote about them. I had sent the piece on spec to the Christian Science Monitor. Unfortunately, the editor there said, "We are pretty well covered on the subject," and passed. All right. But here the story is. I thought it was worth sharing, even if two years have elapsed.
For the last five months, a small brigade of volunteers working at a makeshift aid station at the Hamburg Central Train Station has been offering various forms of assistance to the droves of Syrian, Iraqi and Afghani refugees who have been passing through Hamburg on their way to Scandinavia to seek asylum.
The volunteers, most of whom are German citizens but some of them refugees themselves, translate for the newly arrived refugees, help them buy the proper train tickets and show them where they can get food and water. They also help the refugees solve the many unique problems that they face.
It has been well documented how kind and generous many Germans have been to the refugees who have been arriving in Germany from war-torn countries. But the aid station is a good representation of how grassroots and vigorous the effort to help the refugees often is.
“We just try to help the refugees however we can; the most important thing is that help is being given,” said Felix Brugger, 27, a volunteer at the aid station, which is located in the train station’s main entrance hall. Brugger made his comments after having just told two Afghani refugees which route they need to take to reach a particular city in Sweden.
Ever since last September, when Angela Merkel began allowing thousands of refugees to enter Germany, a couple hundred refugees have been arriving at the Hamburg Central Station each day.
Though the German government gives cash subsidies and other benefits to refugees who are in the process of seeking asylum in Germany, the refugees at the Hamburg train station are looking to go to Scandinavia, which means that the German government views them as “Transitflüchtlinge,” transit refugees, and does not give them any special support.
But that’s where the volunteers at the aid station come in. The volunteers -- there are about 40 of them in total and they work in shifts -- know which shelters are open for the night, keep detailed lists of the trains leaving for Scandinavia, escort the refugees around the train station and constantly stay abreast of the border situations in Scandinavia. They also raise money for the refugees, so if a refugee gets in a major jam, there’s cash on hand to help him get out of it.
“We try to make things easier for the refugees,” said one volunteer, Sumane, a 19-year-old Hamburg resident with Iraqi heritage.
Though the effort to help the refugees at the Hamburg Central Station seems robust and well coordinated, it wasn’t always that way.
Only a few people helped the refugees when they first began arriving at the train station in September. Those helpers, said Brugger, just handed out bottles of water and put makeshift barriers around an area where the refugees had been sitting to give them a little breathing room.
However, in mid-September, it was rumored that members of a far-right political party were going to hold an anti-immigration rally in Hamburg, and fears over how those protesters might treat the refugee if they encountered them at the train station galvanized more people into aiding the transit refugees.
“After that day in September,” Brugger said, “the effort to help the refugees here just got larger and more sophisticated.”
Indeed it did. In October, the volunteers got several humanitarian non-profit agencies to set up large tents with soup kitchens just outside one entrance to the train station, so all transit refugees now have access to free meals and an enclosed place to rest. And in December, the volunteers raised enough money to rent several rooms in a nearby office building so they can administer services to the refugees in a nicer environment, guarded from the elements and away from the hustle and bustle of the train station.
Though the number of refugees who pass through Hamburg on their way to Scandinavia has gone down since the winter began, it may rise again in the spring.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Nail on the head

Ever notice how sometimes someone will say something that is so on point, you just have to say, “Yeah. Wow.”

Recently, I heard someone say something just like that, that really just hit the nail on the head.

I had been watching a video on YouTube about the history of the Air Jordan sneaker. The documentary was very positive about the shoe, but some criticisms were shared too.

One criticism was that people had been willing to commit violence to obtain a pair of Jordans. 

The person who shared this criticism was Dr. Harry Edwards, a former professor of sociology at U.C. Berkeley.

What made Edwards' words so insightful was that he didn’t just address the problem superficially. He tried to describe the underlying issue with American and consumerist culture at large. 

Here is what he said:

“The tragedies that took place between kids -- the killings, the assaults, over clothing as well as shoes -- was an indication of what we had taught as a culture. [And unfortunately] wearing the right clothes, identifying with the right image became some kids' sole hook and handle on their own personal self esteem.”

