Haiti, New Mexico, Iraq

I have not blogged in awhile, despite visits to Australia and Haiti, and an amazing Haiti-focused teaching residency at my alma mater, Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania.  I’ve been retreating from the computer so as to give myself a break from the inundation of technology that has overcome so many of our lives.

A friend recently told me that I should blog more; that the interactions and teachings and experiences that comprise these travels are interesting and useful to read. As much time as  I—and many of us, I suspect—must spend at a computer, I find it difficult to sit down and write or type anything I don’t have to.

In this time away from technology, I taught several Continuum workshops in Australia, and trained the mental health team at The Sant Siko Twama in Port au Prince in Part 2 of Restorative Movement Psychotherapy. There is much to share from these experiences, but something here—closer to home—has spurred me to resume my writing.

I am privileged to know many of members of our resettled refugee community. Recently, a lively, sensitive and kind 16 year old boy from  Iraq was diagnosed with a very aggressive form of leukemia. He went from contemplating his future, playing football and planning for summer break  to laying in a hospital bed for an unknown period of time to receive 3 daily and very intense treatments of chemotherapy. This form of leukemia is known to come from some sort of gas exposure. On a recent visit, I asked him if he had any idea what form of Leukemia he had.  In response, he shared the questions he was asked about gas exposure (none of which were true for him), and so I asked him if it was possible he was exposed to something equally toxic back home—in Baghdad. He looked at me, his eyes demonstrating that he had thought of this, too. “You mean the bombs”?

“Yes”, I replied.

“Yeah, I think it’s the bombs.”

So do I.

Obviously, I don’t know. I do know that after the war in the former Yugoslavia, some of the UN soldiers developed leukemia and there was a question about exposure to depleted uranium. I do know there are reports of increased rates of leukemia in Basra, in the past 15 years.

The bombs that fell on Iraq were American bombs. Bombs all of our tax dollars pay for. Bombs I have opposed theoretically—and vocally in my April 15 payments  to the IRS; in letters accompanying my checks that say I DO NOT WANT MY TAXES TO PAY FOR ANY MORE BOMBS.

These bombs, which we all pay for, may kill this child. This may not seem a big deal to many people in the US—casualty of war; just one Iraqi child; people die of cancer every day.  I don’t know enough about cancer to know what’s preventable; I do know that what appears to be an increase in cancer  is, in my mind, an outcome of increased toxicity and scarcity of healthy air, food, water in our environment. Its also the toxicity of speed that impacts our wellbeing—hence my pulling away from computers, sometimes.

I have been reviewing old files in an effort to clean out a crowded office, and recently came across an old article that described how Italy asked the UN to investigate the effects of depleted uranium on humans—because several of their soldiers, deployed as peacekeepers to Bosnia-Herzegovina, had developed leukemia. I was once warned about my proximity to recently made bomb craters while in Kosovo in 2000, because of rumors that depleted uranium was used in those bombs.  This is not a new issue, but its one that has not yet drawn the attention it merits.

I spoke with the  young mans mother today, and she described herself as “crazy” with questions.  One of her questions:  “Why didn’t we buy bottled water everyday?”

The grief and distress I  hear in her voice is palpable. Her son was asymptomatic; the news, delivered barely 2 weeks ago, is still a shock.  For me, its unimaginable. I have written many times about the ongoing tragedy and cruelty of war; a dear friend wrote a book  called “When the War Came Home”, and this title is perhaps the most apt verbiage to describe  why we cannot continue to pretend that wars in far away places don’t matter here at home. Wars do come home with everyone who fought or fled them; they also come home with those of us who work with the aftermath of war.

Robert Bales is a US solider who was deployed too many times, especially given that he was known to suffer from a traumatic brain injury. This is cruel. Its immoral. His actions are deplorable, and, he was trained not only to defend and protect, but also to kill when necessary. The line we call “necessary” from the comfort of our homes is not the same line one sees in the midst of combat. War changes perception, and multiple deployments changes everything about how we see the world.  We know this, yet we continue to ignore it.

About a month ago, I learned of a VA employee who worked in the area of staff support being murdered by her husband, a soldier returned from multiple deployments. She was working on contracts to create retreats for returned soldiers  and their caregivers. In my work with refugees, I refer at least one Iraqi refugee a month to testing for traumatic brain injury from exposure to IED explosions or suicide bombers. Many of the refugee communities coming to the US endure communal fragmentation, increases in violent behavior, severe isolation and loneliness. The point is, war does not stay in the countries it occurs in;  it follows civilians and soldiers home; it disrupts our moral and social bonds; and it undermines all of our safety and security.

And no one is to blame but us. Not the government, not the military, not the soldiers or refugees—all of us.  Because we continue to look away, and then blame and scapegoat, or worse yet, ignore it, when something happens.

Around the same time that Robert Bales story came out, so did Trayvon Martins. His death is horrible, inexcusable, and wrong. I am grateful at all the attention his tragic death has been given;  at the multiple acts of defiance and solidarity in his name; at the mobilization for justice and accountability that his cruel and blatantly wrong death catalyzed. It stands in stark contrast to the silence around what went wrong that caused Robert Bales to go berserk, as soldiers are known sometimes to do. Its tragic that the truths his situation exposes are ignored; that there is no mobilizations to demand a halt to multiple deployments of our troops and a complete stop to deployment of soldiers with TBI.

When the war comes home, we all suffer, and we are all responsible.

Back to Haiti—a place that has also known violence, and continues to fragment since the 2010 earthquake broke her capital city–the Poto Mitan (“Center Post”) of the land and people— wide open. When I was just there, I was grateful to note some improvements in roads, electricity, and in people’s sense of hope for the future. I also noted a continued frustration with the lack of progress promised by the international community, and an increasing tension that the presence of so many foreigners is ongoing and without proportionally reciprocal improvement. Many Haitians still refer to the mass “insodus” as The Invasion of The Aliens, and I am still slightly amused and really annoyed when I hear of yet another group of “expert” expatriates—experts in mental health, experts in trauma, experts in community building—who are planning to bring their expertise to Haiti. This perpetuates colonialism. It may even, in some contexts,  be a form of occupation. We ignore or judge the societal dynamics that keep the wars going at home, and that hurt people we care about. We sometimes also export our ideas, opinions, expertise to other peoples homes, imposing our ways of living and being in places that have their own practices for healing, restoration, community and  creation. I am not suggesting that everything we share is wrong—after large scale natural or human-made disasters,  showing up to help is necessary. Its also necessary to show up and practice deep listening, with awareness of our own agendas and worldviews, so that we contribute meaningfully to local needs and people. My dear teacher Anngwyn St. Just calls this the ability to SHOW  UP, SHUT UP AND GET WHATS GOING ON.  That pretty much sums it up.

I have been thinking a lot about violence lately. About how violence isn’t just the blatant physical assault of another person or people; about how we may engage in acts of violence also by perpetuating, proselytizing, imposing, judging, and perhaps the most harmful violence of all, ignoring, and ignorance. Another former teacher once asked a class I was in to consider all the ways we commit violence to ourselves, and it was mind-opening to consider that being in so much of a hurry that we forget to eat–to nourish our own bodies–is considered by some to be part of a continuum of violence.

How many ways do we commit acts of violence in our own lives? Maybe thats a good place for all of us to begin.