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UNO Center for Afghanistan Studies plays role in multi-national efforts to restore Afghan educational system

December 25, 2011 1 comment

 

 

 

As unlikely as it may seem, the University of Nebraska at Omaha of all places is home to a major archival and training resource having to do with Afghanistan.  UNO’s Center for Afghanistan Studies has been actively engaged in Afghan matters in educational, expert and consulting capacities, alone or as part of U.S. and United Nations efforts, that have gone on before, during, and after the Soviet invasion and the more recent U.S. war on terror waged there.  Many Afghan leaders have participated in UNO programs.  Even though UNO was unable to operate in Afghanistan itself during the Soviet occupation and during the Taliban’s rule, the university’s Afghan support programs continued in Pakistan and in Nebraska, where Afghan exiles and refugees accessed various services.  Since the Taliban’s overthrow the Center has ramped up its programs.  The following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) is one of a series of pieces I did on the Center’s work in the late 1990s and early 2000s.  You can find the other stories I did about the Center under the Afghanistan heading in the category roll on the right, including a profile of Thomas Gouttierre, who directs the Center and whose deep ties to that country go back to the 1960s.  You will also find a more recent story about an exchange between UNO School of Communication faculty and students and peer communucation faculty and students from Kabul, a subject I will be revisiting in 2012.

UNO Center for Afghanistan Studies plays role in multi-national efforts to restore Afghan educational system

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

It seems as soon as one plague leaves Afghanistan, a new scourge surfaces in its place. In a constant state of upheaval since the early 1970s this ill-fated central Asian nation has variously fended off foreign invaders, waged civil war, chafed at restrictive measures imposed by harsh rulers, suffered under international boycotts and dug-out from the rubble of both man-made and natural disasters.

Now, in the aftermath of decades-long warfare that wreaked such widespread havoc that not a single school was left unscathed, the country’s fragile interim government is struggling to find its way out of the abyss with the aid of an Omaha institution with deep ties to Afghanistan. Just as it has been involved in past revival efforts there, the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Center for Afghanistan Studies is right in the thick of United States-led rebuilding efforts aimed at shoring-up that nation’s gutted infrastructure, including restoring a ravaged educational base.

The new Afghan ruling class UNO is working with includes many American-educated, including UNO-trained, leaders from the Northern Alliance that helped depose the repressive Taliban regime and assisted U.S. forces in the war on terrorism. Before the Taliban instituted stifling cultural decrees that all but snuffed-out formal education in the country, the UNO center operated a program in the 1980s and early ‘90s that focused on developing leadership and nation-building skills among Afghans, whose training took place in Nebraska, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

With the Taliban now relegated to the fringes of power in the wake of the recent U.S. military operation in Afghanistan, the UNO center is implementing a new education program funded by a $6.5 million grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Called America’s Rapid Response to Education Needs in Afghanistan, the program is helping jump start the nation’s dormant education system by, most visibly, printing and distributing millions of textbooks for students of all ages now attending school in makeshift sites across the country. Throughout the Afghan civil war and the more recent U.S. campaign to root out Taliban and al-Qaida elements, UNO maintained long-held offices and printing presses in Peshawar, Pakistan, where it also stored textbooks and other educational resources in warehouses. UNO kept more than a symbolic presence in Peshawar, where Afghan refugee camps are located and where UNO education programs train teachers. When the interim government’s Ministry of Education announced plans to reopen schools in March, UNO emptied warehouses and geared-up presses for an unprecedented run of textbooks and materials that continues today. UNO also stepped-up its ongoing training of teachers, many of whom lack any rigorous secondary education.

Thomas Gouttierre, director of the UNO center, recently returned from a weeks-long visit to the war-torn nation. Gouttierre, who’s served as a senior political affairs officer with the United Nations Special Mission to Afghanistan, oversaw the Rapid Response program’s startup phase and met with Afghan leaders to assess educational needs and how UNO may play a lasting role in helping meet some of those needs. “The task is somewhat monumental. We’ve lost three generations of students who have not had the chance to go to school in many parts of the country. There may have been some parts of the country where there was some sporadic education but, for the most part, there was very little and, for women, almost nothing. And because there’s been no census, we don’t really know how many students there are. We’re probably going to find out by taking a count of the books we’ve distributed and subtracting that number from the total we publish,” Gouttierre said from his office on the UNO campus.

 

 

 

 

In addition to elementary and secondary education, he said, “there is a real need in vocational-technical education and in trying to wean people away from the culture of the gun, where they get paid to bear weapons, to some other kind of work where they get paid” to weld a joint or repair a car engine or drive a nail or fix a leaky faucet. “Also, there was a lot of literacy lost during these last three decades and so each of the major urban centers in Afghanistan needs to have literacy programs for adults in those regions. Afghanistan’s literacy level has dropped to the level it was at when Afghanistan was emerging right after the Second World War. After that, education went through boom lets — developing rapidly enough at times to reach a significant part of the non-educated population. In the last three decades, however, that underserved segment has been missing out on any educational opportunities.”

According to Gouttierre, the rebuilding process must encompass both soft and hard infrastructure features. “In terms of teaching and administration, there are many, many people assuming roles today both in teaching and management of education whose primary qualification for those tasks has been experience and not actual higher education or, if they do have some higher education, it is one of not any real substance. So, there has to be training of what I describe as ‘the barefoot teachers’ — the people who are essentially teaching the ninth grade because they’ve had an 11th grade education or are teaching the third grade because they’ve had a seventh grade education. It’s not realistic for them to go back to school and start the whole process over at age 50 or whatever. So, in-service education is the thing for them. It has to focus on making these teachers better teachers. We’re doing that right now, and that’ll go on for a long time.”

“In terms of schools, I did not see one that isn’t in need of major rehabilitation. I saw schools in the neighborhoods in which I used to live in the capital city of Kabul where there were three walls or two walls up and no roofs,” said Gouttierre, whose own experience in Afghanistan extends back some 40 years as a former Peace Corps volunteer, Fulbright scholar and Fulbright administrator. He has appeared before the U.S. Congress, the British Parliament and the French National Assembly to discuss Afghan matters. Despite the many challenges there, by the end of April UNO was expecting to have printed and, hopefully, distributed 10 million textbooks in a little more than two months time. But even getting textbooks into the hands of children is equal parts adventure, faith and improvisation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“The actual distribution of books and materials is a problem. The roads are bad. The Ministry of Education doesn’t have the money for trucks to take books from, say, Kabul to some outlying area, where they then need to be distributed by smaller trucks to villages and schools and from there to even more remote sites.” To facilitate the books’ delivery, UNO has formed a “cooperative” network enlisting facilities, vehicles and workers of many agencies.

There are also constant security concerns in a country rife with tribal animosity and terrorist-extremist threats. “We were told while we were there that there had been a threat uncovered from al-Qaida against our education program,” he said. “We increased our security, but nothing came of that” threat.

Even with all the problems, he added, there “are some upsides. First of all, there is this curriculum created by Afghans that students have in-hand in the books” UNO is making available. He said the curriculum is one that has been “developing over the last several decades through the help of USAID, Columbia University and UNO. That curriculum is a resource for them and one they can decide to do with as they wish.” Regarding criticism leveled against the curriculum by officials with UNICEF and other agencies who allege it relies heavily on rote learning and contains inappropriate militaristic and religious references, Gouttierre said the content in question was long ago removed or revised. Besides, he said, critics fail to take into account that symbols of, for example, dead Russian soldiers used in math problems came in the context of the nation’s bloody war with the Soviet Union.

When Gouttierre considers Afghanistan’s plight, he sees a country desperate for normalcy but unsure how to get there. He said the road ahead will need to be an entirely new one for a country reeling from more than a generation of violence — a period that saw it fracture along fault lines of both internal and external origin. A succession of disruptions destabilized Afghanistan to the point where war became an every day reality. The chaos began with the ouster of former King Mohammad Zaher Shah in 1973, quickly followed by the Soviet Union’s installation of a puppet communist government. When civil unrest threatened Soviet interests, the Red Army invaded in 1979. A bloody 10-year war ensued. By the time the Afghan rebels  — the mujahideen — defeated and drove out the Soviets, most of the country lay in ruins and millions of Afghans were dead, wounded, politically exiled, dispossessed as refugees or long-since fled to the safety of other countries. Then, in this still largely feudal land where ethnic and religious rivalries viciously compete for the hearts and minds of its beleaguered people, civil war erupted between factions loyal to opposing tribal warlords and to opposing forms of Islam. In the midst of this power struggle, the extremist Islamic movement known as the Taliban allied itself with the Pashtun minority in the southern part of the country and engaged in civil war against the more moderate Tashik majority in the north, whose forces came to be known as the Northern Alliance.

Today, even with the Taliban and al-Qaida removed from power, outbreaks of violence continue, countless thousands of civilians remain homeless and millions of mines litter the landscape. It is an embittered populace with virtually no family left untouched by the carnage. In a society bereft of much of its pre-war leadership and still divided along ethnic-religious lines, the pervasive culture of the gun looms over the scene, with the threat of coups, insurgences and feuds never far away.

As Gouttierre sees it, Afghan leaders and their international partners must look beyond cultural-political differences and focus instead on forging a common vision for public programs like education that operate at the national level. Because he estimates about “80 percent of the real brain trust of Afghanistan has been drained,” the country is starving for human and material resources and is being flooded by NGOs (non-government organizations) trying to corner the market in relief or aid programs, including education programs. He said the country is so desperate for help that it feels obliged to accept any aid, regardless of whether it conforms to or helps further national education aims.

 

 

“What’s needed but what is lacking is an emphasis on the national nature of the educational mission. Programs are needed that have a cohesive nation-building content. I think that’s going to be the biggest challenge now. That’s one of the reasons why Afghans’ new leadership chose the curriculum we were safeguarding. It was their curriculum. It was comprehensive. It was cohesive. And it was, more than anything, theirs.”

He said the U.S. has a major part to play in any process that makes Afghan education a source of unification rather than division. “We have to do whatever we can to increase the capacity of the Ministry of Education. The infrastructure of the ministry is somewhat skeletal right now. There are people filling a lot of positions who are now faced for the first time with a national mandate. All the mandates up till now have been somewhat regional or else lacking totally. But education in Afghanistan is now a national program. It’s not divided up into regional school districts or local school districts or anything like that. It’s national. So, we have to increase the capacity of the ministry to call the shots for what should be done in that country.”

What is being done now, he said, is “an immense” reclamation project that seeks to  not only revive but reinvent an education process interrupted and largely destroyed by the hostilities of the past 23 years. He said as more Afghans migrate to urban centers from rural provinces, where the traditional practice of agriculture has been rendered next to impossible by the presence of land mines, adult vocational education will become paramount. He added that education for women will need to be a primary focus in a country where “female empowerment” is a new but crucial concept. “Women have been unable to work for so long but there are so many of them who are eligible for the workforce, age wise and need wise, if not skill wise.”

Even as conditions remain difficult and dangerous throughout the country, the wish of the Afghan people to resume education is so strong that weeks before the official start date for schools to reopen on March 23 students began gathering in all manner of impromptu settings to attend class. School was to begin in two phases over a several month period, but citizens’ interest in seeing school start NOW was overwhelming enough that the government opted to open all schools at once. “People had been deprived of education for so long they all started at the same time,” Gouttierre said. “They are just so eager. They’re really embracing this concept, especially the girls.”

 

 

 

The deluge of students has been such that no real attempt is being made now to place individuals according to ability or age. “Nobody’s making a challenge,” he said. “I think everybody feels that if someone says he should be in the fourth grade then let’s put him there and let’s work with him because, bottom line, we’ve got to get this thing going rather than wading through endless challenges. Besides, there’s not the means to find out for sure where people should be placed.”

While attending the launching day ceremonies for the new education initiatives at a ramshackle school in Kabul on March 23, Gouttierre said it was apparent to him and the Afghan nationals present that a historical milestone was being witnessed. “Everybody understood they were marking time,” he said. “That they were marking a major departure from the way life had been for the last decades in Afghanistan and that they were trying to relaunch modernization, development and progressive movement.”

The festive ceremonies included not only Interim Prime Minister Hamid Karzai and other high-ranking Afghan officials, but a parade of peasant families, including parents accompanying young children who had never attended school before. The scene left Gouttierre with some lasting impressions. “I have two very vivid images in my mind from that. One is of all the mothers and fathers coming to register their children for school. And to see the excitement and enthusiasm and hope and desire on their faces was just very, very meaningful. The other thing was seeing this parade of boys and girls in uniforms and of teachers and administrators in suits and dresses enter the school. Watching that, one recognized something happening there that hadn’t been going on for nearly three decades. People were crying, as was I and as was Hamid Karzai. We were thinking about the sacrifices and losses and the new opportunities.”

Securing a stable education system in Afghanistan, Gouttierre said, demands two things. “One is establishing universal security. The second is making sure the international communities really do provide what they’re promising to provide and haven’t yet — namely, the kinds of money and in the right forms” Afghanistan requires. “There’s a lot of money being spent on putting the elements into place and that’s mostly in management and administration. The actual programming money, I think, is still to come. Whether or not there’s going to be that delivery of funds is the important thing.”

He said the symbolic return in mid-Aprilc of long-exiled King Mohammad Zaher Shah may bolster the rebuilding efforts underway. “It could mean a lot. It might mean more credibility to the current process if he’s supportive of all this and I think he should be and will be. He is highly popular and, again, if he is part of all this it will give it a historical-traditional foundation that would help. Now, he’s 87-years-old, so he’s not going to be dynamic. He’s going to be symbolic. He’s going to be presiding. He’s going to be a great-grandfather kind of figure. But that’s an important thing for Afghanistan, which has lost out on so much of its traditions and history.”

If nothing else, Gouttierre said, the rebirth of education in Afghanistan expresses the will of the people and represents the first national program sponsored by the interim government. “This action is the first comprehensive program initiated and sustained by this government that has national reach in Afghanistan. Everything else may not reach beyond the confines of Kabul. I think there is a consensus behind it. The only place there would be a lack of consensus would be among the remnants of the Taliban and al-Qaida and those of like-mind.”

Whether the present leadership remains in office to carry out its educational mission will be determined by a congress of Afghan elders convening in June. The loya jirga or grand assembly will decide if Karzai and his ministers retain power or are replaced in a new transitional government until democratic general elections are held in two years.

UNO’s efforts in rebuilding the educational system in Afghanistan were honored by President and Mrs. Bush during a March 20 event in Alexandria. Va. The university’s current grant through USAID ends at the end of 2002. In the meantime, Gouttierre said, “we’ll look at what other areas we might be able to do and do well for Afghanistan. We think the one that might be most down our line would be something like vocational education.”

