Human Rights


His name was Lupe. One day during second grade, I think perhaps in the fall, an administrator walked him into our classroom and, in a low voice, introduced him to our teacher. 

He stood in silence and looked at the floor, while we looked at him. Nikes or some similar 1980s tennis shoes. Dark jeans a little baggy on his slender frame. Leather belt. Tucked in neatly, a long-sleeved, western-cut cotton plaid shirt, pearl snaps fastened at the wrists and all the way to the neck. Black hair neatly cut and combed into place. 

In our classroom in the Nevada desert, the deep tan of his skin wasn't what set him apart. After all, generations of Mexican immigrants and Basque shepherds populated the valley and several of our classmates were members of the local Paiute tribe. 

Instead, what was different was his language. Lupe spoke no English. Only Spanish. The job our teacher gave us that day was to help him learn our language. She would help him with his schoolwork. We would be his friends. And that was that.

Everyone wanted to help Lupe learn his first English words. And we all wanted him to know that we were his friends. That we wanted to help. That we wanted to play. That we wanted to learn about him, whenever he could tell us something. 

It was no secret that Lupe was the son of migrant workers. After all, who else picked the alfalfa and onions and garlic that blanketed the fields around town? The grown-ups might have known whether his family had the right paperwork. To us kids, though, that didn't matter. He was our gift, and until he disappeared as quickly as he'd arrived, we had a job to do.

I believe in obeying the laws of the land. And I believe in the need for borders, as well as protection at those borders. I also believe that we have an awful lot in our country. More than we need. More than enough to share. More than enough to offer asylum to refugees fleeing persecution and violence in their home countries.

So, when I look at the faces of the kids in detention centers, whether with their parents or not, I can't help but think that they are our gift. 

And we have a job to do.

The Message Behind a Hard Roll

The man who stands outside my local gas station and convenience store is pretty unassuming. He wears what I think of as the day laborer's uniform. Scuffed old work boots. Baggy, faded blue jeans that have seen better days and cleaner circumstances. A grey sweatshirt with a hood pulled up around his face. A grey cargo parka that might once have been black, zipped up to mid-chest or so. And heavy, black, weather-resistant mittens on his hands.

Except, we don't have day laborers around here. There's no gang of working men hanging out in a local parking lot waiting for a construction crew or landscaper to stop by and pick up a couple of able bodies. Especially not in the snow, ice, and biting wind of a Northeast winter. 

What catches my attention about this man is that he's unflagging and unfailing in his manners and friendliness. He stands off to the side of the pavement, much closer to the garbage cans than the door. When you get out of your car, he nods, gives a small smile and says, "Good morning," or, "Good afternoon." Just being neighborly, it seems, like anyone around here would. 

If you've been friendly on the way in, then on the way out, he'll ask you if you have any change. "Do you have a dollar, miss? So I can buy a piece of pizza?" he might say. Or, "So I can buy something to eat?"

This man's eyes are tired. The kind of tired I've never felt. But if he's turned down, he still gives a gentle smile and says, "That's okay. Thank you. You have a good day!"

The fact is, the first time he asked me for a dollar, I was caught off guard. He's not in one of the usual panhandlers' haunts around town. And he doesn't have the practiced pathetic look of the group of people who work together to stake out the exits of the local grocery store parking lots. He's lucid, never chattering to himself and the air as some of the downtown homeless do.

Most people don't realize this about me, because I make snap decisions all the time. But when confronted by something unexpected, I react first and then, about a minute later, realize what someone actually meant, or that they were kidding, or that I could have done something different. It's a hazard, I think, of too much time on my own. It takes me a minute to register the dynamics of a situation. 

That's why, that first time, I didn't quite know what to do. I almost never carry cash unless I know I'll need it. I don't give money to panhandlers, ever. I'll buy or give someone what they need. But I won't hand off cash. So I said, "I'm so sorry," and, "I don't have anything," and away I went. Two minutes down the road, I realized I'd been holding my debit card in my hand. The card I'd just used to buy a sandwich for myself. 

This time, when I stopped off for a soda on my Saturday morning errand run, I returned this man's cheerful greeting on my way into the shop. And I was anticipating his tentative, "Miss ...?" on my way back to my car.

"Just let me toss these in here." My soda bottle and snack landed in the passenger's seat and I turned to step back up onto the curb.

"Do you have a dollar so I could get something to eat?" His eyes apologized, even as the words passed his few remaining teeth, sitting like tree stumps in his deep walnut face. His skin was unlined, but the salt-and-pepper scruff of hair under his hood told me he'd long since passed my age. 

