Category Archives: Letters from the Field

Notes from Senegal: My American Jewish World Service Study Tour Experience

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Originally posted on the blog of Absolute Travel.

On a recent one week study tour sponsored by American Jewish World Service (AJWS), with the assistance of Absolute Travel, I became fully immersed in the magical world of Senegal—its people, its culture and its struggles to forge peace and overcome poverty. Read More »

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Life on $3 a Day: Garment Workers and Cambodia’s Struggle for Human Rights

Monks bless the crowd at a human rights demonstration in Phnom Penh. Photo: Evan Abramson for AJWS

Monks bless the crowd at a human rights demonstration in Phnom Penh.

A month ago, I stood outside Cambodia’s National Assembly with hundreds of Buddhist monks. They chanted in Sanskrit and tossed lotus petals into a crowd of protesters, blessing them. Many of them had walked from rural villages to Phnom Penh over 10 days. They rallied at the palatial seat of the country’s parliament, to mark International Human Rights Day and hopefully draw the government’s attention to the rights Cambodia’s people have yet to fully grasp—rights related to labor, land and a fair legal system.

People passed out water bottles and wrapped towels around their heads to protect themselves from the harsh midday sun. Others held up signs (“WE ARE WOMEN WE ARE NOT SLAVES”) and loudspeakers buzzed, ready to call people to action. We were not supposed to be there; the government had prohibited marches. I searched the crowd, waiting for something to happen.

But it was peaceful.  Despite a day filled with marches and demonstrations, Phnom Penh remained relatively calm. The only government reaction: quietly relocating a dozen protesters who had camped outside the U.S. embassy.

Fast forward a few weeks, and the demonstrations have taken a dramatic and deadly turn. On Jan. 2, after escalating tension over the minimum wage, police shot AK-47s and handguns into a crowd of protesters, killing at least four and injuring more than 29. Most of them were garment workers—the very people I traveled to Cambodia to meet. Read More »

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Congo peace activists celebrate defeat of M23 rebels

DRC edit 2

Women in Goma marched in the streets to celebrate the defeat of the M23.

For many months, I have heard tragic reports of rising conflict from our partners in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Eastern DRC has been engulfed by conflict since 1994, when Hutu militias fled across the border from Rwanda—where they had just slaughtered Tutsis and moderate Hutus in one of the most organized genocides of the 20th century.

But in the last week, we have started seeing signs of hope. The notorious M23 rebels have finally surrendered, after years of unrelenting attacks against both civilians and the DRC military.

Here in DRC, people have been celebrating this important milestone. Women have dressed in white to show their support to the Congolese army and government in Goma and Kinshasa. There is a festive mood in the air.

However, grassroots advocates for peace are also calling for caution.  People are waiting to see what happens next and how the pending peace negotiations between the government and the M23 unfold. Still, this is a huge step toward breaking the cycle of recurrent violence in the Eastern DRC. We hope the United Nations and the Congolese army succeed in fighting the remaining rebel groups. There will be challenges ahead, particularly when human rights groups seek justice for war crimes—but this is a huge first step.

Read on for reflections on this news from AJWS partners in Goma and Bukavu, DRC, who will continue working with their communities to recover from this conflict and demand their basic human rights.

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AJWS’s first Global Justice Fellows set off for Mexico

This week, AJWS Los Angeles is thrilled to venture to Mexico with our inaugural group of Global Justice Fellows. Ranging from ages 22 to 68, this group includes rabbis, entertainment professionals, Jewish communal professionals, lay leaders, philanthropic leaders and nonprofit executives. Hailing from broad geographies and diverse communities, these fellows truly represent the vitality and variety of Los Angeles.

In August, the Los Angeles fellows began their year-long program designed to help them become activist leaders in support of global justice. By traveling to meet AJWS’s grantee partners in Mexico and witness their struggles and stories, we hope to return inspired and ready to lead the charge of repairing the world.

Meet the Los Angeles fellows below, and watch for updates on their experience in Mexico in the coming weeks!

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Reimagining Our World: Reflections From an AJWS Trip to India

This post is also featured on the blog of the Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund.

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Marvin Goodman, far left, traveled with an AJWS rabbinic delegation to India.