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UNO Afghanistan Teacher Education Project trains women educators from the embattled nation

December 20, 2011 2 comments

The role the U.S. has played in Afghanistan and with visiting Afghans in this country is fraught with controversy.  The same holds true for what the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Center for Afghanistan Studies has done and continues doing in terms of training and immersion opportunities offered to Afghan students and professionals who come here to participate in various programs. The controversy stems from the complex problems facing Afghanistan, economically, politically, culturally, and the strategic motivations by Americans to aid, occupy, and control that country. Whether you see controversy or not depends on your point of view.  Leaving politics and motivations aside, UNO’s programs have provided a link or bridge unlike few others in giving Afghans some of the tools they need to rebuild and restore their embattled and ravaged nation. This story from several years ago profiles a project that saw scores of Afghan women educators come here to further their professional development.  The story appeared in truncated form in The Reader (www.thereader.com) and here I’m able to present it in its entirety.  This blog contains other stories I’ve written about UNO’s deep ties to Afghanistan.

UNO Afghanistan Teacher Education Project trains women educators from the embattled nation 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

The latest cadre of teachers in the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Afghanistan Teacher Education Project return home this weekend after a month of training and cultural exchange Nebraska. This is the third group from Afghanistan to come here in the last year-and-a-half. A new group is scheduled to arrive in the fall. The program, supported by a grant from the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Cultural and Educational Affairs, is part of the UNO Center for Afghanistan Studies’ longtime efforts at repairing the war-ravaged Asian nation’s fractured education system.

Participants, all women, attend computer and intensive English language classes on the UNO campus and observe master teachers at two Omaha elementary schools. The women also visit schools and various attractions statewide, including the program’s satellite communities-schools in Oakland and Scottsbluff, Neb.

Once back in their homeland, the teachers share the skills and methodologies they acquired in the program with their peers. Each graduate is charged with training 10 colleagues from their school. That means the 37 graduates to date will soon have impacted some 370 teachers. Even more are reached via workshops and seminars the graduates present in conjunction with Ministry of Education officials. The women who completed the most training here were prepped for their American trip by their predecessors in the program. This trickle-down approach broadens the program’s reach, thus making a dent in the nation’s extreme teacher shortage.

The first group to come, in 2002, was an older, more tradition-bound bunch. The second, in 2003, were younger and more Westernized as would be expected from ESL teachers. This last cohort — all elementary school teachers — was further yet removed from the Taliban’s reach. Women are the focus of the program because their education was interrupted by prolonged fighting and then banned outright by the now deposed-Taliban. The radical fundamentalists made it a crime, punishable by beatings or reprisals, for females to teach and attend school. Some visiting teachers defied the ban and taught secretly under the repressive regime.

Aabidah, a teacher at Nazo Anaa Middle School in Kabul, is one of 12 women who attended the UNO program in April and May. She risked everything to practice her profession against Taliban edicts. “Yes, it was dangerous. I had six girls in my home. Daughters of friends and neighbors. It was done very secretly,” she said. Under the guise of teaching sewing, she instructed girls in Dari, Pashto and other subjects.

The teachers, ranging in age, experience and sophistication, have made an enduring impression on everyone they’ve met, including their host families and instructors. Robin Martens, who along with her husband, Gene, hosted Aabidah and another Afghan teacher, Lailumaa Popal, at their northwest Omaha home, is impressed with Aabidah’s fearlessness. “She seems to be a brave person. She has a strong personality and she kind of forges ahead even when she’s not sure about things. I like that about her,” Martens said. Regarding the quieter Lailumaa, a teacher at Lycee Zarghoonah in Qandahar, Martens observed, “She’s very caring and I think she must be a very good teacher because whenever I mispronounce a word in Dari, I laugh it off, but she insists I say it correctly.”

Barbara Davis, an Omaha Public Schools reading specialist, has hosted Afghan women in her Benson home. For Davis, they define what it is to be “courageous” under crisis. “If I were in the same situation I don’t know if I could have taught school in my home with the threat of my life. I really don’t know.”

In the capital city of Kabul, where most early training participants came from, women enjoy relative freedom to work and teach and go out on the streets sans chadri (or burqa), the traditional full-body veil. But even Kabul was a harsh place in the grip of the Taliban. “The Taliban was very bad. Very dangerous,” Aabidah said. “When they were in Kabul we don’t have jobs. We stay at home. We wear chadri. No, I don’t like chadri. It was very hot. I like the freedom. Now, we are free and happy. I like all of this in my country.” Things haven’t changed much in more provincial areas, where many recent participants reside and work. Women there must proceed with greater caution. “In Kabul, it’s OK. Outside Kabul, it’s bad,” Aabidah said referring to the current climate for women in Afghanistan.

Afghan teachers training at UNO met with First Lady Laura Bush

 

 

Lailumaa fled with members of her family to Pakistan during the struggle for power in Afghanistan that erupted in civil war in the 1990s. Coming from a family of educators that regards teaching as a higher calling, Lailumaa said she greatly missed her students and her craft. After combined U.S.-Afghan forces ousted the Taliban in 2001, she returned to her homeland to resume teaching.

In the wake of the Taliban’s fall, Lailumaa, Aabidah and other women educators teach openly again. It’s the one thing they can do to restore their country. Aabidah said she teaches because “I love my children, my students, my people. I want a good future for them.” Baiza, a 2002 program grad who taught geography-history in a Mazar Sharif school, said then, “Students are part of my life.”

Sandra Squires, a UNO professor of speech-language-communication disorders, feels a kinship with her Afghan counterparts: “I realize that except for all the trappings, we’re all teachers,” she said. “We’re all very much alike. We love kids and we want to be doing something that can better the world, and that’s universal.” Aabidah feels the same. “Yes, I feel the teachers here are like my sisters,” she said.

In 2002, Baiza described the responsibility she and her fellow teachers feel to transform education at home with the “new concepts and skills” they learn here.

The Afghans have been motivated to be change agents, according to Anne Ludwig, assistant director of the ILUNA, the intensive language program at UNO. “What I see is women who are prepared, enthusiastic and eager to go home and make a difference in their lives and in the lives of other women,” Ludwig said. “I think they learn what they come to learn. One of them said what she would take back more than anything else was the idea that in the American classroom we want the students to feel good and positive, whereas back home the teacher is the autocrat and students are made to feel inferior. She liked the idea of opening up the classroom to where students feel safe, free to communicate and achieve.”

Practicums presented by Howard Faber, an Omaha Dodge Elementary 6th grade teacher fluent in Farsi, demonstrate good teaching practices the Afghans can implement in their own classrooms. He introduced the most recent group to Teacher Expectation Student Achievement or TESA, a set of methods promoting fairness and equality in learning, an issue of great import in Afghanistan, where ethnic-religious differences run deep. As former refugees resettle the country, he said, classrooms are filling with students of widely varying backgrounds and ages.

Faber feels the women symbolize their country’s hoped-for healing. “They’re from different places and different ethnic groups, and I think it’s very positive you have these people of varied cultural backgrounds working together on this common project. I think it bodes well for what might happen in Afghanistan, which now is a little bit like the United States was after the Civil War. You have deep feelings that are going to die slowly. Part of the healing there has to be that these cultural groups that fought so long work together.”

He said TESA alerts teachers to biases they harbor and offers strategies for giving “all children an equal opportunity to participate and to learn and to feel valued and welcomed. I show them what I do in my own classroom. They’re very practical things you don’t need a computer to do.” Later, he and the women discuss what transpired. “They ask me things…they really immerse themselves in the classroom. They even teach children a bit of their language. The kids are especially curious about them writing from right to left. It’s connected well with our studies.”

For Afghan teachers, seeing the bounty of American schools is both disheartening and inspiring. Baiza said, “Everywhere we went we saw the facilities, the machines, the technology, and I felt a kind of dismay that we are deprived of them. But I know these things are not dropped from the sky. There’s a lot of research, thinking and hard work that have gone into it…and this gave me a kind of hope that if our people work as hard, someday they will have these things, too.” Recent teacher participants were struck, too, by the disparity. “I’m very sad for the people of Afghanistan because our country’s very poor,” said Lailumaa. “I am upset we don’t have computers, books, notebooks, tables, chairs. We have blackboard and chalk,” said Aabidah. “We want computers. We need schools. That’s our hope.” Her students are “happy to learn” and “very intelligent,” but lack so much.

UNO’s Sandra Squires said the women’s devotion to teaching in the absence of basics makes her feel “very humbled. They’re doing things with absolutely nothing. I mean, they have to solve problems in ways I never had to dream about.” For their return trip, UNO gives each visiting teacher a laptop computer and a backpack filled with school supplies. But as UNO professor of education Carol Lloyd noted, “It still is barely a ripple in this ocean of need.”

Education is a mixed bag in Afghanistan. When schools reopened to great fanfare in 2002, far more students than expected flooded classrooms, which then, like now, were makeshift spaces amid rubble or cramped quarters. That surge has never let up as more refugees return home from camps in Iran and Pakistan. Overcrowded conditions and high student-teacher ratios continue to be a problem. Damaged schools are being rebuilt and new ones going up, but demand for classrooms far exceeds supply. For example, Aabidah’s school has 16 classrooms for its 3,000-plus students. Already scarce resources are siphoned off or entangled in red-tape.

“The schools are running by the enthusiasm of the parents and the commitment of the teachers, but there isn’t much government or international support for education,” said Raheem Yaseer, assistant director of UNO’s Center for Afghanistan Studies. “Schools don’t get enough funds and when they do get funds, a project that is started then stops because the funds dry up or are misused.”

Tom Gouttierre, director of UNO’s Center for Afghanistan Studies, said education is hindered by the “piecemeal application” the U.S. is taking to that nation’s recovery. “We’re trying to do Afghanistan on the cheap, because we’re focusing so many of our dollars on Iraq. So, we wind up bringing in a lot of other participants in a kind of donor conference approach to reconstruction and development. It leaves Kabul overrun by all kinds of different aid organizations, but with no coordination and no real firm Marshall Plan approach. It’s very hard for the Ministry of Education to coordinate it into one central educational plan for the country. It’s frustrating.”

Of all the gaps and shortages, the most acute is women teachers in such outlying provinces as Herat, where the reach of president Hamid Karzai is weak and the pull of old, oppressive cultural norms is strong. Despite the suppression of the Taliban regime and the al-Qaida terror base, the ethnically and religiously diverse nation is still seething with tensions, not the least of which is the place of women in Afghan society. Tribal rulers enforce restrictive measures.

“There is a great need for women teachers in the provinces and the women want to go, but they cannot. First, their families will not let them go and, second, the families themselves will not go because warlords and local commandos control the areas. People are scared. Also, parents are hesitant to let their girls go to school because the extremism and fanaticism in these regions is threatening,” Yaseer said.

Such fears are part of larger safety issues that find land mines littering roads and fields and Taliban loyalists and rebels waging violence. “There are some obstacles on the way to progress and security is number one,” Yaseer said. Aabidah agrees, saying that even above resources, “We want security. That’s our big problem.”

The challenge, too, is training enough teachers to educate a rising student enrollment. “The paradox is there hasn’t been any real formal education for teacher trainers for a long time and yet there are more kids in school now than ever before, and so that means the gap between the training needed and the numbers of students in classes is great,” Gouttierre said. “Among Afghans there’s a realization of something having been lost for generations and a determination not to let it get away from them again.”

Gouttierre said the fact this most recent crop of visiting Afghan teachers came from underrepresented areas, reflects UNO’s attempts to extend teacher training “in places where we haven’t been.” Part of that training is being undertaken by past graduates of UNO’s Afghan Teacher Training Project in concert with the center’s on-site master teacher trainers. The project is just the most visible branch of a much larger UNO effort. For years, its center has been: holding workshops and conferences for Afghan professionals and leaders involved in its various reconstruction efforts; training more than 3,000 Afghan teachers in workshops staffed by teacher trainers in Kabul and Peshawar, Pakistan; and writing textbooks and printing and distributing them by the millions.

These far away efforts are personified by the visiting Afghan teachers, who represent the face and future of education in their country. The diverse women all share a passion for their people and for teaching. Although their stays here are relatively brief, their impact is great. After hosting two older Afghan women who called her “our daughter,” Charity Stahl said, “I will never be the same.” Stahl, assistant director of the Afghan Teacher Education Project, later visited the women in their homeland while volunteering for an NGO. Of their emotional reunion, she said, “I still can’t believe it.”

For Barbara Davis, hosting is a cultural awakening in which her guests call her “mother,” teach her to make Afghan meals or get her to perform native folk dances. Despite a language barrier, she felt the women revealed their true selves behind the veil. “We really got to know each other,” she said. “We talked just like sisters. These are some of the warmest, dearest women I’ve ever met.”

The experience is equally meaningful to the Afghans. Aabidah called the training program “very interesting and very good” and described America as “not like in the movies. The people are very kind and hospitable. When I go back to Afghanistan, I’ll miss our dear host family and our American friends. They’re like my family in Afghanistan.” Coming to America, she said, “is like a dream for me.”

Her hosts, the Martens, will cherish many things. The pleasure Aabidah and Lailumaa took in cooking native dishes for them or in wiling away nights sitting around and talking, Or, what sharp bargain shoppers the women proved to be. Or, how thrilled they were to drive, for the first time, as the couple watched nervously on. “They’re people just like us. They want the same things we do. For themselves. For their families. We have so much to share with each other,” said Gene Martens.

Shirley Goldstein: Cream of the Crop – one woman’s remarkable journey in the Free Soviet Jewry movement

September 5, 2011 Leave a comment

In this extended, two-part Jewish Press story, I tell the remarkable journey of Omahan Shirley Goldstein in the Free Soviet Jewry movement and how this historic campaign changed her life and is remembered today. In Part One: The Education of Shirley Goldstein, the story of how this “typical” housewife became politicized and educated in the movement is explored. In, Part II: Activist, Humanitarian, Philanthropist, discover the lengths Goldstein went to in her human rights activist work and the generosity displayed, then and now, by her and her husband, Leonard “Buddy” Goldstein.

 

Shirley Goldstein: Cream of the Crop – One woman’s remarkable journey in the Free Soviet Jewry movement

Part I: The Education of Shirley Goldstein

©by Leo Adam Biga

 


 

Housewives and Students and…

They were housewives and students and teachers…They called America and many other Western nations home. Galvanized by the plight of Soviet Jews, this army of everyday citizens, together with activists inside the former Soviet Union, formed a grassroots human rights movement that began modestly enough but grew in force. Activists within the movement wanted nothing less than to make the USSR stop its systematic persecution of oppressed minorities. What made the task so daunting is that the target of this action was an authoritarian super power engaged in an ideological Cold War with the West. Nothing suggested this intractable juggernaut would ever bend.

