I never planned it this way; it is just how it has turned out. Over the past 32 years, I have been accumulating a small array of projects in other parts of the globe that have expanded my daily consciousness of the rest of the world, and has tied my family to others in bonds of friendship. We provide each other with hope, of light and compassion in a world that too often seems lacking in both.
Every project began with death. In one case, it was of a single person; in another, of hundreds of thousands. In all four cases, the work has resulted in communities becoming reconciled, lives being renewed, bridges between people rebuilt. My children have been engaged in one way or another in all four of these projects (in one case, I found out about it from my younger daughter); it is my hope that they will carry the spirit of these project into a fulfilling adulthood.
On Christmas Night 1968, in the middle of a labor struggle among some of the world's poorest inhabitants, 43 Dalit (so-called "untouchable") women and children in Kilvenmani, Tamil Nadu in southern India were gathered into a straw hut and set aflame. A 44th, an infant, was found pinioned to a tree next to the hut, a knife through his heart.
The very next morning, a Gandhian woman activist, Krishnammal Jagannathan, also born a Dalit, moved to the area where she had never been before, and set up camp. Over the next 40 years, through nonviolent struggle and creative financing, LAFTI has made it possible for more than 12,000 families who had been landless for centuries to own their own land. All the land is held in the name of women. In addition, LAFTI works with entire villages to rebuild their own homes, conducts employment training programs, and works for the uplift of Dalit villages.
I have been associated with the work of LAFTI since 1977, and am one of the founders of the Friends of LAFTI Foundation. This year (2008), Krishnammal Jagannathan and LAFTI have been named finalists for the Opus Prize as well as winners of the Right Livelihood Award ), the "Alternative Nobel Prize for outstanding work on behalf of our planet and its people."
On October 22, 1993, 72 secondary school students and their principal in Mutaho, Burundi, were herded into their school building, and the building set afire. This was part of the general conflagration between Hutus and Tutsis in which, while overshadowed by events in Rwanda, more than 300,000 people were killed.
Beginning in 1999, Quakers in the United States and Central Africa came together to form the African Great Lakes Initiative to promote peace building, trauma healing, and community reconciliation in Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania, Kenya, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo - countries all beset by intercommunal strife.
In Burundi, considered the third poorest country on earth, thousands of members of the Tutsi tribe have been gathered into camps for "internally displaced persons". Now that they are being released, killers and their families have to return to their home areas to live with those who have been victimized. AGLI has been organizing "Healing and Rebuilding Our Communities" workshops with members of both communities to begin to heal the wounds and trauma, and to strive to prevent longstanding animosities from becoming intergenerational.
I have been working with a small widows cooperative in Mutaho in central Mutaho to make it possible for them to rebuild their lives. What began as a small Goat Project (when my Friends Meeting received a request for 12 goats) has now expanded to the building of a community meeting place, agricultural center, and a few guestrooms so that folks can stay over for the workshops (and I will have a place to stay when I visit!)
The annual average income of the widows of Mutaho is likely around $50/year, so a little can go a very long way!
My hometown - Olympia, Washington - was also home to Rachel Corrie, the Evergreen State College student who, in 2003, was run over and killed by an Israeli bulldozer while trying to defend the home of a Palestinian pharmacist and his family in Rafah, Gaza, Palestine. In our town, feelings ran high, and there was need for community dialogue.
My daughter Meera, then 13, heard about the Bereaved Families Forum. This is a group of Israeli and Palestinians who have lost family members in the conflict, and have come together to support each other, and promote reconciliation as an alternative to hatred and revenge. They have set up seminars, workshops, and summer camps for youth, initiated phone chats and hotlines between members of both communities, organized art exhibitions, and sent speakers to promote reconciliation around the world.
Through a solo piano recital, Meera raised funds for two members of the group to come to Olympia for three days of community dialogue, followed by a tour of Washington on which she accompanied them. These folks are a light in the continuing darkness that has hung over Palestine and Israel for a very long time.
As noted above, Rachel Corrie was run over and killed by an Israeli bulldozer on March 16, 2003. Since then, the Rachel Corrie Foundation for Peace and Justice was founded to continue the work that Rachel began and hoped to accomplish, and carries out that work with her vision, spirit, and creative energy in mind. They conduct and support programs that foster connections between people, build understanding, respect, and appreciation for differences, and promote cooperation within and between local and global communities.
A week after her death, the Union of Health Work Committees under the leadership of Dr. Mona Al-Farra decided to name its new children and youth cultural center in the Rafah Refugee Camp after Rachel. The Center provides children's health care, a library, computers, art supplies, children's workshops in dance and drama, and just a place for children to escape the misery in which they are constantly surrounded. The Foundation continues to provide material support for the Center..