That about says it, I think. Yeah . . . Wow.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Desert Island Discs

A few weeks ago, I was searching iTunes for podcasts that involved Paul McCartney in any way. After a few minutes, I found one. It was called Desert Island Discs. Desert Island Discs, I learned, is a BBC show in which the guests have to tell a host which 10 songs they would bring with them to a desert island. A Desert Island Discs from 1982 featured Paul McCartney as the guest. 

After finding this episode, I downloaded it and played it on my computer. At first there was a bit of banter between McCartney and the host, but after that the two got down to business. Some of the songs that Paul said he would bring with him to the "desert island" were “Heartbreak Hotel,”  "Tutti Frutti," "Searchin'" by the Coasters and "Beautiful Boy" by John Lennon. 

I found this show very interesting. But what I found the most interesting was this: At the end of the episode, the host asked McCartney which one of those 10 songs he would bring with him if he could only choose one. 

And McCartney chose “Beautiful Boy” by John Lennon. 


Here’s a link to "Beautiful Boy"; here’s a link for more info on McCartney’s appearance on Desert Island Discs.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

art exhibition

A mural at the exhibition of refugee artwork at Harburg City Hall.
If you ask Sly Kristicevic what is particularly special about the new exhibition of refugee art on display at the Harburg City Hall, he has a ready answer: the colors.

Kristicevic, who has been leading art-making workshops for many of Hamburg’s refugees for almost two years and brought the current exhibition to fruition, said that when the refugees first started making art with him, their pieces often showed scenes of war and were nearly always black and white.

But, Kristicevic said, the refugees have seemed to grow more hopeful, and even though some works displayed at the exhibition reflect the difficulties and sorrows of refugee life, many of the pieces indeed have color and have a positive spin.

“This painting is supposed to show that you can always go higher and achieve more,” said Mohin, 13, who came to Hamburg from Afghanistan, as he pointed to a painting of his, which was on display and showed houses piled on one another to form a skyscraper of sorts.

About 25 works by roughly 15 artists are displayed at the exhibit. Though sorrow surely infuses some of the pieces –  a mural at the beginning of the exhibit, for example, shows the silhouettes of broken-looking people in a queue surrounded by barbed wire fences and a white paper-machete "ghost ship" bears the names of over a dozen people who died while trying to cross the Mediterranean -- most of the pieces really do have hopeful flare.
Mohin, 13, an artist represented at the exhibit, explains the meaning behind one of his paintings.

Said Anes Aromdany, 26, of Tunisa, whose painting, which was on display, was filled with swirling colors, had an angel in it and all together looked like something Marc Chagall could have painted: “I wanted to show [with this piece] that despite war, there is beauty in the world,  there is harmony...and balance is incredibly important in our universe and must be respected.”
Some of the artists drew pictures on the life vests they used on their journey across the Mediterranean Sea. Because some of the artists had bad associations with these vests — after all, the floating devices reminded them of a treacherous journey and had cost high sums to obtain — they wanted to make something positive out of them. The vest pictured here has the Eifel Tower among other things drawn on it.

The exhibition, which is aptly called "Farben Wieder Sehen, Leben Wieder Sehen" -- "Seeing Colors Again, Seeing Life Again" -- will run until February 17 and is free. Fördern und Wohnen, a city agency that helps find housing for people in need, organized the event; Harburg was one of its sponsors.

Kristicevic, for his part, said he hopes to put on more refugee artwork exhibitions but he is really just grateful to be able to continue making art with the refugees. "For me, he said, "it is a great blessing just to see these people smile again and to hear their beautiful stories again.”

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

A secret in the open

Sometimes, living in Germany, I experience some surreal moments. Here’s one. 

The other night I was sitting in a bar with two friends. I’m not going to reveal their real names, but let’s call them Hannah and Marie. Just so you know, I’m very close with Marie and, in confidence a year or so ago she told me that Hannah’s grandfather was, to use her words, “a very bad Nazi.”

