Posted tagged ‘refugees’

Tale of Two Flags

July 15, 2011

What do South Sudan, the United States and Kiribati have in common? Definitely not the size of the country, not their political influence, and not their geographical location.

All three — the United States, the Republic of South Sudan, and the Republic of Kiribati have their birthdays in the first half of July — on July 4th, July 9th, and July 12th, respectively.

Just a few days after our Independence Day, a festively dressed crowd of South Sudanese gathered in Juba on July 9th — from the early morning through the entire day — for celebrations of their independence.

Crowd waving the flag of South Sudan

They waved their new country’s flag with great enthusiasm and triumph. By breaking away from Sudan, the Republic of South Sudan became the 54th country of Africa and the newest country of the world.

“My country, too, was born amid struggle and strife on a July day,” Susan Rice, the US Ambassador to the United Nations, Flag of the Republic of South Sudan said on that memorable Saturday in Juba, the capitol of South Sudan. “On this day the world’s oldest democracy welcomes the world’s newest state. Independence was not a gift you were given. Independence is a prize you have won,” Ms. Rice stated.

Indeed it was a long struggle by the Southern Sudanese. They endured over three decades of civil wars ravaging their country. More than 2.5 million people died and 5 million were externally displaced as result of these wars. Finally this year, as the result of the referendum held in January, South Sudan seceded from Sudan. An overwhelming majority of the population (98.83%) voted in favor of it. The formal independence was declared on that hot and sweaty July 9th.

This new nation of an estimated 8.3 million people from over 200 ethnic groups will face huge challenges in the coming days. The weekend of July 9th, however, was the time to forget all worries for a while and celebrate as the President of South Sudan, Salva Kiir, put it, “A dream come true.” Here he raises the constitution after signing it:

President Salva Kiir Mayardit of the Republic of South Sudan

A similar dream of independence came true for Kiribati on July 12, 1979 when this island nation of the central tropical Pacific Ocean became independent from the United Kingdom.

I did not pay attention to this small nation of 98,000 people till I discovered its flag in the Rand McNally handy Notebook World Atlas which I carry around with my slender Toshiba PC. One day while looking at the pages filled with the flags of the world’s countries, I stumbled upon the Kiribati flag – it made me smile.

It is one of the most beautiful flags, in my opinion, among the other nations’ flags — the unusual symbols of it are peaceful and inviting. Flag of the Republic of Kiribati I immediately thought about visiting that country some day. Kiribati (the former Gilbert Islands), pronounced in the native language as Kirr-i-bas with a surprising s on the end, became even more interesting for me when I learned that it is the country — the one and only — located in both hemispheres. It is positioned on both sides of 180th meridian. Inquiring further I discovered that traveling from USA to Kiribati is not an easy task. First I would have to go to Hawaii and then from there to Kiribati. The planning has to be very precise because there is only one flight per week connecting Hawaii and Kiribati.

But if I really want to visit and perhaps some readers might be enticed, too — we have to hurry up. Kiribati is steadily disappearing. Why?

According to Wikipedia, Kiribati is expected to be the first country which will disappear as the result of sea level rise due to global climate change. In June 2008, the Kiribati President Anote Tong declared that country had reached “the point of no return.” The same year the Australian and New Zealand governments were asked by Kiribati officials to accept Kiribati citizens as permanent refugees. They will be the first environmental refugees — not political, not economic, but environmental refugees!

Village huts on Tarawa, Kiribati

Global climate change is with us for real, if anybody has some doubts. It is as real as Kiribati’s fate. A couple of Kiribati’s islets already disappeared in 1999. Such disappearance is not a myth or legend like the story of Atlantis, described by Plato in the fifth century BC. Atlantis may have existed or not, but Kiribati does exist today and tomorrow will be gone. The beautiful flag of Kiribati will remain. It should remind us of its anticipated fate and our responsibilities to this planet — to try as hard as possible to prevent more disappearances of islands, plants, animals and entire habitats.

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Photo of crowd in South Sudan from Reuters/Paul Banks. Photo of President Kiir by Matata Safi from Government of South Sudan website. Photo of huts on Kiribati by Brad Hinton on Flickr under Creative Commons license. Text copyright © 2011 by Alicja Mann.

