Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Former Yugoslavia 1992-1997

By the spring of 1992, the conflicts that had fractured Yugoslavia created what became Europe's largest population of refugees since World War II. Over four million people were uprooted by the conflict, nearly three-quarters of whom were from Bosnia. A large number of these refugees sought safety along the Croatian coast. However, the war followed them. From the mountain range only a couple miles inland, artillery targeted coastal towns. Refugees were crowded into collective centers and other shelters with little prospect of relief from the shooting and the shelling. Under these conditions tensions within the multi-ethnic refugee population became a serious concern—as each group blamed the other for their situation.

I sent Jim Nuttall to Croatia to establish a presence for Save the Children. His task was to determine how we could best assist the many families affected by the war. At the time, there was little public awareness of the conflict's brutality and the need to support relief assistance. With little available in Save's own budget for mounting a major relief operation, it was important not only to determine critical needs but also to find essential donor support.

From a base in Split, Jim developed relationships with NGOs, UN organizations and local government. By meeting with refugees, a dual problem was observed: tensions and wartime trauma among adult refugees living in crowded conditions and the psychological impact that these conditions created for the children. Through individual discussions and community meetings, an idea for addressing both sets of issues began to develop—creating playgroups and community kindergartens. Addressing the well-being of their children appeared to be one of the few issues that each mother—Croat, Bosniac or Serb—felt transcended their differences and mutual distrust.

With initial support from the UN, Jim and his staff began working with the refugees to find and prepare spaces for playgroups. A prime consideration was that children should not have to cross open areas that might be subject to gunfire. As refugees already occupyed the available rooms in each collective center, ways needed to be found to open up space within each center for safe playrooms. Areas previously overlooked such as storage spaces were cleaned out and rehabilitated. With community effort, spaces that had been filled with junk were soon transformed into bright and cheerful nurseries. Volunteers were trained in child care and early childhood education. And in a relatively short time, a new programming idea for emergency education began to take shape. 

One of the Community Preschools 
Developed by Save the Children

The emergency education model that we pioneered in the Former Yugoslavia, not only offered young children three hours of supportive, supervised group activities daily but also provided their caregivers with the same amount of time each day to deal with life's necessities without having to be worried about their children's well-being. The daily routine created by the playgroups and preschools brought a degree of normalcy to the lives of refugees. The need for finding ways to maintain these children's groups brought refugees, previously at odds with one another, together—something that none would have believed possible before the project got underway.

Over the years, this project garnered growing support from both donors and from local government. Through our work, we demonstrated how centers of stability within refugee communities could be created by focusing on meeting basic needs for children. In time, the emergency preschool model would come to be implemented not only in Croatia but throughout Bosnia-Herzegovina. Before the end of 1996, nearly 500 sites had been created and more than 18,000 children had participated in the program.  

While many of the original playgroups eventually dissolved as refugees returned home following the Dayton Accords, within Bosnia-Herzegovina community support for these groups ensured that a large number continued to operate after the war. Over the years, by involving the Ministry of Education in this approach, appreciation within the government grew concerning the value of supporting low-cost community preschools and playgroups, particularly in rural areas.  

Jim and his team did pioneering work on what was initially considered an emergency solution for providing education under conflict conditions. Much of the work they did, however, has evolved into what today is considered more mainstream development activities in child protection by creating safe play areas. My involvement in supporting and encouraging the staff behind this program was very rewarding.

Save the Children Staff in Split, Croatia

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Scenes from Kenya 1986

On the trail in Masai Mara

Visiting a Masai Village

Elephants in Amboseli Park

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Uncle Khoo Eng Kim

Courting Days

When I first began seeing Jee, her parents were strongly opposed to the idea of their youngest daughter going out with someone who was not Chinese and not even from Malaysia. Theirs was an understandable position taken to protect their daughter. Back then (early 1970s), the reputation earned by Australian soldiers stationed at the RAAF base in Butterworth ensured that families in Penang looked down on girls who dated foreigners. For some time we had to see each other surreptitiously.

