Everything that Counts: Learning from our Nepal partners

“I can’t explain it in words.” This was a Srijanshil Mahila (Creative Woman) member’s first response when Michael Kourabas, UUSC associate director for program and partner support, and I asked about her experience during the 2015 earthquakes in Nepal. Although two and a half years have passed, it was evident from conversations we had with partners and community members that the effects are still with them today.

Throughout our week-long visit, we were granted many opportunities to listen and learn not only about the earthquakes’ destruction and injustices exposed but also the ways in which individuals, families, and entire communities tapped into their resilience and power to support one another.

Srijanshil Mahila member describes the value of Tewa livelihood trainings at their meeting space in Dharmasthali village.

Recovery and Resilience: The women of Srijanshil Mahila

Srijanshil Mahila is based in the Dharmasthali village of Kathmandu and made up of women from several districts. Although these women were working to help themselves and their communities as soon as the earthquake hit, the group officially came together about a year ago with support from UUSC’s partner, Tewa.

Shelter, waste disposal, and water scarcity are a few of the immediate issues that arose in earthquakes’ aftermath. Aftershocks and rumors of theft made people uneasy about returning to their homes, so families pitched tents and tarps outside or, when this was not an option, stayed together under the open sky. In Dharmasthali, forty women worked together, traveling to a nearby development to retrieve water for others. In an effort to create more sanitary conditions, some of the women also helped dig holes to dispose of human waste. Several women worked together with Tewa to improve this situation.

Like UUSC, Tewa strives to follow the lead of the communities it supports. In this spirit, they listened to and delivered on women’s requests for trainings relating to livelihood skills and sustainable income sources, such as sewing and soap-making, as well as leadership development, and sexual and reproductive health advocacy.

Srijanshil Mahila members were adamant that other women from the community be invited to participate in trainings, and many were able to combine what they gained from skill-building and leadership trainings to start their own businesses. Several women now run a tailoring shop, and another member runs a beauty parlor.

Fabrics and tailored clothing at sewing/tailoring shop


32-year-old Gauri Basnet (left) and 29 year-old Kabita Khatri learned sewing through Tewa and now run this tailoring shop

When UUSC assesses impact, we’re curious to learn about any unanticipated benefits resulting from our partner’s work. For example, have community members taken on any unexpected leadership roles? Exploring the unexpected benefits is often how we come to understand the compounding effects of our partnership. It illustrates how our support can expand over time.

“This was so fruitful for me,” explained a preschool teacher about her participation in Tewa’s leadership training. “I used to make the rules myself for my classes, but now we are working together to do this. There is a relationship between me and the staff that was not there before. I’m learning from them.”

“Politics are typically set up where women are expected to take the supporting roles, like treasurer or secretary. Now, we can fight for lead roles.”

With newfound supportive relationships and a greater sense of personal agency, some women have felt empowered to seek leadership enhancement trainings from Tewa, positioning themselves to run for office. One Srijanshil Mahila member remarked, “Politics are typically set up where women are expected to take the supporting roles, like treasurer or secretary. Now, we can fight for lead roles.”

Men feel the positive effects of these changes as well. Although initially some men were critical of the time and energy women devoted to the Tewa trainings and each other, several have begun asking how they can also receive trainings.

Read parts two and three of the series on our trip to Nepal, and follow us on Facebook and Twitter for real-time updates on newly published blogs and news from UUSC.

UUSC Joins the Call to #PressforProgress this International Women’s Day!

On International Women’s Day, we are reflecting on what each of us at UUSC can do in our daily lives to “Press for Progress,” dedicating our energy to global activism on women’s rights.

As we reflect on our role in advocating for women’s equality, we need look no further than our amazing partners for inspiration. Here are just a few among many our amazing partner organizations who are leading the way:

  • Tewa is supporting initiatives that bring Nepali women together to advocate for policy and system changes, as well as transformations in norms and practices that contribute to social injustice.
  • Stateside, Food Chain Workers Alliance, and Rural Community Workers Alliance are organizing labor forces to demand respect for gender and racial justice, and worker rights, including helping coordinate a strike of hundreds of thousands on International Workers Day.
  • Small farmer co-operatives, like Fundación Entre Mujeres, in Central America are building sustainable livelihoods and passing along their wisdom to other cooperatives in an effort to advance human rights, particularly the rights of women, youth and indigenous people.

Join the conversation!

