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Tuesday, March 20, 2012

What a World Citizen Looks Like

Nalini with an Indonesian "Garuda," a mythical bird in Hindu and Buddhist mythology.

On Thanksgiving Day 2001 Nalini Quraeshi was preparing dinner for 30 friends and family members when she received word that her father had died in Nepal.  Her two-day trip found the country suddenly beset with tragedy—and world headlines. 

A Maoist rebel insurgency had launched simultaneous attacks on several police, army and government outposts in several districts.  The government declared the country in a state of emergency, suspended all civil rights and imposed a curfew restricting all movement after dark. 

“It was a horrible time to go back,” said Quraeshi, whose mission it was to get her mother safely out of the country.  The shocking, untimely death of her father was made more traumatic by the political events in Nepal, and her concern for her mother’s emotional well-being and physical safety.

Another traumatic homecoming occurred in 1965 when Quraeshi’s family was returning home after being in the United States for six years.  The journey to Nepal included a transit stop in India, which was in the midst of a war with Pakistan over the Kashmir issue, a dispute that had been brewing since partition in 1947.

“There were sirens and bombs.  My sisters and I had to put cotton in our teeth and ears for protection.  We sat in the darkness during these air raids because we had to turn off all the lights.  This was my homecoming to Nepal [at age nine].”

Quraeshi was born in Kathmandu, Nepal, but because of her father’s work as a government diplomat for Nepal and later the United Nations, she lived in New York, Washington, D.C., Bangkok and Rome.  Her studies took her to Darjeeling, Delhi and the United States.

“Before I could lay down roots and establish an identity, my family moved to a different place,” said Quraeshi.  As a result, her parents taught her and her siblings that people are united more by their similarities and shared values than by their differences.  All beliefs are sacred and everyone deserves respect. 

For example, as a graduate student in sociology at Michigan State University (MSU), Quraeshi met her future husband, Zahir Quraeshi, a Pakistani Muslim and now a marketing professor at Western Michigan University (WMU).  Meanwhile, her three sisters are married to an Indian Hindu, a German Protestant, and an Italian Catholic.  Her husband’s sister married a Frenchman and their daughter is married to someone who is Filipino by birth but English by nationality.  Her brother is single and lives in Boston. 

“My family is a mini-United Nations,” said Quraeshi,  “but we all come together from all over the world to my house at Thanksgiving to give thanks for our many blessings.  And although we observe all holidays, we especially come together to celebrate Thanksgiving because of its secular tradition.”

Although Quraeshi spent the first part of her life all over the world, her life after marriage has been dramatically different.  She now resides in Kalamazoo where she reared two sons, taught Non-Western World Studies at WMU and to pursued her doctorate and taught international development and sociology at MSU.

“My sons’ experience is so different from my own,” she said.   Even so, she has made certain that they grow up as global citizens.  That hasn’t been difficult.

Quraeshi’s spouse, Zahir, has been a steady voice for globalism at WMU for the past three decades.  During his sabbatical year the family lived in Malaysia.  They also have many occasions to visit family members spread over three continents.

Her mother, 77, is Hindu, and her mother-in-law, 96, is Muslim.  They both live with the family, so Quraeshi tries to honor their religious beliefs through cooking, artifacts and design of the family’s home space. 

Although she grew up a Hindu, Quraeshi practices its intellectual and progressive qualities rather than its ceremonial rituals.  However, she feels comfortable among people from any religion.

Global citizenship has to do with one’s identity or one’s very persona that is ingrained and rooted, she said.  Accepting--and indeed embracing--diversity rather than fearing it provides people with a “richness” that gives them more options for study, travel, business and meeting others who have different ways of life. 

“Actually, I have tolerance for all religions and think of myself as a global citizen.”

However, Quraeshi admits that such a lifestyle has its downsides.

Being a global citizen means you don’t fit into neat, standardized boxes.  One of the most challenging questions for Quraeshi is to be asked where her home is. 

“Does that mean where I’m living now, where I was born, where I have spent most of my life, the country of my nationality or where my family currently resides?” she asked. 