But bend it did. Some say the freedom movement even contributed to the Soviet state’s eventual collapse. It’s one of the great triumphs over tyranny in human history. And Omaha’s own Shirley Goldstein played a part in this epoch. But she could only do it after she transformed herself from causalobserver to in-the-trenches activist. In a remarkable journey, she went from zero political involvement to fervent militant. Once caught up in themovement, she devoted much of her time to it, as she has to other causes since then. The experience changed her life.

“It opened up a whole new world,” Goldstein said.

Her diverse work on behalf of Soviet Jews found her, variously: meeting refuseniks and dissidents in Russian apartments or hotel suites; lobbying U.S. government leaders back home to voice criticism of Soviet human rights violations; discussing conditions and strategies with world statesmen and fellow activists at conferences in Washington, D.C. and overseas; and picketing on the streets, almost anywhere, the latest Soviet transgressions.

She saw and did so many things in the course of her involvement that her story provides a useful insider’s look at how the movement evolved and operated.

Like many who got involved in the fight, she found in it a higher purpose. As she put it recently, “What does one do with their life?” Serving others became a calling. “And I’ve loved every minute of it,” she said.

Her politicalization and activism mirrored that of others who came to the cause.

“Shirley was typical of the middle class women who normally would not take any part in politics as such. They were really concerned to do something to help the Soviet Jews. They felt it very deeply. I have a great deal of admiration for Shirley Goldstein. She was a leading light for giving morale and financial assistance to refuseniks and for helping them get out, and she did a great deal for those who managed to get out to resettle in Nebraska,” said Michael Sherbourne, a London-based activist who fed Goldstein information from his contacts in the Soviet Union.

 

 

 

No Place to Be a Jew

Life behind the Iron Curtain was harsh for the mainstream populace, but even more intolerable for racial, ethnic and religious minorities. Long the target of anti-Semitic pogroms and policies, Soviet Jews were routinely denied such basic rights as the practice of their faith, employment in certain jobs, free travel within the country and emigration outside the USSR. An internal passport all Soviets carried was used to target Jews, whose documents, and whose documents alone, denoted their religion. Jews and sympathizers protesting such discriminatory practices could be arrested, interrogated, harassed or imprisoned.

By the mid-1960s the pleas of a few Jewish dissidents were heard — enough to coalesce the Free Soviet Jewry Movement. But much of the world remained unaware of or apathetic to just how bad things were and just how many Jews wanted out. Compared to the trickle allowed to leave each year, millions more wished to go but were refused. Once a visa was denied, the applicant was branded and blacklisted. Refuseniks automatically lost their jobs and what few privileges they enjoyed. Even more than before, they became outcasts in their own society.

From the mid-’60s through the early ‘90s, the movement — both within the Soviet Union and outside it — forged ahead despite political setbacks. Free Soviet Jewry committees organized. Under Goldstein’s leadership, Omaha had a particularly active one. Agitators like her from the West, both Jews and non-Jews, made pilgrimages to the Soviet Union to meet with refuseniks and dissidents and activists. She and other Western visitors smuggled in banned materials, such as Judaica, along with items like Levi jeans and Marlboro cigarettes, which brought much on the black market. They also made audio recordings of individuals, whose messages — testifying to the tough conditions and rallying support for freedom — were snuck out and then disseminated to Western media outlets.

Defying initial opposition from the Jewish establishment and the Israeli government and flying in the face of official U.S.-Soviet diplomatic channels, the campaign eventually gained widespread support. The pressure applied by the campaign and by detente succeeded in doing exactly what it set out to. Faced with sanctions and growing world condemnations, the stubborn Soviets finally ended reprisals and eased restrictions. The sweeping changes ushered in by Mikhail Gorbachev under Glasnost and the eventual dissolvement of the Soviet state, opened the borders for a flood of people to legally emigrate. In the end, 1.5 million Jews left, most for the U.S. and Israel. Some 200 families resettled in Omaha.

 

 

 

Becoming an Activist

Shirley Goldstein (formerly Gershun) seemed an unlikely candidate to make history. The Council Bluffs, Iowa native did part of her growing up in Schuyler, Neb., where her family moved, before returning to the Bluffs to complete her schooling. Upon graduation from Abraham Lincoln High School she did what any good Jewish girl did then — she worked (at the Martin bomber plant),  got married, bore kids (four) and stayed home raising them. Her husband, Leonard “Buddy” Goldstein, had his own transportation business.

An “ordinary” housewife, mother and grandmother, she only became politicized in middle-age. It was the early ‘70s when the Free Soviet Jewry movement overtook her and she morphed into an impassioned advocate. There was a precedent in her past. Her merchant father, Ben Gershun, led the Council Bluffs resettlement of Jewish refugees from post-World War II Europe. She recalls refugees at his general store and at her parents’ home. Much like she’s embraced diversity in her own home, her family’s home was “always open to everybody.”

She feels she may also have been prepared for her activist role by the many years she and Buddy hosted international students and dignitaries, many from Asia, at their place. The couple even sponsored a Cambodian refugee family. She said, “I’ve always been interested in other peoples and cultures.”

Not content with merely educating herself on the subject, she went to the USSR seven times, meeting with leaders and rank and file Jews alike. She took chances, brazenly ignoring U.S. State Department warnings and Soviet orders to steer clear of “troublemakers.” Indeed, she became a familiar figure to refuseniks in Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev, Odessa and other cities. A benevolent angel from the West bearing contraband gifts. A tiny rebel with the brass of a cat burglar. She recorded testimonies and snapped pictures, concealing cassette tapes and film cartridges under her clothes. She sneaked things in and out with a kind of mischievous glee. A true believer unafraid to upset the Politburo or defy the KGB, who knew of her and tried discouraging her, she carried on anyway. She was on a mission.

“The world had to know what was happening. It was a priority. I would have rather done this than anything else,” she said.

As her involvement deepened, she made more contacts and increased the scope of her activities. She organized Omaha’s Free Soviet Jewry Committee and served on the board of the national Union of Councils for Soviet Jews. She led demonstrations (including ones outside the Orpheum Theatre and Joslyn Art Museum, using the appearances of Russian performing artists as the pretext or stage to protest Soviet policies), she walked in marches and she participated in vigils. She called on members of Congress. She attended meetings in Washington, D.C. and in Madrid, Spain (for the Helsinki Accords). She raised awareness and funds.

When not educating elected leaders herself, she recruited new blood, such as the late Ally Milder, to do so. In her role as an aide to U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley (D-Iowa), Milder brought him on board with the movement. Goldstein also spearheaded letter writing campaigns that sent morale-boosting notes to refuseniks and that made appeals for support to public officials. She organized relief drives that collected goods and shipped them to families in the USSR.

“In the big picture of the Soviet Jewry movement, Shirley was a really great foot soldier and the leaders knew that,” said former Omahan Stephanie Howard (Seldin), co-producer of Let My People Go, a new documentary on the movement. “Shirley’s is a great story because she rallied a whole Jewish community and they did great things, and they’re recognized for it. You talk to people in New York or San Francisco or Chicago who were in the movement and everybody knows Shirley.”

Goldstein never strayed from the fight. When Soviet Jews began coming, she picked up the mantle again and immersed herself in all facets of the resettlement program.

Through it all, Buddy Goldstein, was by her side, just as he remains today. He didn’t always accompany her on her far-flung travels, but he supported her and underwrote her activism, sharing her concerns and encouraging her efforts, even when some friends questioned if she was going too far. In a recent interview at their home, the couple recounted her remarkable journey from uniformed innocent to well-traveled activist.

It all started when the two returned from a 1972 trip to the USSR frustrated by the limited access they’d had to the Jewish proletariat and their daily lives. “I’d been doing a lot of reading. I was interested. But I wasn’t able to see anybody — I didn’t know how to do it. Being tourists, it was all surface. It was definitely controlled. We only saw what the government wanted us to see,” she said. She itched for a way to bypass approved itineraries in order to connect, on a human level, with Jews and learn first-hand their struggles.

“I wanted to see the real Russia and visit with some refusenik families.”

Enter Glenn Richter. A veteran of the civil rights movement and a founder of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jews, Richter is a brother-in-law of Goldstein’s. He’s married to her cousin Lenore. The couple live in New York.

“Glenn and Lenore had been to Omaha (on a cross-country speaking tour) not too much before we took our trip talking about a lot of the things that were going on in the Soviet Union,” she recalled. “After we got back, I called Glenn and said, ‘I want to know more about what’s happening.’ But first I registered for a couple courses on Russia at the university (then Omaha U.-now UNO). The courses culminated in a 1973 trip to the USSR led by chancellor Ron Roskens. I decided I wanted to go. I called Glenn and said, ‘I want to know how to meet these people, by which I meant refuseniks. We spoke every Sunday morning for weeks. Then he outlined it all for me on a sheet of yellow paper (now in the archives of Remember and Save, an Israeli-based initiative documenting the Jewish Aliya Movement of the USSR). Glenn told me what to do, what items to take, who to visit, what things to tell them and what information to bring back. He gave very good directions.”

“Without Glenn’s help I never would have gotten into this as I did,” she said. “I did exactly as he told me and it was very successful. I met many people. Each time I went it made me hungry to learn more. And that was the beginning of it.”

Richter recalled Goldstein being an avid student.

“We were dealing at that time with what was largely a hardly-understood situation, with few appeals coming out from the USSR, relying basically on facts known to us at that point, rather than the personal contacts which we all developed. Shirley was quite interested. She’s a good listener — and a good questioner,” he said.

He added she and Buddy were well-positioned to serve the cause.

“One of the great strengths of Jews in smaller Jewish communities, such as Omaha or Denver, is the long-term friendships they may have with people who get into political power. Shirley and Buddy were excellent examples. Their Congressmen and Senators became their advocates. Shirley knew which political buttons to press, and did so on behalf of individual refuseniks and prisoners and of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment — the landmark legislation linking Jewish emigration with trade credits for the USSR.”

He admired her dedication.

“Dogged, committed, focused, interested would be understatements when it came to Shirley’s advocacy for Soviet Jews,” he said. “I see the same traits in my wife Lenore. Perhaps it’s family genes.”

Goldstein’s involvement in the movement came just as it was picking up steam. Or, as she likes to put it, “When I came into it, everything was already going on.”

“I don’t think anyone of us in the early 1970s knew where the Soviet Jewry movement would take us,” Richter said. “By ‘73-’74 we were in the big leagues, utilizing Congress to take on the Kremlin head-to-head over the Jackson-Vanik Amendment. Shirley was in the thick of things, using all the political connections she developed (with Sen. Jim Exxon, Rep. John Cavanaugh, etc.). It was crucial for Congress to see pressure not only from the traditionally large areas of Jewish population, but from a wide swath of communities with smaller Jewish populations, as in Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota and Colorado. Politicians will stick their necks out only if they believe their constituents are with them, and Shirley and her colleagues made sure of that.”

Richter said the famous Soviet dissident, Anatoly (now Natan) Sharansky, “often tells the story that his KGB interrogators tried to torment him by telling him he was only supported by Western ‘students and housewives.’ But that was the strength of the Soviet Jewry movement. We utterly believed in what we were doing. We didn’t let considerations that would sidetrack a ‘professional’ get in the way. From what I saw, Shirley was absolutely typical of the Jewish housewife who devoted the same focus and energy to Soviet Jews thousands of miles away as she did to her own family because, indeed, these Soviet Jews, became our family. I’d sit at meetings of the Union of Councils in Washington, DC and marvel at the truly diverse dozens of women and men who, for whatever personal reasons, simply decided that they had to get involved, and became heroines and heroes of the movement.”

“Most people watch history go by. Shirley and her colleagues simply decided, each on her/his own, that they were going to shape history. The core group of activists, like Shirley, seemed to utilize every waking hour to create new ways of advocating on behalf of our friends trapped in the USSR and to keep their spirits up,” he said.

 

 

 

 

 

To Russia with Love

By the time she made that ‘73 UNO trip to the USSR, accompanied by her daughter Gail Raznick, she was well-read on the Soviet Jewry issue. She’d been briefed by Glenn Richter and other Union of Councils members and been given contact names.
But her real education began abroad, meeting Russian Jews whose lives were filled with hardships in the totalitarian and anti-Semitic regime. She met them in their homes or in her hotel suites. She visited their synagogues and schools. Despite little hope for change, Soviet Jews yearned and struggled for freedom. That’s when it all hit home. That’s when the cause got in her blood. Until then, the problems faced by Soviet Jews were still abstract and far removed.

“Then you meet people, like I did, who can’t get out and, well…Once I met this young family — Aba and Ida Taratuta — I became totally committed, not only to work for Soviet Jews but people in all the Iron Curtain countries.”

In an interview she gave during the height of the movement, Goldstein explained why she threw herself into the fray: “These people cannot speak out for themselves, so other people must do it for them. I feel like what I am doing is something important. It’s hard for people in the U.S. to grasp what all they have to give up just for wanting to leave and how much support they need just to survive. Seeing all they endure makes you want to help just one more case. You get hooked. It’s like an addiction.”

She and Buddy were also alarmed by how the world kept relatively silent as the repression went unchecked. It was an ugly reminder of what happened during the Holocaust. “People didn’t speak out then about the oppression,” he said. “Those were atrocities,” she interjected. “Atrocities, yes, but a lot of people felt anything could happen” in the Soviet Union. “That’s right,” she added, “because people were disappearing in Russia. They’d just be taken off the street…for no reason. And we thought if they can do that, they can do anything.”

Then there was the outrageous situation of a government holding hostage, in effect, some of its own people, preventing them from practicing their professions and thus depriving the country of their talents — all as punishment for wanting to leave. “I never understood why,” Shirley said. “The Soviets weren’t using them. It wasn’t as if the refuseniks kept their jobs and were still vital to the economy. They weren’t. They lost their jobs. They were having a hard time. They were wasting their lives sitting around waiting to get out.”

She was also dismayed by the travel strictures and identity tags foisted on Jews.

Refuseniks she met expressed their despair. Sensing she was someone they could trust to get the truth out, they confided in her. The fact-finding and reporting she and others did there helped the movement gain momentum. Through networking and communication, the Free Soviet Jewry issue was kept alive. Getting information out meant taking risks.

 

Testing the Limits, Courting Danger

Just how far Goldstein was prepared to go would be tested on that ‘73 trip and on later trips. Refuseniks Aba and Ida Taratuta, whom she met in Leningrad, witnessed her resolve. She’d been given their names by Glenn Richter. They were soon impressed by her sincerity and tenacity.

“She was interested in our life, financial situation, the possibility to leave the country and what to do and how to help,” Aba Taratuta said. “She was ready to do everything to help us. And from that visit there was just a constant contact between our families. She wrote a lot of letters describing what she did to help us and other refuseniks. She became very active in the struggle on our behalf.”