A common strategy in each partner’s efforts is the uniting of people to amplify their voices in support of women and their contributions. In recognition of the power of collective action, we invite you to come together with us and share your commitment to “Press for Progress.” You can print your own sign here, and share and image of yourself with it on social media, encouraging your friends and family to do the same and help spur momentum for gender parity.

Hurricane Harvey: Fear and Courage after the Storm

In early December, nearly four months after Hurricane Harvey wreaked havoc along the Gulf Coast, Kathleen McTigue of the UU College of Social Justice and I traveled to Houston, Tex. to meet with Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) partners providing disaster relief and recovery assistance to those affected by the storm. In line with UUSC’s commitment to grassroots collaboration, our grants to these groups target community-based organizations reaching populations that struggle to access mainstream relief and services.

Two such groups in Houston include Living Hope Wheelchair Association and Fe y Justicia Worker Center. Living Hope works at the intersection of immigration and disability rights, and Fe y Justicia (“Faith and Justice”) protects the rights of “second responders,” the mostly low-wage, immigrant workers performing a bulk of the city’s post-hurricane reconstruction work.  We also met with Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (t.e.j.as.), an environmental justice organization working with the predominantly low-income, minority neighborhoods along the Houston Ship Channel.

Throughout the trip, we were reminded that natural disasters exacerbate existing inequalities. We also felt the heightened sense of fear among certain populations, particularly undocumented immigrants, in today’s political climate. Yet, even in the face of such daunting challenges, we also witnessed the courage and dignity of countless individuals still fighting for the rights of those worst affected by Harvey.

Exacerbated Inequalities: “We were already living in a disaster situation.”

Natural disasters around the world have demonstrated that low-income households and communities of color are disproportionately affected by extreme weather. Many of these communities reside in high-risk living conditions to begin with, whether due to the quality of their housing, poor infrastructure, or proximity to flood waters and pollution. In Houston, Harvey merely intensified these struggles.  Structural barriers to accessing relief and services make longer-term recovery more difficult for the poor, racial minorities, immigrants, and those living with disabilities.

Living Hope Wheelchair Association works primarily with undocumented immigrants suffering from spinal cord injuries, most of which resulted from workplace accidents or crime. Its modest office consists of two rooms and a storage unit for medical supplies and a handicap-accessible vehicle. Many members are on constant medication, in regular pain, and in some cases, require dialysis, but very few have medical benefits. As Pancho Argüelles, Living Hope’s Executive Director, put it, “We were already living in a disaster situation with respect to health care, housing, transportation, and undocumented status,” before Harvey. After the storm, the organization’s members needed to replace electronic wheelchairs lost to flood waters, repair houses and wheelchair ramps, and raise financial assistance to cover medical, transportation, and basic living expenses.

Fear on Top of Fear

For the approximately 600,000 undocumented people living in Houston, limited access to medical benefits and health insurance, coupled with fear and mistrust of immigration authorities, have made them one of the most vulnerable populations after the storm. The majority of Fe y Justicia Worker Center’s constituency consists of undocumented immigrant workers. In the face of continued anti-immigrant political rhetoric and crackdowns by local police and immigration agencies, people have been scared to seek even the assistance and benefits for which they are eligible. This fear, on top of existing language and other accessibility barriers, has magnified needs and vulnerabilities after Harvey. Whether it is medical care for a sick child, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) benefits, or wages due, people must conduct a mental calculus to assess the risk of claiming their rights.

Alberto Luera, Fe y Justicia Worker Center Board member

Fear and insecurity also leave people prone to abuse. In numerous cases, tenants have been afraid to push back against landlords who have failed to ensure safe living conditions or unfairly evicted residents at short notice. This additional layer of fear has also had a chilling effect on activism. Living Hope’s members are now less willing to travel for state-level advocacy through hostile counties between Houston and Austin out of fear that police may inquire about their immigration status. And while the storm has increased media interest in people’s stories and highlighted important needs and concerns, speaking to journalists and publicizing identifying details creates serious risks.

