What’s Afghanistan got to do with it? How I found hope as a volunteer at the Peace Day Hawaii Festival
This is how I remember the day America invaded Afghanistan: I am on the phone long-distance with my Mom who is deep into dementia. Mostly, she just fires blanks when she speaks. But every now and then, it’s as if her brain lifts a small rock and a Sphinxlike critter scrambles out and utters inscrutable words with the tantalizing ring of prophecy. So it went on October 7, 2001, when the White House announced boots hit the ground in Afghanistan for Operation Enduring Freedom. Now that was a misnomer if there ever was one, and that much my mom got in her own word-scrambled way: “America is going over there to close up the highways and Afghans will have to come back and reopen the highways someday, because highways count—especially for the kids….highways count,” she kept repeating.
Enter the volunteers
If you take highways to mean the byways of human dignity, then maybe my mom foresaw the work of the Afghan Peace Volunteers who are working together today with a long-term focus on the abolition of war, violence, racism, environmental destruction, poverty…and all the other man-made obstructions that jam up the wondrous and evolving journeys of humanity. This group does not take money from Church or State. Members are diverse and not set in any particular ideology. They do have an actual center in Kabul and a blogsite: http://enough.ourjourneytosmile.com. Like their name suggests, they have a yearning for peace, even though they live with the daily reality of war. They are connected to several other groups, including the sprawling Pace e Bene– Latin for “Peace + all good.” This group has been at it for years, cooling hot spots of hatred around the world with volunteerism in the name of peace which can mean a lot things, from organized protests in the streets to online conversations about love. Check them out at http://www.paceebene.org/
Is there reason to hope for peace?
I had no idea that peace groups of this ilk existed. Or more precisely, I’ve ignored their existence. In today’s war-crazy world, I’ve tended to nod my head duly at the pessimistic diatribes of politically progressive friends. To do otherwise has made me feel like I am not facing reality. After all, what solid evidence do I have that there is reason to hope for peace? But quite out of character for myself, I ended up representing the Afghan Peace Volunteers and inter-related larger support groups with similar goals at the Peace Day Hawaii Fair. The free event took place amid the Urban Gardens, a labyrinthine layout of impressive botanical specimens from the tropics. Over one-thousand people streamed through the gates to check out displays, food, entertainment, and activities–all peace-themed. The good attendance took me by surprise. The U of H College of Education where I am grad student organized the event on a shoestring budget which didn’t support much advance promotion. But–news to me–Peace Day is a known entity. It’s an annual worldwide celebration founded by a UN initiative and it is marked in diverse ways around the globe during the third week of September. Hawaii’s version turned out to be as eclectic as Hawaii’s people. So even though these Isles are a cosmos away from Kabul, nobody came into my booth questioning its relevance. In fact, in terms of enthusiasm and open-mindedness, the response was quite the opposite. That was another pleasant surprise the fair conferred on me.
How many ways can you say enough?
On their blogsite, you will see that the Afghan Peace Volunteers concede that there is “no singular method to abolish war,” but they are quick to add, “We need everyone and every creative and non-violent method.” This statement glimmers with hope, as it comes on the heels of 40 years of invasions of their homeland by foreign superpowers. These Afghans still have faith that many of us out here are peacemakers. They are using social media to reach out to us and are actively requesting that we share our “every creative and non-violent method.” This why they recently launched #Enough!. Follow the campaign on One of my main activities last Saturday was to invite fairgoers to record their own personalized messages for #Enough! That is “enough,” as in it’s time we say “enough” to lethal and life-forsaking conflict. Those who took me up on the invite had varying peace priorities–as you can see here, and as you will soon see when clips and photos are shared on the Afghan Peace Volunteer’s blogsite. One person said #Enough! to “jingoistic nationalism,” and another declared #Enough to racist name-calling in the halls of her high school.
How Hawaii fairgoers added “more” to enough.