Now, Hannah is very ashamed of this fact and would prefer that the fewer people who know it, the better. However, Marie couldn’t help but tell me, as she knows I am a WWII-history buff. Still, being the good friend she is, Marie told Hannah that she had told me. Now, Hannah and I have seen each other many times since Marie spilled the beans. But Hannah and I never openly discussed her infamous relative even though she knew I knew of his existence.

Well, we never discussed this relative of Hannah’s until the other night at the bar. What happened was, after having downed a few beers, the subject of Nazis somehow came up, and in the interest of just putting it all out there – and owing to the fact that I was a little buzzed – I decided to tell Hannah that I indeed did know who her Nazi relative was, that Marie had indeed told me.

However, I just wanted one slight clarification. “But this guy was your great-grandfather, right?” I said to Hannah, who was sitting across the table from me. I asked Hannah this question because Marie had always told me that Hannah’s grandfather was the culprit. But after having learned about this man, I had done a little googling and had discovered that Hannah’s grandfather would have been too young to fit the bill.

“‘Great-grandfather’ is ‘Urgroßvater' in German, right?" Hannah asked Marie, who’s English is better. 

“Right,” Marie said. 

“Then, yes," Hannah said, turning to me. "You're right."

There was a tiny pause. Trying to smooth things over and perhaps make the moment not as weighty, Marie turned to Hannah and said, “You shouldn’t feel that bad, though. I mean, my grandfather was actually in the Hitler Youth.”

“Yeah, but come on. The Hitler Youth,” Hannah replied, and in doing so gave me a look.  

Now, I gotta say, in this moment, this look that Hannah gave to me said everything. Essentially, with this look, Hannah was totally pooh-poohing Marie’s comment about her grandfather having been in the Hitler Youth because being in the Hitler Youth just meant that you were a tiny dot in the Nazi universe. 

Hannah’s great-grandfather, however, was something much larger. He was actually an SS commander and had been in charge of crushing a major anti-Nazi uprising, a task that resulted in the deaths of thousands of people. 

After Hannah made her “But come on, the Hitler Youth” comment, we all kind of dropped the subject. But, really, I can't emphasize enough how much had been revealed in that 
quick look Hannah had given me. It was like she was trying to convey this: The Hitler Youth? That’s nice and all, but if you actually looked up exactly what my great-grandfather was responsible for, well, maybe you’d be singing to a different tune.

And then we all ordered another drink at this nice trendy bar in Hamburg.

I’m telling you, some very trippy experiences you have here in Germany sometimes.

Friday, January 20, 2017

I Just Emailed to Say...

One thing that my mom and I have in common is that we both like words. She was an English teacher and has a master's in American Literature and just really appreciates the well crafted poem, story, sentence. So sometimes, I write to her, telling her things that I like and asking her opinion on them and then we discuss it. Sometimes, I hear things, songs, maybe an article, that she likes and then point her in the direction of it. Anyway, below is an email I wrote to her recently, telling her about a song I've rediscovered and a section of it that I thought she would particularly like. I thought the email was interesting enough to post. I hope you do too.

Hi Ma,

I just wanted to write to you because I heard something the other day that I thought you would like too.
Because I've been very much into song writing lately, I've been very conscious of how songs are structured/their lyrics.
Anyway, did you ever realize how nice the song "I Just Called to Say I Love You" is?
What's interesting is that for the entire verses, he's saying reasons why he is NOT calling. For example: "No New Years Day to Celebrate ...  No first of spring ... No flowers bloom," etc. I thought that was a nice paradoxical twist.
But I'm actually brining this song to your attention because I thought you'd particularly like the second verse, which starts, "No summer's high."
I'll reproduce the rest of the verse here, but I suggest you listen to the song first, then look at the lyrics. 
Let me know what you think!
No summer's high 
No warm July
No harvest moon to light one tender August night
No autumn breeze
No falling leaves
Not even time for birds to fly to southern skies