A Toxic Tour

The Houston area is home to the largest petrochemical complex in the United States and the second largest in the world. On our second day, t.e.j.a.s. took us on a “toxic tour” of various municipalities between Houston and Baytown, Tex. along the Houston Ship Channel, a key transport route for petrochemicals and other goods into the Gulf of Mexico. The torrential rains and ensuing floods from Harvey resulted in “a stew of toxic chemicals, sewage, debris and waste” that disproportionately impacted nearby neighborhoods, comprised primarily of low-income people of color. A long stretch of oil refineries, chemical plants, waste processing facilities, and other industrial plants borders the ship channel. Homes, schools, parks, and playgrounds, including Hartman Park shown here, sit in close proximity to many of these facilities, regularly exposing residents to harmful chemicals.

Mural in children’s playground at Hartman Park.

T.e.j.a.s. staff explained that childhood asthma and other respiratory ailments affect a significant portion of the local population. A 2007 University of Texas School of Public Health study reported that children living within two miles of the ship channel had a 56 percent higher incidence of leukemia than those ten miles away. In 2016, the Union of Concerned Scientists and t.e.j.as. published a report finding higher levels of toxicity from chemical exposure in east Houston than more affluent west Houston neighborhoods. Indeed, to us, the pollution was visible and palpable. In some areas we visited, the air smelled, and almost tasted, sickly sweet.

In the first week after Harvey, damaged oil refineries and facilities released over two million pounds of hazardous substances into the air. Flood waters also triggered the release of thousands of gallons of spilled petroleum. Neighborhood residents experienced headaches, sore throats, eye irritation, and nausea at greater rates than usual. While air and water pollution has been a longtime point of contention for frontline communities, Harvey magnified the problem.

Unidad Park, complete with a picnic area, skate park, children’s playground, and baby swings. Industrial buildings can be seen in the background.

Needs and Opportunities

In the face of these overwhelming challenges, t.e.j.a.s. and Living Hope both emphasized that Harvey brought not just urgent needs but rare opportunities. The storm has provided a chance to draw increased national attention to underreported problems. Local civil society is using Harvey as a catalyst to raise awareness, build coalitions, and call for reforms to address the structural reasons low-income and minority communities are so adversely impacted by disasters in the first place. Living Hope explained that it is using services and campaigns to build organizations and movements toward long-term change. It has activated its members, raised its voice, and reached a new level of visibility.

As recovery continues, UUSC is proud to support organizations working to address the needs of underserved communities following Harvey. We are especially grateful to the generous donors who made this work possible. Six months after the hurricane, thousands of people are still unable to return home or rebuild their lives in parts of Texas. But among those most affected by the storm, we are encouraged and inspired to see people overcoming fear and adversity with dedication, strength, and courage toward a just recovery for their communities.

Syma Mirza is a consultant supporting the Rights at Risk portfolio.

The Cost of Dissent in Honduras

I’ve just returned from a week-long emergency delegation to Honduras, urgently requested from religious leaders and human right activists who have been protesting since the fraudulent November 2017 elections. During our time we were asked to accompany the people still brave enough to turn out for demonstrations in the face of unremitting state violence.

One of the most chilling things I saw was the scores of troops, armed and in uniform, lining the streets in wait of the protests. They often covered their faces with balaclavas, and wore little or no identifying information and insignia on their uniforms. It’s not accidental that their appearance is evocative of death squads.

Troops line the march route.

We were repeatedly told, throughout our time in Honduras, that the only reason beatings, arrests, and even live ammunition had not been used against the demonstrations we witnessed was because of our presence and the assurance that international attention would prove too costly to the government. Elsewhere in the country at the same moment, demonstrators were indeed met with violence, adding to the over 30 individuals already killed by security forces in the past two months.

The delegation marches with community members on day two of the trip.

As evening approached on a day that had begun with prayer and vigils and ended with tear gas, I got a ride back to the retreat center with Bartolo Fuentes and his wife, Dunia Montoya. Both are journalists and human rights observers active with Radio Progreso (website is in Spanish), one of the few remaining sources of independent reporting in Honduras. Fuentes has also just finished a four-year term as a deputy in the National Congress. His outspoken activism has earned him an ominous status, and he regularly receives death threats.

The cost of dissent is very high in a country like Honduras. However, people like Fuentes and Montoya continue their activism and dissent anyway, with exceptional courage, and are not deterred from speaking truth to power.

A few miles from their home, they received a panicked phone call from their 16-year-old son, telling them that police had broken into their home and were beating up a family member. Fuentes careened us out of the line of traffic we’d been in, detouring down a series of rough side roads, the truck bouncing and sliding along ruts as he raced for their home. As we arrived, the headlights illuminated four uniformed police kicking a young man in the road, who turned out to be Montoya’s brother. The police roared off on their motorcycles when we pulled up, Montoya’s mother screaming after them, “¡Asesinos! ¡Cobardes!” (Murderers! Cowards!), shaking with fear and rage. She flung herself on her son to keep him from being dragged off or more brutally hurt.