Writing out of the Darkness

February 25, 2011

Her name is Zowee and she sits in front of my studio silently guarding its door. She is a black panther, and a very handsome one. Alert, yet calm, she can scare you quite a bit. Not to worry though — she is not going to harm anyone. She is a large statue, a new mascot for my studio. I first saw her as one of the items in a silent art auction. The auction was part of a terrific “Evening of Music, Dinner, and Giving” — a benefit for the Owl & Panther Project. I enjoyed the entire evening, but my mind was occupied by that black panther. The minute I saw her, I wanted to have her and was very determined to win the bid. And so I did.

Zowee

I am so glad to have Zowee, because I am an enthusiast and supporter of the Owl & Panther Project. Zowee’s presence reminds me and connects me emotionally to that project and to its gentle philosophy. There is also another reason I am happy to have her. Lately I have longed for an inspiration for my creative writing. Zowee fits that need perfectly; after all she is the creature that helped quite a few to guide themselves out of the darkness.

What does a panther have to do with writing? There is a Cherokee creation story that ties strongly to the Owl & Panther Project and to its philosophy.

Below is the beginning of the story.

When the world was new, the Creator gathered all plants and animals. “Stay alert and stay awake for seven days and seven nights.”

“I am sure we will be rewarded if we do not sleep!” said Zebra. “We can do this,” Cat agreed.

The second night found some of the plants and animals drooping. “This is harder than I thought,” exclaimed Penguin.

The next night almost all of them (animals and plants) fell asleep. When the seventh night ended, it was just the owl, the panther, and a few plants who were still awake. “I will reward you two animals with the super power to see in the dark,” said Creator.

That is why the owl and panther can guide all kinds of creatures (including humans, of course) through the darkest times.

Logo for the Owl & Panther Project

The Owl & Panther Project is an outreach program based in Tucson that serves refugees who arrived in the United States from many distant countries. Its focus is working with children and young adults to help them cope with their past traumatic experiences and help them adjust to living in a very different culture. Creative writing is the major tool of expression. As the motto of the Owl & Panther logo says, “Writing out of the darkness.” Young participants write and perform their poetry, share their personal stories, and gain confidence through that process. They are also learning that they are not alone — that others who have experienced tragedy, violence, and losses have learned to overcome their fears.

The project is funded by several cultural organizations and private contributors, but in today’s economic reality needs more support than ever. It is guided and sponsored by the Hopi Foundation.

The Hopi word for trauma, ’tsawana’, means “a state of mind that is in terror.” Like the owl and the panther we must learn the power of being able to see in the terrifying darkness and to strive towards a state of Qa Tutsa wanavu — a state of living unintimidated by fear from any source — as I learned from one of the Hopi leaders speaking that evening. This Hopi belief is the philosophy of the Owl & Panther Project, its participants, and many dedicated volunteers.

Owl & Panther Project participants

I might not know about the Owl & Panther Project if not for Marge Pellegrino, its Program Coordinator. Both being writers, we met in a writing group a few years ago. Still, I would have no clue about her dedication and passion for that group if I hadn’t gone to a large event presented by the Owl & Panther project at the Loft Cinema in May of 2009. The event was unforgettable! The cinema was packed to the brim. The presentation of the young people’s stories on the large screen and the opportunity to meet them in person touched me deeply. Since then I have tried to participate in the group’s events as often as possible. That is why David and I attended this year’s benefit on the 12th of February. It was our Valentine’s celebration, as the entire event was associated with Valentine’s Day. We all received large hand-decorated heart cookies.

Heart-shaped cookie from Owl & Panther Project

Here is my cookie. It’s too pretty to eat! Together with Zowee it reminds me of the Owl & Panther group and of the Hopi Foundation — their philosophy, their work, and their huge caring heart for others who need a lot of loving.

Darkness and overwhelming difficulties are not so frightening when you know that there are groups like this in our world.

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P.S. Please remember my gift offer for new subscribers at the end of my previous post.

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Logo and photograph of the group – copyright © by the Owl & Panther Project. Text and other photos copyright © 2011 by Alicja Mann.


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