Goodbye Passport: The Demise of a Faithful Travelling Companion

The single most disgusting thing I have seen travellers do over the years – in every airport, on every continent, people of all ages, men and women alike, from every country imaginable – has been to shove their passports in their mouths as they use both hands to find their damn boarding pass. Come on, people. Stop and think about where your passport has been. You might as well stick your tongue out and go lick the handrail of an escalator.

The stamp from Turkey (May 2008) is the most colourful of all, and the most expensive. As I stood in line to get my visa I was stunned to see that Canadians paid the highest amount of all foreign nationals for visas to enter Turkey: 60$ US. It seems that the Turkish government was not happy that the Canadian government officially recognized the Armenian genocide as just that, a genocide. That was one reason, at any rate.A well-used passport is a skeletal travel diary. The places are there, but none of the stories. Each stamp exudes a memory, or rather a multitude of memories of the locations visited, the people encountered and the (often) tedious wait at customs to get through. (Mental note: avoid JFK airport in New York at all costs.) My passport is a reflection of the last four and a half years of my life. If a stranger were to pick up my passport and flip through its pages, they would quickly figure out that I did not go on fun and sun vacations, nor was I a businessman globetrotting to financial hubs to seal deals. Stamps from Iraq, Malaysia, Lebanon, Israel, Morocco, Senegal and Indonesia might leave the person wondering what the hell I did for a living.

The one from Iraq (November 2009) is the most unique in the collection. Landing in Kurdistan at four in the morning after three consecutive flights from Jakarta, I passed through a brand new airport that was infrequently used, and unsurprisingly quiet. With a sufficient dose of paranoia about landing in Iraq, knowing that I had additional insurance to cover my death in case of a terrorist attack, I was reasonably, but needlessly, spooked.

Ouagadougou (January 2011): it would be impossible to forget landing at night at a tiny airport that had been under construction for over a year. Dirt floors, no electricity, and airport employees with no idea what they were doing contributed to a sweaty and chaotic scene that brought back memories of the vibrant, alive, and utterly disorganized Africa I loved and loathed. The welcoming party of several friends, patiently waiting in the dark, made everything all right.

And of course there was Indonesia, several times over the last five years, each visit consuming a full page of my passport. My trips there were so frequent I could walk from the plane to the visa counter with my eyes closed. The unmistakable smell of clove cigarettes as I stepped into the terminal seeped through my nostrils and permeated my skin instantly. Perhaps owing to the frequency of my visits, I always got what I can only call a comforting feeling as I arrived at Soekarno-Hatta International Airport. It’s almost as though I was coming home. When you’re travelling as far from home as you can imagine, there is no feeling that is more comforting.

I bid a fond goodbye to my last passport. It has taken me safely to places I never thought I would visit, time and time again. I’ll stash it somewhere in my junk at home, only to uncover it in a couple of years as I try in vain to tidy things. By then it will be a welcome surprise to see it again. As I flip through its pages, I’ll be awash with memories of a life that defined me. The new one’s coming in the mail next week, just in time for a new trip to a country I’ve never been to before: it’s going to be a great start.

I love my passport, but not so much as to chomp down on it and have all its germs seep through my lips. I felt a slight but unmistakable stab of sorrow and pain as my last passport had its edges cut off and the words “ANNULÉ CANCELLED” stamped on its first page. The most faithful of travelling companions, it has rarely left my sight while overseas, always carefully guarded in my front pocket by day or in a hotel safe or by my bedside at night. I never fully understood why some hotel managers insist on holding on to my passport until they can get it photocopied. Especially when the copier is broken. Fiercely possessive of my identity (which technically belongs to the Canadian government), I get more than a little irked when hotel staff insist on keeping my passport. The last time that happened turned out to be on my final trip with my passport, with the dim-witted hotel lackey at the reception taking away my passport and insisting he would need “for 5 minutes.” After half an hour, I went to collect it. “But sir, we have not photocopied it,” he said. “I don’t care. I was here three months ago, go find the copy you made then.” Hmph.