Goldstein came bearing gifts.

“Shirley brought many items — books, records, tape recorders — that helped us in studying Hebrew or in supporting Zionist activities. The same with cameras, watches and jeans, which we sold. And every time she would bring something personally for us, for our family,” Aba Taratuta said.

Let My People Go producer Stephanie Howard said Ida Taratuta recounted how once Shirley “came with a suitcase full of embroidered towels, fine soaps and things, and Ida told her, ‘I can’t accept this,’ to which Shirley said, ‘But for a twist of fate, I could have been in your place and you could have been in mine. Wouldn’t you do the same for me?’ And Ida replied, ‘How can I argue with that? Of course’”

But the little Jewish woman from Omaha came with an agenda far beyond trinkets.

“Shirley visited us in Leningrad several times and she was interested in seeing more people, more refuseniks. And for a foreigner in Russia it was not so easy to do,” Aba Taratuta said. “So we tried to gather as many people in our apartment as possible. She was interested in every one and taped the story of everyone and smuggled the tapes out on her person. And it was really dangerous.”

In turn, Goldstein said Aba “was one of the main figures in Leningrad. Gail and I were the first Americans to ever visit him, but he was already well known in the West.” She said he’d “have so many activists come to his apartment…they crowded to get into the rooms. I kept coming back to hear their stories. I made tapes.”

The couple were classic refuseniks-turned-activists. Their situation symbolized the problem, Goldstein said.

“They’d applied to emigrate and were released from their jobs. They were well-educated people. Both spoke good English. He had been a professor. She was a translator. He was reduced to being a caretaker where they lived. She was doing some translating on the side. Their son was taunted at school. I think maybe they were receiving some packages from the West and selling things on the black market. Mail and phone service was compromised. That’s the way it was.”

Goldstein’s good friend, Miriam Simon accompanied Shirley and her daughter on the ‘73 trip. Simon well recalls what it was like as Shirley went off to attend “clandestine meetings late at night.” “She took a lot of risks. We didn’t know for sure, but we thought everything was bugged. We were very careful what we said to each other,” said Simon. When Goldstein made later trips to the Soviet Union, Simon added, “We always worried if she would come back. They (Soviet authorities) got to know her and didn’t like her.”

“Shirley often did dangerous things,” Aba Taratuta confirmed. “For example, on her first visit to us, she and her daughter Gail brought some very important books and hid them in Gail’s boots. These visits were very important for us refuseniks. We felt, ‘We are not forgotten…there are people who care and want to help.’ We felt If we were known abroad, it was our best defense from the Soviet government. Then they could not do with us what they wanted.”

Below, in Part II of Shirley Goldstein: Cream of the Crop, One Woman’s Remarkable Journey in the Free Soviet Jewry Movement, you will read about how just far this Activist, Humanitarian, Philanthropist has gone for the cause of human rights.

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Shirley Goldstein: Cream of the Crop, One Woman’s Remarkable Journey in the Free Soviet Jewry Movement

Part II: Activist, Humanitarian, Philanthropist

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

 

Testing Limits, Courting Danger Continued: Contacts, Safe Houses and Spy Games

Once swept up in the Free Soviet Jewry movement, Shirley Goldstein set about indoctrinating herself in the tactics of an underground activist. She read, she discussed, she kavetched. She formed Omaha’s Free Soviet Jewry Committee and joined the Union of Council for Soviet Jews. She became a part of an international network whose advocacy and activism sought relief and release for Soviet Jews denied basic human rights. She learned who to contact among refusenkiks, activists and dissidents in the former Soviet Union. She learned where and when it was safe to meet them. In short, she became a secret operative there, much the way a spy is, sneaking information and materials in and out of that oppressive regime.

Back home, she made calls, wrote letters, collected and shipped goods, appealed to politicians, etc., all in an attempt to ease the burden and secure the freedom of Soviet Jews. For the few refugees who made it out at first and then for the flood that followed, she helped their resettlement here.

But nothing she did compares to the missions she conducted in the USSR under the guise of “tourist.” This little Jewish lady carried on her work there despite becoming a person of interest to the KGB. When they tried scaring her off, she simply snubbed her nose at the mighty Soviet state. On a 1973 trip there, Shirley and her daughter Gail Raznick went as part of a UNO-sponsored tour. As Part I explored, Leningrad residents Aba and Ida Taratuta were among the first refuseniks she met. The Taratutas opened their lives and their hearts to her, using their apartment as a meeting place for fellow refuseniks to come and share their stories with Shirley, who faithfully documented it all via tape recorder. These meetings built her circle of contacts and added to the testimonies she collected.

Another key early contact she made, Edward Sorokin, was not a refusenik at all, but sympathetic to Soviet Jews’ plight and to her humanitarian mission. Shirley and Gail met Sorokin by accident in Leningrad. For Goldstein, such contacts were invaluable as she didn’t speak Russian and didn’t yet know her way around.

“He wasn’t even Jewish,” Goldstein said. “Edward and I became very good friends. He helped me on all my trips during the next 15-20 years. He made sure I got places. He was a big source for me. He became friendly with some of my other friends there…helping me if something went wrong. He made phone calls for me. When I got home, I’d send packages and he would see to it they got delivered.”

In Moscow, Shirley and Gail were unsuccessful locating the prominent dissident Vladimir Slepak, but they did meet an English-speaking couple, Galina and Victor Faermark, who soon put them in touch with all the leading Moscow refuseniks and activists. Among these were Benjamin Levich, for whom Victor Faermark served as translator. Levich had been one of the USSR’s most highly decorated scientists before he applied to leave, whereupon he was dismissed from his position and stripped of his medals. “One of Levich’s boys had been kidnapped off the streets in Moscow and sent to Siberia, just for being Levich’s son,” Goldstein said. “We became very good friends with Levich. While we were in Moscow he kept giving my name out and it became known, and before I knew it we were meeting Vladimir Slepak. All of them were intertwined. While we were at Slepak’s, people came in and out, including a woman who was a legend, Ida Nudel.”

Once back home, Goldstein acceded to a request by Levich. She prepared and shipped care packages, filled with dried foods, for his imprisoned son. She also returned to the states with lists of names of other Soviet Jews in need of various things. She enlisted the help of Russian emigres in Omaha to box the goods “We shipped out a lot of supplies,” she said. The Goldsteins’ home became a storehouse for hot ticket items, especially, jeans, large quantities of which she got donated from suppliers she appealed to.

Her return home from that ‘73 UNO tour of the USSR was nearly delayed, however, when she was detained at customs in Leningrad. Authorities objected to some posters she carried. It was one of many attempts made to hassle her and discourage her actions. They soon discovered she couldn’t be intimidated.

“I had visited a Jewish day school, whose children made drawings for me to bring back to children here in Omaha. As I went through customs, I carried the posters under my arm when the agents said, ‘Hand it over — you’re taking out important artwork.’ And I said, ‘No, it’s children’s artwork.’ And they said, ‘No, you can’t take them out.’ I argued, ‘But it isn’t anything…’ They wanted my purse, and I said, ‘No,’ and I just held onto those things under my arm. I was angry with them.

“Well, the other people in the tour group were saying, ‘Just give it to them…’ But I said, ‘No, it’s not theirs. It has no monetary value. Nothing.’ Well, the Russians still wanted it. The plane was held up and I could see either the group was going to leave without me or be stuck there with me, so I said, ‘OK, here it is, and I unrolled the posters and tore them up, piece by piece, right in front of the agents. I said, ‘If I can’t have it, you can’t have it.’ And they said, ‘Pick it up,’ and I walked right by them. When I got on the plane, everybody clapped. ”

“She was defiant,” her daughter Gail said.

Ask Shirley Goldstein if she was afraid, and she tells you, “I was never afraid of them because I knew they wouldn’t touch me. They didn’t want an incident.” “They could harass you though,” Buddy said. To which Shirley adds, “Yeah, they wanted you to know they had the upper hand. But I really felt in command. I really did. Besides, it was ridiculous. All that fuss over nothing.”

Ask Buddy if Shirley’s someone not to trifle with, and he says, “Oh, boy…”

Still, it took some negotiating before she could board the plane with her American tour party. She said Roskens and company flashed enough money and threw around enough names to secure her release. “Roskens could talk his way out of almost anything,” she said. That’s the way things worked there. “All the way along, if you had the bribes, you could do anything. I’m convinced of that,” she added. “I took cartons of cigarettes with me. You could show a cab driver a pack and go any place. I learned lots of little tricks…”

To avoid hassles, she carried official credentials and letters of recommendation.

“Before leaving for the USSR each time, I’d go to my Congressmen and have them write letters of referral for the authorities that said I was seeing people I knew and that the U.S. government would appreciate it if I were not bothered. When KGB or customs agents wanted to see my papers, those letters always came out first.”

To the end, it was a war of wills between her and the apparatchiks. When Goldstein made her last visit to the Soviet Union in 1989 she went with her friend Ruth Potash and then Jewish Press editor Morris Maline. Potash recalled how customs agents confiscated Shirley’s wedgies, even unscrewing the bottoms “to make sure she wasn’t smuggling any tapes in the heels of her shoes. She was on their list. But she was fearless.”

Gail said she and her mother often got crank phone calls in the middle of the night. That didn’t stop Shirley from slipping out of hotels after midnight to meet people.

“It was very spy-like. It was like you knew you were being watched but you couldn’t see anybody. I’m amazed by how courageous she was,” Gail said.

“She’s a gutsy lady,” Buddy said of his wife.

In Odessa, another attempt to scare off Goldstein at first angered her and then only emboldened her, but not before she had a good laugh at her own expense.

“I was asleep in my hotel room when I woke up to find a strange man standing inside the door, looking at me. He didn’t say a word. He just wanted me to know somebody was there. Harassing me. I told him to get the hell out. He did. After that, every time I went out of the room I walked backwards and sprinkled baby powder on the floor so I’d know if anybody came in. And, you know what? I was the first person to walk in and mark my own tracks,” she said, laughing at the memory.

Her chutzpah could be inspiring, Laura Bialis, the director of a new documentary film about the movement, Let My People Go, said: “David Selikowitz tells a great story about that. In the ‘70s he was a young American living in Paris who’d come to Moscow to drop off some stuff for refuseniks. He and a friend got to the apartment building, but he was scared by all the KGB cars lining the street. He said, ‘I can’t do this.’ The friend said, ‘Well, we’ve come this far, let’s try it.’ So, they go inside and find the apartment, and there is Shirley Goldstein with Ally Milder…schlepping in all these contraband items.

“And David said to himself, ‘Oh my God, here’s this housewife-grandmother from Omaha, and if she’s not afraid, why should I be?’ She encouraged him to start a French arm of the movement, which he did, and he ended up sending all kinds of people into the Soviet Union. It’s a great image of Shirley,” Bialis said, “because she’s so unassuming and so modest, and yet she did such incredibly brave things.”

Goldstein’s most historic trip to the Soviet Union came in 1975. It was an Omaha World-Herald sponsored tour that, as usual, she used as cover for her activist work or, as she called it, “doing my own thing.” The tour’s hosts were Herald reporter Wally Provost and his wife Irene. Shirley informed Wally what she planned doing and he agreed to tag along with her to a meeting of refuseniks.

“Well, he came with me the first night in Moscow and after that he said, ‘Every time you go see somebody, I want to go.’” Provost found enough material to write a series of articles, one titled Shirley Goldstein Goes to Russia, about the movement and how tough life was for Soviet Jews. “Wally’s series brought the issue to the forefront. It made a lot of difference. I got lots of calls and letters from that. And he and Irene really became dedicated Soviet Jewry activists.”

Another journalist she brought to the movement is former Jewish Press editor Morris Maline, who traveled with her to the USSR. Under his watch, the Press closely covered the Soviet Jewry struggle and local efforts to address it. She even filed occasional reports for the Press from some of her travels.

Also in her own role as a reporter for the movement, she took still pictures of an incident outside a synagogue in which a gathering of Jews were rousted by police. “It opened your eyes as to how they took care of affairs they didn’t want shown to the general public,” she said. Her pics were published around the world.

 

 

Sharansky

On that same ‘75 trip she was interviewing refuseniks one morning outside a Moscow synagogue closely watched by the KGB when someone asked her, Have you met Sharansky?

“And I answered with the now famous words, ‘Sharansky, who’s he? Never heard of him.’ Well, Anatoly Sharansky was the voice, really, of all the refuseniks. I don’t know why I didn’t recognize his name. I wasn’t into it deep enough yet I guess. Slepak said, ‘We will be at your hotel at one o’clock. I’ll bring Sharansky.’ So, a group of them came. There must have been 15-16 people in the room. And there was Sharansky. He was a young guy. Very vocal in meeting with people. I said to him. ‘I want the names at the top of the list for being refused and what’s happening to these people.’ And he went in the bathroom with my tape recorder, closed the door and made a recording. That became the famous ‘bathroom tape.’ He named people, how long they’d been held back and many of the details that weren’t well known in the West.”

Naming names, she said, helped ensure refuseniks were afforded better treatment. “If your name became known, Soviet officials knew the West was watching out for you, and so you were likely to have you mail and phone calls go through.”

Sharansky’s words, widely circulated thanks to Goldstein secreting out the tape, were a kind state-of-the-union address and call to action for the movement’s followers. Despite painting a bleak picture of the fate of Soviet Jews who dared assert their rights, his message was somehow optimistic and appealed to the international community to apply pressure on the USSR to do the right thing. Goldstein’s proud to have helped made his voice heard.

“I was the first person to bring a tape by Sharansky out. When I returned home, I sent the tape to the Union of Councils headquarters. I didn’t even think to make a copy of it. Look how I trusted the U.S. mail. When it got out I’d carried the tape, I got phone calls from all over.”

By her third trip, she was an expert at bringing banned articles in and out. She knew which American items brought the most on the blackmarket. While she knew a pair of jeans could be sold for enough rubles or bartered for enough food to last a family weeks, she didn’t realize just how vital that exchange was for survival.

“A few years ago a gentleman called us from Canada saying he’s coming through Omaha. He wanted to see Shirley, whom he’d met in Russia,” Buddy said. “We met him and he said to Shirley, ‘I was at your hotel and you gave me two pair of jeans and those two pair of jeans helped me survive for three years.”

The chance to impact a person’s life this way is why she continued to help.

“Well, you never want to hear of people suffering. And then seeing them and seeing how it was…and finding out what to do to help them and then doing those things — it was satisfying. When you look back on it, it was a lot of fun.”

 

 

 

 

 

The Fruits of Her Labor

Her last visit to the USSR came in 1989. She planned going once more, but by then she’d become such “a nuisance” to the Soviets they revoked her visa. Undaunted, she tried going in with a group of Catholic nuns before being rebuffed.