Jee lived in Bukit Mertajam but I couldn't meet her there. So, on the weekends when I came, Jee would tell her parents that she was going over to Penang Island shopping with her girlfriends. We then would meet in Penang where we could join our friends going to the beach and visiting local sites.

After several months of meeting like this, we faced a dilemma. We didn't want to keep our love secret but Jee felt it was too difficult to raise the subject with her family. We needed an intermediary.

Jee had told me about her "uncle" Eng Kim whose daughter had married a Englishman. As I thought he might be sympathetic to our situation, I decided to approach him. At the time, Khoo Eng Kim was a hospital administrator in Kuala Lipis which was close to where I was living in Bentong.

Although Kuala Lipis was only 60 miles from Bentong, the trip took nearly two hours on my Honda. Timber lorries slowed all traffic on the hills as the road twisted and climbed its way past one rubber plantation and then another. In those days, the road ended at Kuala Lipis. Beyond the town was just the jungle. Kuala Lipis, with its combination of British and Chinese architecture, was one of those quiet colonial hill towns that had once enjoyed a period of fame and importance but was now well past its days of glory.

When I arrived at the Kuala Lipis District Hospital, I asked for Mr Khoo and was quickly directed to an office. Somewhat nervously, I knocked at his door. Lifting up his head, he smiled and motioned for me to come in and take the chair next to his desk. What I noticed about him right away was his calm, pleasant manner. Although he didn't know me, he was happy to take time from his work to talk with me. He seemed neither surprised nor concerned when I explained who I was and why I had come to see him. In fact, there was a twinkle in his eyes when he began asking me questions to determine how serious I was about Jee. During our conversation he asked me my thoughts on many things from work to religion to relationships and especially how I saw my future with Jee. After an hour or so, much to my relief, he shook my hand and said he would be happy to speak to Jee's parents about me.

About a month later, I received an invitation from Jee to come meet her family. Three months later, in September 1972, we were married.

Over the years, we didn't hear much news about uncle Eng Kim. Then in 1980 he surprised everyone by renouncing the world to become a monk. We had all known of his devotion to Buddhism and his desire to take up the saffron robes. But none of us expected that at age 60 he would leave his wife, his children and his home to enter a monastery. Although he had provided for his wife so that she could live comfortably, his decision made many wonder whether he was truly aware of what he was doing.

As a monk, uncle Eng Kim became Bhante Suvanno. Over the years, his reputation in Buddhist circles throughout Southeast Asia grew. He was cherished for his knowledge of Buddhism and his ability to present Buddhist teachings in a way that all could understand. Preaching to audiences in both Hokkien and in English, recordings of his lectures became very popular. People were attracted to him not only because of his message but because in his life as a monk he truly embodied the simplicity that he preached. Always approachable, he listened carefully to the many problems that the faithful brought to him and in return he offered them words of wisdom, comfort and hope.

We always tried to visit Bhante Suvanno whenever we came to Penang. But he was often traveling, bringing his Dhamma teachings to others. We felt fortunate when we were able to see him. In August 2000, we were brought to a Penang Hill temple where he was preaching. While there were many who had come just to be near and to hear what he had to say, we were able to sit in front and speak with him for some time. We last saw him six years later when he was at the Bukit Mertajam Meditation Center. Once again the room was filled with those who had become devoted to his message. And once again we enjoyed reminiscing with him about family, friends and daily concerns. On each occasion when we met, he was full of life and merriment with that same twinkle in his eye that I had seen so many years ago in Kuala Lipis. While he took his responsibilities very seriously, he always conveyed a sense of fun and joy when anyone was with him.

Bhante Suvanno, our uncle Eng Kim, passed away on Sunday March 11, 2007. He was 86.

Bhante Suvanno. August 2000
Bhante Suvanno with Jee. August 2006

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Christmas in Hawaii 2004

As Jee and I had not gone anywhere for vacation during 2004, we decided to spend Christmas in Hawaii. We planned to visit my cousins in Kauai and then spend a few days by ourselves on Maui. Although I would have preferred flying to Honolulu from LaGuardia or JFK,  Jee was able to get a really good price on tickets from Newark. So on December 23rd we left early for the drive from Connecticut to New Jersey. 