Three Cups of Reality – Stories from the field: Iraqi human rights defenders, in their own words

Marianne Elliott wrote a great piece – Three Cups of Humble Pie – on the fiasco stemming from Greg Mortenson‘s troubles surrounding the facts of his stories and the way in which his Central Asia Institute has been run. In her post she quotes Desiree Adaway from her blog on the basics of effective governance and how a non-profit should be run. I’ve never read Three Cups of Tea. I bought it for my wife years ago and she found it somewhat interesting but, she admitted, there was something unconvincing and artificial about his writing – a review that may prove to be quite prescient.

When I heard the news about all this last week, I was annoyed more than upset. News like this does little to lend credibility to those working for non-governmental organizations or other civil society organizations who are making a difference in peoples’ lives. Granted, as many people pointed out, including Nicolas Kristof, Mr. Mortenson has probably built more schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan that you or I ever will.  

Still. If you want to engage the general (and generally wealthier) public on issues such as education for poor children in developing countries, stick to the truth. Don’t make it sound any loftier or noble than it really is, don’t write anything just to appeal to an uninformed public that is craving for a tear-jerker story. Just tell it like it is. If anything, Mr. Mortenson’s account, if indeed it has been exaggerated, is prompting me to share some of my own stories from the field. One of the most moving for me was back in 2007 in Amman when I took part in a workshop I designed for Iraqi human rights defenders. The workshop was facilitated by alumni of Equitas‘ training of trainers program. During the workshop, I kept a blog of the events. For me this entry speaks to the horror that Iraqis were faced with on a daily basis, and the tremendous courage and strength they showed through incredible hardships. Here’s the entry from Tuesday, March 20:

Not easy
Tuesday, 20 March 2007, 03:56 PM

A short entry, I promise. Second meeting tonight at 10, this time with the facilitators, to plan for tomorrow. We talk about human rights education activities, and as usual we’re changing things a little.

The recap group [of participants] did not do a recap, as we talked about during the debrief the night before. They came up with a way for participants to share their experiences. The setup: take the chairs, come and form two rows in the middle of the room. On the left side, place your chair there and sit if you’ve got a positive story to tell us about your work. Go to the right if you’ve got something negative. People getting organized, shuffling back and forth, not knowing which side was which, still trying to figure out what they were going to say. Settled after a minute or so, silence. Go. The participant facilitating the activity randomly went from the positive to the negative sides, passing the microphone. This is what I typed as they spoke (this is unedited):

Positive. Establishing a student organization in Mosul. After the fall of the regime, we established it despite problems.

Negative. Days are filled with events, all organizations, not only mine. American forces entered Karballa April 5, rising flag American forces attacked us as we raised a flag signaling peace, with reporters. They wanted tv interview, CNN.

Negative. Less than one year of starting work in Mosul, group of young girls preparing to be teachers. Bus taking them to institute attacked by American occupation. Told driver to get down, asked the girls to take off their clothes completely to make sure they were not terrorists. But remained surrounded, bus driver being beaten, shaking bus until local authorities intervened.

Negative: Program to empower youth from different universities in Mosul and Basrah in strategic planning. 365 young people, training lasted 3 months, chosen 10 young men mostly from Baghdad. Leader was a woman, father also dean of the faculty. Received a phone call , girl was assassinated , she and her father. Group couldn’t keep up their work because they couldn’t keep going, I was among them. They were able to learn from her, but it ended.

Positive. In 2005, our location of institute was next to mosque of the great imam. Entered hq, wanted to arrest head of the organization, wanted to bombard the institutions. But neighbours joined us, civilians, we lay down on the ground. President still there at prisons.

Negative. One occasion affected me. Health situations. Being a leader of women league, I’m only female journalist in Basrah. Controlled by religious sects, consider me secular. Received threats. One delivered me at my home. Suffering in fear for my children, one month ago. Another threat from my union, always staying at my parents affected me badly.

