Wednesday, November 25, 2015

NPR + news!

Good morning!

I'm writing from home in Hawaii before the sun has risen (prolonged jetlag owing to a mix of nerves and excitement that stirred about this past week, but I'll get to that).

First I'd like to share an excellent program I heard a couple of days ago that suggested innovative ways of creating a counter-narrative to ISIS. Many have pointed out that continued and heightened Islamophobia only helps ISIS since it fuels their narrative of Western hostility toward Muslims. Last week, for instance, 31 governors went out of their way to be cruel by proclaiming they wouldn't accept refugees into their states -- a power they don't even have. Hawaii's governor David Ige stood, at first, firmly in the welcoming refugees minority, but even he was met with much resistance from citizens of the Aloha State (also for a number of reasons like the limited capacity of islands, high standard of living, and Micronesian migrants who haven't received sufficient state support, Hawaii is not ideal for Syrian refugees, BUT I'm proud that he extended aloha to them anyhow)

This issue is complicated but it's not going away, and we cannot use the Atlantic Ocean as a buffer that excuses our lack of involvement. The world has been made porous through globalization, and, as I've said before, we must treat the refugees as a globally shared responsibility.

Anyway, this program helped me to understand how ISIS has gained so much traction and to consider how to dismantle it, so I thought I'd share:

Now onto the news! The reason for my early wake-up and aforementioned 
nerves/excitement. This weekend I had some exceptional luck: I won the Rhodes Scholarship! Even typing that feels surreal as it hasn't fully sunk in. Here's a nice write-up of the four (!) Princeton winners this year:

As it says in the article, this is the first Thanksgiving I'm spending with my family at home in six years, and I feel immensely lucky to have so many reasons to be thankful.

Happy Thanksgiving! And thanks for reading :) 

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Tito's two-day resurrection

This week I was reminded of perhaps the most bizarre thing to have happened in Serbia in the last couple of decades: Marshal Tito came back to life. Well, sort of. Allow me to explain.

In 1994, in the midst of the Yugoslav Wars, a man dressed as Tito claimed to have been resurrected for two days to see "what's going on in Belgrade." B-92, one of the only media outlets during the '90s not controlled by the government, coordinated the prank and intended to make a comical documentary about it. Perhaps this in itself seems strange, but the truly incomprehensible part was the public's reaction to the fake Tito. Although intended as a joke, it was taken very seriously by a large number of Serbs. Many people believed he was real or, at the very least, they didn't make light of this staged resurrection. They took pride in shaking his hand, they followed him around the streets of Belgrade, they asked for his signature, they serenaded him with Tito-era music, they addressed him in the first person, and they engaged him in genuine conversation about the state of affairs. Some praised him for his leadership, some blamed him for the breakup of Yugoslavia, some complained to him about Milosevic's regime, some claimed Milosevic was a better leader, some asked him if he was back to unite Yugoslavia, and some shared very personal anecdotes about how their lives had changed for the worse since he had died. Many became emotional as they described Tito's Yugoslavia overcharged with nostalgia. One man said poetically, "You were everything for us; you used to warm us like the sun."

How were the Serbs not in on the joke? On the most superficial level, the fairly young actor posing as Tito didn't even look much him save his build. This incident demonstrates how totally out of touch some Belgradians were in '94. They had been fed so much bogus from the censored news that they were at a loss for what to think. This deep-seated disillusionment led them to suspend their disbelief and buy into an impossible notion. The documentarians surely edited out some infidels, but it's extraordinary how much material they were able to gather with this poser surrounded by scores of people actively engaging with him.

As promised, B-92 made a documentary about this entitled "Tito Among the Serbs for the Second Time." Here's a clip with subtitles:

Interspersed with clips of Tito's staged resurrection are snippets of the real Tito and of the then-current war in Bosnia. This links to the whole documentary (without subtitles) and if you go to 14:03 you'll see a brief clip of a bridge collapsing in Sarajevo due to shelling by Serbs.

In a post-production interview, the film-maker shared an anecdote that explains how deep this mayhem ran. As he tells it, the crowds became so massive that the police had to intervene. A police officer told the cameraman that he had to clear out, and as the cameraman started to tap the fake Tito on the shoulder to tell him they had to leave, the officer said, "No, leave him out of it." Even the police didn't seem to get it.