"I don't. But I'll run in and get you something." I drew myself up straight and spoke happy, like I was running an errand for a friend. "What would you like to eat?"

He shuffled a step closer. His answer came quick. "Just a hard roll is okay. Thank you so much!"

For once, my brain was firing on all cylinders. The hard rolls from this local convenience chain are a staple of many a blue-collar lunch. They come already split and spread with butter or peanut butter. And I could immediately see three things they might have going for them. They're soft (so a man with few teeth could gum them). They're swathed in plastic wrap (so they could ride around in a pocket for a day or more). And they're cheap (so pride doesn't suffer too much when you ask for a hand).

I kept my gaze steady on his, my voice upbeat. "Are you sure? You wouldn't like a breakfast sandwich or something?"

"... I suppose that'd be alright ... a breakfast sandwich on a hard roll. Yes, please." 

Turning, I bounded back into the store. A minute later, I was in front of the cashier who'd just checked me out, plunking down the loot. One hard roll with butter. For later, I thought. One hot breakfast sandwich of sausage, egg and cheese on a hard roll. For now, warm and filling and soft enough for those teeth. And one bottle of water. Because that's an awful lot of bread to have without something to drink.

"All in a bag, please." I thought that might be helpful, if someone had to carry things for later. 

Back on the sidewalk, I handed the bag to the gentleman standing alongside the garbage cans. 

"There's a breakfast sandwich in there for now, and I got you a hard roll for later, And a bottle of water, too."

"Thank you so much ..." He took the bag and peered into it. "That looks good!"

"You're welcome! Enjoy it!" I was already headed toward my car as he gently put the bag down on top of a trash can. He was tugging off his mittens as I backed out of the parking space and gave him a cheery wave goodbye. He returned it, seeming almost surprised.

I don't tell the story because I want credit. A little food is the very least I can offer, now and again, when I pick up the clue phone that's constantly ringing. 

And I don't tell it because I want to point out the horrors of poverty. We all have eyes and we can all see people in need. We're also all aware that sometimes the "need" is a con. And more times, it's not. 

I tell it because that man standing on the curb with his polite manners and his gentle requests for just enough money to buy something to eat was one of the bright spots of my day. Because he had his wits about him. Because he was gracious. Because he had honor, even when he might have little else. 

How do I know that? If a man wanted a dollar to buy lottery tickets, alcohol, or cigarettes, he wouldn't answer so quickly when given the chance to have something to eat, as he'd asked. And he wouldn't ask for just a dollar.  

But a man with honor? He'd ask for a dollar, precisely. Because a buttered hard roll costs something like 99 cents.

A Contrast of Continents

"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. ... Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly." The words are needlepointed in cream thread, perfect lines on a strip of cadet blue burlap that's been tucked into my high school diploma folder for going on 24 years, pressed between a $2 bill and my valedictory address. 

My English teacher senior year had also been my English teacher in seventh grade. We were the first class she looped, and she told us all how special it was for her to have been with us the year we entered the building as well as the year we left it. She stitched a bookmark for each one of us (all 88 graduates, if I remember correctly). Each delicate gift bore a quote she'd selected just for that student. Mine was the excerpt from Martin Luther King, Jr.'s letter from Birmingham Jail. 

I remember being profoundly touched by the thoughtfulness of the gift. Although many of the friends I've made as an adult might not realize it (I have a reputation for logic, rational thought, and a calming presence), I am prone to being swamped by emotions. That was certainly the case as my rather extraordinary high school class approached our graduation day. Seeing the quote my teacher chose for me brought on the tears. What an honor!

Every year on Martin Luther King Day, I think back to that quote and the fabric tucked away along with mementos from long ago. This year was far cry from the celebrations of African American culture and history that I remember attending during my youth. None of my friends were up for a gospel duo's concert marking efforts toward race unity (and the venue was small enough that I didn't feel right taking up a seat all by myself). Besides that event, the likelihood for speeches and comments to turn political (or personal), overtly or covertly, put me off public events. There's simply nothing constructive in that, no matter what position a person has taken.

Meanwhile, and from many miles away, the nightly news devoted its current zip-point-two minutes of international coverage to rough footage of the protests in Iran. For a nation that prides itself on the important role of journalism, they pretty much lost the lead. The story with some meat to it wasn't really the protests. It was the concentrated, systematic efforts to keep information about the protests from reaching the wider world. Just like the goal is to keep information about what happens to the Baha'is from reaching the rest of the world.