This violence is state-sponsored terror, and while Montoya’s brother was the victim this time, the message was ultimately for Fuentes: We’re warning you: you’re next.

The cost of dissent is very high in a country like Honduras. However, people like Fuentes and Montoya continue their activism and dissent anyway, with exceptional courage, and are not deterred from speaking truth to power.

A child lights a candle during an evening vigil.

Those of us in solidarity with them, who believe in human rights and dignity, need to amplify their voices and to speak our own truth to power as well. The United States has played a critical role in supporting Honduras’ ability to terrorize its people. The Washington Post reports that the “government gets millions of dollars in U.S. aid each year, and its elite police units have received training from the U.S. military.” This support only fuels violence the government is perpetrating against bystanders like Montoya’s brother and other Hondurans who are engaged in peaceful dissent. It’s time for us to use U.S. leverage for good and act now.


Follow the instructions below to contact your Members of Congress and support the people of Honduras today.

  1. Call (202) 224-3121. This number will direct you to the Capitol switchboard.
  2. Ask to be connected to your senator or representative. The operator will direct your call to their office. Note that you will need to make three calls to reach all your legislators. Not sure who your senators or representatives are? Look them up here.
  3. A legislative assistant or answering machine will answer the phone. Give them this message, filling in your details:

“Hello, my name is ____ ____. I’m a constituent of [State and zip code]. I’m calling to express my deep concern about the violence and repression in Honduras and the U.S. support of its government and military. I urge Senator/Representative [last name of member] to support all efforts to suspend U.S. police and military aid to Honduras immediately, and ensure that any future aid meets human rights conditions under U.S. law. I also urge you to support credible, independent investigations into electoral fraud and violence during and since the November 26, 2017 Honduran elections. Thank you.

  1. Call again to connect with your other legislators, repeating steps 1-3.
  2. Invite your friends, family, and colleagues to join you in this action!

Wheels Down in Nepal

Tonight, while many are asleep in their beds, Michael Kourabas and I will be on a plane heading east for Kathmandu, the capital city of Nepal. We make up UUSC’s two-person Program and Partner Support team, and much of what we do involves supporting and communicating with our grassroots partners, albeit primarily through digital means. So, this opportunity to meet staff from these amazing organizations face-to-face, a first for me, is both exciting and humbling.

The last time UUSC staff visited Nepal was in the immediate aftermath of back-to-back earthquakes in April and May of 2015. Natural disasters are non-discriminatory about where they hit and often exacerbate existing issues within a region or community. When the earthquakes hit, Nepal was already struggling with poor governance and political instability, which greatly impacted attempts to rebuild and strengthen resiliency.

The Sri Krishna school in Dhapakhel is reduced to rubble by the 2015 earthquakes.

The international humanitarian aid community rallied, pledging $4 billion as part of its response. Sadly, as is often the case, little of this money reached the parties coordinating on-the-ground response or vulnerable populations most needing relief, and a lack of local knowledge resulted in actions actually detrimental to response and recovery.

At UUSC, we use a different model for our support. Consistent with our rights-based approach to emergency response and recovery, we looked to local Nepali organizations to lead the way on identifying those most vulnerable – including women, girls, children, Dalits (members of Nepal’s lowest caste), and Indigenous Peoples – and solutions for protecting their rights, safeguarding equity, and building their capacity and resiliency.

Take the Tewa organization for instance. They provided pre- and post-natal care to pregnant women and sent women volunteers directly into earthquake-affected districts to support everything from income generation and gender sensitivity to clean-up and construction.

Natural disasters are destructive enough, but they also leave groups vulnerable to exploitation. In the case of Nepal post-earthquake, international investors and bilateral aid agencies were pushing for massive hydropower developments with significant negative repercussions for historically marginalized Indigenous Peoples living in the remote areas planned for development. With support from UUSC, Lawyers’ Association for Human Rights of Nepalese Indigenous Peoples (LAHURNIP) stepped in, supporting the Indigenous Peoples at risk of involuntary displacement by helping them challenge hydropower projects, fight for compensation, and advocate for their rights.

