Books Worth a Look

  • Little Bee by Chris Cleave - This book is a must read. Better than anything else I've read, it takes you vividly into the life of a person in the 3rd world who has no choice but to escape. It is brilliantly written & works well as an audio book. Often I've sent info about the wonderful refugees I've met in Europe. We know only so much of their plight as it is painful for them to recall much less live through again by recounting it. But over time it is clear what they've lived through. This book is excellent as you discover the horrors of their world. Somewhat how to me, it is like being in Europe near a Concentration Camp. One has an obligation to visit it. 'Never to Forget.' In this case, to have our eyes opened.
  • Garbage King by Eliz Laird - The book is set on the streets on Addis Ababa, in Ethiopia and here lives Mamo and his sister Tiggist. When Mamo's "uncle" offers a job, he soon sets out on a bus to work. Little does he know that he is actually being sold into slavery...

Friday, August 29, 2008

A Day Trip to Dover Castle & the WW II tunnels with Amani from Eritrea

If you've read previous posts, you know a bit about Amani. An impressive young man, 27, who had to flee Eritrea because he had the audacity to have a religious ceremony in his own house.

He first went to Italy, but the only help there is from the local Catholic Churches. He then fled to Britain hiding on trains through Italy & France. The walk long the White Cliffs of Dover brought back memories of having arrived several years before on a lorrie.

I just completed an interesting book about a young boy with Asperger's syndrome. The lady on the train with the food trolley gasped when she saw my copy. we were puzzled, but then she showed us her copy. Then, go figure, a man borded the train and he said "I just finished reading that this morning!" small world.

Dover is a pleasant unassuming town. The walk to the castle and fort is vigorous as it is a steep climb for about 15 minutes - unless you want to wait for the local bus that runs once an hour.

The site itself is well worth visiting: like Cardiff Castle, it dates back to the roman times & serving as a garrison. The Saxon Church & lighthouse are impressive. The castle, outer bailey and keep are very interesting.

There is a guided tour of the tunnels - first built to prepare for an invasion by Napoleon. They were enlarged in the 40's and served a major role on both the Dunkirk and D Day events.

Amani is an amazing young m,an who insists in letting you go first through nay door and will not take no to carrying your things.

Back in London, we took a bus home. On the way, we passed many pubs with the young and well off sitting outside. I ached to think he might taken notice & feel the obvious gulf between what is possible for them and him.

we walked through a neighborhood filled with Vietnamese restaurants. He wanted Kebob - if i did! He found a little shop. I have to say it was the best dinner I've had in my 7 weeks here.

Now if only we could find a way to get him his papers so that he could go to school. He is very bright. I find it difficult to think of the hurdles he faces.

Arrived in Oslo several hours ago trip. It's sunny out & I'm off to do some touring.

P.S. Biden is a great choice!

Monday, August 25, 2008

A Victory in Appeals Court

Invited to go to the Crown Court, I had the opportunity to observe an Appeals Case held before a Judge and two Magistrates. What made it particularly interesting was the fact that it called into question a terrorism law used by the police in Britain.

The Case:

A protestor, a 67 year old spunky lady with dred locks was accompanied by Dan ( a 27 year olf who decided to devote all of his time and talent to peace making) who basically was present to take pictures & be a witness just in case. The lady was seated on a chair in front of the entrance to Downing Street - # 10 beings the Prime Minister's Residence.

The main witness was the arresting police officer. He told how he approached Dan and asked him his name, asked him to move onto the sidewalk etc. for some time, and that Dan was unresponsive. Eventually Dan was arrested.

Apparently British law requires that an arrested person be given a written statement in a timely fashion of all charges. This did not happen until Dan was in a cell. The main point was whether Dan had been advised that he was being arrested for breaking the anti-terrorism statute and when.

The U.K. has what is called CCTV. It basically films what's going on in the streets all over the U.K.
1st Amendment rights would cry foul here.

We watched the tape - like watching grass grow! But alas, after about 12 minutes the officer appears. BUT, what you saw did not match what he said. He walked up to Dan and immediately they moved to the sidewalk.

At this point the chief judge intervened. He instructed the police witness to listen carefully to the questions and then "to have a think on it!" Sadly the officer did not heed the advice.

As testimony continued it became clewar something was off. Eventually the officer admitted that he had not advised Dan of the charge until after arresting him. He said it like, 'well so...' One of the Magistrates had great difficulty in not rolling his eyes.