But by then the process she’d been part of to influence Soviet human rights reforms had merged with sweeping changes inside the USSR. “It was public pressure,” she said. “The Soviets hated a bad image and they had one.” She said when the U.S. and its allies tied future trade deals with the Soviets to their making human rights concessions, the USSR capitulated. For a time. Then tensions mounted and the borders re-closed. Pressure was applied again as Western leaders decried the USSR’s hard line. In the era of Glasnost, the Soviets finally relented. In the face of government and media denouncements, much of it fed by the movement, the borders reopened and Jews streamed out to stake their freedom.

Shirley Goldstein helped make it possible. She’s considered a hero in the struggle.So say her fellow activists in the movement and so say refugees whose freedom they feel is, at least in part, due to her work.

Glenn Richter, founder of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jews, considers her “the cream of the cream. We all marveled at her energy, devotion, focus and creativity. God gave her an opportunity to make up for American Jewry’s relative silence during the Holocaust. Shirley proved one didn’t need to be a political big shot, Hollywood star or billionaire to move mountains. She kept and kept at it — the mountains moved, and the Kremlin walls fell.”

“I love Shirley. I’m proud of her and I’m proud I’m among one of her friends. She’s an absolutely exceptional person. She did very much, not only for our family, but for every family wanting to come here. Shirley met with refuseniks and activists like us, people who believed in the right to be free. That’s why we fought for this. And finally, with her help, we won,” said Lydia Linde, who emigrated in 1990 with her husband Eugene thanks to the Goldsteins sponsoring them.

“If you think of the things she was able to do, she definitely could be considered a hero, because she was risking her well-being doing these things and getting the attention of people around the world to what was going on in Russia. Her work definitely helped people in Russia who wanted to be free. It rose a tremendous amount of awareness of how to help, how to fight, how to push governments to change their views,” said Anna Yuz-Mosenkis, who came to the U.S. with her husband Igor and their two children in 1991.

The story of the movement’s success endures in the lives and in the accounts of people like Richter, Goldstein, Linde and Yuz-Mosenkis. With each passing year, however, the number of surviving activists and refuseniks declines. Thus, there’s an urgency to recording this story for posterity. That’s what drives the makers of Let My People Go, the new film that tells the story of the movement through the experience of Goldstein and others. It’s also what drives the organizers of an archive, Remember and Save, dedicated to preserving the history of the movement with materials from activists like Goldstein.

 

 

Exodus and Resettlement

Waging the campaign for the release of Soviet Jews was one thing. Helping sponsor refugees once they came here to start a new life was quite another. Yet Goldstein aided Miriam Simon in leading the Omaha resettlement effort.

From 1971 to 1980, the USSR let tens of thousands of Jews emigrate each year. When tensions with the West increased, the USSR made people pawns by closing emigration to Jews. It wasn’t until the fall of the Soviet Union a decade later that a mass exodus happened. During the migration of the ‘70s, when cities across the U.S. were accepting refugees, Goldstein said she and Simon decided, “If we’re going to get them out, we ought to get some here. Miriam was the organizer. I was the instigator. We were like the mothers of the thing.”

The two women secured the support of the Jewish Federation. Jewish Family Service pitched in. Private donations from individuals and businesses like Nebraska Furniture Mart and Borsheims helped. The first families came here in 1975.

“As many families as we said we could take, HIAS would send,” Simon said. “In the beginning, the families that came had no relatives here. They didn’t know a soul. They couldn’t find us on a map. Before they came, we got them furnished housing. We met each family at the airport with flowers, gifts and welcome signs. Once settled, we helped them get jobs and arranged for them to learn English. We did all the things you have to do to bring someone from a totally different culture and make them American. It was a very exciting time, and Shirley helped with all that. Then, as families made lives for themselves, they started bringing over relatives.”

“Anytime somebody came or anytime there was a problem, we had it. We did everything we could for them. We really worked hard. It was an exciting time. The Federation’s done a great job resettling them, too” Goldstein said. “We’ve had such good rapport with refugees. I’ve been to their weddings and funerals and birthdays and graduations…So many have been successful in their careers and in the community, and now their kids are winning scholarships. It’s been great.”

Simon said refuseniks hold Goldstein in high regard because she not only worked to free them but was always there for them after they arrived. She’s been called “an angel” to Omaha’s Soviet Jews. “Whatever happened to anybody here, Shirley came to help,” said Lydia Linde. “She was very good and friendly and helped us a lot,” said Anna Yuz-Mosenkis. Well known for doing special things, Shirley’s donated money for the Kripke Library’s Russian-language section that Linde heads and she ensured pianist Yuz-Mosenkis got a piano of her own after she and her family came.

“They needed help and she responded,” said Simon. “She was committed to doing what she believed was the right thing to do. She never got tired of doing it. She didn’t give up. She didn’t abandon it and go onto the next thing. And she’s that way with everything. If it’s important, well then it’s important. This became her life. At times some of her friends thought she got carried away, and she really didn’t give a darn what they thought.”

As more refugees began leaving the USSR, the resettlement effort needed more funding and the Operation Exodus drive led by Tom Fellman and Jay Lerner raised more than a million dollars.

 

 

Giving Nature

Friends note Shirley and Buddy have continued taking up what Simon calls “wonderful causes,” adding, “She and Buddy are always sponsoring something.”

In 1999 the couple endowed the Shirley and Leonard Goldstein Lecture on Human Rights series at UNO, which annually features presentations on emerging human rights issues. They provided seed money for the documentary Let My People Go. They’ve supported Israeli resettlement efforts. They support the Jewish Historical Society, the Kripke Library and countless other things.

Their contributions have been recognized. In the 1980s Shirley won the Jewish Federation’s Humanitarian of the Year Award. In 1996 she received an honorary doctor of humane letters from UNO “for her timeless efforts on behalf of Soviet Jewry and the cause of human rights worldwide, for her conviction and example that one person can make a difference in the lives of others, and for her ability to inspire compassion and humanity, both near and far.” She’s also been honored by the Union of Councils for Soviet Jewry and the National Conference of Christians and Jews. In 2005 the couple received the My Brother’s Keeper Award from Chabad of Nebraska.

“If you know somebody who needs help, you call Shirley and she figures out ways to help,” said Ruth Potash. “I teach English as a second language to adult immigrants. I called her with a problem one of my students was having trying to get his wife here from Syria. I asked Shirley, ‘What can I do?’ She said, ‘We’ll go see Congressman Lee Terry (R-Neb.)’ She’s willing to help with anything. She has all these contacts. And she’s very direct…She tells you exactly what’s on her mind and what she wants done. And she accomplishes it. She’s not namby-pamby. I think Buddy deserves a lot of praise, too. He supports her. They’re definitely a team.”

Goldstein acknowledges she couldn’t do all she’s done without the support of her husband Buddy and children. “It wasn’t just me doing this alone. I had a good family that stayed behind me. They’ve always been there for me.”

Her work for the movement and for other causes has been all about the journey.

“I’ve made wonderful friends I still have today,” she said. “It’s been a great period of my life. Everybody’s got their thing. This is my thing. I’m not a card player. I’m not a golfer. I’ve had a great time.”

Like any giver, her life’s been enriched for her generosity.

“I’ve traveled places I never would have gone to. I’ve seen how Washington works. I’ve seen how Israeli politics work. I have friends in Europe and Israel and here in the States I never would have otherwise. I can go anywhere in the world and see friends. I’ve seen the families brought in. I’ve seen them resettled. I’ve seen their children grow and their accomplishments. It’s been a wonderful part of my life and I can’t imagine having done anything else. I’m pleased I was a part of the movement and that I did not sit by and not do anything about it. I hope it doesn’t happen again to the Jewish people.”

She reminds us anyone can make a difference. It starts with taking an interest and then acting on it.

“Anybody that does any reading can always find something good to work on.”

 

 


The Shirley and Leonard Goldstein Lecture on Human Rights series at the University of Nebraska at Omaha features talks by leading scholars, humanitarians and activists




 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

War and Peace: Bosnian refugees purge war’s horrors in song and dance that make plea for harmony

August 18, 2011 4 comments

Here is a story I did in 1996 in the flood of refugees coming to America from war-ravaged Bosnia and Serbia. I tell the story of two families from Saravejo whose lives were turned upside down when the city fell under siege. Rusmir and Hari stayed behind to fight, as their wives and children narrowly escaped, eventually to the West. The men were eventually reunited with their families and ended up starting new lives in America. In my hometown of Omaha no less.  I came across this story when I learned about a music and dance performance that a local choreographer organized as a way of commemorating the experience of these Bosnian refugees.  The cathartic performance served as a bridge between the war that changed everything and the peace they had to flee their homeland to find.

War and peace

Bosnian refugees purge war’s horror’s in song and dance that make plea for harmony

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Even with United States peacekeeping troops stationed in Bosnia-Hercegovina, the war-ravaged nation and troubled Balkan region remain a shrouded mystery to many Americans.

But on two successive nights in October, audiences packing a Creighton University theater came face-to-face with the tragic, ultimately triumphant odyssey of Omaha’s Bosnian war refugees.

The forum for this unusual intersection of cultures was the finale of an October 25-26 Omaha Modern Dance Collective concert. The closing piece, “Day of Forgiveness,” featured a melting pot of dancers and musicians, but most poignantly, local Bosnian refugees performing as a five-piece band

The work incorporated vigorous Bosnian folk dances and songs symbolizing the relative harmony in Bosnia before the war and the healing so sorely needed there now. Ironically, a dance whose context was an ethnic war, joined Croats, Muslims and Serbs in a unifying celebration.

The refugees are among a growing, diverse Bosnian colony that has sprung up in Omaha since 1993. They say the Bosnia they knew was free of ethnic and religious strife until Serb nationalism began rearing its ugly head. Many are natives of Sarajevo, where they enjoyed an upscale, Western European lifestyle. Since escaping the carnage to start over in America, they’ve forged a tranquil Little Sarajevo in Omaha.

“Bosnia was like a small United States, where many different cultures, many different religions lived together,” says the band’s lead vocalist and guitarist, Rusmir Hadzisulejmanovic, 41, formerly a marketing manager with a Sarajevo publishing firm. Today, he works as a handy man and attends Metropolitan Community College. “We prepared a good life in our country. We had nice jobs. We made good money. But somebody from outside tried to destroy that. And we lost everything in one day.”

Fellow refugee and musician Muharem “Hari” Sakic, 39, a friend of Rusmir’s from before the war, was an import-export executive and now works odd jobs while attending Metro. Hari says, “In Sarajevo we never cared what religion you were. And none of us care about that now. It doesn’t matter. We only care what kind of person you are.”

Both men are Muslim. Rusmir’s wife is Serb; Hari’s, Croation-Catholic. They say mixed marriages such as theirs were typical.

The two men fought side-by-side defending their beloved Sarajevo, the besieged Bosnian capital devastated by Serb aggressors. Talking with Rusmir and Hari today, surrounded by loved ones in their safe, comfortable southwest Omaha apartments, it’s hard to imagine them as fierce soldiers engaged in a life and death struggle with forces who outnumbered and outgunned them. But then Rusmir passes around snapshots of he and Hari in camouflage fatigues, armed to the teeth, outside the burned-out shell of a train station. A later photo shows Rusmir, usually a burly 240 pounds, looking pale, drawn and shrunken from the near-starvation war diet.

War Hits Home

Although Serbia invaded Croatia by late 1990, beginning the pattern of pogroms and atrocities it repeated elsewhere in the former Yugoslav Republic, most Bosnians never suspected the conflict would affect them. But it did, beginning, shockingly and viciously at noon, April 4, 1992, when Serb artillery units dug in atop the hills overlooking Saravejo launched an unprovoked, indiscriminate attack on the city’s homes, streets and businesses.

Rusmir was eating lunch in a cafeteria when the first explosions rocked the city. He was trapped there until morning. “I saw many, many damaged houses and cars and dead people in the streets. It was the first time in my life I saw something like that,” he recalls. It was the start of a three-year siege that killed thousands of civilians and soldiers.

At the family’s apartment he found his wife Zorana, 39, and their children Ida and Igor, then ages 8 and 2, respectively, unharmed, but “very scared.” He immediately set about finding a safe way out for them. Escape was essential, since Ida suffers from a serious kidney disease requiring frequent medical treatment, and his family’s Muslim surname made them targets for invading Serbs. As for himself, he had no choice but to stay – and fight.

The roads and fields leading out of town were killing zones, manned by roaming Serb militia. Air service was disrupted. With the help of Jewish friends he finally got his family approved for a flight to Belgrade, Serbia several days later. On the day of departure Zorana and the kids boarded a bus for the tense ride to the Serbian-held airport. As it was too dangerous to be seen together, Rusmir followed behind in a car.

The scene at the airport was chaotic. Hundreds of people milled about the tarmac, frantic not to be left behind. When a mad dash for the plane began, Zorana, carrying Igor in one arm, felt Ida being pulled away by the surging crowd. She grabbed hold of her daughter and hung on until they were aboard.

From a distance Rusmir watched the plane lift off safely, carrying his family to an uncertain fate. It was the last flight out for many months. Three-and-a-half years passed before he saw his family again.

While in Belgrade, Zorana and the kids stayed at a hotel. Zorana made Ida promise (Igor was too young) never to say their Muslim name aloud, but only her Serb maiden name, Vojnovic. Zorana says she felt “shame” at denying her true identity and “guilty” for what some Serbs were doing to Muslims. “It was very hard.”

“You had to say some Serb name to save your life,” notes Hari, whose family took similar precautions. Like Rusmir and Zorana, Hari and his wife Marina were desperate to get their daughter Lana out, as she has a kidney condition similar to Ida’s. Marina and Sakic’s kids eventually fled to Croatia.

In Belgrade Zorana often confronted Serb enmity, such as when a hospital denied Ida treatment fate learning her real name. From Belgrade, they fled to norther Croatia, staying with relatives and friends.

Life in Croatia had a semblance of normality until Croat-Muslim hostilities erupted. Then Zorana was denied work and Ida expelled from school and refused care. A human rights organization did fly Zorana and the kids to London, where her brother lived, but they were denied residency and returned to Croatia. Growing more desperate, she pleaded her family’s case at every embassy, to no avail.

With few resources and options left she heard about the International Organization for Migration (IOM), a humanitarian agency offering visas based on medical need. After her first entreaties were rejected she went to IOM’s offices “every morning for three months,” before finally getting the visa that eventually brought them to Omaha in October, 1993. Zorana was among the first group of Bosnian and Croatian refugees to arrive here.

Omaha – A New Home, A New Life

Why Omaha? Dr. Linda Ford, a local physician affiliated with IOM, was matched with the family as a medical caseworker and mentor. Zorana says Ford was her “main moral support” when she first arrived. “She showed me how to live on my own. She was a great help.”

