Cultural Glimpse

Enjoying diversity

Month: October, 2014

Unique Relationships Serving Communities

As I watched Laila and Georgia, the 6th episode of the Intersection of Faith and Culture short documentary video series, I thought, “I know these people!” Laila has been quite supportive of my work and Georgia is the wife of Stephen Coats, a filmmaker I met at a journalism conference. We sat on the same panel and since we have followed each other’s work. But, I had no idea Laila and Stephen’s wife are such close friends.

Laila is a Syrian-American journalist who works incredibly hard, acting as an powerful and influential mouthpiece for her Arab Muslim community within the broader American culture. Laila’s friend, Georgia, is Greek-American, and has been a longtime companion of Laila.

“When I came to this country I had no one,” said Laila with teary eyes. “Georgia and her husband Stephen took me in like I was family.”

Over time, the two women have become like sisters to each other.

“I believe that life is deeper and richer and more spiritual when I know and love people who are different than me,” said Georgia, who moved to Dearborn just before the 9/11 attacks. The next day, on September 12th, she was teaching a class, English as a second language, to primarily Arabic-speaking women.

Before moving here, people warned Georgia not to go to Dearborn, which has a large Muslim population, because it’s considered dangerous. But she put her trust in God and figured, she just came from Colorado where in the 1999 the Columbine High School shooting occurred.

“How is this place safe to be, and Dearborn isn’t?” she said. “We don’t know where the dangerous people are.”

When the controversial Pastor Terry Jones wanted to have a protest in front of the Islamic Center of America, the community of Dearborn came together in opposition to his agenda.

“There’s a verse in the Bible that says in the end, there will be people worshiping God from every town, every tribe, every nation and every language,” said Georgia. “That’s what I believe.”

Laila and Georgia are of completely different backgrounds, but they have more similarities than differences – they are both mothers, both spiritual, and they serve their communities in wonderful ways.

Having survived cancer, Georgia shares her journey as a cancer survivor, a wife and mother through her blog Laila Al-Husseini is one of the most famous Arab anchors in the United States and is known for her popular show US Arab Radio. The program broadcasts Tuesday mornings, live on WNZK 690 AM to audiences in Michigan, Toledo, Ohio, and Windsor and for audiences in Washington, Virginia, and Maryland, the program broadcasts on WDMV 700 AM.

It makes you wonder why Pastor Terry Jones’ desire to burn Korans and not Laila and Georgia’s example of peaceful relationships get the media’s attention. And what role, do we the audience, play in that?


The Clearing, a Magical School

Jens Jensen

A week ago I went with my sister to the Henry Ford Estate, to watch the documentary screening of Jens Jensen: The Living Green. We parked our car and to reach the house by foot, walked through a dense woodland area which was created by Jens Jenson, a Danish American landscape architect, known for his “prairie style” design work. He designed the gardens at the Henry Ford Estate and the Edsel and Eleanor Ford House.

I loved the character of this man, who considered himself an artist, not an architect. Jenson saw a connection between the performing arts and nature. He was called a Native Nature Poet. He summed up his philosophy by saying, “Every plant has fitness and must be placed in its proper surroundings so as to bring out tis full beauty. Therein lies the art of landscaping.” He believed that only when we leave the beauty of nature alone, as God created it, would we really have democracy.

At 75 years of age, Jensen, who wanted to create harmony between the hand of man and the hand of nature, established a school in 1935 called The Clearing in Ellison Bay, Wisconsin. It taught environmental citizenship and sought students Jenson thought would “study profoundly… do things worthwhile… not for oneself but for others.”

Jensen died in 1951, at the age of 91. But the school he founded is pretty alive. The Clearing offers year-long educational opportunities in three programs: the Summer program, the Workshop Program and the Winter Program. All programs offer a wide range of classes (which are taught in a relaxed and informal style), including painting, writing, quilting, birding, wood carving, poetry, rustic furniture making, photography, poetry, fine wood-working, music, weaving, philosophy, stained glass, metal work, nature study and paper arts.

Sounds like we have in our country more magical programs than Harry Potter ever did. The only thing is we need to discover them.

The Power of Diversity at Beaumont

I traveled quite a bit before I got married and had children, visiting various countries in North Africa, the Middle East, Europe, and Latin America. I loved what I learned from watching peoples’ different way of life, and I always returned home having borrowed something to incorporate into my daily life.

What I learned after I stopped travelling abroad is that what my Native American teacher often said is true – “If you stand on the corner of New Year long enough, you will see the whole world.”

For years, my community has been fulfilling my desire to see the world by bringing it home. Yesterday morning, for instance, Beaumont Hospital held its 8th year Diversity Conference. The event was amazing!