This July, I traveled to Lucknow in northern India with American Jewish World Service and a group of 17 rabbis from across the United States. Our goal was to personally see and understand AJWS’s important international work. And, as I look back at the trip, we certainly accomplished that—but we also got a more powerful crash course in the profound disparities between the conditions and expectations for human rights in the U.S. versus the developing world. The experience was overwhelming, surprising, uplifting, depressing and eye-opening. Read More »

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Into the Field: Stories from Cambodia

Leah Kaplan Robins in Cambodia.

As AJWS’s senior writer and editor, my job is to put AJWS’s complex work—helping marginalized people in the developing world realize their human rights—into words. I tell stories about activists around the globe, trying to bring their lives and challenges alive for AJWS supporters who’ve never met them—or who may have never seen this kind of poverty and injustice themselves.

What may surprise you is that, until just recently, I hadn’t seen it either. For the past four years at AJWS, I have portrayed communities and human rights struggles by hearing stories from colleagues, interviewing our grantees when they visited New York, and pouring over photos from our staff, volunteers and grantees to glean images and feelings that I could convey on the page.

But two weeks ago, AJWS sent me into the field with two of my colleagues—to Cambodia. For the first time, I stood face-to-face with the people whose struggles we’re funding—in their own communities. While this one trip can’t encapsulate the diverse range of places AJWS works, it provided moments of deep connection that I can now share with you, and that will inspire my work for a long time to come. Read More »

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Letter from Haiti

AJWS Development Associate, Stefanie Rubin, recently traveled to Haiti in preparation for the November 2011 AJWS Study Tour to Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Below she shares her reflections and insights about all that she has experienced in just three days.

My mind is still reeling from everything we’ve seen during the past few days in Haiti. Clips of what we’ve experienced and the grantees we’ve visited keep bubbling to the forefront of my consciousness and lap over me in waves of emotion. Today began with another long car ride, weaving through a mess of buildings toppled over like a child’s set of blocks, against a backdrop of green, spectacularly beautiful mountainsides sloping toward an idyllic Caribbean coast. Woven into the landscape are banners of blue, white and grey calling out to us in familiar code: USAID, UNICEF, PR of CHINA, Rotary International.  Our van slowed to a crawl as we navigated our way through yet another bustling market swarmed with shoppers haggling over everything from bushels of plantains (a staple in Haitian cuisine) to scented lotions and candles, to brightly painted jewelry and hand stamped metal sculptures. Life, even in the face of extreme adversity, goes on.

As we made our way into the heart of downtown Port au Prince, we caught our first glimpse of the National Palace, which sustained heavy damages after the quake. I had seen the “before and after” photos on the news last year, but seeing it first hand was deeply moving. The visual was not a complete surprise. But what we discovered immediately across the street—“The Champ de Mars Plaza”—will stay with me long after I return home.

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Interview with Navin Moul, AJWS Program Officer for Asia

I recently caught up with AJWS Program Officer Navin Moul who just returned from a trip to Thailand and Cambodia where she witnessed the struggles and successes of the communities that AJWS supports.

Can you tell me about some of the main issues you looked at during your trip to Cambodia and Thailand?

A lot of our work in Thailand has to do with community land titles. I was able to go to villages and talk to people about the issues they have around land—such a complex, layered issue with legal regulations, livelihood issues, sustainability, organic, non-organic, community engagement and empowerment. One of the organizations we work with is the Sustainable Development Foundation. They had mapped out the northern part of Thailand and the land designated as conservation or wildlife land, and where it overlaps with community land—where communities have been living for generations. They showed a progression over the past five years. You could see the physical shrinkage of these lands. They use this when they do community meetings with government and local officials, so [the land shrinkage] is not in your imagination, and it’s not only happening to you—it’s quite powerful.

How are land issues similar or different between the two countries?

The land movement in Thailand has been going on for at least 30 years. Villages and communities have been organizing against what’s happening around them—big agro-business displacing people, or the government displacing people and reserving land for protected forest. There are a lot of accusations that people who live in the forest ruin the land. The villagers are trying to prove the opposite—it’s because of the work they do that there’s not more deforestation, because they’re there to monitor it. They realize that their livelihood comes from the forest, so they don’t want to damage it.