Ford arranged for the family to live at the home of Dr. Dan Halm and at her urging Zorana, an attorney in Saravejo, earned a para-legal degree at UNO while working part-time jobs. Zorana now works full-time at Mutual of Omaha. Ford says the contacts Zorana made here as a result of her own refugee experience have aided other Bosnians in settling here, including Rusmir’s sister and brother-in-law. Since moving her family to the Woodcreek Apartments, Zorana has guided 12 other refugee families there.

Barbarism, Heroism and Sacrifice

Meanwhile, Rusmir, who as a young man served in the Yugoslav equivalent of the CIA, had joined Hari and others in mobilizing the local Bosnian Army, It was a civilian army comprised of Muslims, Croats and Serbs, They lacked even the most basic supplies. Uniforms were improvised from sleeping bags. Many soldiers fought in athletic shoes. Shelling and sniper fire continued day and night. The streets and outlying areas were a grim no-man’s land. The only respite was an occasional cease-fire or relief convoy.

 

Image of Bosnian folk dancers from KUD Kolo of Waterloo

 

As the siege progressed conditions worsened. Rusmir’s and Hari’s homes were destroyed. But life went on. “In war it’s not possible to keep a normal life, but we tried,” says Rusmir. For example, school-age kids who remained behind still attended classes, and Hari’s wife Marina gave birth to their son, Adi, on May 22, 1992.

“At that time the situation was terrible, especially for babies. No food, no water, no electricity , no nothing,” Hari recalls.

Somehow, they hung on. Marina and their two children got out as part of a Red Cross convoy that fall.

Hari and Rusmir fought in a special unit that took them behind enemy lines to wreak havoc, do reconnaissance, collect intelligence and capture prisoners. Miraculously, neither was wounded.

“I was many times in a very dangerous position,” says Rusmir. “I know how to use a gun and a knife. That helped me to survive. I’m lucky, you know? I survived.”

Two of his best friends did not – Dragan Postic and Zelicko Filipovic.

Rusmir witnessed acts of barbarism, heroism and sacrifice, An artillery shell landed amidst a group of school kids during recess, killing and maiming dozens. “That was very awful.” In the heat of battle, a comrade jumped on an enemy tank and dropped hand grenades inside the open turret, killing himself and the tank’s crew. Despite overwhelming odds and losses the city held. “We stopped them…we survived,” Rusmir says.

By the time a United States-brokered and NATO-enforced peace halted the war in 1995, Rusmir, who’d stayed gallantly (“Stubbornly,”says Zorana) on to protect his homeland and care for his ill father, felt very alone. Except for his father, there was nothing left – no home, no job, no family, no future. Hari was gone, too, escaping on 1994 on foot via a tunnel dug under the Saravejo airport, and then over the mountains into Croatia, where after a long search he was reunited with his family.

The Sakics emigrated here in January, 1995.

Music – Celebration and Mourning

Every refugee has a story. The Bosnians’ story is of suddenly being cast as warriors and wanderers in an ethnically-cleansed netherworld where borders and names suddenly meant the difference between freedom or imprisonment, between living or dying.

It all happened before – to their parents and grandparents in World War II. It’s a story burned in their memories and hearts and told in stirring words, music and dance.

Their music inspired choreographer Josie Metal-Corbin to create “Day of Forgiveness.” The professor of dance at the University of Nebraska at Omaha first heard the music when a former student and Bosnian emigre brought the band to her class. They played about 10 minutes and right away I knew I had to do something with this music,” Metal-Corbin recalls. “I was very taken by it, I’m part Italian and part Slovak, and this music really spoke to me. It’s very passionate.”

After months of working with the musicians and UNO’s resident dance troupe she directs, the Moving Company, Metal-Corbin grew close to the refugees and their families, particularly Rusmir, Zorana and their children, now ages 12 and 6. Zorana acted as the project’s interpreter and cultural guide.

During the Creighton concert, which marked the dance’s premiere, Rusmir and the other, all-male musicians exuberantly accompanied the rousing dance from a rear corner of the stage.

Rusmir, who grew up singing and playing the romantic tunes that accompanied the dance, says, “I feel the songs in my heart, in my soul, in my blood.” Song and dance are a big part of Bosnian celebrations, which can last from evening through dawn.

A Gypsy song – “Djurdjevdan” (“Day of the Flowers”) – was chosen by Metal-Corbin to give the dance its thematic design. The song, like the dance she adapted from it, tells of a holiday when people go to a river to cleanse themselves with water and flowers as an act of atonement and plea for forgiveness. According to Rusmir, the song and dance reflect Bosnians’ forgiving nature.

 

Bosnian war header.no.png
The executive council building burns after being hit by artillery fire in Sarajevo May 1992; Ratko Mladić with Army of Republika Srpska officers; a Norwegian UN soldier in Sarajevo.

 

“What is very hard about the war is that we lost so many friends. We lost neighbors. We lost family members. And for what? Really for nothing. We tried to keep Bosnia in Bosnian borders. But I can forgive,” Rusmir says, “because my wife and kids are alive. My father is alive. It’s time for forgiveness, for one reason – the war must stop, always, I cannot live with hate. My people are not like that. You can kick me, you can beat me…I will always find a reason to forgive you. That is the Bosnian soul.”

Hari, though, cannot so easily let go of the memory of Marina and their two children barely escaping a direct artillery hit on their Sarajevo apartment. “Forgive, yes, but forget, no,” he says. “I must try never to forget.” Even now, the whine of a siren and the clap of thunder are nervous reminders of incoming artillery rounds. “That is the kind of sound you can never forget,” Hari says.

He still wakes up in a cold sweat at the thought of the three-finger sign used by Chetnik Serbs in carrying out their terror campaigns. “When they started to use that sign,” he says, “the poison came. It meant. ‘You are not with us.’ Then the killing started.”

As a haunting reminder of what the dance was about, an enlarged news photo in the background pictured the tearful reunion of a Bosnian refugee family. The image had special meaning for Rusmir and Hari, who had only recently reunited with their own families. For them, the dance was their own personal commemoration of loss, celebration of survival, offering of thanks and granting of forgiveness.

Adding further resonance, virtually the entire local Bosnian refugee colony attended out of a deep communal sense of pride in their rich culture, one they’re eager to share with the wider Omaha community they’ve felt so welcomed by.

 

©photo by Quinn M. Corbin

Josie Metal-Corbin and her husband David Corbin

 

 

Zorana was there. “I was real proud, but at the same time I was kind of sad,” she says. “It was the music of our country – but in a different country. I was real touched when I saw Americans feel the same we do. I wanted to cry.”

Zorana, whose journey with her children across the war-torn region took a year before she found safe passage to America, adds that forgiveness must never come at the price of wisdom. “I would not let anybody to that to us again. Yo can trick us one time, but just one time.”

Yes, these Bosnians, are remarkably free of bitterness, but they do feel betrayed by the European community’s delayed, timid intervention. Zorana says, “You cannot wait so long and be so passive. You cannot say, ‘Oh, this is not my war. I don’t want to be bothered – they’re not killing me.’ Because tomorrow they may come to your house and try to kill you.” Hari says, “All the time we waited for a miracle.”

Rusmir decries the Serbs’ targeting of civilians. Hari hopes “world justice catches the war criminals, so that they will never sleep good again.”

New Pioneers

With the aid of Neb.Republican U.S. House of Representatives member John Christensen, Rusmir finally got permission to immigrate and was reunited with his family last November. Once here there were many adjustments to make. Igor didn’t remember him. Ida was slow to warm to a father she hadn’t seen for so long. Rusmir spoke no English. The family barely got by. But in classic immigrant tradition they’ve adapted and now call Omaha – a city they’d never heard of before – their home.

“It is hard. But step by step, day by day, we make connections, we make new friends we make a good life, too. We feel like Bosnian pioneers in Omaha and Nebraska,” says Rusmir, who hopes to start a construction business with Hari.

 

Zorana

 

 

The Bosnians like America and feel sure they’ll thrive here. Their children already have, with many earning top grades in school. Ida and Lana are both healthy and doing fine. The Bosnians are deeply grateful to America, which Hari calls “a dream country” for its warm reception.

Hari says, “In America I can once again live like a normal person. There’s no fear that somebody will knock on my door and ask, ‘Who are you?’ and say, ‘You’re guilty.’ We are safe here. Many Americans have helped to give us a chance. Thanks America. We are sure that we will be a success.”

Zorana downplays their heroic struggle, saying, “You need to go on if you think ou have some tomorrow. You need to believe in yourself. Then nothing is impossible.”

America is, after all, the land of opportunity.

“You give me a chance to be equal,” she says. “To work. To be a citizen. I wanted my children to be Bosnian, but now I want them to be American. Here, you can be proud of your last name. You don’t have to feel ashamed.”

A Long Way from Home: Two Kosovo Albanian families escape hell to start over in America

August 18, 2011 5 comments

This story from a decade ago or so is one of two I have done that try to paint a human, intimate portrait of the late 20th century European wars that erupted in the aftermath of the end of Communist rule, when generations of long-simmering ethnic hatred spilled over in the power grabs that ensued. The following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) portrays the journey of two Kosovo Albanian families escaping the chaos and horror of war in their homeland to starting new lives in America.  The second story along these lines, which I will be posting soon, tells a similar journey, only of a Bosnian family. There were numerous atrocities to go around in these wars, and on both sides, but the sad truth of the matter is that every day men, women, and children like the people I write about got caught up in the carnage. The result: untold hundreds of thousands dead and injured; broken societies and families; hatred that perpetuates from one generation to the next; retaliation attacks; refugee cultures; and the recipe for ongoing tensions that will only continue flaring until there is true reconciliation.  The related articles below indicate the region is still a cauldron of unrest.

 

Exodus, Kosovo War 1999:

 

 

A Long Way from Home: Two Kosovo Albanian families escape hell to start over in America                                     

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Uprooted
Among the mass exodus of ethnic Albanians fleeing their embattled native Kosovo last year were two young couples who met in a refugee camp and ended up starting new lives together in Omaha. Gazmend and Fortesa Ademi and Basri and Valbona Jashari left Kosovo during the March-May 1999 NATO bombing campaign targeting Serbian military strongholds.

With Serb troops ousted and NATO peacekeepers in their place, many refugees returned to the ravaged province. The couples, however, opted for asylum in America. After arriving here July 1 under the auspices of a humanitarian agency, they lived five weeks with their Bellevue sponsors, the Theresa and Richard Guinan family, whose parish — St. Bernadette Catholic Church — lent aid. The Kosovars, who today share a unit in the Applewood Pointe Apartments near 96th & Q Streets, are now first-time parents: the Ademis of a 5-month-old boy, Eduard, and the Jasharis of a 3-month-old girl, Elita.

Last August, Basri Jashari’s sister, Elfeti, her husband and their five children moved to Omaha (sponsored by Kountze Memorial Church). Another 59 Kosovars settled in Lincoln. The U.S. State Department reports some 14,000 Kosovars found asylum in America. Of the more than 800,000 refugees who fled the province, most have gone home, including some who came to Nebraska.

War may have been the catalyst for Kosovo Albanians’ leaving their homeland, but the events prompting their expulsion are rooted in long-standing ethnic conflict. During a recent interview at their apartment, Gazmend Ademi and Basri Jashari told, in broken English, their personal odyssey into exile. As the men spoke, sometimes animatedly, their wives listened while tending to their babies.

Only in their early 20s, the Kosovars exhibit a heavy, world-weary demeanor beyond their years. They carry the burden of any refugee: being apart from the people and culture they love. With a patriotic Albanian song playing in the background (“the music, it gives us power to live…to go on,” Ademi said) and defiance burning in their eyes, the men lamented all they have lost and left behind and expressed enmity for Serb aggressors who threw their lives into turmoil.

“We never wanted what happened. We never wanted this. THEY wanted the war. It’s like old Albanian men used to say, ‘Don’t ever trust the Serbs. They don’t keep their word,’” Ademi said. Do the refugees hate the Serbs? “No, I just don’t like them,” Jashari said, adding, “I know not every Serbian was guilty. But I still hate the cops.”

 

 

 

 

Aside from bitterness, sadness consumes them. Ademi said, “Sometimes I stop and think, Why do I have to go through all these things? It’s just too much. I miss my family. I miss my friends. I miss everything in Kosovo. That’s why I’ll go back. But, for now, things are still bad there. Many people have no work, no homes. What the Serbs couldn’t take they destroyed. When I speak to my friends by phone they all tell me to stay where I am.” Or, as Jashari simply put it, “It’s better here.”

Watch Out for the Dark
Conflicts between ethnic Albanians and Serbs were part of the uneasy landscape Ademi and Jashari grew up in. Born and raised in southeastern Kosovo cities 40 kilometers apart, the two came of age in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the ugly rhetoric of Slobodan Milosevic’s Serb nationalism turned openly hostile. Serb aggression in Bosnia erupted into full-scale war that United Nations forces helped quell. Although ethnic Albanians comprised the vast majority of Kosovo, Serbs controlled key institutions, most tellingly the police and military, which became oppressive occupying forces.

Ademi and Jashari say police routinely interrogated and arrested people without cause, extorting payment in return for safe passage or release. The harassment didn’t always end there. “For just a little thing they could arrest you or beat you or kill you. If they stopped you and demanded money, and you didn’t pay, your car was gone or you were gone,” Jashari said. “You had to pay,” Ademi said.

As Milosevic pressed for a Greater Serbia, life became more restrictive for ethnic Albanians (schools were closed and the display and teaching of Albanian heritage banned), whose Muslim culture contrasted with Serb Orthodox Christianity. The Ademis and Jasharis received much of their education in makeshift schools housed in basements and cellars. When young ethnic Albanians began fleeing Kosovo to avoid military service in the raging Balkans War, a moratorium on passports was enacted. Freedom could be bought, with a bribe, but most Kosovars could not afford it. Ademi, a bartender, and Jashari, a university student, faced bleak prospects. Jobs were scarce and those available paid low wages, yet prices for goods and services remained high. Bartering and blackmarket trading prevailed.

The start of the Kosovo War is generally agreed upon as March 23, 1998, when a Serb police action ended in the massacre of some 50 civilians and ignited the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) to escalate its armed resistance. However, for rank and file ethnic Albanians “the war started much earlier,” Jashari said. As early as 1989 the Serb political-military machine tightened its noose around Kosovo. Ademi and Jashari say they witnessed friends beaten by cops. Ademi said a cousin was held and tortured for days in a police station without legal counsel.