Quraeshi said she feels at home in any place because she identifies with and adapts to whatever culture she happens to be in.

“I could retire just as easily in Thailand or Nepal or Italy or the U.S., as long as I have some friends and family with me,” she said.  “The hard part is not having the stability of childhood friends to grow up with all my life.” 

Recently, she has discovered a way to fill this void:  by returning to Nepal to try to fulfill her father’s vision and wish to give back to the country in terms of economic development and humanity equity. 

Since the Maoists’ insurgency in the country in 1996, rural Nepalis have fled to the cities and become “urban squatters.”  Village people from Bhutan and Tibet have left their homes as political and economic refugees.  Consequently, Kathmandu has degenerated into an impoverished, overcrowded and polluted place, without the infrastructure to support this rapid influx of people.

“There is so much that one can do,” said Quraeshi.  “And a whole generation of young adults is missing.  In every family someone has fled the country because of the violence.  Parents try to send their children overseas for an education, and to escape the political and economic uncertainties.”

Recently, Quraeshi began to find ways of implementing several rural development programs and experiments her father had envisioned years ago.  Over the last few years she returned several times to continue this work, but she has had to overcome bottlenecks of bureaucracy, logistics, security concerns and even corrupt locals usurping her parental property and resources.

Quraeshi has also discovered that like her, many of her high school friends have returned to Nepal, too.  One of them runs a conservation program, another has started schools for the homeless, another works with children who were born and have grown up in prisons, while yet another supports a non-governmental organization (NGO) that rescues young girls from the rampant Asian sex trade. 

Over the years many members of Quraeshi’s family have been helping Nepal from afar by raising money for scholarships and supporting schools, impoverished working families and religious institutions.  However, some are looking for projects that allow them more hands-on involvement like her brother-in-law, a cancer surgeon, who is seeking to donate his services. 

Nalini Quraeshi embodies what it means to be a global citizen.  She has lived among numerous nationalities, cultures and religions all over the world and speaks multiple languages.  Now, she is doing something to help her native land.

Gourmet Cook

Nalini Quraeshi plans her family’s meals with an international flair and pragmatic determination.  A sampling of her repertoire of dishes includes Mexican eight-layered fiesta with guacamole, frijoles, tortillas and corn salsa; Pad Thai with vegetables and chicken; Nepali-Indian lentils with rice and vegetables; homemade Italian focaccia with roasted vegetables and pesto; Mediterranean couscous salad and 15-bean soup with vegetables; Italian scallops and fettuccine in tomato wine sauce; Nepali Momos (steamed potstickers) with roast tomato cilantro chutney.

She only learned to cook after she came to this country, got married and had to learn how to live in an extended family.

She likes to entertain, however, and often has family or friends over for a meal.

On Nepal
Nepal is generally regarded as an obscure but beautiful, peaceful, exotic Shangri-la kingdom on the “roof-top of the world.”  It is the home of Mt. Everest and eight of the world’s ten highest peaks, and is a great tourist destination for hiking and mountain climbing.  There are also 10 UNESCO-designated world heritage sites, seven of them in Kathmandu. 

Nepal started out as a Hindu kingdom, but it is now a secular federal republic with nine different religions including Hindu, Buddhism, Islam and Kirant.  Its much-loved monarchy was seen as a reincarnation of God until 2001 when the prince designated to ascend to the throne massacred his family. 

The 29.5 million population is comprised of several different ethnic groups who speak at least eight different languages.  This 147,181 square kilometer landlocked country is slightly larger than Arkansas.

Since 1996 Nepal has been marked by violence during a ten-year Maoist insurgency.  Elections in May 2008 led to a stunning victory of Maoist party, the overthrow of a 240-year-old monarchy and the creation of a new federal democratic republic with the pressing task of framing a new constitution by 2012.  The government platform is to give voice to indigenous, disenfranchised groups in the hill regions and the far west.  It remains to be seen how things will work out.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

So What Do College Students Do on Alternative Spring Break?

I found that out when I accompanied five students from Western Michigan University during their spring break last week.

