CURE cousins

Living far away from family is difficult, especially now that we have Leon. I often think about how much fun he would have with all his cousins and how much they would love him, and it makes me a little sad to think that he has so many cousins that he hasn’t met yet. To be honest, I dwell on this more than I should, but I am also reminded regularly that even though he isn’t around his family that lives far away, he is growing up in very unique circumstances, and is getting an experience that he wouldn’t have anywhere else. His cousins may be far away, but Leon has an entire family at CURE.

Every Friday morning I take him to the hospital. It’s our little ritual. He loves going and as soon as we pull up to the hospital gates he screams, “Opisol!!” (which is how he says hospital). He has so much fun playing with all the patients and they enjoy having him visit. They love playing with him, and love getting visitors, but also, they like him because he’s different. He is kind of a novelty to them. Many of the children here in Niger are so quiet and reserved, and he is pretty much the exact opposite of that. He is a bundle of energy – hyper, loud and spastic, and they think it is hilarious.

It makes me so happy that he has a big group of kids to play with whenever we come to the hospital, and it kind of serves as a play group, but it’s so much more than that. Leon is constantly interacting with other kids who are bandaged up from burns, or have limbs in casts, or have metal bars (external fixators) protruding from their legs. Since he has been coming to the hospital regularly for as long as he can remember, when he sees these things he is not surprised by them. Seeing all kinds of physical deformities is commonplace for him, but that does not mean that he doesn’t notice them, for he most certainly does. He always says, “Mama regard, ça fait mal!” (Mama look, that hurts) as he points to a leg or an arm. He’ll then lean in to whoever he’s looking at and say, “Bon guerisson” (get well).

You can see the real look of concern on his face, but he is not scared and does not shy away from them. He doesn’t treat them differently and look down on them or overlook them or avoid looking at them by averting his gaze. He doesn’t treat them differently because he hasn’t learned to do that yet. He is innocent in the best possible sense, and I hope he stays that way. Maybe he will, since he is learning it from such a young age. Maybe that is what it takes to inoculate people against the cruelty and discrimination that seems to come so naturally to us all. Leon sees these kids and realizes at his young age that they are hurting, but he also realizes that they are getting better. And most importantly, he realizes that they are fun to play with!

I love the fact that Leon is growing up with this as his normal.

Recently, he’s started to enjoy praying. He likes to pray around the dinner table, mostly because he loves to shout “Amen!” as loud as possible once the prayer is over. But he also likes to lead us in prayer. He will put his head down and mumble for awhile, tossing in a few words here and there, like, “thank you…(mumble)… papa…(mumble)… mama…(mumble)… food…(mumble)…eating…(mumble)… Amen!” The last few visits to the hospital, Leon has insisted on praying for some of the patients. He may not fully get the concept, but the fact that he wants to take the time to acknowledge the patient’s situation and “pray” for them is, I think, important and good. It’s as though he recognizes that their situation deserves some level of respect and reverence (to be punctuated, of course, with a loud “Amen!”).

So even though we aren’t around our family, I am glad that Leon has his CURE family, and that he is learning what it means to love and be loved. He is learning what it means to care for others, and he is learning to see everyone as they are: a child of God worthy of dignity and respect.

AMEN!!!

uijunk

Leon (1 year old) walking with his friend, Larwan 

jbkjkj

Leon (1.5 years old) pushing Aramatou in her wheelchair

jhgjh

plk

khbk

This was last week. Leon asked me to take their picture and wanted everyone lined up on the wall.

Posted in Uncategorized | 11 Comments

Healing through Henna

We had a henna party at CURE today.

Henna is a plant that is commonly used to make a dye here in Niger and around the world. The leaves are crushed into a powder and mixed with water to make a kind of paste, which can then be applied to the skin, leaving a long-term (but temporary) tattoo. Here in Niger, women get henna tattoos for every possible celebration: a wedding, a baptism, a holiday, or for any kind of party, and sometimes I suspect for no real reason at all, other than the fact that it is beautiful.

I’ve wanted to get a henna tattoo for a while now and I happened to comment on one of our patient’s hennafied hands. Her name is Rashida, and she had an operation on her leg, which is now in an external fixator. She is already up on her feet and walking around with a walker, and seems to be on a quick road to recovery.