And just like the goal is to keep attention away from the Baha'i man in Yemen who was sentenced to execution last week, following the same pattern the Iranian government (which backs the Houthi faction in Yemen) used against the Baha'is in the early days of the Iranian Revolution. After four years in prison, under torture and duress, this man is condemned to die for the "crime" of being a Baha'i.

People ask me all the time why being a Baha'i is treated like being a criminal in some other countries. As Americans, we'd sum it up as, "He says different prayers." And everybody would kind of nod their heads and say, "You do you, dude."

After all, the U.S. was founded in some part by people seeking the freedom to practice their religion as they chose. In reality, it was 95 percent founded by people seeking riches and fame. But the 5-percent story of various English Puritan groups looking for a place to worship without persecution makes for a much more noble national lineage. Note that it was about English Christians of one stripe attempting to escape the yoke of English Christians of another stripe. We won't even mention the third major group of English Christians whom no one wanted on the boats or at home (I wonder if Plymouth still has stealth Catholics among its historical interpreters ... that was one of the most interesting parts of my visit there as a kid). 

The reason "you do you" isn't the response in Iran, or in an Iran-backed Yemeni court, is one of theology. Baha'is interpret a particular statement of the Prophet Muhammad in a way that really challenges a theocratic clergy's understanding of itself. That statement is that Muhammad was "The Seal of the Prophets." Among many Muslims, including those in positions of power in Iran, that title is taken to mean that God would never send another Messenger. Baha'is, instead, believe that Muhammad was the last in a now-completed cycle of Prophets that began with Adam ... and that Baha'u'llah was the first in a new cycle of messengers who will bring about universal peace, justice and unity over the next few thousand years.

To an American, the concept might be uncomfortable. Mostly because it has anything to do with religion at all. As a nation, we're not comfortable with large-scale issues of spiritual importance and the joining together of people whose prayers were revealed in unfamiliar languages (funny how we sort of blithely overlook the fact that even Christ spoke Aramaic, not English, ). I wonder sometimes what would happen if we asked, "Well, what if ...?" more often.

Perhaps it's that very unfamiliarity and discomfort with all things that don't fit neatly within the package of "America" stories that are passed down from generation to generation in school history books, that causes the general public to stay quiet and not look for details about what's happening to people in our own country or overseas.

On behalf of that Baha'i sentenced to die in Yemen, the international human rights community is sounding alarm bells in the halls of the UN and in the capitols of nearly every nation. But I have yet to see the name or the smiling face of Hamed bin Haydara in the national news here, with the exception of a short article in the Washington Post. This is a land where shining a spotlight on injustice is supposed to be in our national DNA ... despite that national DNA also bearing the marks of the still-unrecognized genocide that decimated our Native cultures, the still-expurgated slavery that outlasted that of other "civilized nations," the insidious aftermath of the Civil War that funneled the sentiments surrounding slavery into our national institutions, and the persistent tendency toward hatred for whichever immigrant group came after our own.

We have trouble comprehending injustice when it's directed toward people in shades and clothes and shapes that don't look like what we see in the mirror. When we do comprehend it, we frequently have no idea what to do about it in any practical way because injustice is one of those big words that stand for big ideas. And that require actual thought and curiosity to understand.

Said Dr. King: “When we look at modern man, we have to face the fact ... that modern man suffers from a kind of poverty of the spirit, which stands in glaring contrast to his scientific and technological abundance; We've learned to fly the air like birds, we've learned to swim the seas like fish, and yet we haven't learned to walk the Earth as brothers and sisters...”

So maybe we start small. Maybe it starts with noticing the people we see around us (smiling, waving and talking to our neighbors who seem alone and perhaps with the weight of the world on their shoulders ... especially if they don't look or sound like us).

Then, perhaps, doing something small to help correct the problems we see (the former coworker who frequently brought breakfast sandwiches to the homeless man roughing it on the street across from our office).

Maybe getting a little more systematic about it (helping out at a local senior center, homeless shelter, or other organization and actually getting to know those being served).

Maybe looking around a little father afield.

Maybe raising our voices on someone's behalf (we have a representative democracy, after all ... those folks have phones in their offices).

Maybe telling someone's story to our friends (do you know what's happening in...?)

Dr. King said: “The first question which the priest and the Levite asked was: 'If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?' But ... the good Samaritan reversed the question: 'If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?” 