The judge was terrific as a typical (stereotype) English gentleman. He was incredibly funny. The second day, the case was thrown out of court.

Turns out that the officer was simply lying. That's the sad part: fear and excess of authority run amuck.

Victorious, about 10 of us walked along the Thames to a pub near Tower Bridge to clebrate, Bit hey wait; it wasn't only 11:00 a.m.? Nah, that could not stop the celebrants. This included the young lady Barrister who was very interestng.

Having taught the American Court System in our land to high school students, it was great fun for me to witness this trial AND to see justice done. The sad thing was that again authority all too often gets ahead of itself.

Peter's Cafe in the Borough of Hackney, London N1

An Afternoon in Peter’s Cafe

Recently a young friend wrote to me: “Keep being you!” Today I sit in Peter’s Café here in Hackney, East London listening to poetry and live music: folk both British and American and Spanish guitar music. The musicians are quite good & perform here gratis the 1st Wednesday of every month.

The café, open Monday to Wednesday from noon to 7:00 p.m. (19.00,) serves simple food: home made vegetable soup and toast, cheese toasties, tuna or egg salad sandwiches, salad, sausage, vegetarian or meat burgers and more. Food is very inexpensive and free if you cannot afford it. Many pay more. Those who come to the café form a community rich in its diversity and fraternity: those on pension, young professionals, local neighbourhood children, refugees seeking asylum, homeless (sleeping rough), and workers on lunch break. A family of five just had a full lunch for £4 25p.

The café is staffed by Catholic Workers: a Passionate priest, an atheist, volunteers from local London neighbourhoods and from the United States. The poetry and live music are a monthly event in the café. The good food and diverse community experience are a daily experience. Drop in; grab a bite to eat; spend some time or the afternoon in conversation, read or simply rest a bit.

The music continues punctuated by a reading of a favourite poem. A lady working in a nearby office comes in clearly frustrated saying: “I need a break.” Invited to sit she begins to relax. I make her English tea. She takes a slice of home made banana cake provided by one of the musicians. After about 45 minutes she comes to pay saying she feels better and next time she’ll read a poem by her favourite poet, John Donne. Encouraged, she picks up a volume and locates a poem and read it for us. Smiling, she departs – no worry lines in evidence. Shortly thereafter our local British gent arrives. He is a regular who entertains us often with imitations of various British dialects: cockneys, long shore men, blokes – you name it. His repertoire is almost endless. His quick wit and wry humour a favourite with everyone.

I’ve truly come to realize that Peter’s Café provided by the London Catholic Worker is truly “Cheers” without the alcohol. “Keep being you!” A kind comment but clearly so easy in this wonderful community.

Dorothy Day must be smiling.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Dorthy Day House Community Meeting: The Refugees & the Catholic Worker Staff

Meetings. Who likes them? We had the community (house) meeting last night - all are required to attend. Agenda? Reminders: clean up, recycling, laundry issues, announcements, drinks & social afterwards.

I wish you could have been with me. Around the room sat 2 Iranians, 1 Estonian, 1 Eritrean, 1 Algerian and 1 Congolese plus Zelda, Martin & me.

All politely listened. Some questions came out. Then the social.

It was the most incredible experience to be in a small living room with these 7 refugees and witness such goodness. Good men each, they are respectful and supportive of one another. Some speak English fairly well; others haltingly. They like many of us in a foreign tongue often feign understanding, Still the atmosphere was alive with warmth, good humor, and camaraderie.

One of the Iranians bought beer, juice & chips (they call them crisps) for all. We sat and talked & laughed. I kid one of the Ethiopians and the Algerian about being '”Ladies men. They enjoy it.” Thus we bantered and kidded. The generous Iranian (these guys cannot be hired legally, so what they can make is well below regular wages.) would periodically call out “Pheel” & follow with a question as to language or America.

Soon an arm wrestling contest ensued - mercifully it was almost time for my weekly call to daughter & her fiancée.

There are no favorites or whipping boys as we have so often experienced. There are clearly well liked individuals and at least one curious dude - not their word - who is self-comical & a bit pretentious w/o intending to be. Then there is one other who is funny because he is too cautious and so deferential that you cannot help but smile. YET, no one pokes fun. Come to think of it I have yet to hear any gossip.