It was Rashida’s first session with me in the art therapy room, and she was very reserved and quiet. I told her I thought her hands looked pretty and she suddenly changed. She was very excited and said, “I do henna! Do you want me to do it for you one day?” I said yes. Rashida lives in Niamey and so she isn’t staying at the hospital, but comes in a couple times a week for dressing changes. She said, “I’ll come sometime and bring the supplies!”

This week Rashida came with a small plastic bag of henna, and got to work on my hands right away. Beth Van Hall, our new Executive Director’s wife, has been coming to the hospital to spend time with the kids. She came by the art therapy room and Rashida did her feet when she was done with my hands. Then Aramatou, another patient came and Rashida did her hands as well. We all had a lot of fun in the couple hours it took to finish all the decorating, and by the end Rashida was totally transformed. She was in her element, and was having a great time. It was really funny because she told us that she had never tried putting henna on a white person’s skin before, and she said that it was more difficult than usual because of the hair on my arms. I told her that she was lucky she wasn’t trying to do it on Josh’s arm!

It was obvious that the whole process was empowering for Rashida. I paint our patient’s hands and feet all the time when they are wearing casts. Now she was working on my hands and Beth’s feet. In a way, the tables had turned. And not only that, she was showing us a part of her heritage and tradition, and you could tell she was proud. It was a great way of expressing her creativity and her culture, and she was able to share something beautiful, and leave a part of herself on me, marking me by our encounter. That is what therapeutic exchange is all about, and in that way it was healing.

hgvh

bnb

Rashida working on Aramatou’s arm.

bjh

gff

jhbjh

jhjh

kkk

nnb

Posted in Art Therapy | Tagged | 5 Comments

Leon’s 2nd Birthday

We didn’t celebrate Independence Day this weekend, but we DID celebrate Leon’s birthday! He doesn’t turn two until the 19th, but some dear friends will be on holiday later in the month, so we decided it would be best to have his party early. We had such a great time and Leon loved having people all over the house. He didn’t realize the celebration was all about him… until we pulled out the cake and sang Happy Birthday to him. It was the cutest thing. He was acting shy, by burying his head into Josh’s chest every once in a while, but then kept looking up to watch everyone sing to him. He was trying to act modest, but he loved every second of it. He also knew the cake was for him because it was a giraffe. He believes that anything “giraffe” is most certainly his. He has been crazy about giraffes forever. I’m thankful that this is the animal that he’s chosen to love above all else since Niger is known for their wild giraffes. Josh and I were actually counting the amount of times we’ve been out to see the giraffes (about an hour drive outside the city) and we came to about 15. Leon has been maybe 6 or 7 times. He most likely only remembers going about 3 or 4 times. I’m glad we can take him to see his favorite animal out in the wild!

Back to the party… the awesome giraffe cake was made by the master-cake-maker, Renee. She not only made Leon’s cake, but she made it when she was in the midst of packing her whole family to move back to Canada. They left about a month ago, so we put it in the deep freezer and pulled it out on the day of the party and it was good to go! The beautiful decorations were from my dear friend, Laura who ordered them from the States, which her family brought to her in Israel so that she could bring them to us in Niger!

For the meal, we decided to go Nigerien-style and do a stuffed lamb Mechoui. It was so delicious, and Leon loved it. He kept calling it “chicken” and taking huge bites.

jhjh

kk

hjhk

jhb

kkjhk

kjkj

jygjyg

hjghg

jj

jgj

jh

ygi

nj

jj

iii

jjj

uhi

gh

jj

kk

kk

kk

jygj

hhh

kjk

bb

kjk

kjh

kjk

kkkl

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments

Women’s Day 2014

Last week we celebrated Nigerien Women’s Day at the hospital. Every year the women at the hospital collect money and pick out a pagne (a colorful piece of material) in the market a few weeks before Women’s Day. They buy a pagne for every staff member, and everyone takes it and has an outfit made with it. It is always so exciting to see everyone’s  creativity and personality shine through the different designs. It really brings home the message that we are all cut from the same cloth, but all cut differently. A wonderful expression of solidarity and sisterhood, without sacrificing any individual sense of identity (or style!).

The women all worked really hard to prepare a delicious meal, and in the meantime everyone had fun listening to music and dancing. We also had the privilege of having Dr. Victor Nakah as a special visitor during Women’s Day, and he gave an address to the whole staff which was great. He spoke about how women are really under-appreciated, and about the strength and influence that women have. He reminded everyone of the saying, “If you educate a woman, you educate a nation,” and the women on staff were all nodding their heads in agreement. I am pretty sure someone even said, “Amen.”