Through slam poetry and hip-hop performances, Mike Ellison spoke words of love and acceptance that touched our hearts so deeply, we laughed and we cried. Then with DJ Invisible, the rhythm and beat of love got attendees on their feet, in their professional attires, grooving to Mike’s powerful lyrical message at the early hour of 8am. Anyone watching would have thought we had a little more than coffee and bagels for breakfast.

“Hip hop is a culture with roots in Africa,” said Ellison, who was born in Ethiopia, raised in Virginia and who fully realized himself as an actor, recording and performance artist in Detroit. “It’s progressive. It’s about respect and family. It’s not what you see today in commercial rap.”

Mike recently wrote, produced and performed in Broken Mirrors: Bullies & Bystanders. He uses his talents to reach out to students, to get their attention despite the millions of distractions around them. He wants people to see how we mirror each other.

“If we see ourselves in each other, then we are using the universal language of inclusion,” he said.

The next speaker was Chris Bashinelli, and no one imagined that a man who has not yet turned 28 would move us to the extent that he did. Chris was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. After a decade long acting career including an appearance on the hit HBO TV Show – The Sopranos, he decided to follow his real passion, using media to bridge intercultural gaps worldwide. He now traverses the globe from Tanzania to Abu Dhabi as Host of Bridge the Gap, a new series featured on National PBS Television, where he discovers what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes for one day.

Christ talked about what it means to be a global citizen.

“It means being a productive member of our world,” he said. “It’s using our talents to serve others.”

We serve others by three simple steps: listening, being non-judgmental, and being willing to step outside of our comfort zone which is the only way to grow. But why should we bother to become a global citizen?

“Because the lives of people in economically poor countries are 100 percent directly related to our lives in the United States,” said Bashinelli. “Global citizenship does not mean changing geographic location. It means changing your heart. Changing your focus from me, me, me, to look at another person.”

Chris showed us videos of the people he met in other countries, people whose huge, courageous and enduring hearts were a magnificent example for us. One man that particularly inspired me was a man from Tanzania. He wanted to be a filmmaker and show the beautiful side of his country. He had very little resources, in comparison to us at least, but the power within him gave him the strength to work as a filmmaker in his own community because what he kept telling Chris is, “No matter what, I’m going to be a filmmaker. No matter what!”

The next speaker was Steve Luxenberg, a Washington Post associate editor who has worked for more than 35 years as a newspaper reporter and editor. Steve is the reason I went to Beaumont’s Diversity Conference to begin with. I had gone the night before to the Troy Community Center to listen to him talk about his award winning book, Annie’s Ghosts: A Journey into a Family Secret. Impressed by his talk, I visited his website to order his book. This led me to discover an event he was speaking at the next day – the diversity conference.

Steve’s story is part a detective story, part history, and part memoir and it revolves around his mother’s decision to hide the existence of a sister, Annie, who was institutionalized for 31 years in an asylum near Detroit. Through his book, he helps us see the potential damage of secrecy within families and the shame and stigma associated with certain issues that keep , for example, families from obtaining a patients’ medical records long after the patient has died.

He quoted something that Governor Calley, who has a daughter with autism, said recently. “We should stop trying to fix people with a disability. Autism is not a disability issue. It’s a diversity issue.”

“Today in jail, we place people with mental issues in segregated areas,” said Luxenberg. “It was like this in the 1840s. People in the future will wonder why we allowed this today. The way to make progress is to look into the past and learn from it so that we don’t make the same mistake in the future.”

The event had one more speaker, Cheryl Loveday, Executive Director of Angels’ Place, which provides community-based and residential services to nearly 200 individuals with developmental disabilities. I did not have the privilege of listening to her speak as I had to return home. But when I walked out of the event, I was grateful that my family and I and the majority of my relatives belong to Beaumont Hospital’s Healthy System, which has been serving us for decades, and which evidently from the quality of this conference, cares a great deal about having a healthy and conscientious relationship between its employees and its patients.

Beaumont Event Program Booklet

Beaumont Event Program Booklet

The Blessings of a Henna Party

My husband’s niece had her henna party last weekend and it was fun and meaningful. For me, henna parties have become much more exciting to attend than weddings. Aside from the fact that they are filled with so much tradition, in our Chaldean community henna parties are much more intimate (with about 200 guests) whereas the weddings are, in my opinion, a bit overcrowded (at 500 guests and up).

Despite the small number of guests (at 200), one of the most important pre-weddings ceremonies in Arab and Hindu weddings is the Henna Party. A Henna Party represents the bond of matrimony and signifies the love and affection between the couple and their families. It is believed that henna gives blessings, luck, and joy.

The ceremony is a colorful, musical and lively event. The women dress in extravagant, heavily embroidered gallabiyas and the men wear a dishdasha and a 3-piece head cover. Large trays of fruits and nuts, sweets, and chocolate are carried by the women as they lead the future groom to his future bride.