With no traffic on I-95, we made great time right until we got to the Bruckner Expressway in the Bronx. On that day, traffic on the Bruckner was anything but express. I wasn't worried however as I had allowed several hours to get to the airport. Forty-five minutes later however, we had only moved a couple hundred yards. Frustration at the traffic gradually turned into panic as I stared to realize that we would never make our flight if we couldn't find a way past this highway parking lot. In desperation, I called our son David and asked his help. Through the wonders of technology—cell phones and internet mapping—he  began directing us off the Bruckner and through a maze of streets completely across the Bronx. It wasn't until I could see the George Washington Bridge, however, that I started to feel some relief. 

At long last we finally saw the exit signs for Newark airport. By the time we parked the car and took the shuttle to the American terminal we had less than half an hour before our flight. So despite the long line of passengers, we pushed to the front and quickly got the attention of an agent. We thought we were home free but then learned it was too late to check our bags! With all flights booked solid, our plans to spend Christmas in Hawaii again began to fade. The American agent was good, however, and found a cancellation for the last two tickets going to Honolulu the next morning. We snapped up the seats even though we weren't sure about getting a connection to Kauai. But everything worked out. When we arrived in Lihue on Christmas Eve, my cousins were there to give us a traditional welcome with fragrant leis, hugs and kisses. Tired but happy we looked forward to a relaxing week in tropical sunshine.

The next morning we found our presents under a Christmas tree brought in from California. Outside, instead of pines and snow drifts were palms and beach sand. How wonderful! With our young nieces playing with their toys and showing off their new clothes, we spent the morning catching up on what everyone had been doing over the years since we were last together. 

And then that afternoon we started to hear about an earthquake and tsunami in Indonesia. The first TV news sounded serious but had few details. I called the head of our Emergency Response department to see whether we would be organizing any assistance. I was told they were still gathering information and would let me know. Little did I realize how this event on the other side of the world was about to change my life. That, however, is the story for another day.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Scenes from North Korea July 2006

Guide at the Pohyon Temple Complex

International Friendship Exhibition Museum

Kim Jong Il Shrine

Dawn on the Taedong River

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Sri Lanka Tea Gardens October 2007

In the highlands of Sri Lanka, the climate is moist and cool—perfect for growing tea. 

We had traveled to the highlands to attend a ceremony at a nursing school where AmeriCares, the NGO I worked for, had supported some much needed renovations.  The nursing students as well as their teachers were so thankful for the new equipment, furnishings and training materials that we had provided. As their honored guests we each were given multiple garlands of fragrant flowers.  The Minister of Health himself came up from Colombo to thank us and join in the festivities. 

Although the ceremony at the nursing school was brief, it took the better part of one day to travel to the school and another to return to Colombo. The slow drive through the winding mountain roads gave us the chance to admire the many tea gardens along the way.

We stayed overnight at the Grand Ella Motel in Nawara Eliya. Despite its unpromising name, this government managed hotel was a quaint reminder of the colonial days. With comfortable chairs on the veranda, ceiling fans overhead, and a staff eager to please their guests, it was easy to feel like a British planter in the days before independence. Sitting in the hotel garden we could enjoy our tea while looking out over the Ella Gap. Here at an elevation of over 3,000 feet, we looked through the mountain pass down to the faraway coastal plains barely visible through the mist and haze.

There were a number of tea factories in the area including Kinellan. While we did not tour this factory, we did buy tea inexpensively at the factory store.

Wherever you drive in Sri Lanka's highlands, tea is planted in neat sections up and down the hillsides. Although the tea bushes are densely planted, the pluckers quickly work their way past each bush to take two leaves and a bud. In season, sections of tea are plucked every 10 days. It takes four years for a new tea bush to develop leaves worth picking. With care, however, a tea bush will continue producing for over 100 years.