Overall it was a great day and a really fun celebration. I look forward to next year.

jgjhvj

jhvj

Dr. Nakah’s talk

mnjhb

Photo credit: Anne Negrini

ghgv

Dr. Victor Nakah with the Executive, Medical, and Spiritual Directors

hjhb

Aicha and I decided we wanted to get matching outfits made. It was fun picking out a design together and then getting them made by her dad, the tailor.

llk

Anne had her outfit made by her night guard.

hjkjhb

The whole team

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments

Drawing with children in Niger

In order to help determine the emotional state of a child, art therapists often use what is called the House-Tree-Person test. The child is asked to draw a house, a tree and a person, and then asked questions about their drawing. The thinking behind this test is that everyone can easily draw a house, a tree and a person, since everyone encounters houses and trees and people every day. Even children. In fact, children will often draw houses or trees or people even without being asked to. They are common, and thus can be drawn almost without thinking, and because of this the way they are drawn can speak volumes about the person doing the drawing. Those being tested project their inner feelings onto what they draw, and the person evaluating them can pick up on those projections by analyzing the drawings, as well as by asking them questions about them.

These kind of tests have been criticized because they often assume a Eurocentric worldview, and are therefore not applicable outside of the West. I can definitely say that in the close to two years that I have been practicing art therapy with children in Niger, I have seen very few drawings of houses or trees, or even people. However, there is something that appears in the children’s drawings over and over again – the mortar and pestle.

In Niger the mortar and pestle is a staple of every home. Whether you are in the village or in the city, you will find a mortar and pestle in the kitchen, and you will find that it is used for everything. It is used to grind grains, millet, corn, etc. and It is also used to make the spicy sauce that goes along with every meal. Children of all ages know how to use it, and I am not talking about a counter-sized, hand-held mortar and pestle that you might find in a pharmacy. Here the mortars are usually about knee-high in length and the pestle  are as long as your arm. To use them requires real physical strength, and to get into a good pounding rhythm you really need some muscles. It is harder than it looks!

It is so interesting to me that so many of the children choose to draw the mortar and pestle, without any prompting. Certainly some of them see the drawings others have done and copy them, but that does not account for all of the drawings. Perhaps the principles of the House-Tree-Person are not wrong, but it needs to be contextualized. It seems clear to me that the mortar and pestle is the go-to object for Nigerien children to draw when they first come, when they are feeling unsure of themselves and do not know what to draw. And it makes sense. They are drawing what they know, what is familiar to them, especially since the art therapy room is such an unfamiliar place (at least at first). They often branch out and draw other objects or designs after a few sessions, but the mortar and pestle serves as an ice-breaker.

I love the variety of color and design in these drawings. There are many examples, but here are a few of them:

jkkjn

jnkjnk

I love the specs of grain in this one.

jhjhj

jhjh

Some have handles

kjkjk

hjhbjhv

dgdg

jhbjhb

Mortar and pestle made out of play dough

jjj

Sometimes it’s a joint effort.

 

 

 

Posted in Art Therapy | Tagged | 3 Comments

Stitches on the dining room table

After a long week at work, we were excited to get together with our friends for a nice relaxing evening. As we were enjoying our dinner, Leon was doing his version of relaxing – running around the house like mad. This resulted in him tripping and his head meeting the corner of a doorway. He came up crying and bleeding from the gash on his forehead, and even though it wasn’t very big or deep, it needed stiches.

Thankfully, our very own Dr. Negrini was part of the dinner party. He graciously offered to run over to the hospital between dinner and dessert, so he could pick up what he needed to stitch him up. When he returned, we cleared all the pots and pans and plates off the dining room table, and turned it into an examination table. Two stiches did the trick, and 10 minutes later we cleared away the betadine and gauze and brought out the dessert. Thanks to Dr. Negrini our party wasn’t interrupted for long – Leon went right back to running around, and we went back to enjoying our evening.

Jean Francois getting everything ready

Jean Francois getting everything ready, right next to the caramel popcorn

Dining room table surgery

Stitches on the dining room table

Don't let this smile fool you. He was crying hysterically just minutes before this

Don’t let his smile fool you. He was crying hysterically just minutes before this

And now, ready for dessert

And now, ready for dessert

Home and ready for bed

Home and ready for bed

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Hunger

Last week, our son Leon was sick. He tested positive for malaria, and had such bad diarrhea and vomiting, that we were very worried. He couldn’t keep anything down, and so he had to be hospitalized. He was so dehydrated that he had to be on IV fluids, and in the end, we stayed with him in the hospital for almost a week.

