Balkans Convening Aims to Offer Support to Partner Refugee Organizations

This week, UUSC’s Director of Programs, Research and Partner Support, Danielle Fuller-Wimbush is in Zagreb, Croatia to hold a three-day convening of our partners and other non-governmental organizations advancing refugee and migrant rights in the region. It’s an opportunity for 15 organizations serving refugees along the migrant route that cuts through Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, and Hungary to share strategies and better coordinate their critical work across multiple borders.

The Balkan Route, pre-March 2016. Source: Eurostat, Frontex

Since the spring of 2015, thousands of families have risked their lives to seek refuge in European Union (EU) countries, with most traveling through the Balkans. Many are fleeing the devastation caused by the Syrian civil war, which continues today.

In 2016, less than a year after the initial wave, countries began to close their borders and institute anti-immigrant tactics, stopping thousands of asylum-seekers from continuing their journey to safety and security. Hungary responded by building a razor-wire barrier on its border with Serbia and later with Croatia. Austria erected a four-kilometer-long fence at the Slovenia border, deployed armed forces around the border, and dramatically limited asylum applications. Macedonia, Croatia, and Slovenia announced that they were no longer letting migrants and refugees through their borders with Greece. For refugees, this has meant that their movement is largely curtailed and their access to asylum services is limited.

UUSC’s response to the Syrian refugee crisis has focused on supporting critical areas along the Syrian refugee migration route, where there is a lack of international protection, cooperation, burden sharing, and respect for the human rights of displaced peoples. Partners like the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, Centre for Peace Studies, and Are You Syrious, provide essential support to ensure that these families are resettled into their new home countries, that their rights are protected, and that they have sufficient access to basic services.

UUSC supported the Asylum Protection Center in buying this camper, which carries an interdisciplinary team throughout Serbia to assist refugees. The team includes a lawyer, psychosocial worker, and a translator.

Over the next few days our partners will discuss the current landscape of this crisis and how they can support one another to better serve refugees.

As conflicts throughout the world continue to fuel the largest refugee crisis since World War II, the need for convenings like these—which allow organizations on the ground to reflect, share stories, successes, and build relationships with one another—are critical. UUSC continues to find ways to respond to and address this and other humanitarian crises with compassion and genuine partnership. Stay tuned for more news from Zagreb as the convening continues!

From the frontlines of UN climate talks

It’s begun! The world has gathered for critical climate talks and to evaluate the implementation of agreements to reduce carbon emissions and adapt to climate change. UUSC and our partners are on the frontlines of this year’s Conference of the Parties (“COP23”) in Bonn, Germany. We’ll be sharing updates and opportunities to advocate for the rights of marginalized populations who are disproportionality at risk of losing their homes – and entire ways of life – due to our warming planet.

In true Pacific spirit, Fiji opened COP23 with a traditional ceremony, showcasing perhaps one of the most important Pacific traits that is at risk due to climate change. This traditional and cultural loss resonates with indigenous cultures worldwide.

Here are just two of the many startling details heard during one of the conference’s first panels, Disappearing Islands:

  • Two islands in the Solomon Islands have completely vanished and six more are experiencing coastal erosion.
  • The significance of #3. We are currently on a dangerous track to a 3 degree warming, which will result in a 3-meter rise in the Pacific sea level. We only have 3 years to reduce emissions to address pre-2020 emission targets.

UUSC and our partner are working with three communities in the Solomon Islands. One of those villages, Nuatabu, was swept away by a tidal wave in 2012. To this day, people are still living in despair in tents and makeshift shelters and have not received any government assistance. UUSC is helping Nuatabu and other villages with resources and advocacy for national and international action. 

There are many outstanding organizations working to confront these climate change threats, yet few groups focus specifically on the resulting human rights crises: the families forced to evacuate their homes, the villagers whose fresh water wells are rendered useless, the farmers who live in constant fear of losing their communities’ crops. Through our Environmental Justice and Climate Action Program, UUSC and our partners are developing community-led and human-rights based responses to climate forced displacement.

For instance, Chevak Native Village, home to 1,200 Cup’ik villagers in Alaska, is one in a multitude of affected communities where we are working for urgent action. Minimal government assistance has left villagers to cope alone with weather-related changes and erosion caused by increasing temperatures and thawing permafrost. But like other villages in Alaska, this community does not have the resources to deal with the barrage of ongoing climate issues.