This trip was so different from spring break depicted in the 1960 film, “Where the Boys Are”, where bands of youth took over Fort Lauderdale to indulge themselves in sun, fun, sex and alcohol.

To counter this image, college students in the early 1980s initiated the “Alternative Spring Break” where they formed a temporary community to learn about and reflect on social issues through practical experience. College service learning programs and campus ministries eventually picked up on this idea and then popularized them in the mid-2000s when students wanted to help people along the Gulf Coast in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

St. Thomas More Catholic Student Parish sponsored our trip to New Orleans as part of its campus ministry program. We worked through Beacon of Hope, a nonprofit organization that focuses on rebuilding the Gentilly neighborhood. We painted the exteriors of three houses and planted flowerbeds at one. Beacon of Hope provided us with tools while the homeowners provided paint and plants.

We met students from other religious-oriented groups, namely Hillel (Foundation for Jewish Campus Life) and the Church of the Brethren.

Then, there were other students not affiliated with any group. As one purple-haired, body-pierced organizer said regarding their motivation: “It’s just something you should do.”

Nearly seven years after Hurricane Katrina, most Americans have forgotten about its destruction and few understand the city's lingering recovery effort after 80 percent of it flooded due to 53 breaks in levees designed and managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. During the storm a 200-foot barge improperly moored broke loose and crashed into floodwalls and added to the damage—without impunity.

New Orleans has done a lot of reconstruction and in many places visitors wouldn't see any signs of Katrina damage.  However, about 100,000 Orleaneans out of nearly a half million have not returned home, most of them people of color. City officials bolted the doors of their houses so they couldn’t return or retrieve any of their belongings. Other people couldn’t get a fair price for their property and abandoned it. Rents in low-income areas doubled and those who lived in public housing were shut out when renovations reduced the number of available units. Grocery stores (23 of them), banks and shopping malls closed and didn’t re-open.  Public transportation networks imploded.  Charity Hospital, which served the low-income population and didn't flood, was closed with equipment still inside. Historic homes were torn down to make way for modern housing. Although unemployment was only 8 percent (2010) due to all the rebuilding, the homeless population doubled after the storm. 
Our second debriefing with Quo Vadis, director of CELSJR

Students learned these things during a four-hour orientation program at the Center for Ethical Living and Social Justice Renewal (CELSJR). However, they were advised not to pity the people but to be in solidarity with them, as summed up in a quote from the Aboriginal Activists Group of Queensland (1970s):

“If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

At CELSJR the students also learned something about “simple living.” For six nights we lived with 47 other people in three dormitory rooms with bunk beds and only five showers and three bathrooms. You wouldn’t think it could work, especially since most of the students were women, but it did. Students were very patient, flexible and cunning to get their needs met. Groups also split up the cleaning tasks over the week.

In the morning we made our own breakfast of eggs, cereal, bagels or fruit and were given sack lunches to take with us to the work site. We had dinner at 6 p.m.

However, the real story of Alternative Spring Break was about meeting people who had suffered the tragedy of losing just about everything they owned.

On the first work day, we painted Charles and Emily’s (not their real names) back porch and wooden fence. The floodwaters covered their one-story house up to the roofline. They were about to retire, their house was paid for and they had just remodeled the bathroom when Katrina hit. They returned home in 2009 after three years of rebuilding--and enduring much contractor fraud..

They acquired a lot of second hand furnishings “out of love,” said Emily, “and that’s why we’re keeping all of it.”

Charles, who has Parkinson’s Disease and has survived seven surgeries, helped us paint. He also showed us some of his family’s documents like their insurance policies, marriage license, birth certificates, which were partially damaged by water and mold. Many people didn’t have any documents proving their identity, which became a huge problem when they tried to make insurance claims.   

Emily made us a lunch of sandwiches, fruit and chips out of gratitude for our help.

On the second day, we went to Jack and Sandra’s house to plant flower boxes, move plants, and plant small bushes on the side of the house. This family was among the luckier ones we met even though they lost everything, too. They evacuated to Houston, Texas, where elder son, Sam, started high school and graduated four years later. He is now going to Delgado Community College in New Orleans to study business. 