Community members in Panchthar district discuss advocating for their rights during a seminar presented by UUSC partner Lawyers’ Association for Human Rights of Nepalese Indigenous Peoples. (Photo courtesy of LAHURNIP)

UUSC’s sustained response to the Nepal earthquake included funding more than half a dozen grassroots organizations over multiple years. In any span of time, additional natural disasters can occur. This is, unfortunately, what happened in Nepal, which experienced severe flooding and landslides after a monsoon in August 2017. More than 300,000 families were impacted. Luckily, UUSC’s deep, existing relationships established during the earthquake response, allowed us to take action quickly and provide immediate funding to three partners, Tewa, Women for Human Rights – Single Women Group, and Empower Generation, helping them, in turn, coordinate humanitarian aid efforts and distribute items spanning from hygiene kits to tents and solar lamps.

Women for Human Rights distribute basic amenities, including utensils and bedding, to the most vulnerable and highly affected households of Saptari district. (Photo courtesy of Women for Human Rights.)

In the coming week, Michael and I will have the privilege of sharing space with these beautiful partners, hearing their experiences and how their response to the earthquake and flooding unfolded. We’ll also get to visit communities where our partners provided their support, like Rasuwa district, only a few hours’ drive north of Kathmandu. Rasuwa is one of the remote areas slated for hydropower development after the earthquake.

In a world where natural disasters are inevitably increasing, the voices and insights of our partners and those most impacted are essential to helping UUSC identify what our role is and will be in protecting human rights when communities face disasters, especially as recovery time between them continues shrinking.

We are energized and honored to represent the UUSC community in Nepal. We’ll certainly be reporting back – join us on Facebook and Twitter for updates.

Syria TPS Decision Provides Needed Relief, But Not Nearly Enough

The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) welcomes reports that the Trump administration has decided to renew Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for nearly 6,000 Syrians living in the United States, while expressing dismay and consternation that this provision will not cover Syrians arriving after August 1, 2016.

In the lead up to this decision, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) had the option of re-designating Syria for TPS, rather than merely renewing. A re-designation would have allowed more recent Syrian arrivals to apply for the status. In previous extensions, TPS for Syrian nationals has been re-designated as well as renewed.

It is difficult to imagine a country that more directly fits the criteria for re-designation than Syria. It is in the midst of an ongoing civil war that has generated the world’s largest contemporary refugee crisis and taken the lives of at least 400,000 people. The new administration’s refusal to take the step of re-designation is impossible to reconcile with DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen’s admission that “the conditions upon which Syria’s designation was based continue to exist.”

The failure to re-designate Syria also provides further disturbing evidence that the administration grounds its TPS decisions in xenophobia and bias, rather than the individual country assessments that Congress intended when it created the TPS program in 1990.

In November, the Trump administration ended TPS for 59,000 Haitian nationals, despite the country’s ongoing natural disaster recovery and recent disease outbreaks. In early January, they likewise announced the end of TPS for nearly 200,000 immigrants from El Salvador, in the midst of extreme violence and other major social disruptions in that country. The NAACP has filed a lawsuit charging that the TPS decision for Haiti was racially motivated, citing abundant evidence of the administration’s prejudice against TPS holders.

As with these other TPS decisions, DHS’s refusal to re-designate Syria did not occur in a vacuum. President Trump campaigned on a pledge to institute a “Muslim Ban,” and his rhetoric on both the campaign trail and in office has made Syrian refugees a frequent target of fear-mongering.

Further, last week marked the one-year anniversary of the administration’s failed attempt to implement a discriminatory ban on refugees and travelers from Muslim-majority countries, including Syria. Despite being struck down by multiple courts, the Trump administration continues to impose new versions of the order on Syrian nationals, including new restrictions announced Monday that will make it harder for refugees from Syria and ten other countries to reach safety in the United States.

The administration’s political and biased use of TPS bodes ill for immigrant communities whose futures depend on DHS renewal decisions later this year. These include Nepal in April, Yemen in July, and Somalia in November. All of these countries are sites of ongoing recovery efforts from recent natural disasters or devastating armed conflicts to which the U.S. government has directly contributed.

UUSC urges the administration to honor the humanitarian purpose of the TPS program, rather than wield it as a nativist, political cudgel. In the meantime, Congress should act to pass permanent legislative solutions for long-term TPS holders, who are all members of our shared community.