The one thing I noticed most fairgoers had in common was a certain sunny vibe. Of course, this appearance comes easily in a paradisical-looking garden in Hawaii, but inside my booth it seemed that people were genuinely engaging with the notion of world peace becoming a possibility. This, of course, goes against the trending Age of Rage and its creation by the Tycoon with the bad orange Toupee, or, as I heard it described recently by a Daily Show comedian: “The dangerous thing about him is not that he makes people hate…. rather it’s that he makes people feel comfortable with their hate.” Perhaps it was the spectre of Orange Toupee’s vitriol that prompted one fairgoer to ask if she could amend her peace message just a tad. Instead of beginning with #Enough! and necessarily saying “no” to bad things, she wanted to start with #More!, and say yes to positive things, as in more compassion, or more trust, or more love. Why not, I figured and I gave others the same option. Thereafter, about half the fairgoers who gave their peace messages began with #More! Like I say, the day was filled with surprises.
Then there was this thing called artivism…
The day unspooled easily with several more surprises: Of special note were the notes played on the shakuhachi by Katsumi. When I asked her if she also wanted to record a message of peace, she replied that the message was in the music. From the looks of fairgoers who stopped in their tracks to hear her flute melody, I have to say she was right.
Now that’s what I call a prime example of artivism. I will spare you my stump speech but artivism is any art, which spurs social activism. I, for one, find it an exceptionally nurturing form of activism because the products of artvism–be it a poem or a painting or a dance–remind me that I am not alone. In the face of current events, a sense of connectivity is empowering. Hollywood with its current emphasis on doomsday-themed blockbusters may not think so, but artivism is catchy. Remember Martin Luther King, Jr. once famously said, “I have been to the mountain….” If he had said, “I have been to hell and life sucks,” would he have moved the masses, as he did? Unlikely. I may be out on a limb, but I would consider Dr. King not only a great humanitarian but an artivist; He spoke poetry not rhetoric and his fight to end segregation was an epic improvised performance of spirituality brought down to Earth. Artivism comes through the mysterious channels of the heart. It’s hard to analyze but you know when it’s working, because it brings laughter and fellowship in the face of woe.
Laughter and the throne of peace
Three days before the Hawaii Peace Day Fair, I got the printed program and noticed that the event’s lineup was bursting with an artvistic lineup, including some dynamic entertainment on the center stage. Driving around in my Toyota, I was mulling how I could make my booth more artivistic–more appealing on a sensory level. That’s when I did a U-turn in this funky cul-de-sac and spied this sturdy-backed chair left out on the sidewalk for refuse collection. I stopped my car to look at it. It gave me an idea. When a homeless man appeared out from under the shadows of his tent in the adjacent park, I thought he was going to say he had dibs on the discarded piece of furniture, but, instead he wanted to know if he could help me clean it up. We worked to rid it of all the ants that the recent rains have brought. As we were maneuvering it into the trunk of my car, I revealed my plan to make it into a Throne of Peace, where people would be welcomed to share their messages of peace. We all need that, he laughed. It was as if I were passing on the goodwill of the Afghan Peace Volunteers and this gentleman was returning it in-kind–out of pure kindness. That same evening an artist friend offered me the use of his studio, where I painted the Throne of Peace with several shades of blue.
Welcome to the world of borderfree blue scarves
Blue was the predominant color scheme of my booth at Peace Fest Hawaii and with good reason. I was also representing a sub-group of the Afghan Peace Volunteers known as BorderFree Blue Scarves. Girls and women in Kabul handcraft the scarves from silkie blue threads. The blue is the color of the sky and is meant to symbolize how the dimensions of peace are as infinite as the sky. The word borderfree reflects their determination to make a world where we stop isolating ourselves and begin celebrating the oneness of humanity. The Afghani girls and women embroider the word Borderfree onto each and every scarf in both English and Dari, one of two main Afghan languages. The scarfs are for sale and the money from sales supports Afghani peoples’ access to education and healthcare. I didn’t know this access had become such a problem until I took a moment to go online and check out recent events. In Afghanistan today, conflict-related attacks on teachers and doctors have been on the rise. War-related violence this year closed 369 schools and affected more than 139,000 students and 600 teachers, according to UNICEF. Against this turbulent background, the sight of those blue scarves struck me as a sound testament to human resiliency. The blue is the color of ubiquity– both sky-blue and ocean-blue. It’s the same tranquil hue attributed to Yemanja, the orisha of love and the mother of all other orishas in the Afro-Brazilian pantheon. It’s the appearance of the sixth level of human energy, emanating from our shared capacity for wisdom, according to Hindu spirituality. It’s the designated color for the outlier note which makes the blues scale in music so authentically woeful, like a cry of truth. It’s everything that the unacceptable conditions of war are not and it’s everything that a better world will be—if we can grow the ethos of Borderfree Blue Scarves.