Jack was able to find another job with the same company. Sandra, a teacher, sorely missed home. Then, when the family returned, she learned that she no longer had a job because all the city’s public school teachers were let go to make way for a new charter school system. She now cares for her aunt, who the students came to love for her jokes, songs and concern over their cuts and bruises. 

On the third day, we worked at Maybelline’s house where we had to scrape the eaves and overhangs before we applied the beige-colored paint.  When we arrived, she invited us to a breakfast of scrambled eggs, sausages, grits and biscuits. Before we left, she served us stewed chicken with pasta and red sauce. During these meals she told us her story.

Maybelline was a special education teacher all her life but then went into retirement after officials dissolved the public schools. She had successfully evacuated the city but moved 15 times before she moved back into her house. While away, she still received utility bills even though the electricity and plumbing were not working. After she returned, she lived alone without utilities for nine months. Those few living in the neighborhood went to bed around 6 p.m. and called each other on cell phones to make sure they were all right.

Maybelline did receive some FEMA support but had to make sure she kept all her receipts to prove that she purchased things allowable under the program. She still has the receipts in brown paper bags. She also told us how the insurance companies cheated people out of money.

Students take a much-needed lunch break and rest

On the last day, we painted Christina’s house—with 27 students from other campus ministry programs. They had been working all week on the two-story, wooden house that required scraping and caulking prior to painting.

Oh, yes, we did do some tourist activities. You cannot travel to a place like New Orleans without studying some of its historical and cultural aspects!

Upon our arrival after an 18-hour drive from Michigan, we headed to the Mississippi River for a boat ride on the steam-powered Natchez with a paddle wheel, calliope and all, to learn about the river and the city’s importance as a port.

On Sunday, we attended a Jazz Mass at St. Augustine Parish in Treme, a neighborhood adjacent to the French Quarter that was founded by slaves and free people of color in 1793. A musical combo and choir let you know you were in New Orleans as it led people in song.

After Mass, we walked to Congo Square in Louis Armstrong Park, where Black slaves used to hold picnics on Sundays. Baba Luther honors that tradition by teaching people how to play African drums. Every Sunday, he sits near a 300-year old “Grandmother Tree” as Mama Sula incenses the area. During the week she also incenses different parts of the city for healing.

Of course, we visited CafĂ© du Monde on the French Quarter that is famous for its beignets, a French donut with powered sugar on top. We visited Bourbon Street where the tourists go, but also roamed Frenchmen Street where the locals go. It’s has a Southern-style Greenwich Village feel to it and we danced to reggae music and listened to a street band.

One night we went on a ghost tour and heard not only some gruesome tales about the city’s past residents. Death has come in various ways and Orleaneans are matter of fact about it. After all, New Orleans is home of the jazz funeral where people honor the passing of a loved one with a street parade and then celebrate that the Angel of Death missed them—this time. It’s not that the people are morbid but rather that they prefer to invest their energies in a joie de vivre (French for the “joy of life”), which in New Orleans comes in the form of good food and good music. It was in this same spirit that people were able to start all over again after the heartbreak and hardship they endured with Katrina.

On our last night we had an elegant seafood dinner on the balcony at the French Market Restaurant. As we ate, a golden full moon rose over the Mississipppi River.

The students listened intently and with compassion to the stories of all the people we met and interacted with them with ease. They tried foods that were strange to them like alligator, crawfish, oysters, gumbo, muffalettas and the sloppy but delicious po’ boys.

They were good-spirited throughout the trip, including during the long drives in our cramped parish van. They did their work in a caring and professional way and remained enthusiastic even as they became sunburned, paint-splattered and tired of climbing up and down ladders.

If anyone doubts the strength and capacity of the next generation, don’t. The host of young people I met during Alternative Spring Break is evidence enough to believe that this upcoming generation will make our world a better place. 

This is the St. Tom's group with crew chief Allie (second from left in back) from Beacon of Hope