 

 

 

 

At mass demonstrations he recalls police firing tear-gas, even bullets, into crowds. Once, he said, a cop guarding a train load of tanks drew his weapon on he and some friends taking a short cut through a rail yard. In such a climate, once carefree days spent playing soccer or shopping in open air markets were replaced by caution. Nights were most ominous, with the Black Hand, a secret police/paramilitary force, roaming the streets. “After the dark would come, people who were out on the streets were taken away. Many were killed. Everybody was afraid from here,” Ademi said, clutching his chest. “Walking home every night I was afraid what might happen. I didn’t know if I was going to make it back. If you saw a car coming you turned back into the road and stayed until it passed. When they passed, you were like, ‘Whew, I made it okay.’”

Amid brutal police tactics and outright terrorist acts, the KLA began striking back with savage retaliatory attacks of its own, which led to Serb reprisals. When entreaties and threats by the U.N., the European Union and the West failed to get Milosevic to back down, a controversial U.S.-led NATO military response followed.

A Taste of Freedom
The night of the first air strikes prompted celebrations.

“We were very happy. We were waiting for this day,” Jashari said. “Some people started to shout, “NATO, NATO” and “Clinton, Clinton.” Everybody was cheering and shaking hands.” Any sign of air power brought hope, even though the concussion from bombs and missiles shook and even shattered windows. “Every time I saw the planes in the air I could feel myself a little bit more…free,” Ademi said. “I prayed for the noise of those planes.”

The revelry soon gave way to dread.

“The Serbs were really mad. They didn’t know what else to do, so they started to burn out everything,” said Ademi, referring to the systematic ethnic cleansing that ensued.

The Ademis and Jasharis joined a flood of refugees streaming into villages, where they presumed it was safe. They were wrong. The villages, some housing KLA bases, were burned or pillaged. Houses that once served as quarters for OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) monitors were torched or trashed. Pundits criticized the fact that, for a time, the air strikes only intensified the Serb raids and further destabilized the region. While Ademi and Jashari confirm “that’s how it was,” they contend what happened “was not NATO’s fault,” As Jashari said, “We didn’t flee because of NATO bombs. We fled because the Serbs started to attack us.”

With no where to hide, ethnic Albanians became a displaced people, moving from village to village and house to house in a desperate bid to stay ahead of marauding Serb troops. The Jasharis managed to remain at home until Serb forces closed in. Once a house was vacated, a next wave of refugees moved in and consumed whatever stores were left. “

People didn’t know where to go,” Ademi said. “They would stay a couple days and move again, helping themselves to food. People would take from all over just to stay alive.”

Ademi’s family found long-term shelter at the home of an uncle in a nearby village. Soon, they were joined by a caravan of refugees from a ransacked village, their dead and injured carted on tractors and trucks. “I carried in a young woman who was wounded in the leg. An old woman who’d been shot died later,” said Ademi, whose family took in dozens of new arrivals, swelling the house’s occupants to 50.

When, weeks into the bombing, there seemed no end in sight to the war, the Albanian Kosovars decided to cross the border into Macedonia. “Everything was going bad. Supplies were low. We thought it better to move because maybe later we could not get out. If Milosevic won, we could not live in Kosovo,” Jashari said.

While there was little choice but to flee, leaving was hard. The refugees brought only bread and the clothes on their back, “My family cried. They knew that maybe we were not coming back,” said Jashari, who left with Valbona and his family in May and made it across the border in a motorized convoy. Weeks earlier, the Ademis set-off, in two groups, for the border. Gazmend and a younger brother went ahead first, traveling on foot with a band of young men along a mountain road. A guide helped them skirt Serb patrols and checkpoints.

 

Boy on the beach at Durres, Albania

Durres is a popular holiday spot, but is implicated in a dark chapter of history

 

 

The men crossed the border after a 15-hour hike. Two days later Fortesa got out with Ademi’s family, enduring rain and snow on a trek along the same path. Upon reaching northern Macedonia the refugees were housed and fed by ethnic Albanians who led them to a camp, Stenkovec #2. It was there the Ademis and Jasharis, who were still single, married as insurance against being separated later. The couples befriended each other and after six weeks sleeping 10 to 20 to a tent, their applications for asylum were granted. Their shared destination: Omaha. Neither couple had American relatives.

Starting Over
Meanwhile, half-a-world away in Bellevue, Theresa and Richard Guinan followed the unfolding refugee odyssey via media reports. Moved by what they saw, the couple contacted Sen. Chuck Hagel’s office and were put in touch with Heartland Refugee Resettlement, an affiliate of the ecumenical Church World Service. The Guinans volunteered as a host family and the Ademis and Jasharis were matched with them.

Why agree to take in a four refugees? “We wanted to do more than just send money. That’s too easy. We have so much to offer here (in America) and this was our way to help,” Theresa Guinan said. After an 18-hour journey (by plane from Macedonia to Greece to New York to St. Louis to Omaha), the refugees arrived here exhausted. Fortesa Ademi, then pregnant, was sick for much of the trip. They were overwhelmed by the greeting party awaiting them at the Eppley Airfield terminal, including the Guinans, members of their church and reporters.

 

Ethnic Albanian refugees from Kosovo at a camp in Kukes, Albania

Many Kosovan refugees ended up in a refugee camp in Kukes, Albania

Within a week Richard Guinan found jobs for the men, as cold storage construction laborers, and they’ve been employed ever since. “They’re hard workers and their employers love them,” Theresa Guinan said. Living under one roof, the Americans and Kosovars forged deep bonds that remain strong a year later. “We love them like our own. We call them ‘our kids,’” Theresa Guinan said.

Ademi said, “Our sponsors helped us a lot. They made us feel like we were in our own home. Everything was just perfect. We call Theresa and Dick our American parents.” Still, adjusting to American life has posed many challenges, not the least of which is Omaha’s nearly non-existent Albanian community, which Ademi said has left he and the others feeling isolated. “We really haven’t had a chance to make any friends. We don’t go out too much. When we came here we meant to stay five or six years, but now I don’t how we’re going to make it. It’s really hard.” He and the others would like to meet members of the ethnic Albanian refugee colony in Lincoln.

Should the Ademis and Jasharis return to Kosovo any time soon, they know what awaits them: few prospects, a devastated infrastructure and a region littered with land mines and ethnic tensions. As efforts to form a new democracy proceed under NATO’s Joint Interim Administration, the men dream of an independent Kosovo. “That’s the best way to be. That’s what we deserve,” Ademi said.

 

Image result for kosovo albanian war

 

In the wake of human rights investigations confirming Serb atrocities and of international tribunals naming Serb war criminals, the split between ethnic Albanians and their adversaries is greater than ever. Ironically and tragically, some ethnic Albanians have been engaging in ethnic cleansing reprisals against average Serb citizens. As the cycle of bigotry and violence winds on, the possibility of peaceful co-existence seems remote. Jashari described the gulf this way, “Albanian and Serbian culture is very different. That’s why the conflict is so deep.” Ademi said blood will continue to be shed “until the Serbs are out of Kosovo.” After all that has happened, he said, an ethnic Albanian like himself cannot abide living, drinking or working beside a Serb: “He’s going to be in my way. I’m going to be in his way. There’s no escaping that.”

Like the lyrics of the song playing that night at the apartment, Ademi said one thing is clear. “If you are Albanian, you are my friend. We want the same thing. If you are Serbian, then living together is too hard.” And the jingoistic beat goes on.

Old partnership takes new turn: UNO-Kabul University renew ties with journalism program

January 24, 2011 1 comment

Female students at Kabul University.

Image via Wikipedia

The article below is the latest of several I have written over the last decade or so about the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.  This story concerns a UNO-Kabul University journalism collaborative or partnership being overseen by the center, which received a $1.3 million grant to fund the endeavor.  The center is a nearly 40 year-old institution dedicated , just as it name states, to Afghanistan studies and as such it is a unique operation and certainly one you would not expect to find in the Midwest.  Its director, Thomas Gouttierre, has been a profile subject of mine (you’ll find my piece on hin on this blog).  He and his assistant Raheem Yaseer and their UNO colleague John Shroder are among America’s foremost experts on Afghanistan.  The center has been involved in all manner of training and support there and its expertise is often tapped by U.S. government sources.  Much of the center’s efforts have been directed at helping train Afghan nationals in order to rebuild that nation’s infrastructure.  My new article for The Reader (www.thereader.com) lays out the recently formed journalism partnership program involving faculty exchanges and Afghan journalism educators and students coming here to shadow their American counterparts as well as working journalists.  I hope to be one of those journalists they meet with and follow around.  Look for more of my work covering this unfolding story in the months ahead.

 

Old partnership takes new turn: UNO-Kabul University renew Ttes with journalism program

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

UNO communication professor Chris Allen recently returned from a two-week needs assessment trip to Afghanistan. His journey was part of a federally-funded journalism faculty-student development program between the University of Nebraska at Omaha and Kabul University.

As Afghanistan attempts normalization in this post-Taliban era, the nation’s indigenous media uneasily co-exist with Islamic law and government ambivalence. Yet, flush with freedom and peace for the first time in decades. Allen says “a surprisingly vigorous and developing media system” exists there.

Consider two vastly different television shows: the incendiary Niqab has masked women detail abuse they’ve suffered; the popular Afghan Star is an American Idol riff.

Training the next generation of Afghan journalists requires access to resources and modern practices. That’s why UNO and Kabul University are connecting aspiring and working journalists in academic, professional and cultural exchanges. Funded by a $1.3 million grant from the U.S. State Department‘s Fulbright program, this three-year partnership renews old ties between the two institutions and is the latest example of UNO’s decades-long work with Afghanistan.

UNO’s School of Communication and its Center for Afghanistan Studies are collaborating on the program. Allen was accompanied by CAS director and dean of International Studies and Programs Tom Gouttierre and CAS assistant director Raheem Yaseer.

The university’s relationship with the nation goes back to 1972, when two campus geography professors began research collaboratives. A donated collection of Afghanistan materials has grown to 12,000-plus items. In 1975 a linkage with Kabul University began.

To date, the center’s received some $60 million in grants and contracts for technical assistance programs, training and educational exchanges. Hundreds of Afghans have come to UNO for training to help rebuild their nation’s infrastructure. Hundreds of Americans come here to train as liaisons in reconstruction efforts.

The center maintains a Kabul field office and Team House, where Allen stayed. It also operates the UNO Education Press, which printed the new Afghan constitution and the ballots for the first democratic elections there in decades.

Even during the Soviet occupation and war, the Taliban reign of terror and the U.S.-led invasion to oust terrorists, Gouttierre says the center remained in contact with various education and government officials in Afghanistan or in exile in Pakistan.

He says a model for this new collaborative is the center’s 2002-2005 teacher education project, which brought Afghan women educators for an immersion experience as part of reopening the nation’s schools. Just as those visitors did, Afghan journalists will stay with Nebraska host families.

Plans call for a group of Afghan professors to arrive in late spring, with additional contingents of faculty and some students arriving later this year. More UNO School of Communication faculty are to visit Afghanistan in the coming months. Program visitors on each side will observe best practices and shadow their peers.

 

Chris Allen, second from left, with Kabul journalism faculty

 

 

Because UNO’s Chris Allen was in Kabul during finals week he didn’t observe classes, but he did speak with faculty.

“I really didn’t know anything about them and they really didn’t know anything about me and to sort of start off on an even footing was a really good thing,” he says. “I didn’t want to go in with preconceived notions that might prejudice the questions I would ask. I could ask really naive questions, and I did that, and I think that served as an ice breaker to say, I need to understand what you guys are doing and what your media are doing as much as you need to understand what we’re doing.

“It enabled me to go in and do a needs assessment from the ground up.”

Allen says the Afghans expressed a need for assistance on both teaching and practical levels. He says many expressed a desire to improve teaching techniques by moving away from lecture-oriented approaches to more hands-on student participation. He says Afghan educators are hampered by limited facilities and resources, such as teaching television without a studio or cameras or editing equipment. However, he says a new media center is in the works.

The most glaring need Allen saw was for more classroom computers. He says the basic reporting class has 10 computers serving 50 students.

“I’m not sure how they’re getting that done.”

He also marvels at how working media, faculty and students brave forbidding conditions, including security and transportation issues.

He’s told that journalism graduates readily find jobs in the Afghan media, which many call “a growth industry.”

Admittedly, he says, his lack of Persian language skills limited him but it didn’t prevent his noting some arcane story structure problems in print and broadcast reports. Despite shortcomings, he and Gouttierre say the media is a vital presence. Dozens of independent print publications have launched. Saad Mohseni, chairman of the largest independent media company there, MOBY Group, is Afghanistan’s first media mogul. The government-run media enterprise RTA is ubiquitous. Radio is the most pervasive medium, says Allen, because it’s accessible and doesn’t require high literacy.

Gouttierre says the UNO-KU project comes at a transformational time.

“Now we have this situation for UNO faculty and students to be engaged right up close with a country’s media that is trying to leap frog in a sense. It kind of reminds me of when I first went to Afghanistan in the early ‘60s as a Peace Corps volunteer and the country was just emerging as a constitutional, parliamentary democratic process. The press was becoming independent at that same time.”

He anticipates each side will learn much from the other, though he suspects Americans may have the most to gain.

“It’s surprising how far Afghans have taken themselves with few resources and how much we can learn from their creativity and initiative in very trying circumstances.  its shocking to see how much they’ve accomplished with so many obstacles.”

A Peace Corps Retrospective


Logo of the United States Peace Corps.

Image via Wikipedia

Another anniversary story.  It was the 40th anniversary of the Peace Corps and I just happened to know a few veterans of that renowned service program, and so after they agreed to share their stories with me, those experiences formed the backbone of  what I wrote.  One of the individuals I profiled served in Afghanistan and the other three in India. All of them were deeply affected by what they saw and did and at some level that experience has informed everything they’ve done since then.  My story originally appeared in the New Horizons.  On this same blog you can find my profile of one of these Peace Corps veterans – Thomas Gouttierre, and his affinity for and work with Afghanistan.

A Peace Corps Retrospective

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons

Forty years ago, the first wave of Peace Corps volunteers landed in Ghana and Tanzania, Africa. The young, bright-eyed Americans were a new kind of emissary. Neither diplomats nor missionaries, they arrived in far-flung destinations with the appointed task of helping Third World peoples learn skills and develop resources for overcoming tyranny, poverty and disease.

Trained in various service assignments, ranging from education to health to agriculture, the volunteers embodied the idealism and vigor of America’s young, energetic President, John F. Kennedy, who had announced his vision for the Peace Corps in an October 14, 1960 campaign speech at the University of Michigan in which he challenged the nation’s youth to aid the developing world. Once elected, Kennedy reiterated the plan for an international volunteer corps during his January 20, 1961 inaugural address, asking a new generation of Americans to join “a grand and global alliance” to aid the dispossessed and pledging “our best efforts to help them help themselves.”

