Category Archives: Letters from the Field

Powers of Ten: Reflections from an AJWS Global Justice Fellow

David Lieberman is a member of AJWS’s Los Angeles Global Justice Fellowship cohort. The Global Justice Fellowship is a year-long program designed to inspire, educate and train key opinion leaders in the American Jewish community to become activist leaders in support of global justice. David wrote this reflection at the end of his trip with the Global Justice Fellows to India, where they learned from grassroots activists working to overcome poverty and injustice in their own communities.

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The AJWS LA Global Justice Fellows visited AJWS grantee SAATHI in India, which provides access to healthcare, education and employment services for India’s marginalized communities.

 

There is a short educational film called Powers of Ten, which starts with an overhead view of a couple having a picnic in a park. One square meter is outlined in the center of the screen. In the upper right hand corner is an indicator reading one square meter.

The camera zooms out and ten square meters are outlined. The indicator reads 10 square meters. The camera continues to zoom out by powers of 10 until our galaxy is speck in a sky full of galaxies and the indicator reflects the area in powers of 10.

The camera reverses and zooms in to the original one square meter, then zooms in further to powers of -10 focusing on the hand of the male picnicker, and continues to zoom internally down to the cellular level, the atomic level and the nuclear level.

I think that’s exactly what we’re doing when we work with AJWS.  Every effort we put forth is multiplied by powers of 10 through AJWS’s support of more than 500 social change organizations around the world, striving to overcome poverty and oppression in their own communities.

Powers of 10.

And each organization has its own networks. We met some of them on this trip. And each organization in their network multiplies their efforts  through their community organizers, and  each community organizer’s efforts are multiplied throughout their communities.

Powers of 10.

And I look around at our group. Each of our individual efforts are again multiplied as we work together.

Powers of 10.

When we work to transform social conditions, we bring about a change in ourselves. I noticed it in myself this week. For one example, when we checked into our hotel in Kolkata, India, I wondered how many people on the street were displaced by the building of our hotel.  I wondered this after seeing what I’ve seen on this trip, after our meeting with AJWS grantee Kislay, which works to promote the rights of urban poor communities in slum areas of New Delhi. I learned the following morning that although the hotel was renovated recently, the structure has been there for 150 years, so nobody on the street today was displaced by the building of the hotel.  But my thinking to ask the question was a change in me; the awareness was a change in me.

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The AJWS LA Global Justice Fellows visited AJWS grantee Kislay, which works to promote the rights of urban poor communities in slum areas of New Delhi, India.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As we marked the end of Shabbat, a Global Justice Fellow mentioned that the blessing over the wine is about transformation; grapes into grape juice, grape juice into wine, and the human effort it takes to do so.

So, I ask each of the Global Justice Fellows to think about our trip—what you’ve done, what you’ve seen—and let’s use that to continue driving forward to transform social conditions for those who face poverty and injustice around the world. And when we work outwardly to transform social conditions, we transform ourselves internally by powers of 10.

Lieberman, DavidDavid Lieberman, an AJWS-LA Global Justice Fellow, works in the corporate security field for a global biomedical company.

The AJWS Global Justice Fellowship is a selective, year-long program designed to inspire, educate and train key opinion leaders in the American Jewish community to become activist leaders in support of global justice. Learn more about the Global Justice Fellowship

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Nigeria: AJWS Allies Respond to Girls’ Abduction

Protesters around the world have drawn unprecedented international attention to the plight of more than 250 girls in northern Nigeria. Most of the girls, who were kidnapped by the Islamist militant group Boko Haram on April 15, remain missing.

American Jewish World Service and other human rights groups—in Nigeria and many other countries—spread the word about this horrific situation over the last week or so, using the popular hashtag #bringbackourgirls. In response to this outcry, governments ranging from China to the U.S. have offered to help Nigeria’s government track down the missing girls.

 

Much of the media coverage of this story has emphasized the roles of American celebrities and activists, while overlooking Boko Haram’s ongoing attacks in Nigeria during this time, including a bombing this week that killed hundreds of people in the northeastern town of Gamboru Ngala. Read More »

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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

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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.

Read More »

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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.

Read More »

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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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