This experiment reminds me of how politicians will sometimes cite past conflicts to galvanize the public's emotions; they'll use dormant grievances to twist thoughts. For instance, Milosevic's "legendary field of Kosovo" speech marking the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo. Ultimately, this documentary goes to show how manipulation of the past can assume an unbelievable, even frightening momentum. And that's something I think we ought to be very wary about, especially as tensions escalate in the Balkans over the refugee crisis.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Paris' secondary victims

The refugees I've spoken to about the Paris terror attacks find it just as devastating and mystifying as the rest of us. Some even shed tears while shaking their head and uttering, "Why?" They cry for the victims in France, but they also cry for themselves. Many of them have escaped conflict zones, sold their belongings, left their families and communities, and undergone a treacherous journey to cross multiple borders illegally in order to flee the very people who coordinated the attacks. And yet, because of those same people, the trek just got a lot harder for the refugees in and approaching Europe. Even if they make it to their final destination (usually Germany, Austria, Sweden), integrating into European communities and the global economy is a hurtle that appears increasingly insurmountable. One of the suicide bombers was identified as having passed through Greece, so couldn't other extremists have taken that same route? Of course; of the 800,000+ possibly a handful have relations with ISIS. And that is a terrifying thought. But it's not one that justifies prejudice against a whole people. Concern, yes; vigilance, yes. But sweeping fear and animosity, no.

This weekend, we had the fewest number of volunteers I'd ever seen, and usually we have extra hands on the weekends. Clearly people are worried about their safety and are responding by stepping back. But what we need most to do now is to step fully in; to dive head first into this vast, complicated crisis to do all we can to prevent another attack.

Instead of wasting mental and emotional energy intensifying the differences between "us" and "them", we need to address the major issues still unsolved in this humanitarian crisis. First and foremost, the EU needs to reach a consensus and come up with a shared policy regarding the refugees. Right now countries have no streamlined protocol which complicates and slows down the process both for the nations and for the refugees. It also encourages a finger-pointing game in the Balkans in which countries are placing the burden of proof for their own inability to stave off this crisis on their neighbors. This only aggravates tensions in a region already fraught with centuries-old ethnic hatred and mutually exclusive nationalisms.

In my view, the biggest issues going forward are: how do we integrate the refugees into Europe and how do we weed out the extremists. Difficult problems don't demand simple solutions, but we mustn't give up hope in seeking answers because of the horrific actions of extremists. The refugees are here and more are coming; worrying about how to intercept their path and exclude them from European society is an unavailing solution.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Befriending time

Much of the work I do here is emotionally tough. Distributing food, water, and clothes to refugees with frostbitten feet can be overwhelming. Coupled with workshops that I organize for Romani children who run up against discrimination and distrust on a daily basis, I find myself drained by the enormity of these situations involving oppressed migrant groups.

To combat this emotional taxation, I walk, write, run, read, meditate, people-watch, and generally try to connect with nature and mankind. I detach myself from technology and let myself drift through an hour or two unanchored. In these moments, I am autonomous and I cut to the quick of my self. In these moments, there is no white noise between my thoughts, actions, and feelings. In these moments, I am refreshed and ready to bring my all to the next day's slender brush with great injustice.

Perhaps so far, this sounds derivative of the post I wrote on being alone but not lonely. It's certainly related, but I've investigated this further and realized that at its core is a new relationship with time. An appreciative friendship emboldened by Balkan time.

Time is malleable in Serbia. To adapt to it, you must enter a sort of Dali state of mind. A friend might say she'll meet you at 4pm and then at 4:15pm might cancel or postpone. A store claims to open at 8:30am yet the owner is surprised when at 9am a customer eagerly waits to enter. If someone asks if you to go for coffee, the question is refers to going to a cafe right this very minute. If you suggest meeting at 10am next Tuesday, he will respond quizzically. He meant now, and doesn't think one should have to plan a social interaction days in advanced.