Kennedy’s clarion call was answered by thousands, including several Nebraskans. By September ‘61 Congress approved legislation formally authorizing Peace Corps and by the end of that year the first contingent of volunteers left for their host countries. Within five years, more than 15,000 volunteers from around the U.S. were implementing Peace Corps projects in the field. As of 2001, 163,000 volunteers have served in 135 countries.

Among those heeding the call during that heady first decade were Tom and Marylu Gouttiere, Peter Tomsen, Beth Furlong and Ron Psota, five transplanted Omahans who were then fresh-from-college graduates looking for a way to make a difference and to find an adventure. Peace Corps duty proved a defining experience for each, indelibly changing the pattern, direction and focus of their lives. For each, it was a time of personal growth and broadened perspectives. They would never look at the world or its diverse people the same way again. For proof, each returned Peace Corps volunteer has given his or her life over to working with people and each has become a world citizen with deep, personal ties to the international arena.

Tom Gouttierre was either headed for a career as a master baker just like his father or as a manager with General Motors just like his friends when Kennedy’s call to service got him thinking beyond the parochial borders of his Maumee, Ohio hometown. “He was an inspiring guy. When he spoke I was just kind of taken by his message of going outside what we normally do,” said Gouttierre, who today directs the Center for Afghanistan Studies and heads the International Studies and Programs Department at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

 

 

Tom Gouttierre

 

 

From the time he was a child Gouttierre had been curious about the wider world and longed for journeys that would open up its vast horizons to him, only he lacked a way to make it happen. By his early 20s he was studying liberal arts at Bowling Green State University, but remained frustrated in his efforts to break from the mold. That’s when he and his wife, Marylu, decided to throw caution to the wind and enter the Peace Corps. After training in Vermont, the couple was assigned to Afghanistan, a remote, forbidding country that would figure prominently in the rest of their lives. During their 1965-1967 tour, the couple was based in the capital city of Kabul. He worked as an English-as-a-foreign language instructor and basketball coach at Lycee Habibia high school and she as a physical education instructor at Kabul University and a business instructor at all-girls schools.

“We were one of the few married couples,” said Marylu, an Oriental rug retailer. “It was an unknown experience. We had no idea what to expect, whether our language skills would help us or where we would live. There was no telephone. No television. No communication. It was a really exciting experience, a really scary experience, but also a very rewarding experience, and after awhile we just both fell in love with the culture and the people. It’s good to give some of your own services to others, but when you do that you gain so much also.”

Especially in the early 1960s, countries viewed Peace Corps volunteers “as a kind of feather in their cap,” Tom Gouttierre said, and much of that enthusiasm had to do with foreign peoples’ admiration of Americans. “The students I worked with tried to take everything out of me that they could. They were curious as hell. They were always wanting me to do something with them or for them. It was flattering that your skills were that attractive to this group of people. Before Vietnam really got kind of overbearing, Americans, largely because of the impact of Kennedy, had a real appeal for the younger generation. I can’t tell you how many times some Afghan came up to me to express their sorrow at the death of Kennedy. ‘He was a great man,’ they would say. That was a great asset for any Peace Corps volunteer. You had this icon who helped elevate your own position in their eyes. Today, America is viewed a little differently and for that reason it’s probably more difficult to be a Peace Corps volunteer now, even though living conditions are better.”

Tom Gouttierre’s Peace Corps service set the stage for a distinguished professional life with deep ties to Afghanistan. He and Marylu returned there in 1969 when he studied abroad as a Fulbright Scholar and they remained there the next six years as he headed the Fulbright Foundation and coached the national basketball team. The Gouttierre’s oldest child, Adam, was born in Afghanistan. During his UNO tenure he’s built a massive archive on Afghanistan, supervised education programs there, participated in United Nations fact-finding junkets there and appeared before Congress addressing issues relating to Afghanistan.

Since leaving, he’s watched with a heavy heart as the nation crumbled under the strain of successive crises — from a war with the former Soviet Union to civil strife to the oppressive Taliban regime to the current specter of American-Allied retaliation for harboring terrorist Osama Bin Laden. Many of his former students have been lost. “I’ve seen what one my call the end of innocence in Afghanistan,” he said. “To see the destruction and to learn of the deaths and disappearances of so many friends and associates is very, very sad.”

His thoughts of Afghanistan are bittersweet.

“It’s the place where I kind of grew to a mature person. I was a flower waiting for the sun to rise and it just unfolded parts of me that never would have been unfolded if I had not done that. I learned how to live in very challenging circumstances. It opened everything else up for me. I was naive, but the Peace Corps showed me the world. It gave me the opportunity to learn well another language, culture and people. I love Afghanistan. Its people are very hospitable. They have great self-assurance and pride. Today, however, they have such despair about the future of the country. They are fed up with war. They want things to return to the way they were. And I guess what keeps me at this work is that I am ever hopeful that somehow, some way, those admirable qualities of Afghan culture I came to love so much will to some degree be restored. So, I keep pursuing that.”

Peter Tomsen was a student at Wittenberg University in Ohio when Kennedy’s appeal to America’s youth hooked him. “I can remember, even today, him asking us, ‘How many of you would be willing to study Urdu and go to Pakistan and serve?’ There was an explosion of enthusiasm built around the novelty of the idea — of going off to help others — but also the charism of President Kennedy. He moved us. He moved a whole generation,” said Tomsen, ambassador-in-residence in the UNO International Studies and Programs department. “There was a rush to join up. There were many more volunteers then there were slots. We were extremely idealistic. Many of us, including me, had never even left our country much less our state. And that element — of an unseen adventure — was there, too.”

In a case of it truly being a small world, Tomsen and Gouttierre, both the same year, grew up within 35 miles of each other in northwest Ohio, came to a similar epiphany regarding the Peace Corps at nearly the same time and embarked on international careers that eventually led them to being UNO colleagues. Assigned to Nepal, Tomsen first underwent extensive language and culture training in Washington, D.C. and hard physical training in Hawaii (to steel him for the rigors of trekking through the Himalayas). Upon his arrival in Nepal, he taught social sciences at a college constructed of stone, bamboo and thatch, but before his two years were up he was charged with the new mission of opening a vocational school for Tibetan refugee children.

Peter Tomsen

 

 

Being transported from the plenty of America’s Breadbasket to the subsistence-level conditions in Nepal exposed Tomsen to a side of the world he could not have imagined. “Outside of the capital, there was no electricity in Nepal,” he said. “There was only one road. It was a very poor area with very little to eat. We ended up just having rice twice a day with vegetables and sometimes with meat. Often, we slept on mats on the ground. We didn’t have newspapers or television. We could only get the BBC on transistor radio. We were really isolated. There was a high illiteracy rate. Peoples’ interests didn’t go much beyond survival. But, faced with a situation like that, you soon realize how little you need, especially when you have friends. We had extremely close friendships with the people and they had it with each other too. The people were proud and led a fulfilling life.”

After his 1963-1965 Peace Corps tour, Tomsen returned to the U.S. to teach at St. Cloud State University before landing a diplomatic post in the U.S. State Department, where he enjoyed a 33-year career that culminated with him serving as ambassador to Armenia. Wherever he’s worked, he’s carried with him core values from the Peace Corps, including “interpersonal and intercultural abilities” and greater “tolerance, patience and sensitivity.” He said. “After living in a village environment in Nepal for two years I was at home and comfortable the rest of my life every time I met a foreigner.”

Beth Furlong had rarely traveled outside the confines of Davenport, Iowa, where she was a hospital nurse, when she opted to stop playing it safe and to push herself beyond her comfort zone by entering the Peace Corps. Following training in New England, her assignment was teaching public health education to adult men and women, including students at an all-women’s teacher training institute in East Mysore, India. It was about as far afield from her rural Midwestern upbringing as she could get and the dichotomy led her to change her outlook on things.

“I led a restricted life before I entered,” said Furlong, an associate professor in the School of Nursing and a faculty associate in the Center for Health Policy and Ethics at Creighton University. “It made me a mobile-international citizen. It helped me look beyond my ethnocentrism. It gave me a new concern about poverty and justice. And, also, it gave me an appreciation for the fact there’s no one right way to do anything. The area I lived in was predominantly Hindu and Muslim and so I learned there are many ways to worship. I learned that washing myself didn’t have to mean bathing, but could mean pouring water over myself. It was a wonderful lived experience of getting outside America and seeing how other people live.”

Back in the U.S., Furlong switched her career track from hospital nursing to community health nursing as a direct result of her Peace Corps service, which opened her eyes to the need for more and better preventive — rather than reactive — public health policy in addressing such things as nutrition, safe drinking water, immunizations, family planning and maternal-child care. At home, she has involved herself in scores of organizations dedicated to the justice, anti-poverty and peace movement, including Omaha Together One Community (OTOC) and Nebraskans for Peace. She has taught ethics at international conferences in Eastern Europe, most recently under the auspices of the Albert Schweitzer Institute and the American International Health Alliance.

Today, she is planning her first trip back to India since she left 33 years ago and is eager to return to the villages she volunteered in to see what progress time has wrought. All these years later, Furlong fondly looks back at her India tour of duty and appreciates how it helped her move beyond the “constricted view” of things she arrived with to develop a greater, more encompassing understanding of other cultures. As Furlong discovered, Peace Corps volunteers do not merely observe the cultures they serve from some ivory tower distance, but rather wade right in to live and work among the people.

 

 

Beth Furlong

 

 

In her case, that meant eating spare meals, doing without electricity, using an outhouse, bicycling from town to town and being the object of curiosity wherever she traveled. It meant being treated to a level of hospitality that humbled her, as peasants shared meager food supplies with her, a perfect stranger, when such provisions should really have gone to their malnourished children. It also meant finding out, first hand, what peoples’ needs were and devising responses to meet those needs.

When she and her Peace Corps partner, Alice, identified a need for sanitary food preparation and bathroom facilities, they took the initiative and worked with CARE volunteers to build kitchen sheds and latrines in dozens of villages. She’s hoping that when she visits these villages, the sheds and latrines still stand. She said she could not have gotten as intimate with Indian culture as she did without the Peace Corps placing her smack dab in the middle of things. That sentiment is shared by fellow Peace Corps veterans.

“Peace Corps volunteers get closer to the quick of society than do anybody else, whether its foreign service officers or scholars or anyone else,” Gouttierre said. “The Peace Corps is probably the best people-to-people experience ever devised. In that regard, it’s as important as it ever was and I think it’s still the best kind of foreign assistance and foreign exchange of any kind.”

Ron Psota had long ago decided not to be a dairy farmer like his parents, who owned and operated a spread near Ord, Nebraska. No, he wanted to see the world and to explore other possibilities. So, he became a liberal arts major at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he earned an architecture degree he hoped one day to use in the Peace Corps, whose foreign service appealed to his sense of curiosity. Ironically, once in the Peace Corps he did not end up designing low cost housing as imagined but instead found himself on familiar ground by assisting farmers in India with their agricultural needs. Still, the Peace Corps offered him the chance to live out a dream and to carve out a new life.

“I’d always been interested in other cultures. That was a strong pull. That and the fact maybe you could do some good and maybe have a helluva good adventure too,” said Psota, International Students Coordinator at Bellevue University. “I think if I had not done that my life would be quite a bit different. It was sort of a defining moment. It changed my world view. It changed the way I work and what I do and everything else.”

 

 

Ron Psota, left, with foreign exchange students

 

 

Perhaps the biggest change it made in the lives of Psota and his wife, Eileen Wirth, has been in their serving as hosts for hundreds of foreign students over the years. First, at UNO, and more recently at Bellevue University, Psota has been a liaison for international students, many of whom have lived with the couple at their Bemis Park area home, which is filled with artifacts and photographs from their many travels and exchanges. Psota has maintained contact all these years with the village he served and has returned to India four times.

The couple are adoptive parents to two children, now grown, who are foreign-born nationals. Their son, Raj, came from Mother Theresa’s orphanage in New Delhi and their daughter, Shanti, came from an orphan agency in Thailand. He said his reaching out to international youths is his way of repaying a debt he feels he owes those villagers who welcomed him 30-odd years ago. “A lot of this is sort of pay back. The world needs to be more welcoming to each other.” Psota’s wife, Eileen, said she knew as soon as Ron came back from his Peace Corps stint that “I was going to share him with India for the rest of our lives. And, of course, India then became Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand…”

Psota was part of a Peace Corps team working to increase village level food production.

“We were sort of county agents charged with introducing new hybrids, fertilization, land leveling and crop protection measures. We were half that  and half snake oil salesmen in a lot of ways,” he said. “We were supposed to get farmers to change. At times it was sort of, ‘God, are they ever going to change?’ We were probably bringing on the future and one of the things we were concerned about was ensuring the future had a human face.”

Despite some resistance and skepticism, Psota said farmers soon saw the benefits of improved methods. “The Indians were like farmers anyplace in the world. They may not have been able to read and write, but they all could count. When they counted the number of bags of rice that came off some of our hybrid areas versus what they got off their own plots, they were going to plant them. The yield was that much greater.” Psota and his team also modernized farming practices by starting a tractor cooperative that brought mechanized plowing and harvesting to the area.

A lasting impression for Psota is how much a spectacle he and his Peace Corps mates were. “We were the best show in town in a lot of ways. We were curiosities. I always felt I was on display. The first month or so after my arrival I lived in a school house with windows on all sides, usually complete with little kids looking in at all hours of the day and night. The villagers were just always there. You’d open your door at 6:30 in the morning to go do your duty in the mulu bushes and four people would fall in on you. You soon learned to play to the crowd.” In his travels back to India he’s found the people “much more in tune with what’s going on and a little more in control over their own lives.”

Peace Corps veterans comprise a special fraternity or, as Peter Tomsen, put it, “a family,” built on shared service abroad. Ron Psota often organizes reunions of returned Peace Corps volunteers. To a man and woman, they describe their volunteering as the most seminal experience in their lives.

Gouttierre said, “My whole life is the product of the Peace Corps. I’m more proud of being a Peace Corps volunteer than of anything else I’ve done. When I find out somebody is a returned Peace Corps volunteer it automatically raises their estimation in my eyes. It still is a very profound experience in terms of what it does to crystallize one’s inner dimensions.”

Tomsen, whose daughter followed him into the Peace Corps, said, “It was the most formative experience I ever had. Do I think I made a difference? Yes, but I think I got more back than the villagers.” Furlong, who was planning to attend the Peace Corp’s 40th anniversary celebration in Washington D.C. until it was postponed in the wake of the recent terrorist attack, simply said, “It changed me.” Finally, Psota said, the Peace Corps opened up “the wonder of the world for me. Now, I’ve got friends all over the world to see. Yeah, I got a lot out of it.”

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