I am honored by the opportunity to participate in COP23 and stand alongside our partners in advocating for climate justice. And, I am inviting you to join me in shining a light on how climate change is disproportionately affecting the most marginalized populations, multiplying their risks, widening inequalities and threatening their basic human rights and dignities.

We are providing updates from COP23 on our blog, Facebook and Twitter feeds. Please follow us and help spread the word that the global community has a responsibility to act TODAY to protect the needs of all, not just the most powerful.

One of the atrocities of climate change is that the people who are least responsible for this looming catastrophe will suffer — are already suffering — its worst consequences. They urgently need someone to stand with them. I’m hoping that will be you.

UUSC Joins the #Faith4Dream Week of Action

As members of the Interfaith Immigration Coalition (IIC), UUSC is joining the #Faith4Dream Week of Action to support the Dream Act of 2017 (S.1615/H.R.3440). Congress must pass this crucial bill before the legislative session ends on December 15. Otherwise, it will be too late for many Dreamers whose permission to remain in the country is about to expire.

In partnership with IIC, we are sending a letter next week to every member of the House and Senate, reminding them that the clock is ticking. We urge swift action to pass the Dream Act of 2017—with no anti-immigrant riders.

You can amplify the message by forwarding the letter to your Members of Congress and letting them know that you are with UUSC and the immigrant community and support passage of a clean Dream Act too. The full text of the letter is available below and in PDF.

November 3, 2017

Dear Members of Congress,

The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) is deeply concerned about the pending loss of documented status for nearly 800,000 Dreamers. We urge Congress to pass the Dream Act of 2017 (S. 1615/H.R. 3440) without delay.

Time is running out to ensure permanent status for 790,000 immigrants who came to the United States as children. If Congress fails to act before December 15, these young people face the loss of livelihoods, futures, and family unity. For many Dreamers, this nightmare is already becoming reality. Our partners and allies report that arbitrary renewal dates and an uncertain future have already cost many their jobs, work authorization, and opportunities for higher education.

We urge you not to accept any expansion of the detention system or border militarization in exchange for the passage of the Dream Act. These would strengthen the very injustices that make this legislation necessary and that continue to raise the stakes of any failure to enact it.

While some defend anti-immigrant riders to the Dream Act as political compromise, Congress must understand that the costs of increased border militarization and deportation are often absolute. A member of UUSC’s Austin, Texas-based partner, Grassroots Leadership, Juan Coronilla-Guerrero, was murdered last month in Mexico, shortly after his deportation from the United States. His family had warned the deporting officers that his life would be in danger. There can be no just compromise when people’s lives are at stake.

As a human rights organization with more than 40,000 members and supporters nationwide, UUSC is inspired by the Unitarian Universalist principle that all people have inherent worth and dignity. For this reason, we do not accept legislative solutions that treat human lives and futures as bargaining chips. The expulsion, criminalization, and endangerment of members of our communities is a basic affront to our values.

We urge you to pass S. 1615/H.R. 3440 while there is still time. As Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. once wrote, quoting Omar Khayyam, “There is an invisible book of life that faithfully records our vigilance or our neglect. ‘The moving finger writes, and having writ, moves on.” Congress must not allow this window of opportunity to close.

Sincerely,

The Honorable Thomas Andrews
President and CEO
Unitarian Universalist Service Committee

Haiti: The Enormity of the Struggle and the Sliver of Hope

Read my pre-trip post, Haiti On My Mind.

It is hard to visit Haiti and not feel a deep sense of shame, anger, and pain, and I’ve choked up a few times since returning home. Spending any time in Haiti’s Central Plateau, as I just have, is a gut-punch reminder of the privilege of being born with white skin; the privilege of being born in the Global North; and the privilege afforded by an uncompromising power structure that benefits the few at the great expense of the many.

The structural disadvantages facing Haiti, particularly when experienced first-hand, can feel paralyzing. As Paul Farmer of Partners In Health wondered on the eve of the election of Jean Bertrand Aristide, it’s hard to imagine “what even a government of saints and scholars could do in the face of such odds.” And yet, across the country, communities continue to find creative ways to survive and grassroots movements like UUSC’s partner, Mouvman Peyizan Papay (MPP) continue to support them and help give them hope.