A Canasta game began and others broke into comfortable small groups to recount experiences, cultural differences, English ways etc.

I keep thinking that if business, political and religious leaders would live & work among people like these for a couple of weeks, they might possibly take a different approach.

Well I fear words have eluded me to get the feel, experience across. I hope some of the magic of the evening came through.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Meet Three Gentlemen Living at the London Catholic Worker

It was 12:15 a.m. & I was about to hit the sack. Islam asked me if I'd join him for a cup of tea and conversation. We moved to the front yard so as to not waken Zelda whose room is on the 1st floor.

Meet Islam

Islam is from an Arab country. He & his wife tried to come to Europe to escape persecution. Regrettably the police found them and arrested them. She's from Nicaragua and was then deported. Islam, an accountant, was held in jail for three months. As he might be jailed upon returning home, the Home Office did not deport him. The difficulty is he is not allowed to work legally. He is applying for asylum so he can achieve citizenship and then join his wife in South America.

In jail in his country, he was beaten on the head with a pistol repeatedly. As a result he fell over & badly damaged his ankles so he could not walk for weeks.

Islam is so interested in America. He sees it as the best country for freedom. He very grateful to the Catholic Worker people for their generosity without any pressure.

I wish you could meet him. He is clearly a gentleman, loves his wife passionately, and is always respectful. It is painful to realize just how many hurdles stand in his way. I try to respond without making it any more difficult.

What a blessing to be in a simple front yard at 1:00 a.m. in England listening to and being a presence for this good man. This is not about me. More it is about the flesh and blood reality of the misery of individuals. I think of all we have, all our toys so to speak. Yet again as I did in Mexico, I experienced people poor and struggling - yet people who are good and kind.

You've met them at home as well. If only we could find a way to end war & strife, and really work for individual prosperity for all.

Meet Zenidine

A true gentleman, a man with a keen eye for beautiful women, a wonderful sense of humour. This is Zennidine.

He speaks French and Arabic and is learning English. His friends tell him he could pass for an Italian or a Latin American.

We speak often and he enjoys my kidding him about his keen eye for les femmes. Yesterday just as I stretched out to watch a movie during my a.m. ½ day break, he came in and began asking me questions about America. Very quickly I shut the TV off. As he talked about his home, he became animated, saying over & over that when he gets his papers & can go home, he wants me to visit him and his father in their family home.

He described the capitol city and nearby sites at length. Were it to happen I suspect he’d be a terrific tour guide. He talked as well about religion and politics in his country and about the rebels who were fighting the army.

Just then the doorbell rang. It was Zennidine’s friend from his home town. Gregory is an animated and affable man in his 20’s. We did our best shifting between English and French. He is not a refugee but is visiting. He told me about how much his native people love visitors. Americans and their government are seen as two separate realities.

It was time for them to go off to swim and work out. We agreed to meet again soon, perhaps for a pint and further sharing.

Another blessing in the form of two fine gentlemen.

Meet Fr. Martin

As I compose my piece about Islam, Martin is in the next room counseling a young person. Not only is it late, but he must get up early to ready himself to go to court for a non-violent protest for which he was arrested. He may well spend the night & the next six in jail.

Martin began the London Catholic Worker and is tireless in his commitment to the disadvantaged and poor. He is kind, unassuming and constantly working on activities aimed at stopping violence and apathy.

Martin is in a sense an unusual man. A priest who chooses to live with the refugees. He, a refugee and I share one small room. He takes the top bunk.

Martin dresses simply and bicycles all over London. There is a cart on wheels which we attach to the back of his bike loaded with supplies for the ride over to the Sunday soup kitchen about a 25 minute bike ride.

A man comes into the café asking for some financial help. A woman at the street corner clearly confused asks for help. Martin stops.

Ronnie and his pals come into the soup kitchen each day for a ‘squash,’ an orange concoction we mix with water. They do not pay as Martin treats them.

The phone rings often at the house for Martin. He seems to work non-stop for others. Yet he truly displays no ‘ego’ as we so often see displayed by those who perform or are in the lime light and crave attention.

I hope these three short and clearly inadequate sketches give you some sense of the wonder & goodness that these individuals possess and manifest.

Keep them and all the others in your prayers.


Thoughts on the amazing people I get to meet.

Rich, my 19 year old friend, soon to be Franciscan and recent community member at Haley House in Boston. An article he wrote.