Leon in the hospital room.

Leon in the hospital room.

It was a very difficult time for both Julie and I. Physically, it was exhausting, since we had to take turns holding him to make sure the IV fluids continued to flow. He also reacted to one of the medicines he was given, which was supposed to be a sedative, but actually had the opposite effect. Imagine the worst temper tantrum you have ever seen, and then multiply it by 5, and stretch it out for about 6 or 7 hours. It took both of us to hold him down and keep him from ripping out the IV catheter (which he still managed to do about 4 times).

But even more difficult than the physical aspect was the emotional trauma. I know trauma is a strong word, but I think it fits. Seeing Leon in so much pain for such an extended period of time was like a nightmare. Of course he didn’t like being stuck in the room, and he didn’t like the IV and the constant diaper changes, but the main problem was his hunger. He was so hungry, and we weren’t allowed to give him anything to eat. He kept crying out for food, and it took everything in us to keep from feeding him. It went against every single natural instinct I have. I have always felt so good when Leon eats – feeding him is one of my favorite things to do because he is so happy about each bite, and on some kind of primal level it is so satisfying. Each spoonful feels like an accomplishment. Like taking a step in the right direction. Like I am doing my job as a parent. And here he was, literally begging for food, and we couldn’t give it to him.

The worst was when they brought us lunch in our room. Leon saw the plates and got so excited. They were covered up, but he knew they had food, and he said, “Yeah!” We quickly whisked them out of the door, but it was too late. Once he understood that the food wasn’t for him, he was inconsolable. Obviously we didn’t eat in the room, but as we took turns quickly eating in Julie’s office, neither of us were able to eat very much, knowing that he couldn’t have any.

We forget how dependent we are on food. This brush with real hunger was a good reminder. Leon didn’t eat for 5 days, and he was losing his mind. He would have done anything to get food. Here in Niger, that kind of hunger is never very far away. It is actually in your face all the time as you encounter beggars and people with real needs every time you leave your house. They crowd around your car at most big intersections. But the hunger can seem remote when it is seen through a car window, and unfortunately your heart grows callous when you see it every day. It still bothers you, but not as much as it once did, and bothers you less and less as time passes. That is an awful thing to say, but it is true. You might call it a defense mechanism, but that would be a little too convenient. The truth is, your heart becomes numb with time as you watch the hopelessness and despair around you knowing that no matter how much you do and how much you give it is only a drop in an ocean of suffering. But it is different when you see the hunger in your own son. Then the pain cuts right through the numbness and into your heart.

Interestingly, while all of this was going on, we were studying the Book of Philippians at the hospital. It struck me when Paul wrote, “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength” (Phil. 4:12-13 NIV). He was able to say this because he knew even though he was dependent on food, he was even more dependent on God. He knew that man does not live by bread alone, and that just as God gave his people manna to eat in the wilderness, we all depend on him for our daily bread.

The key to what Paul is saying is in verse 13, where he says that God is his strength. That is why he was able to be content, even with an empty stomach. Not because of his own strength, but because of God who strengthened him. It is impossible to imagine a statement like this based on our own strength. In our own strength we are not content in wealth or in rags, and we complain when we are hungry and when we are full. That is because when we depend on our own strength, we never have enough. We are missing something fundamental inside of us. We are missing the connection to our God, our father who takes pleasure in feeding us.

I spend every day at the hospital visiting with the patients and their families. I go on rounds each day, visiting them, praying with them and just hanging out. And when my work is done, I go home. But this past week was different. I was staying at the hospital. It was my home, even if only for a few nights.

It was such a good experience (even though it was a terrible experience). It gave me just a little bit of insight into what our patients and their families go through. Many of them stay for weeks or even months, so I really can’t compare what we went through at all. But it was a taste. And it was amazing – throughout the week, the patients kept asking me about Leon every time I saw them, and some of them came to visit us in our room. They even prayed for Leon, saying, “You pray for us every day, so we need to pray for you.” We also had so many visits from the hospital staff, and other friends, it was so encouraging.

Leon with the patients who came to visit him.

Leon with some of the patients who came to visit him.

It was also a good reminder for us – we do not live by bread alone. We depend on God, on his love and his provision. We depend on God and on his every word. Sometimes God speaks directly to us, and sometimes he speaks through others who come by to visit. We do not live by bread alone. We depend on the support of others.

