Hope Springs Eternal…for a Young Syrian in a Greek Refugee Camp

Hope springs eternal in the human breast;
Man never is, but always to be blessed:
The soul, uneasy and confined from home,
Rests and expatiates in a life to come.
Alexander Pope, An Essay on Man


Today many Christians are celebrating Easter, a holiday that honors the rebirth of Jesus Christ who was crucified on the cross two days earlier on Good Friday. Many other religions are also celebrating their annual Spring rites. Although I no longer espouse a particular religion (I was raised as a Lutheran), I did take a few moments this morning after brunch to reflect on the meaning of this holiday. To me, Spring rituals are all about hope.

The essay about the Refugee King of Greece in the New York Times Sunday Review section on April 16, 2017, reinforced for me how important it is to have hope, even when there doesn’t seem to be any. It is the story of a young Syrian refugee, Bassem Omar, who introduces himself to the Times reporter (Ashley Gilbertson) as the King of Ritsona. She goes on to say, “His Majesty, a 20-year-old refugee from Qamishli, Syria, offers a tour of his realm, and as we walk he’s greeted by friends of all ages.” As he moves amongst his “subjects” he reminds them that “I want to make Ritsona great again, and the people agreed.”

I am immediately struck by the ironic title he has given himself, and especially by his personal version of the now-famous Trump slogan, Make America Great Again, which Omar has now adapted to his own crusade to improve life for himself and his fellow refugees in the small village of Ritsona, 50 miles north of Athens. This is a young man who is well informed about global politics, and who has been able to give an ironic twist to his own circumstances using the words of the Leader of the Free World, Donald Trump. He is clearly a rebel with a cause and that is why I am so drawn to him.

After 13 attempts at escaping by using fake IDs and passports, only to be turned back by police at the airport and sent back to Ritsona, he has decided he can no longer make an effort to escape because if “I fail at this again, I will kill myself. I have to stop trying. So now I await the decision of relocation.” I read his words as meaning he no longer has hope he can escape, so he is readjusting his circumstances in order to continue to hold hope in his heart.

His story leads me to reflect on my own two grown children, now 33 and 35, for whom hope is also an essential part of their lives. My 35-year-old son was able to go to a wonderful college, travel abroad to Germany, and fashion himself a career in filmmaking over the past decade. He is filled with hope for his future endeavors; in the “indie” film business, hope is the staff of his life.

My daughter, about to turn 34, has had many setbacks in her life due to a series of five open-heart surgeries, but she remains hopeful that with a good deal of patience and perseverance, she, too, can have a fulfilling life. She is working hard toward that goal. Without hope, she would find it hard to go on. Even though their circumstances are challenging in different ways, both have had our support, financially, emotionally and intellectually, and the freedom to pursue their dreams. But what about those who don’t have any support?

As I turn my thoughts back to Bassem Oman, I am deeply touched by the poignancy of his young life and his ambitions.

As he surveys his kingdom of 700 refugees living within a barbed wire refugee camp, he remains satirically confident. He tells the reporter that in two days he will be celebrating his one-year anniversary in this camp. “‘We will host a royal party at Cafe Ritz to celebrate,” he says, referring to the distribution center. ‘You are welcome to come.'” These words represent the bravado of a young man who refuses to give up hope in the face of all odds.

I would like to put my arm around Bessem Omar’s shoulders, as I do with my own grown children, and tell him that I believe in him and his hope more than anything else I can think of. I will try to send a message of hope to him through the New York Times. If he cannot fulfill his dreams, what hope is there for humanity?

 

Back in the Political Arena Today

When U.S. President Barack Obama spoke at the White House-hosted Frontiers Conference in Pittsburgh in late October 2016, he closed by addressing his words to Silicon Valley types:

The final thing I’ll say is that government will never run the way Silicon Valley runs because, by definition, democracy is messy. This is a big, diverse country with a lot of interests and a lot of disparate points of view. And part of government’s job, by the way, is dealing with problems that nobody else wants to deal with.

Democracy is often messy. Yet out of the mess of the past month or so has emerged a victory for those who believe that the people of this country need to have all their health care needs addressed with the help and financial support of the government. I confess to being greatly relieved by this turn of events because a) it validates all the time and energy I’ve put into sending emails to local politicians; signing petitions; forwarding information to friends; b) it means we’ve all made a difference through our efforts and that is so rewarding. If you are not of the same persuasion, you may not agree with the rest of what I have to say. But we do need to listen to one another, so I hope you’ll finish reading my post.

Today I got back into the political arena by attending a meeting of the Huntington Town Democratic Committee at a nearby American Legion Hall. On a Saturday morning, there were about 50 people in attendance; most of them middle-aged or older. I saw some of my friends from the senior activist group I’ve joined, the Indivisibles. I was happy to see my fellow super seniors out there beating the bushes.

Our local congressman, Tom Suozzi, showed up and gave a very motivating speech. He encouraged us with his words: “The challenge is not just to resist and revolt, but to organize.” He stated that he is very energized by visiting groups like ours because “this is the way democracy is supposed to work. For too many years no one was politically active or wanted to get involved.”


He explained that our challenge now is to persuade the 10-20% of noncommitted voters to “work with us.” And that is hard work, he said. And it takes time…a lot of time. We were given a handout highlighting the things the Democratic Party has done to improve life in our town. He outlined his plan for organizing. He is taking his District 3 area and dividing it into 16 parts; he will be holding a town-hall meeting in each of them to start the recruiting and organizing process. He emphasized that we have to start by working on the local elections and turn things around.

Another person spoke about canvassing door-to-door and how it’s actually very interesting work to meet the people in your neighborhood and actually talk to one another. It’s not easy, he said in agreement with our Representative, but it’s very fulfilling work.

One person from the audience suggested that the Dems now need to be more aggressive about their own agenda, since the Republicans can’t seem to come with one they can agree upon. I think she’s right, and I hope that is some of the work the Democratic Party is currently engaged in.

I took a couple of petitions for people to sign to encourage our NY State Senators to adopt a single-payer health plan which is called the New York Health Act. I will share them with my yoga class participants. When I got home I felt good to have been part of the action the past few months and to see such encouraging results. But the real work lies in the weeks, months and years ahead for all of us who are unhappy with the way things are.