The bride and other females get decorative henna designs on their hands. According to tradition, the darkness of the henna color on the bride’s hands represents the deep love between would-be-couples. Another tradition says that the bride is not allowed to work in her marital house until the time her henna fades away. Then it is work nonstop (no tradition says that, but any wife or mother understands what I’m talking about). Any wife or mother also knows that it’s all worth it, and the henna and other pre-wedding celebrations are beautiful steps that walk us into our new world with enough blessings to last us, and our children, a lifetime.

Sally's Henna

Serving Our House through Journalism

Photo By: Vickie Thomas

Left to write: Marlon Walker of the Detroit Free Press, Weam Namou, and Charlie LeDuff of Fox News, and moderator Kathy Chaney, Producer/Reporter at WBEZ 91.5FM              (Photo by Vickie Thomas)

While in my birth country ISIS continues to wage war against journalists, here in the United States journalism continues to flourish, opening doors to new voices – as is the tradition of the United States.

It’s true that a lot of minority groups in America do not receive the air and press time they deserve. But it is also true that in America, there is an opportunity for people to break the mold without risking their life. Here, an association of black journalists says “welcome” to an Iraqi-American journalist like myself, because what they see and appreciate in each other is the heart of journalism, which is an appetite for truth and education, an appetite which journalists in many other countries cannot dare quench.

On October 11th, at the 2014 NABJ Conference in Detroit, sitting on the panel next to award winning reporter Charlie LeDuff of Fox News and reporter Marlon Walker of the Detroit Free Press, listening to the easy and lively manner in which they spoke about how they dealt with “Conflict in the Community”, the topic of our discussion, I realized that a large part of the problem many Middle Easterners and Arabs have is inner conflict. Born and raised under authoritarian regimes, they have difficulty expressing their truths in constructive ways. Rather than influence public opinion and government policy, they try to influence each other – which often builds tension within their own communities rather than create progress.

Investigative Journalism is such a phenomenon in the Arab World that Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ) based in Amman, Jordan describes it on its website as “still an alien practice.” Many journalists from that region who growing up, were told to “Hush!” and “Mind your own business” have wounds to heal before they can grow wings like the American journalists who were told to “Speak up!” and “Dig for the truth”, who like Charlie LeDuff can confidently say, “This is my house too! We’re all living in the United States, sharing it.”

It is when people from the Arab world, who over the last decade have become one of the fastest growing ethnic groups in the United States, fully comprehend, appreciate and believe in the words “This is my house too!” that we will best serve this house through journalism.

To Our Countries

“To Our Countries” is a project produced by a group of youths who live in Sweden and are originally from Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine.

The song expresses different parts of the Middle East. Here’s an excerpt about Baghdad:

 In Iraq there has been a liberation for more than 10 years.  A liberation from injustice, oppression and tyranny that came with a greater tyranny, injustice and oppression, where the people of the country were all expelled.

A liberation that divided what was already divided and what broke what’s already broken. A liberation where civilizations cease to exist. A liberation which all Iraqi citizens were marginalized regardless of their ethnic or religious background.

A liberation that enslaved people and demolished homes. One that killed the human and the motherland.”

I have the right to peace of mind

I have a right to peace of mind

Give Americans Some Slack, Not Jail Time

Chained Slave

On Monday, an L.A. Judge announced that a 74-year-old grandmother would be released from prison after serving 32 years for a murder she did not commit. In 1981, Jones’ abusive boyfriend kidnapped two drug dealers and then forced Jones at gunpoint to drive them into an alley, where the boyfriend shot one of the men. Jones ran from the scene, expecting to be killed too. Instead, the teacher’s aide and churchgoer with no criminal record was charged with and convicted for two counts of murder and other crimes.

Also on Monday, the Real Housewives of New Jersey Teresa Guidice, a mother of 4 children, was sentenced for 15 months of jail time for fraud charges. Her husband was sentenced to 4 years.

The majority of Americans are hardworking people who try to give back to the community. They want to do the right thing, they try to help, they pretty much follow the rules, which is not so easy given the number of rules they have to follow. They are good people, and yet they get slapped pretty hard for being human and making mistakes or in Jones’ case, being caught in the wrong situation.

“Over-incarceration in America destabilizes families and communities,” writes Piper Kerman, in Orange is the New Black. “We have a racially biased justice system that over punishes, fails to rehabilitate and does not make us safer.”

Read Amanda Scherker’s article in the Huffington Post and you will see how easily a person can be locked up as a “criminal” for a non-violent offense, which not only ruins his or her life but that of his family, and in return affects us greatly as a community while making corporations quite rich.

It’s pretty scary! According to the article, the total prison population has grown by 500 percent over the last 30 years. Currently, one-third of the world’s entire imprisoned female population is awaiting trial or serving sentences in the U.S., mostly for nonviolent crimes. Many are mothers. And we lock up more juveniles than any other developed country.

Americans do not deserve this type of harsh treatment – especially not while the real criminals are out there, happily sauntering around, living rich off of others’ destruction.