Leon after the hospital

Leon is happy to be back home and feeling better.

Happily reunited with his friend, Shap Shap.

Happily reunited with his friend, Shap Shap.

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Rahila’s feet

Rahila is tough.

She is so tough that her crippled feet did not keep her from walking. It just meant that she had to find a new, creative way to walk. Her feet were so over-extended that she walked on the tops of her feet. It was a struggle, and it was painful, but she did it for years and years.

jhvjhvjh

Rahila when she first arrived at the hospital

jhvjhv

 

Finally, one day Rahila’s mother heard about the CURE hospital. She brought her to see if she could be treated, and was so happy because the answer was yes. She was told that Rahila could be healed, but it would require multiple operations on her feet, followed by a series of casts and a grueling period of physical therapy. Also, it would require self discipline. If Rahila wanted her feet to be healed, it would take a lot of work. Rahila’s mother didn’t bat an eye. She knew if anyone could do it, it was Rahila.

It was a year-long process. After several operations, many sets of casts and intensive therapy, Rahila’s feet were changed. She was learning to walk on the bottoms of her feet for the first time in her life at the age of 6. Like I said, Rahila is tough. She is physically tough, but also emotionally. She decided very early on that she would not be affected by the ridicule she faced, and that she would ignore the mockery. Her mother told us that they had a name for her in her village – “Rahila the cripple.” She heard it every day, every time she went outside. But she ignored it. She built calluses around her heart just like she did on the tops of her feet.

I had the privilege of working with Rahila in the art therapy program for the duration of her stay at the hospital. I spent hours, days and months with her before I ever saw a smile on her face. There were times when I sincerely doubted the effectiveness of our time together. She was always friendly, and always willing to come to the art therapy room for her sessions, but she was emotionally distant. There is nothing like working with a child for such an extended period of time with no breakthrough to make you feel like a miserable failure. But all of that time spent together was not a waste. It did have an effect on Rahila. It did change her, and the change seemed to come out of nowhere, literally accompanied by an array of colors.

vjvj

Rahila with her beautiful artwork

For a long time she would allow me to paint her casts, but she wasn’t very interested in painting them herself. She would sit and make marks on a piece of paper while I painted her cast. Then one day, she decided she wanted to paint her casts and she covered them with every color she had in front of her. From that point on, she was so excited each time she had a new set of white casts, and was always ready to decorate them. She started smiling and seemed so much more comfortable during our sessions. She even started acting silly.

Throughout the process, the casts became a part of her emotional healing as well as her physical healing. Each new set of casts was another step in the slow and painful process of molding of her feet. When she painted them she was, in a sense, taking another step toward accepting what she had been through and acknowledging the difficulty she had faced, both in the hospital and throughout her whole life. She seemed to be both mourning the losses she had experienced, but also moving past them and allowing herself to see how far she had come.

When Rahila was done with her series of casts, I thought that it would be interesting to do a project with her that would help her have closure with this period of her life. We took a big sheet of paper, and I traced the outline of her whole body, including her newly formed feet. This was such a powerful experience for Rahila, and it seemed like it gave her a different perspective from which to see herself. After passively laying down on the paper so I could trace her, she sat up, and very actively went to work coloring it in. In this way, we were reenacting the therapeutic process, from start to finish. She was a bystander at first, merely looking on while the action took place without her. But with time, she realized that she is full of potential and full of color. She began to take the initiative, and began to show me (and perhaps herself) what she is capable of.

When it was done, Rahila took the picture with her, as evidence of what she was and what she had become. She was very proud of it. In a way, it was a monument to what she had been through. It was to commemorate her struggle and to commemorate her victory. It was a reminder that the lines that trace the outline of our lives, the things that define us, can be changed and can be colored over. Rahila left with this image of her body on paper, and a new image of herself in her mind.

hbmhnbmn

Rahila painting in her outline

jhbjhvc

Proud of her work!

hbmn

Learning to walk on her healed feet

hbkj

Beautiful feet

Posted in Art Therapy | Tagged | 7 Comments

Blame

I.

Hadiza had a daughter named Salama. Hadiza raised Salama alone in the town of Ayarou, a town on the river, on the border with Mali. Life was not easy, but Hadiza did all she could for Salama. She made porridge at home and sold it on the street. She made enough money to keep them alive, but not much more than that. Hadiza loved Salama, but Salama grew up and one day she left. She went away to Benin, and Hadiza barely heard from her at all.