Positive. Really happy was the activities conducted with Iraqi organizations, Mosul university. Has plenty of students in Iraq. Program we had coincided with Shiite and Sunni students, lasted for 4 days, drawing and painting gallery, we wanted to disseminate the problems via the paintings in sectarianism.

Negative. Kirkuk. Went to streets plenty of tragedies. First received a threat from American occupation forces, and from militant gangs, they think we are assistants of the Americans. We record speeches, we receive threats – the latest incident bombing yesterday, our furniture was all destroyed, new and hot issue.

Positive. Civil society organizations. Help families, receiving asylum, work we only hear about them theoretically. In spite of the difficulties, it will be an impulse for us, many organizations. Most important one, see the smile on the faces of children, feel I am doing my work correctly, see the smile on the face of a child. Makes me create new activities.

Negative. By end of 2003 and beginning 2004. the cadre? Contained a female American, trying to improve skills of organization, assistance to illiterate females. Karballah institute for women, before killing that lady. Even Islamic religion, she started to benefit from Iraqi women’s skills, sharing of information. Inaugurated the centre, faced with terrorists, 5-6 people, attacked us. Killed her by 13 bullets, even her fingers fell down. We left work for almost a week.

Negative. Important incident near bombarding clinics in Babel, terrorist attack , I was near the camera took pictures of the bodies, images even worse in the American movies.

Positive. Target groups, 50 families. Lately, our organizations program for heaters and blankets for families. During the program, people were happy about the blankets. Also felt that …people who are able to donate to the civil society organization.

Negative. Incident very painful. When working in British embassy. Director responsible for Iraqi affairs, last day, very sure said we should leave at 2, not 4. last day, she went with her husband to work in some of the palaces. Her husband, felt something suspicious. Most of us we have weapons, we are licensed. We they got home, they were attacked by terrorists, he died at once, she was pregnant and attacked, hope she will get better.

One participant had to leave the room as others were talking, too much for him. It was over, the participant who facilitated asked me, What do we do? I didn’t know she was going to ask me. What the hell do you answer after something like that? I was down in front of them, trying to figure out what I was going to say as I adjusted my mike. Nothing in my personal experience even comes close to what they have witnessed or been subjected to. But the mere fact that they could find positive things to identify with is remarkable. Shows the spirit, the commitment, the heart that they put into their work. As they were saying their stories, I found I had to make a concerted effort to concentrate on what the translator was saying and to just type it. If I stopped to think about what they were saying, I would have found it difficult to keep my composure.

Late afternoon, another activity that was not easy. Sit in a circle, turn the lights off, close the door. Pitch black. Facilitator asks them to recount a personal incident when they were afraid. I had seen this particular facilitator do this before and it was very powerful; so much so, that I wanted to record what people were saying this time. They sat in the circle, I was by the wall with the glow of my laptop shining on my face. The facilitator began, talking about his own experience, having been detained, people he was with being taken away one by one to have their arms broken. I closed my laptop and listened. One person, the date he won’t forget, August 16, 2006, riding in a bus with 8 passengers and the driver. Stopped at a checkpoint and being asked for ID, people in the bus being shot one by one, him at the back. They got to the guy next to him, whose mobile phone went off, scared the killers, they ran. He and the other passenger driving 40 km to the nearest town, seven bodies in the bus.

I don’t think I can write anything more now.


Do Something

I normally don’t post something in the middle of a work day…but I am on my lunch break. And there were two events worth writing about before I go on with my usual work. The first is a surprising (and encouraging) response of actions that make a difference in the world that is led by high school students, and the second is the detention of family members of a friend of mine in Iraq. Let’s start with the students.

I have a neighbour of mine who’s a secondary school teacher at a nearby school. She invited me to speak to her students, something I did last year as well. I spoke a bit about the work I do, in particular some of the impact stories that reflect the work of the human rights educators my organization train around the world. In talking about these stories, two fundamental aspects of our work is highlighted. On the one hand, the education we and our participants undertake is rooted in international human rights standards, and that’s a given in all our trainings. The second is the importance our personal, cultural, communal, and societal values have on reflecting the principles behind international human rights standards. I think the first part is easy, the second one, not so much.