I arrived at the Urban Gardens site hoping to sell a few scarves while also recording those peace messages. Right away the scarves were a major hit. Teen volunteers from the group Youth Challenge Hawaii strung a clotheslines around the booth and hung the scarves so that warm Hawaiian trade winds sent the fabric dancing in the sunlight all day. Was it okay to touch the scarves? The teen volunteers wanted to know. Of course, it was. One thing led to another and the teens were wrapping themselves in the blue garments and taking to the Throne of Peace to give their personalized messages to their Afghani peers. The blue scarves are like products of artivism in their own right. The girls and women who made them are following a traditional style of weaving. Throw one across your head or shoulders and you feel the concentrated focus of the handi-crafters and their comfort in knowing that the products of their work belong to something much greater than the isolated self. I am not very experienced in sales, but the scarves more or less sold themselves and so the booth raised some money to go with the messages. The biggest surprise of the day was that I was so very taken by surprise at how well it all went.
It’s only very recently that I became interested in artivism. I am a veteran of the old-fashioned activism of anti-war protests. Back in the Vietnam Era, I marched, I waved banners, I faced off with the police and I ran like the wind into the nearest subway station when the paddy wagons showed up.
I never felt in danger, even when I was gassed and hosed by National Guard in the streets of Miami Beach, Florida, the site of the 1972 Republican National Convention, which nominated Richard Nixon, in the face of our protets. I had driven to Miami with friends from New York to plan the protests and camped out for weeks in Flamingo Park where we were in the eclectic company of old Commies, young anti-war veterans, college campus radicals, moms against war, you name it. When, on the final night, we were confronted by the violence of the authorities, my friends and I knit ourselves tightly together and became one many-headed hyrda, impenetrable in our unity, and we managed not to get hailed off to the Dade County jail. Unity works. Unity against the Vietnam war overpowered the inner sanctum of U.S. policymakers and finally the conflict that became the worst-case quagmire ended. In that pre-digital dinosaur era, in lieu of social media, we came together to forge unity and it necessarily had to be accomplished in physical spaces. Today, as much as social media has been a gift for exposing police violence and tyranny of rogue governments, its reach and impact can still pale in comparison to the corporate media machine’s awful pro-war propaganda. The efforts of caring people just don’t have the best SEO on Google. So it’s too easy to conclude that there are no caring people out there. In an awful 21st century era of war, I am happy that I discovered the engagement with social justice provided by artivism–a lot of artivists are online. Nevertheless, I find that I still get the best inspiration from warm-blooded colleagues.
The San Francisco Connection
It was through real people–not a social media post–that I learned about Borderfree Blue Scarves, Pace e Bene, and the efforts of so-called peace workers. It began for me during a visit to San Francisco when I met Sherri Maurin, a friend of a friend. A teacher by trade, she also mentioned to me that she did peace work. What is that, I asked, mildly curious. She was all smiles with a story of the time she had recently spent with the Afghan Peace Volunteers of the Borderfree Nonviolence Community Centre in Kabul, Afghanistan. On one of those bright and brisk San Francisco mornings, I stood outside listening to her with a warm mug of tea in my hand. Sherri has conducted her peace work in Afghanistan in association with Campaign Non-Violence, one of those numerous groups under wingspan of Pace e Bene. Isn’t Afghanistan dangerous? I had to ask her. I can’t remember her reply, because it was at this point that she unfurled one of the blue scarves and described the graciousness with which Afghani people had received her. Intrigued, I ended up purchasing a few scarves from her. I have always been curious about the way ordinary citizens in countries that have been invaded by U.S. don’t necessarily hate ordinary U.S. citizens for any collateral damage (i.e.: deaths of innocent civilians). For example, I remember presuming Americans would be public enemy number-one in the eyes of Vietnamese. The thought came to me just a few years after the U.S. quagmire ended. I was in Kauai by then; to be exact, I was in the library of Kauai Community College and I pulled from the shelves a thin volume about the final evacuation of U.S. soldiers and citizens from the roof of the American embassy in Saigon. I read the text about Vietnamese desperate to escape to safety, swarming the embassy grounds but getting tear-gassed and gun-butted by U.S. marines. Not a very pretty farewell photo op.. And yet years later when I wrote a newspaper series on Vietnamese who made it out and resettled in Hawaii, they embraced me warmly. They were not happy about the U.S. government’s prolonged rampage in their homeland, but I was not the government. In their view, I was an ordinary person like them. So they invited me into their homes, into their Buddhist church meetings, into the their community association events. And all the while, they were quick to share food and laughter. Based on Sherri’s stories of the welcome she received in Afghanistan, I understand that the Vietnamese were not anomalous in being able to discern a person of peace from an institution of power. In the wake of 9-11, as we know all too well, Americans have not acquitted themselves so well on this score.