In Cambodia, in Ratanikiri [Ed. Note: a province in the northeast], we met with two organizations that work around a dam that is going to be built on the Sesan River. Right where three rivers hit the Mekong is where the government proposes to build the dam. Apparently they’ve done an environmental impact assessment, but didn’t really get community input. I was talking to the director of 3SPN [3S (Sesan, Srepok and Sekong) Rivers Protection Network] who said half the people don’t really read it; it’s just something to do so the [government] can say they [conducted an assessment.] The government can say, “See we’ve talked to people and the benefits to the country are much greater than the risks or negative impacts.” It depends on who you talk to. People who live in that community will not actually benefit from the power source. You’re talking about villages with no running water or electricity. People are actually displaced from their land too. These villages are completely remote. Ratanikiri is seven hours from Phnom Penh and the roads aren’t great, and then you have to drive another two hours on a road filled with potholes. And then you go into these little huts with no running water or electricity. I don’t know where the schools are. Often, there aren’t any young people because they leave to make a living.

The village we went to see was right next to the river. They made lunch for us, and the fish they caught were tiny little fish. I was surprised—I thought the fish would be abundant, but there aren’t many fish left because of the dams built upstream, which affected the cycle of the fish and [created] flooding that happens irregularly because of the dams.

The next day we went with the Highlander Association (HA), which works on land rights. Both organizations work with indigenous folks. At one village we had a community meeting—it was an emergency meeting called the day before. Someone had come in to say, “We are going to relocate you, this is someone else’s land now; we’re planting rubber trees and building roads.” HA was strategizing with the group about what they could do. As we were talking, a police officer came in and said, “Can I sit here and listen?” We said, “Yes, you can sit here, but you can’t say anything, we’re having a meeting.” Then he left, and another police officer came and said, “We want you to sign this because we want to know who was here.” HA said, “No, we’re not going to sign anything, we’re just having a meeting.” We looked out the door and there were three more police officers standing there. The ability to assemble around this issue is so contentious. We were in the middle of nowhere; I don’t know how [the police] knew we were meeting.

Some of the stories are heartbreaking. People say, “I’ve been here for 60 years. If you take my land away, I have nothing to leave my children. You’re basically pushing me off this land and I will die; you’re killing me.” Land is the essence of livelihood in Thailand, in Cambodia. If people don’t have land to work on, they really have nothing.

Fortunately we have these organizations that are doing really great work. What came across was a lack of education of what people’s rights are. They didn’t know they shouldn’t sign these papers. A lot of these people don’t speak or read Khmer because they’re indigenous. Someone in uniform comes and they don’t know better.

It appears to us (Jenna, Thida and I) that the work around land rights in Thailand has progressed a little more [than it has in Cambodia], and we would love to do a partner exchange with organizations in Thailand and Cambodia. The Cambodian organizations would learn so much from the Thai organizations. It might lift up their spirits too to see what has been done in the Thai movement. I think Cambodia can achieve some of that too.

What is the climate like in terms of people being afraid, or receiving threats for the work they do?

In Thailand, people are dissatisfied with the government and everything that’s been going on politically. People don’t feel threatened by the government in the same way that they do in Cambodia. The executive director of HA is an indigenous woman and has received many threats for her work on land rights with the indigenous community. They come to her house. At first they tried to bribe her to get her to work with the government. She said no, but has been very fearful. She never travels along. She’s very outspoken. She is afraid, but said, “I don’t know what else to do. I have to keep on doing this, and be as loud as possible, so that if anything happens to me it won’t go unnoticed.”

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The Power of Indigenous Women in Peru

Most things are forgotten over time, but for Mujeres de Antaa collective group of Quechua Indigenous women and AJWS’s partner in Cusco, Peru—no matter how much time passes, no matter what takes place in the interim, there are some things they can never assign to oblivion; memories they cannot rub away.

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Surviving Conflict and Violence in Colombia

My visit to Familaires Colombia, an AJWS partner working to support relatives of forcibly disappeared people from the long lasting armed conflict, was profound. I came to understand some of the causes and the real impact of the conflict in the daily lives of people from small towns. It really surprised me, on the one hand, the terror that the illegal armed groups tried to plant in the hearts of people in order to silence them, and on the other hand, the strength of these people to continue walking with dignity, and their tireless pursuit not only to find the bodies of their loved ones, but also to find justice for them.

What really happened in Casanare?

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