During Bridge Year, we were told to do our best to adapt to the "polako" mentality of the Balkans. Polako encapsulates flexibility, relaxation, and a sort of "hakuna matata"/no worries attitude. Another phrase on which I reflected at the end of Bridge Year is "ima vremena" meaning "there is time" or "you have time." I've recently heard "sve ćeš da stiće," or everything you want will arrive.

These positive phrases promote a looser, freer relationship with time, the somewhat artificial structure we've imposed on life. In some sense we are time's creators in that we made it our master by inventing the clock and living by deadlines. And this servant-master relationship is evidenced in how we speak about time. The first English phrases that came to mind were "wasting time," "killing time," and "racing against the clock," all of which combatively peg time as some sort of enemy.

However, as we all know, time is plastic; it can feel rich and swollen one moment, weak and unfulfilling another. Some of our deepest joys happen when the moment meets the eternal and we lose ourselves in time -- in art, in love, in meditation; we don't think about that ticking secondhand but instead we fall into something transcendent.

Applying these reflections to my life, I've made an effort to find time each day to stop and reflect, be it through a long, aimless walk, watching the sun rise and set, or sitting on a bench and observing passers-by. When time is deeply felt, when it's rich and swollen, I am able to move past the guilt, the sorrow, and the despondency that my work with the refugees and Romani tends to impart.

By being aware of time's inevitable passing and knowingly creating space to let myself get lost in time, I've begun to befriend time, once a tool I fought to manage. Naturally I still keep a schedule which provides a useful structure to my life here, but noticing moments of being blissfully unaware of time reasserts my sense of agency outside of time's contrived reality, which both levels and deepens this friendship.

For further reading on time: there's a whimsical book on how time can be found everywhere in nature called "A Sideways Look at Time." In it, Jay Griffiths examines imaginative ways of once used to measure time such as a spice clock which dispenses a spice every hour, so that in the middle of the night you might taste cinnamon and think, "Ah, well, I guess I have three hours until I need to wake up." Or the flower clock where you plant in your garden flowers that bloom for an hour or two at a set time during the day, so as you wander through the flowers you can tell the hour by the blooming morning glory.

P.S. Srećan rodjendan (happy birthday) to one of this blog's only regular followers, my dad! Sending love from half a world away.

Monday, November 9, 2015


My work with the Roma and refugees is at once enigmatically enervating and energizing. On the days when I'm drained by the enormity of the situation, glorious sunsets recharge my drive, and for that I owe them a great deal. So I'm dedicating this post to Apollo, the sun or sunce.

I recently posted some sunset photos from my room, but the following were taken from the glorious Kalemegdan Park, which Belgradians regard as the optimal sunset observation deck.

Meet "Pobednik" (meaning "the victor," the figure on the left). He was erected to commemorate Serbia's victories over the Ottoman Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the Balkan Wars and WWI. Still he stands for Serbian might and patriotic ardor:

The following photos are from tonight's sunset as seen from a new spot in the fortress. I emerged from a 90-minute interview about the Roma around 4pm to see that the sky showed signs of a promising sunset, so I dashed to the fortress in an invigorating race against the sun. As a photo-dilettante I'm beginning to play with the manual features of my camera which has led me to realize what's been said many times over: it's all about how you use light. Since the light inevitably changes as the sun descends, it becomes a game of how best to tinker with the settings. These show the sky's transformation from a couple of angles:

Because I'm quite light-sensitive I usually wake with the sun (around 6:30am these days) and watch the sky change color from my room. Sometimes I'll seek out a better view. These three capture the sunrise taken on an overpass near the Dunav:

I wish you sunny days ahead!

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Refugee in Serbia? There's an app for that

Recently the Centar za Azila (CZA, Asylum Protection Center) launched a mobile app to answer some of the basic questions that all refugees have upon entering Serbia. Updated every hour, the app provides their rights as asylum-seekers, headline news related to refugees across Europe, locations of hospitals and post offices, common Serbian phrases, weather information, conversion rates, the number of open beds at the five temporary housing sites in Serbia, and the cost of bus tickets to Croatia and Slovenia. Currently it's only available for Android phones but the NGO is developing it for iOS and Windows.