Time went by, and then one day Salama came back to Ayarou. But she did not come alone. She came with her husband – they met and were married in Benin. And she came with the baby that she was carrying inside her. After a few months, the baby was born. Her name was Saratou, and she was born with cleft lip.

Salama and her husband decided to go back to Benin and to leave Saratou with Hadiza. They left her because to keep her would be difficult. It would mean shame and prying questions from strangers and mockery and rejection and extra work. A child with cleft lip is a difficulty, and not one that you can ignore. It is a difficulty that you see in the face of your child every day. Salama and her husband could not face this difficulty, so they left.

Now Hadiza was left with Saratou. She raised Saratou in the town on the river. She did all she could for her. She made porridge at home and sold it on the street. When Saratou got a bit older she would take the porridge and sell it on the street to help Hadiza. Hadiza had hopes for Saratou – she hoped that she would marry one day, and have children of her own. She wanted Saratou to be able to live a normal life. But along with her hopes, she had fears. She feared that Saratou would never marry, and never have her own children. Who would marry her with a cleft lip? Who would accept her?

Saratou started going to school, but the other children were so mean to her that she eventually quit. They would laugh at her and stare and talk about her. She got into fights almost every day. Hadiza still had hope for Saratou, but her fears seemed to be justified every time Saratou came home crying or got into a fight. She had hope, even though she knew she had no reason to hope. She had no money and no connections to anyone with money. No rich relatives who live in the city, no one who could support her and no one who could help find Saratou the medical treatment she needed. She had nothing, and in Niger that usually means you will not get the medical attention you need.

II.

We hear it over and over again. Almost every patient we talk to at the hospital tells us the same thing. Their disability is seen as a curse. It is something terrible and unfortunate that has happened to them, yes, but also something that they are responsible for. You must have done something wrong. You must have somehow invited this upon yourself. And if it wasn’t you, then it must have been your parents. Sometimes people say it is a curse from an evil spirit, sometimes they say it is a curse from God. But either way they are saying that if you have a disability it is your fault.

Even though every single one of us knows that bad things happen to good people, something in our soul fights against this idea. We persist in believing that the good are rewarded and the bad are punished, in spite of all evidence to the contrary. And if this is true, then we understandably come to the conclusion, even if it is a subconscious conclusion, that suffering is punishment, and if you are being punished then you must deserve it.

After all, if there is smoke there must be fire.

This understanding of things isn’t limited to Niger. We find it everywhere. In the Bible, it is a point of view that is articulated by Job’s friends, when they try to convince him over and over again that he must be responsible for all the terrible things happening to him. It is hard not to think of Job in this context, because of how righteous he was and because of the terrible things that happened to him. The story of Job is one that has fascinated people throughout the ages, and continues to do so. Part of the reason for this is that it deals with this very universal question of suffering, but also, because it shows the inadequacy of the popular wisdom of Job’s friends. They persist in trying to attach some kind of blame to Job, some kind of culpability, until he finally says, “Oh, that you would be silent, and it would be your wisdom!” (Job 13:5 NKJV).

He speaks out of pain, the kind of pain that anyone who has gone through suffering can understand. The kind of pain that is generated not by the suffering itself, but piled on top of the suffering by those (perhaps) well-meaning “friends” that try to comfort by commentary. They try to make sense of suffering that is not their own because they are afraid of what the suffering signifies. In fact, they are trying to comfort themselves by reinforcing the idea that suffering is simple. Its source can easily be identified. It is an obvious problem with an obvious solution. No mystery involved.

In this way, the victim of the suffering is blamed for the suffering, and made into a scapegoat, to ensure that nobody is too troubled or put out. The scapegoat is actually a good image, since often those who suffer from disabilities are sent out. They are rejected or kept hidden away from view. Because to see them is to have our understanding of suffering called into question. We don’t like to question this idea because to question it is to question everything. Including God. For if the innocent can suffer, then everything is turned upside down.

But we don’t question God. We praise God when things are good, and when things are bad we say, “God works in mysterious way,” with a half-smile, and try not to think about it too much. We don’t question God because we think we aren’t allowed to.

But where does that idea come from? Certainly not the Bible. In the Bible people did question God when they didn’t understand the situation they were in. Look at Jeremiah, for example. He said, “Righteous are You, O LORD, when I plead with You; yet let me talk with You about Your judgments. Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why are those happy who deal so treacherously?” (Jer. 12:1 NKJV). In other words, “Why do good things happen to bad people? Why do the very people who oppress others seem to be rewarded?”