Every great army moves forward on the individual steps of each of its soldiers. And when we're moving shoulder to shoulder for love and for good, we move the world. It doesn't matter whether the injustice we see is here or there. None is more or less unjust than the other. Each of us needs to find our place alongside our brothers and sisters and move things forward.

"We are inevitably our brother's keeper because we are our brother's brother." Those are perhaps my favorites of all the words Dr. King said. Now, I just need to live up to them. We all need to live up to them. 

Quick Bits of Inspiration

In the last week of the second-to-last term working toward my MFA, with freelance assignments moving through, too, I hope I can be forgiven for a little inattention to blog-y things. That doesn't mean my mind's completely gone right now, though. My quest for inspiring ideas continues!

Later this week, a couple friends and I will attend a local TEDx annual event. In part just to break out of our day-to-day ruts, in part because some of the talks sound interesting, and in part because there's a good chance I'll be pitching a talk for this event next year (so seeing this year's talks in person should help me prepare).

In the meantime, I found myself cruising through Not a Crime videos recently. They document the works of street art around the world that are highlighting the denial of higher education, and sometimes even basic education, to Bahá’ís in Iran. The largest number of these massive murals are located in Harlem, where I hope I might get to see them when I'm in NYC after the holidays. The video that I most enjoy, though, chronicles the work of artists in Sydney, Australia. Have a look and have a think:



Apples and Attorneys

I was reminded again this week of the benefits we have as Americans. That's because Monday, the New York Times reported that journalist Jason Rezaian is suing the Iranian government for "hostage-taking, torture and terrorism." If you recall, he is the former Washington Post Tehran bureau chief who was imprisoned in Iran for about 18 months and released around the time of the nuclear treaty talks between Iran and the international community, including the U.S.

I am very interested in the details laid out in the 68-page filing. Not because I enjoy reading about torture. I don't. In fact, it tends to leave me nauseated or sleeping with the lights on. However, I've found it hard to find detailed, English descriptions of the insides of Iran's prisons and the actions that take place there. That's particularly true of the sections reserved for individuals most often brought up on "security charges," like journalists and Bahá’ís. So reading Mr. Rezaian's case documents may allow me to write more effectively about the conditions facing other prisoners, including Mr. Khánjání.

It's also fascinating to me that the act of filing a lawsuit (against a nation with a history of disregarding similar suits) is reported pretty prominently here in my homeland. What gets reported and what doesn't?

Nearly every other day, I learn about Iranian Bahá’ís being arrested, expelled from university, or closed out of their shops. But those stories do not make the news here or nearly anywhere. Is Iran's lack of free press to blame? In part. But the government's ability to intimidate is more so. Because it's not just domestic press that is quashed. It's foreign press, too. No journalist wants to endure what Mr. Rezaian did. No media outlet wants to be banned from covering stories in Iran.  

So the human right stories, particularly about Bahá’ís, seem to make it out of Iran in a convoluted game of telephone. All that's missing is a couple of tin cans and a really long string. Someone's family member or a human rights activist passes the news along in Farsi via social media, website, phone, or smoke signals, another person or group picks it up, does a rough translation into English, posts it on another human rights or special-interest site, and there it sits. No formal reporting. No identified sources, lest they become the next chapter in the story. No details about anything at all.

Just in the last few days, a minor amount of digging showed that 14 Bahá’ís were arrested in Shiraz last week, four more Bahá’í-owned shops have been closed in Karaj, and in Semnan over the last month or so, 80 families have been evicted and the province's largest apple orchard destroyed. That last bit? It was a cooperative venture among both Bahá’ís and their neighbors in which Mr. Khánjání is a stakeholder. I have a feeling that he may be sitting in his prison cell, more concerned about the well-being of his evicted neighbors than about his own likely losses.

The whole means of gathering information makes for a nonfiction author's nightmare. I'm finding it nearly impossible to gather any details or to verify anything according to journalistic standards. Even though the U.N.Secretary-General just this week said he was "deeply troubled" by the state of human rights in Iran and pointed to the Bahá’ís as the country's "most severely persecuted religious minority." Even though it's all clearly true, in other words.

So think for a minute about wasted apples in a broken orchard halfway around the world. Let yourself feel the warm sun pouring down on your back. The same back that ached every day when you planted those trees. Look across the crushed trunks and limbs. Remember how you walked the rows during last year's harvest, pulling down the fruit one by one. Feel the ultra-sweet stench of acres of rotting fruit saturate the air you take in your next breath.

In the U.S., someone would be filing a lawsuit.