I think this is ingenious on the part of CZA. Besides being hungry, tired, and, of late, freezing cold when entering Serbia, the refugees are disoriented. This app assuages their confusion. It's a strange picture, though, to see people walking for miles and miles in soiled clothes and then pulling out their smart phones to download an app; a confluence of the medieval and the modern.

A video that demonstrates the app's interface:

Although the video shows the app in Serbian, users can select among Arabic, English (translations by yours truly!), Farsi, and French.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Refugee reflections

Each day 3,000 to 4,000 migrants and refugees cross Serbia’s southern border, and sometimes as many as 6,000. Most of them process straight through to Croatia without stopping, but a few hundred camp out in Belgrade for somewhere between an hour and a few days.

For a few weeks now I’ve been working with Centar za Azila (Asylum Protection Center). I continue to be impressed by CZA and its volunteers. Everyday people work at collection centers, sorting through donations, mending clothes, and distribute those goods to refugees staying in a camp in Krjača on the outskirts of Belgrade. The government professes this camp can hold 1,000 refugees but the derelict buildings are constantly overcapacity. In an attempt to make these sorry sights more inviting and to help the children feel like its their space, a few volunteers and I have been organizing art/theatre workshops for the kids. We did similar workshops in the park near the bus station where the refugees camped out before temperatures fell. Unfortunately, each week there are fewer volunteers and more refugees, and I’ve heard the situation is more dire in towns on the border. A few weeks ago a few of us Belgrade-based volunteers distributed food for refugees near the Croatian border because the volunteers there had temporarily run out, and it was quite a hostile environment since tensions between Serbs and Croats are ever-rising. Recently I've noticed more violence within the migrant community, too, especially among young men. (A side: I should note that the majority of the migrants I’ve seen are young men. There absolutely are families and children, but they are far outnumbered by men ages eighteen to thirty, at least in Belgrade. The news selects photos of crying children to appeal to readers’ pathos, which is probably the most effective way to catch the public’s eye and the more global attention paid to this issue the better (in my opinion), but the number of children to young men featured above the fold is totally disproportionate.)

Some Serbs think the EU will force migrants to stay in Serbia longer in part to test whether Serbia is EU-worthy, but mostly to manage the overwhelming number currently inundating Central Europe. There is a lot of open land in the Balkans so perhaps, if funded by wealthier counties, Serbia could set up temporary camps. However the refugees I've spoken with who speak English want to leave Serbia as soon as possible; it's a layover not a destination. (Another side: only a handful of the refugees I work with speak English because, I’m told, most of the wealthier migrants cut straight through Serbia – it’s something like 1,200 euro/person to go from border to border.) However, even if Serbia has the space, it doesn't seem right to force them to stay here if they are set on reaching Germany and have risked so much to get this far. It also depends on how long they're planning to stay. Many hope to be here for good and they see themselves as immigrants, but Serbs - and perhaps Europeans in general? - don’t regard them as such. And there’s the disillusionment that might set in depending on the opportunities that greet them in wealthier countries. I’ve met young men who made it to Germany and were returning to Afghanistan to be with their families because it wasn't what they had imagined. Serbia’s unemployment rate has been over 20% for years now, so the opportunities for refugees here are few and far between.

To me, we must integrate them into the economy in order for them to feel like they matter. They have the ability to contribute economically and socially, but we must help them help themselves and empower them to contribute. Europe has a hard task ahead of itself to integrate them into its work force. There's no end in sight and no convincing proposals for how to handle it. It’s just really tough every way you slice it.

Lastly, it's crucial to remember that the current refugee crisis is global. News coverage focuses heavily on the European refugees, but refugees are fleeing from Hondura, Haiti, Myanmar, and many other places. It's scale and severity, as many have pointed out, is unmatched since the Second World War. It's a worldwide problem, and we are either all implicated in it or none of us is; if it's anyone's problem, it's everyone's problem. We must internationally agree to share the responsibility and support refugee protection globally.

Staggering figures:
60 million people are displaced worldwide
More than half the world's refugees have been in exile for 5+ years
An estimated 700,000 refugees and migrants arrived in Europe this year; 3,000+ have died trying to cross the Mediterranean