Both the enormity of the struggle and the sliver of hope are on display in the EcoVillages and the EcoVillage School. On my trip, I found that Village 1, the first village supported by UUSC after the earthquake, is thriving. It has a functioning solar-powered well for drinking water, two cisterns to catch rain and irrigate the village’s gardens, and a pleasant stream nearby. The gardens produce moringa, manioc (cassava), peanuts, mangoes, and papaya. Goats, which the village owns, live in an enclosure on a hill. On the day we visited, bags of recently harvested peanuts and corn leaned against the community center’s walls, waiting to be taken to market. There are two community motorcycles for transport, an ox to help plow the larger fields, and a few houses even have electricity.

Kids play under a tree in Village 1. School was closed in observance of a national holiday.

Village 5, on the other hand, continues to struggle. As with Village 2, the well has not been able to produce any water for over a year and hopes that the rainy season might sufficiently raise the water table were recently dashed. The drought may be over, but water is still absent here. Villagers who want drinking water must walk 30 minutes to Village 6, where a UUSC grant recently repaired another broken well, and then carry it back home. Every village but Village 1 also lacks electricity, the absence of which prevents anyone from doing much of anything after the vast darkness blankets the area each night.

A girl carries water back from Village 6 to Village 5.

In spite of this, there are rays of light. A recent microloan project sponsored jointly by UUSC and our partners to support income-generating projects in the villages has begun to pay small dividends. With a loan from MPP, Village 5 planted a large field of manioc and peanuts, both of which can grow in harsh conditions. Despite failing to plant the manioc properly, the village succeeded in planting a large field of peanuts, which were nearly ready to harvest at the time of our visit.

The proceeds from the sale of these crops will not, in and of themselves, bring water or electricity to Village 5, but a portion will support the EcoVillage School. Hopefully, the village can use the remaining funds to strengthen their food sovereignty and incrementally improve their lives. In other words, some hope.

Students repeatedly told us of their passion for math. A few hoped to be engineers someday.

More hopeful still is the progress made by the EcoVillage School. Two years ago, the project was at a standstill: years behind schedule, students crowding into shared classrooms, nowhere for the students to eat lunch, and gardens suffering from the epic drought. When we visited last week, the student body had grown to 172 children. Four more classrooms had been built, allowing every grade from kindergarten through sixth to have individual space to learn. The school even has a separate kitchen, cafeteria, and food storage area now. Students repeatedly told us of their passion for math. A few hoped to be engineers someday.

Recently harvested peanuts dry in Village 4’s community center.

The vast gardens behind the school, once plagued by a protracted lack of rain, are now robust, growing moringa, pigeon beans, peanuts, and manioc. The school’s well delivers clean drinking water and virtually every student comes to school proudly wearing a bright green uniform. When we visited, Andraal, a parent living in Village 1, worked in the shade painting a new sign that would stand in front of the school, announcing the Institution Mixte Communautaire des EcoVillages de Colladere.

Of course, this being Haiti, there are still mountains left to climb. To qualify as a “government school,” thereby shifting hefty operating costs from MPP to the government, three more classrooms still need to be constructed. At least two more bathrooms must be built to accommodate the expanding student population. The school lacks a perimeter fence, which means that any equipment of value is at risk of theft. There is no system for irrigating the fields that support the school’s limited food program, and each of the food relief organizations to whom MPP has reached out for help has reported that they are too focused on hurricane relief in other parts of the country to worry about school lunches in the Central Plateau.

However, while the future of the school is still somewhat uncertain, it is surely a beacon. The community and its partners are committed to its future, and to the parents, children, and others in the Central Plateau, it represents hope. As the Haitian proverb goes, Lespwa se viv— “Hope makes one live.”

Thank you for virtually going on this journey with UUSC.

Kindergarteners welcome UUSC and the Atlanta Church Group to the EcoVillage School. 

Celebrating the United Nations’ Promise of International Democracy

On this day in 1945, the Charter of the United Nations entered into force and with it, the world’s most meaningful and lasting opportunity to build a global democratic institution, in which all countries could have an equal voice.

Today, we celebrate this founding vision. In the midst of the largest refugee crisis on record, ethnic cleansing in Burma (Myanmar), conflict in Syria and elsewhere, and increasing global devastation due to climate change, the need to realize the United Nations’ promise is greater than ever. UUSC is calling on the U.S. government and all world nations to strengthen international democratic institutions and resist the siren call of nationalism and chauvinism which threatens our collective future.

