Saturday, September 10, 2011

Dear T&T: What Happened to You?

So, generally this blog is about my love affair with travel and the lighter, more beautiful aspects of the pastime I hold so dear to my heart. 

But I cannot always live in a rose-colored travel world. 

Sometimes, the love wanes (only briefly) and the issues that affect the world and travel come to light. I suppose it is relevant to discuss the complete picture of a true love affair anyway, because the love wouldn't be real without a little heartache.

Except this is a big heartache. The source of my woes is my own sweet Trinidad & Tobago.

After 11 people were killed in just 3 days last month, the government declared a limited state of emergency, forcing residents in the targeted crime areas to abide by a 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew and to be subject to searches at law enforcement's discretion. Which, in Trinidad means, the police will do as they please when they please, just because they feel like it (as is generally the case, only now, they won't suffer any backlash). On September 4th, the emergency decree was revised to have curfew between the hours of 11 p.m. and 4 a.m. The curfew, which has already been in place for several weeks, will last another 3 months.

The government says the killings are drug related, confined to gangs and have little to do with the general public. But if the general public has altered their lifestyles to suit this madness, it has everything to do with the general public. Just as our national motto says, "Together we aspire, together we achieve," together we fail and together we suffer. The senseless crime has got to stop; they are spoiling my beloved country.

Some things, however, remain unchanged. In true Trini festive fashion, some venues have been hosting "curfew fêtes" lasting from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m., the exact hours of the required curfew, and serving promotional "AK47" shots at the bar. Only in Trinidad can we make light of a situation by throwing a party and also manage to last 8 hours doing it. 

But, back to a serious note, I worry about the people who will only know or remember this blemish on the face of my country. The ones who won't know that the water is delicious and warm and shockingly teal. That the sand feels like silky powder under your feet. That the mangoes have never been sweeter than when your neighbor brings some over, fresh from their tree. That every meal tastes like it's from a mother's kitchen (because it probably is) and the fusion of flavors and spices is like a performance for your taste buds.

They won't hear the faint sounds of steel pan playing somewhere in the distance while the warm night breeze lulls them to sleep. Or hear the soca music that will course through their veins and allow them no option but to dance. They won't know the heart and spirit of my country.

There is so much more to a country than just it's struggles. And while this is certainly an issue that needs to be resolved, I hope that one day soon, Trinidad & Tobago finds its way back to the sweet country I remember and once again leaves the world with memories of teal oceans and coconut trees rather than drugs and killing.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

A Summer in Syracuse

Syracuse University
It is time to get serious.

No more wining the night away, fête after fête, for Carnival. No more all day beach sessions in California when only my hunger pangs could separate me from the sand. No more eats and greets and whatever my little heart desires.

No. The fêtes have been replaced by writing, writing has taken over my beach days, and the eats and greets have been substituted with–writing.

Syracuse, me, and my painstakingly expelled 6,452 words, have spent a beautiful summer together in grad school.

And by beautiful I mean I never saw anything outside of my often blank computer screen and the scribbled lines of my notebook pages. 

But I hear Syracuse is lovely in the summer. 

I imagine if I had had time to explore, I might have spent my Saturday mornings eating a breakfast of champions (very, very large champions) at Stella's Diner. My oversized banana pancakes would have been sweet and delectable and just the right way to start the day.

I imagine I would have spent time sipping coffee on Marshall Street, just off campus, enjoying a chat and discussing the woes of the world and a writer's struggle with my erudite classmates. 

I might have caught a glimpse of downtown, wandered through the MOST museum getting my scientific discovery on, and maybe caught a jazz festival or two. 

I may have even had a few jaunts to the lake when the day's heat was unbearable, and the cool water on my skin could quite literally have washed away any semblance of stress.

Sigh. What a wonderful summer it would have been.

Okay, so maybe I did manage to squeeze some of these things in, but they were all "on deadline" and in such a flurry, that they almost do seem like a figment of my imagination.

But the summer was wonderful anyway, and the excessive writing welcome. I may have traded in life and traveling on a whim, for an overweight messenger bag and endless nights attached to my computer, but travel is waiting for me on the other side. I am really learning my craft studying journalism at Syracuse University, and will be well prepared to tell the untold travel tales that lie ahead.

And, the best part is, on most days when I awake to begin a new grueling day, I actually feel like a real writer.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Somali Bantu Community Gets Grant for Success

Members of the Somali Bantu community and other local refugee groups will see a monetary boost for their resettlement services this year, thanks to a grant from the state of New York.

The Somali Bantu Community Association received its first payment from an $84,000 grant last month. The New York Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, OTDA, awarded the grant to the association for refugee social services.

The money, to be paid quarterly over three years, is intended to aid the association in providing job training and placement, English-language classes, and ensuring overall long-term community growth for the refugee population.

“If you don’t have someone to advocate for you, then you can’t get what you need,” said Haji Adan, a Somali Bantu refugee who co-founded SBCA and is the literacy program coordinator for the association. Some of the refugees arrive speaking only their native Maay Maay, and cannot read or understand the English they need in order to succeed, Adan said.

Somali Bantus are an ethnic minority group that was sold into slavery in Somalia during the 19th century Arab slave trade. Because of their differing appearance and language, native Somalis have continuously persecuted them, treating the Bantus as an inferior race.

When Bantus arrive in America, they tend to have a greater struggle than other refugee groups as most cannot read or write in their own language, Adan said. “Most of their parents were illiterate and never wanted to send children to schools because of the discrimination,” he explained.

Adan and Abdullahi Ibrahim saw a need to serve and strengthen their community and established the SBCA in 2004. What began as tutoring at the home of an association member has evolved into a full service resettlement center, complete with an office on Syracuse’s South Side, near to Central Village where most of the Somali Bantus reside.

Lul Hassan, a 22-year-old Bantu refugee who spent her entire childhood at a Kenyan refugee camp before coming to the United States in 2004, credits the association with giving her a place to learn and, ultimately, a job as an office assistant.

“I don’t know how some of my friends and family would have found jobs without them either,” Hassan said.

Central New York Community Foundation grants have helped SBCA sustain itself in the past, but they rely on donations of time most heavily. Volunteers from all corners of the community give time to help: some from the city school district, some from local universities and some Somali Bantu parents and community leaders, themselves refugees. The continued support of volunteers and each new grant allow SBCA to develop the program to suit changing demands.

But the SBCA always needs money as the majority of their community members are in the public assistance sector and don’t have money to donate to the programs, said Barbara Gordon, a volunteer ESL teacher for the association. “Haji and Abdullahi have worked nonstop without salaries to support their community,” she added.

Adan supports himself by working for Syracuse City School District as a nationality worker, but he spends more time lending himself to his community. “If you are quiet and your neighbor is suffering, that is no good,” he said.

In 2009, there were roughly 95 Bantu families living in Syracuse, Adan said. Today there are close to 300, which he credits to better services provided by the SBCA.

The goal is to continuously improve the association, Adan said. So far, the grant has enabled SBCA to hire additional bilingual staff who collectively speak Maay Maay, Swahili, and English. In the future, they plan to add staff who speak additional languages so they may reach all refugee groups in the community, not just Somali Bantu, Adan said. With nearly 1,000 refugees arriving in Syracuse each year, there will be many to be helped.

Grant or no grant, money was never going to be a reason to stop operating the office, Adan said. “We feel pride with what we do for the community. The more good things we do for them, the better the community becomes,” he added. “We would have kept going.”
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