Bringing it all back home
Just weeks later after my rendez-vous with Sherri, I was back in Hawaii meeting up with Dr. Jeannie Lum, my academic advisor at the UH College of Education, where I am doing grad studies. She mentioned to me that she was directing the 2016 Peace Day Hawaii Festival. She said the festival this year was meant to bring together diverse interpretations of peace: treaties of peace, inner peace, peaceful music, peace in the classroom, peaceful ways women can birth their babies, dancing and drumming for peace. Did I have anything I might want to contribute, she asked. Without giving it a second thought I said I wanted to represent a bunch of paths to peace: artivism, peace work, and, of course Borderfree Blue Scarves.
Let’s do it again!
A week has passed since the festival. I hauled the Throne of Peace back into my patio and I put away the art supplies—until the next time. Yes, I would do it again. My own willingness in this respect surprises me. I kid you not when I say it took a chunk of time to get it altogether but much of that time was happily invested in making new friends, and catching up with old friends, who are choosing to emphasize peace and all the concomitant virtues like compassion; as I discovered through my volunteer gig at the Peace Fest, I have plenty of friends who hold on to hope in these bad times and also pursue activities that keep them engaged in making a more hopeful world
Caring about the CARE Project
I would like to mention my dear Kauai colleauge Ruby Menon, who arranged for the CARE Project to be represented alongside BorderFree Blue Scarves, Pace e Bene and Campaign Non-Violence inside booth #21 at Peace Fest Hawaii. According to Ruby and her website (go to http://www.worknetinc.org/care-project), the CARE Project began as an extension of a program started by WorkNet, Inc. in 2007. The CARE Project gives Hawaii’s WCCC female inmates the opportunity to make artistic craft items as a therapeutic means to express their creativity. It began when the women were asked to come up with craft item ideas for their own Service Learning Projects. They decided to create greeting cards for special occasions that included cards for children at the Ronald McDonald house awaiting medical treatment, and Mother’s Day cards for the women in domestic violence shelters. Their cards and other products can be purchased through WorkNet’s online store at: http://www.worknetinc.org under the tab BUY ART. When you buy a product, your purchase contributes towards the artist’s ability to save money for her transition to the community.
Mahalo also to Wally Inglis, a Hawaii veteran of Campaign Non-Violence. He hosted a table with the CNV pledge for peace at the festival. He is a mensch and marvelous raconteur about his lifetime spent in activism on behalf of a more peaceful world. CNV has been building a culture of peace with efforts coordinated across the U.S. with support of Pace e Bene. Campaign Non-Violence may have a chapter near you. To find out, visit their website at http://www.paceebene.org/programs/campaign-nonviolence/ Also, plenty props to the troupes of fair organizers and helpers— all volunteers, including UH College of Education faculty and students, members of the local Lions Club Chapter, and those awesome teens from Youth Challenge Hawaii. The word “mobilize” these days is too often followed by the word “troops;” great to see an example of how and why it can also be followed by “peace volunteers.”
It’s all in a smile
I think it’s significant that the Afghan Peace Volunteers blog is titled “Journey to Smile,” though when I first heard the name before this volunteer stint, I confess that it pushed the needle on my skepticism meter. My skepticism meter is pretty active, because I work as a feature writer and am responsible for fact-checking stories in a magazine with a sizeable circulation. I’ve caught many a phony factoid that I inadvertently quoted in the nick of time before the presses roll. So I was moved to ask why and how Afghans navigate that so-called journey to smile. Now I see that a smile can be a message of peace, a wonderful way to say #Enough! to darkness and #More! to light.