A Shared Vision

UUSC was founded in 1939 to help refugees secretly evacuate from Europe as fascist regimes were driving millions of people into exile and laying the groundwork for the Holocaust and World War II. The founding of the United Nations in 1945 was meant to ensure that war, genocide, and forced displacement could never again take place on such a scale. UUSC has shared these values and worked with and through U.N. institutions and instruments to advance human rights ever since.

That legacy of collaboration continues today. From November 7 to 12, UUSC is traveling to Bonn, Germany for the 23rd Conference of the Parties (“COP23”). This annual convening, hosted by the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), keeps track of global progress on implementing compacts to reduce carbon emissions and mitigate climate change. The most important of these compacts is the Paris Accords, which 195 Parties to the Convention have signed and 168 have ratified, and from which the United States has disappointingly decided to withdraw.

Leveling the Playing Field

This year’s COP also marks the first time that a small Pacific Island nation, Fiji, will be presiding over the Convention. Fiji’s leadership at this meeting provides an especially important opportunity to amplify the voices of people who are experiencing the worst effects of human-induced climate change. COP23 will be a critical moment for UUSC’s partners in the Pacific and all those on the frontlines of the impact of climate change to confront the U.S. government for its ambiguous and immoral position on this critical issue.

“The people of the Pacific islands are impacted every day by the decisions that larger, industrialized nations and financial institutions make. But they have very little power and leverage when it comes to diplomatic negotiations,” says Salote Soqo, senior program leader for environmental justice and climate action. “The United Nations is one of the very few spaces where countries can enter on a somewhat level playing field, which makes Fiji’s presidency quite significant.”

Steps Backward

When the United States fails to honor its international commitments, it abandons its democratic values. The Trump administration’s plan to exit the Paris Agreement is only one example of how the United States has worked to undermine global cooperation, especially during times of increased xenophobia and isolationist rhetoric. Last week, the administration also announced its intention to withdraw from UNESCO, the U.N. cultural heritage agency. The White House’s previous budget proposals have likewise threatened devastating cuts to core U.N. institutions. Especially egregious, the Trump administration recently slashed its refugee quota to only 45,000 – the smallest share of the international resettlement obligation the United States has shouldered since its Refugee Program began in 1980.

International democracy means being accountable to the people all over the world who are impacted by one country’s decisions, regardless of where any person resides. The United States’ obligations as a world leader include supporting the global response to the refugee crisis, ending policies that actively contribute to climate change, and supporting adaptive strategies for communities on the frontlines of these crises that honor the dignity and agency of the people involved.

Expanding the Bounds of the Possible

The promise of the United Nations was that no national or governmental self-interest would come before the shared needs of the human community. Seventy-two years later, that promise survives. While the United Nations faces many obstacles to achieving its original vision, it remains the planet’s best hope for finding shared solutions that honor the needs and capacities of all Earth’s inhabitants, not just the most powerful.

UUSC and our partners still believe in the possibility of finding those solutions. “Our partners don’t use the term ‘climate refugee,’ for instance,” says Soqo, “because they know that there is still time to change what is happening to the planet. Doing so requires fundamental transformations to neoliberalism and colonialism and the other oppressive structures in which we relate to one another. But that doesn’t make it impossible.” On United Nations Day, we honor this wider vision of the possible. And we remember that the only way to get there is together.

Beyond Fair Trade: Building Just Relationships

Jan Taddeo and JenJoy Roybal travelled with the UU College of Social Justice to Nicaragua in February 2017 to explore the power of fair trade to improve the lives of producers and help consumers live their values in collaboration with UUSC partner Equal Exchange. To learn more about this program or register for the next journey visit uucsj.org/fairtrade.

 

It’s been eight months since I journeyed to Nicaragua with the UU College of Social Justice (UUCSJ) for their Beyond Fair Trade: Building Just Relationships immersion journey. Every morning when I drink my coffee, I am reminded of the many intricacies associated with this journey. Nicaragua is a beautiful country, with a very complicated historical relationship with the United States. The people we engaged with during our journey were warm and welcoming, and their lives are complex. The Equal Exchange coffee I drink each morning takes an intricate journey to arrive at my breakfast table.