Job had no problem questioning God. He didn’t curse God, or stop praising God, but he did question his treatment at God’s hands. He said, “Know then that God has wronged me, and has surrounded me with His net.” (Job 19:6 NKJV). Later on in the same chapter, he goes even further, saying, “He breaks me down on every side. And I am gone; my hope He has uprooted like a tree.” (Job 19:10 NKJV).

This is not a little thing. When hope is uprooted like a tree it means that all hope is gone. If the tree is damaged, hope remains. If a few branches of the tree are chopped off, hope remains. Even if the tree is cut down to a stump, there is still a degree of hope, for as long as the roots are in place, some regrowth is possible, even if it is only a tiny sprout. But once the roots are taken out, the tree will never grow again. All hope is gone. Once the roots are uprooted, the tree is dead.

III.

Hadiza still had hope for Saratou, but she never actively looked for a hospital or clinic where she could be treated. She knew that even if she took her to the hospital and she could be healed, she would never be able to pay for it. But then one day, she heard about the CURE hospital in Niamey on the radio. The voice on the radio described the different conditions that are treated at the hospital, and they described the condition Saratou was born with. They called it cleft lip, which Hadiza had never heard of, but the way they spoke about the condition they treat convinced her. It was as though they were talking about Saratou herself.

After she heard the radio, Hadiza decided to take Saratou to Niamey. They came even though they didn’t know where the hospital was, and didn’t know if what the radio said was true. Even on the way to the hospital, children in Niamey saw Saratou and started calling her names. She went to fight them, but Hadiza held her back.

Once they arrived at the hospital, they found that Saratou could be healed. They saw other children with cleft lip who were healed, and they were excited. Saratou was operated on, and even though she was scared, she was healed. For a few days her lips were puffy and swollen, but she was still smiling. She was happy, and Hadiza was happy as well. They left to go back to the town on the river. Saratou went back to her life. She would continue to help Hadiza make porridge, and help her sell it on the street. But she had been changed, and she was going back to a changed life.

Right after the surgery.

Hadiza and Saratou soon after Sararou’s surgery.

jhbjhbjh

A month after Saratou’s surgery.

IV.

When you really boil it down, hope is one of the central messages of the whole Bible. It is a peculiar type of hope that his hopeful in the face of despair. It is unflinching hope that is aware of the very bad things that are happening, and aware of the chance that even worse things are on the way. But through it all there is still hope. Impossible, unbelievable hope.

When hope is impossible and unbelievable, we sometimes call it faith.

Faith means believing that God can do something even though there is nothing to be done. When you are in the position of Job’s friends, this seems very silly. Maybe even irresponsible. If up is up and down is down, then you must have done something to end up so far down. But we forget sometimes, that this is an attitude of privilege. Not all can afford to think this way. Only those who don’t face problems can think this way, or who face problems but have the means to make the problems go away. But for the majority of the earth’s population, the problems are always there and they do not go away.

However, no matter how privileged you are, there are some problems that everyone has to face. Death touches everyone, and so can disability. And when that happens, no matter how reasonable you are, and how wise your choices in life have been, you might find yourself in the silly position of hoping for the impossible. You might also find yourself questioning God. For when you are forced to face the big problems, the problems you cannot resolve or outrun, the most natural reaction in the world is to question God. Why death? Why disease? Why injustice and evil? These problems make us question the way this world works, and that is normal, because the world is broken.

This is exactly the point. The world is broken and needs to be restored. The world is in need of redemption. The world is in need of a redeemer, someone who will wipe away the tears and the blame. There may not be much evidence of this redeemer in the world, but those who continue to believe in spite of the evidence are not convinced by evidence. They are convinced by hope, and consequently, they may find themselves in the same silly position that Job was in when he said in chapter 19 (only 15 verses after saying that God has uprooted his hope like a tree), “my Redeemer lives” (Job 19:25 NKJV).

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Simon Korn (1923-2013)

In the last days of 2013, my grandfather passed away. Simon (Syzmek) Korn was 90 years old, and he lived through many things in his life, but none more harrowing than the Second World War. The war started for him on the day Germany invaded Poland in 1939. It was supposed to be the first day of school, but school was cancelled that day. Simon spent most of the war in the Lodz Ghetto, and when it was liquidated he was sent in a cattle car with the rest of his family to Auschwitz. He spent the remainder of the war in a number of different Nazi concentration camps, including Buchenwald (where he was eventually liberated).