I’ve written about values in human rights education before and this post is a good time to renew that discussion. My friend Nathalie told me that students in a leadership course had recently undertaken a project to raise awareness about safe sex. In particular, they created posters focusing on the use of condoms. One poster had a hockey goalie with the caption …I can’t quite remember it precisely, but it was about not letting anything get between his crease (you’d have to know hockey lingo at this point). Another showed a poker hand, another one an infant. In my opinion, none of them were offensive. If anything, they were humourous and showed a hint of whimsical fancy that gets the message across without being in your face. The message I got from the posters was “protect yourself.”

Apparently others (or at least one other person) did not see the posters as a good idea and tore some of them down. I was told that it was a teacher who did this. To the credit of the teacher who asked students to do this project, he informed all other teachers that the students would produce these posters. Some of the students who created the posters were in Nathalie’s class, and when I asked them what the message was behind the posters, they said simply, “protect yourself,” not “have sex.” They seemed somewhat dismayed, a bit perplexed, and as one student said, “I don’t think it’s right for a teacher to use their power to pull the posters down.”

I don’t think it’s right. No, it isn’t. There’s an obvious disjunct of values at hand here; it’s not a new debate. As a teacher in Malawi in 1993, I discovered in the stockroom a mass of UNICEF pamphlets educating students about HIV/AIDS: what it is, how you contract the disease, what you should do to prevent it. There were boxes filled with the pamphlets, never opened. I taught at a girls’ boarding school run by nuns. WE DON’T TALK ABOUT THOSE THINGS HERE, was the response I got when I wondered why the pamphlets were gathering dust. As far as I know, the pamphlets were never distributed.

When I asked the students what they were going to do about the situation, one student remarked, “Put up more posters.” That’s one way to get the message across, and I hope they can find other ways as well. This is a story about rights (and values). And if that’s not apparent, read Article 12 of the Convention of the Rights of the Child : “States Parties shall assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child.” In plain English: listen to them, what they have to say is important. They are raising awareness about STDs, HIV/AIDS, unwanted pregnancies. I’ll keep you posted on what happens.

Another part of the discussion led us to how much we help others, in an individual capacity and as a country. I asked what percentage of their disposable income they could give to others less fortunate. After a few moments of silence, one student said “Five to ten percent.” My first thought was, That’s nuts. Then he told me how much he donated to the Terry Fox Foundation and I felt that my own contributions to help others was, proportionally, much less significant. I’m still not as bad as the Canadian government, which has never surpassed 0.3% of its gross national income on aid to developing countries. Our own Lester B. Pearson advocated for a modest 0.7% of GNI for richer nations to help poorer ones. Won’t happen for a while.

I learned from two other students that they will be putting on a concert next week and all proceeds from ticket sales (a modest 10$) will go to the Old Brewery Mission here in Montreal, which helps homeless people. We need more people to do what these students are doing.

When I got home later this morning I read the unfortunate news that one of our participants from our workshops with Iraqi human rights defenders, Ayad Salih, had his house in Mosul (northern Iraq) broken into by the Iraqi Army. His father and brother were taken and detained, and Ayad is currently in hiding. Front Line Defenders has issued a statement on the situation and is pleading the Iraqi government to release Ayad’s father and brother. Here’s how part of the statement reads: “The army squad searched both the residence of Mr Salih, and that of his brother located in a different area of Mosul city. The army then arrested Mr Salih’s father, Mr Muayyad Salih Ahmed (60 years), and his younger brother, Mr Ra’ed Muayyad Salih (28 years), and has been detaining them in an unknown location since then to put Ayad Muayyad Salih under pressure to surrender himself for undisclosed reasons, which Front Line believes are linked to his human rights work.” You can take action by going here.