Preparation and trust

The preparation for our journey to Nicaragua included several weeks of reading, learning, and reflecting on the history of the country, and the history of U.S. involvement in Central America. Not knowing this history prior to committing to the trip, I was overwhelmed with the stories of our entanglement, interference, military involvement, and economic influence. I wasn’t quite sure how we would be received by the other participants. On the one hand, Nicaraguans have many reasons to be wary, distrustful, and fearful of Americans. On the other hand, many U.S. citizens came to Nicaragua to support the people in their struggle. However, I need not have been concerned; we were met with great hospitality and trust.

The greatest example of the trust placed in us showed up in our first meeting with the leadership of the farming cooperative in Quibuto. After an enthusiastic game of “Todos mis amigos y vecinos” (all my friends and neighbors) to break the ice, the co-op leaders gave a presentation about their needs and concerns as farmers. Their presentation included details of their costs, from planting the seeds to harvesting and processing the crops. They shared a breakdown of how much money they receive from the larger co-op that buys the crops from the small farmers, how much that co-op receives from Equal Exchange, and their understanding of how much Equal Exchange makes on a pound of coffee. They explained the challenges they face in obtaining deeds for the land so they can plant more coffee, and the hardships of weather, blight, and infestations that can wipe out crops that take three years to mature.

Representatives from Equal Exchange engaged in a deep conversation about the forces that impact the creation and distribution of coffee with the co-op leaders. It was a difficult and fascinating conversation, even when everyone was speaking the same language. We asked questions which led to more discussion, and it was an honor to be invited in and trusted. We learned that even though this is a fair-trade relationship between Equal Exchange and this small farming cooperative, it is still a difficult life, in part because coffee is a complex crop.

Experiential learning with UUCSJ

I never thought too much about what a coffee plant looks like, how it grows, or how it turns into the coffee we drink. On this journey, we followed the trail from coffee seed to coffee bean to coffee tasting. We drove by fields of coffee bushes devastated by rust. We saw seedlings that were just a few months old and learned that they would not produce fruit for three years. We climbed the side of the mountainous landscape to reach the coffee bushes living under the shade of giant eucalyptus trees (did you know coffee grew on bushes?). We were taught how to tell when the coffee cherries are ripe and had the opportunity to harvest them. It’s much harder than it looks!

Back at one of the homes in the village, we helped unload giant bags of coffee cherries, dumped them into a bin that was attached to a depulper, and ran the cherries through it. We assisted in washing the naked beans, gently swishing them in the trough with a large paddle to allow the good beans to float to the top and the unripe beans and debris to sink to the bottom.

Then we took buckets of beans up to the large drying racks in the front yard. There the farmers would carefully sort through the beans, separating the top-quality beans from the lower quality beans. The best beans are the ones that move forward to the next level of processing at the larger coop, which then ships the beans all over the world. In touring that facility on our way out of the village, we also got to visit the tasting room! Yum!

The coffee we drink that comes from Nicaragua, and from many other countries, has a complicated history with the land, and a complex life from seedling to the cup of steaming coffee on the breakfast table. The people who grow the coffee work harder than I ever imagined, and they lead humble lives compared to mine.

 

This was not a service journey; this was a cultural learning experience that challenged me, and transformed me.

We stayed three days in Quibuto, living with the families, getting to know their children, grieving with them when the sudden death of young man shocked the community, and celebrating with them at a big community party on our last evening together. We discussed a wide range of topics with the people we stayed with, depending on our language skills. Some heard their stories from the revolution or enjoyed deep theological conversations. Not knowing Spanish, I got to know my family through dancing with them to the rock music their 17-year-old nephew put on the radio. I brought color pencils and paper, and the children and teens drew beautiful pictures for me. I managed to learn that my host’s niece is attending nursing school at the university. Being a vegan, I was a bit of a mystery to them, yet they accommodated me with great generosity and the best rice and beans I’ve ever had. I promised my family that I will return, next time fluent in Spanish. This is a promise I intend to keep.

There is so much more to share about this journey…this was just one small part of our experience. We visited many places, met incredible people, and heard profoundly inspiring stories of resilience, perseverance, and the power of love to overcome great challenges. This was not a service journey; this was a cultural learning experience that challenged me, and transformed me. I look forward to returning.

This post was originally published at uucsj.org/beyond-fair-trade-building-just-relationships and has been slightly edited.