My grandfather was many things: a son and brother, a husband and son-in-law, a father and a friend and a survivor. For me, he was a grandpa, and some of my best memories with him involve very grandfatherly activities. He liked to play and have fun, and he also liked to tell stories. Even when I was very young, he told me stories of his experiences during the war and in the camps. These stories were so much a part of my childhood that I honestly can’t remember a time when “the Nazis” and “the Germans” weren’t a part of my vocabulary and imagination.

He wasn’t trying to scare me, and he wasn’t being boastful at all. In fact, he was very explicit in his throwing off of the heroic mantle that is sometimes thrust upon Holocaust survivors. He said that he was not a hero, and that his survival owed as much to dumb luck as to anything else. It was dumb luck and a certain amount of craftiness – the ability to steal some extra soup or cut in line, things of that nature. The kind of things that you do to survive when you have been dehumanized and put into a situation that is not human. The real heroes, he would say, are those who remained human in that place, those who remained decent in spite of it all. And those people did not survive.

Screenshot of Simon Korn, during his interview with the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History foundation in 1995.

A screenshot of Simon Korn, during his interview with the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation in 1995.

No, he didn’t share his stories to build himself up, but he did have an agenda. He said that the world needed to hear his story, and others like it, so that it could stand guard, and make sure that this kind of thing never happens again. This was especially true of the younger generation, he always said, those who were not alive in those days and did not live through them.

He said that we must remember what happened because it is so easy to forget.

He did his best to ensure that people would remember, but he also realized that to remember is not enough. How we remember is almost as important as what we remember. And he somehow managed to remember honestly, but without hatred or bitterness. That, for me, was the most amazing thing. He saw his experiences for what they were, and avoided seeing them through rose colored glasses certainly, but also through glasses that were totally blackened out. Of course his natural desire was for justice, but he somehow stopped short of revenge and hatred. It did not happen overnight, it was a lifelong process, but he was able to take a firm stand against all forms of prejudice and intolerance, even with regards to his former oppressors. As he said, he realized that those who went through what he went through and were still filled with hate were not yet free. He wanted to be free.

The number tattooed on Simon Korn's arm at Auschwitz.

A shot of the number that was tattooed on Simon Korn’s arm during his incarceration at Auschwitz. It reads B-8394.

Of course, it is impossible to talk about someone’s legacy or lasting influence without oversimplification. Simon Korn was many things, like I said, and it would be wrong of me to try and reduce all of who he was and what he meant to me and to others down to one idea or principle. However, it is difficult for me to look at his life and not draw an important lesson from the shape of it. He went through the worst that this world has to offer, and came out on the other side, not to forgive and forget, but to remember and to avoid contributing to the cycle of violence and bigotry which so shaped and damaged his own life. He was dehumanized, but he was able to recover his humanity, and refused to dehumanize others in return. He refused to shackle others (and himself) with the chains that he had just been freed from. Although I am sure he would object to me saying so, I think that makes him a hero.

A few years ago I wrote a poem for/about Grandpa Simon, and although some of it is embarrassingly bad, I thought I would share some of the salvageable bits with you:

April 11th, 1945.
Buchenwald, you stalled death, barely alive,
But still breathing, all day from the morning to the evening,
Hanging on to the hope that soon you’d be leaving.

Few can conceive of the evil you faced,
And only God knows why in that hell you were placed.
But you handled yourself with dignity and grace,
And forgiveness that surpasses all time and space.
I still can’t understand how you don’t have hate.
It’s hard for me sometimes, and I could never relate
With what you went through, but I think you’re on the right track.
Hitler was hate and we can never go back to that.

From you I leaned lessons about life and hate,
And to never leave any food left on my plate.
About love and peace and understanding,
Keep and open mind, be kind but commanding, when you have to,
And sometimes you will.
But never seek to hurt anyone or kill.
Everyone: Black White Arab Jew has value,
All God’s sons, even Germans too.

B-8394.
More than 60 years later most hearts remain sore.
But with their tattoo needle and their evil endeavor,
They marked you as a survivor forever.
Severed from your family and taken from your home,
They could never break your spirit even though they broke your bones.
And now you walk around with these numbers in ink
To shake the slumbering and force them to think.

Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments