High Stakes Game

The other day I heard a political consultant describe America’s current relations with Russia in light of the situation in Ukraine as a poker game between President Obama and Russian President Putin. “So far,” he said, “Putin is winning.”

While our president voices words of concern and carefully scripted, tele-prompted warnings of “serious consequences,” the Russian president responds with actions– sending troops, tanks and weapons across Ukraine’s sovereign border. So far it would appear that the Russian leader is the one calling the shots. Putin is acting while Obama is reacting. Russia is playing offence while America (and the rest of the world) is playing defense.

In isolation, this situation might not be all that important, but from a perspective measuring America’s standing within the landscape of geo-political relationships, it seems we are on the cusp of serious trouble.

Russia is on the move. It is now engaged in its largest military buildup since the collapse of the Soviet Union and is aggressively expanding its global influence. China’s economy continues to expand and it is drastically ramping-up its military capacity with eyes on Taiwan. Both China and Russia have made significant inroads into Latin America, while America’s influence there has diminished.

In the shadow of what might be gathering clouds of confrontation, President Obama is naïve and appears unsure; his condescending finger-wagging impressing only members of his own party and much of the American press. Not only are our enemies unimpressed, they are emboldened. Syria’s Bashar al-Assad skips over Obama’s “red line,” as he continues to exterminate his own citizens who dare oppose him, and Iran appreciates Obama’s conciliatory tone as it marches on toward its goal of nuclear weapons and the destruction of Israel.

A credible leader only speaks of consequences if he knows what those consequences will be before he speaks. Obama’s obvious scrambling shows that he has TR’s policy of “Speak softly and carry a big stick,” reversed.

Any past progress made toward stability in the Middle East has been negated by Obama’s sorry leadership, as Egypt, Libya, and Syria go up in flames. We are unclear about our loyalties, as we vacillate in defining friend or foe. Israel rightfully feels abandoned by Washington, as do our Eastern European friends, now that they too are discovering that they are on their own.

America’s anemic imposition of “sanctions” in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea only serves to stiffen Russian resolve and invites a return to the cold war. The Russian people cheer for Putin and scoff at the ignorance or arrogance of any American president so oblivious to history—the Russian people hunger for nationalistic pride, not financial security.

Then there is the issue of Edward Snowden. The complete absence of any leverage whatsoever for America to influence Russian cooperation, in what is arguably the most significant intelligence threat in decades, testifies to the Obama Administration’s astounding weakness in national security matters.

Our President’s skill in navigating foreign policy is being tested, and so far he has failed. He appears impotent in the role of Commander-in Chief. The cumulative result of his foundering has left our nation as vulnerable as it was the day before Pearl Harbor.

The stature of America—our influence and the respect other nations apportion us—has declined dramatically. In large measure this is on account of the dismal performance of President Obama. But the American people bear a significant underlying responsibility for how America is perceived by other nations—friends and foes alike.

The spilt blood of assassinated American Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans in Benghazi, Libya is a glaring, hideous example to a watching world of Americans’ indifference regarding matters of supreme importance. For the President of the United States to refer to this tragedy as some sort of “phony scandal,” is outrageous and contemptible; likewise, for then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to dismiss the matter (while under oath), with the statement, “With all due respect, the fact is we had four dead Americans. Was it because of a protest or was it because of guys out for a walk one night decided to go kill some Americans? What difference at this point does it make?”

Other foreign policy failures aside, on account of this tragedy alone, the American people should be holding our leaders to account. Apparently however, most Americans have been too busy updating their Facebook walls and re-tweeting photos from the Academy Awards to be concerned about the Benghazi incident, or to notice that Vladimir Putin and other leaders have been working round the clock building their militaries, as our president has been reducing and softening ours.

While Putin ramped-up for his invasion of Ukraine, U.S. Secretary of Defense Hagel announced the reduction of our military troop numbers, to the lowest levels since 1940. President Obama has been more concerned with the feminization and “trans-genderization” of our military than in its readiness, and as a result, morale in the armed forces has never been lower.

During the debates prior to the last election, there was an exchange between Mitt Romney and President Obama, where the President derided Romney for saying that he believed Russia represented the greatest long term strategic threat to our security. Obama also mocked Romney for being critical of the administration’s cuts to our naval forces, claiming that today’s technology negated the need for a large number of ships. On the first point, as recent events are proving, Romney was right. As for Obama’s flippant critique of Romney’s concern about cuts to our naval forces, the point should have made that regardless of how advanced our new ships may be, they still cannot be two places at once! The point demonstrated Obama’s ignorance, not Romney’s.

A good poker player is not necessarily the one with the best hand, but one who knows how to play a poor hand, well. In the poker game of geo-politics, the stakes are enormous. Freedom or oppression, peace or war, hang in the balance.

America sits at the table, still with the best hand–the most powerful, technologically-advanced military in the world. The problem is, the man holding our cards is a very poor player, indeed.

Water – Waste Not Want Not

Have you ever imagined that one day you may turn on the water faucet and nothing came out? Imagine if you had no water at all in your house, as if the water main was turned off for extended periods—maybe months. This scenario is a stark and possible reality. I know. I have lived through an African drought.149214175

During my childhood, the seaside bungalow where my family lived in a remote area near Zululand, had not a single drop of running water. The water was not rationed—there was none to ration. The only water supply for bungalows then was from the rainwater that funneled from the sloped roofs into canvas water tanks attached to house sidings.

There was no such thing as bottled water; that luxury would come about much later. If we needed household water, we turned on the outside spigot, filled a pot, and then boiled the precious liquid before using it. Most seasons, we had abundant tropical downpours and water was plentiful, but no rain meant there wasn’t any water until another rainstorm.

During one summer, disaster struck. Someone slit the canvas water tank during the night; the receptacle had emptied. The nearest ‘fresh’ water was in a brackish lagoon that flowed into the Indian Ocean. Tropical broad-leafed trees met the sandy shores where venomous boomslange snakes lived; we saw the tracks. My mother and I retrieved buckets of river-sea water from the brownish tropical lagoon—home to crocodiles.

The memory of having no fresh water for such long periods has been the single-most cause of my being a life-long “water conserver.”

Now California is in drought mode. Governor Jerry Brown recently asked us to cut back water usage by 20%. A few recent rainstorms have helped somewhat, but reservoir levels are still low.

So what have I gleaned about the national and global water situation to prepare this piece? There are drought conditions in many parts of the Middle East, Africa, Australia as well as our Western states. Droughts and floods have been cyclical for millennia; nature just works that way. I learned that it may get worse in California if more rains do not come this season; one of the driest winter cycles in recent memory.96644707

We may not experience the immediate effects of drought, but the ripple effect ripples far and wide. Many businesses have already cut water usage; ski resorts had a paltry season, and the drop in revenues have affected rentals, restaurants and seasonal workers. Snow pack runoffs will not sufficiently fill reservoirs.

As always, agriculture will suffer. Fields will dry, rivers may not flow, field hands will lose work, and produce prices will soar. The cattlemen are thinning herds and cutting back. Feed is scarce and expensive. If the drought continues and seasonal rains fail to come, parks, golf courses, sports fields and lawns will suffer, and withering gardens may have to go “native.”146716272

Recycled grey water is already being used by carwash companies, ground irrigation, and light industry, and water restrictions have caused severe cut backs. The cost of water may rise.

Consumers in California are far from having household and potable water regulated, but experts warn that in the future there may be supply problems. The answer to high usage and dwindling fresh water supplies from rainfall may be mitigated by the process of desalination.

The desalination and reverse osmosis procedures to purify sea water have already been used for some time in such places as U.S. aircraft carriers, ships and submarines that use nuclear power to convert sea water to drinking water. An aircraft carrier desalinates as many as 400,000 gallons of salt water per day.

California is moving in the desalination direction to stave off possible water shortages. A huge desalination plant will be completed in 2016 in Carlsbad, projected to provide 7% of San Diego County’s fresh water supply. Poseidon Resources Corporation states that they have already gone through all regulatory procedures, and their new $1billion facility will process about fifty million gallons per day. Interior regions far away from coastal cities cannot gain from such desalination facilities as the transportation of desalinated fresh water to the inland is not cost effective.

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Lockheed Corporation, on the cutting edge of weaponry production, and one of the nation’s largest government contractors, is developing salt water filters made of grapheme, similar to pencil lead. The nanometer filtration technology will be used to filter and remove microscopic salt particles and residue from sea water, and thus create top quality drinking water.

WATER AS A WEAPON

Countries systematically deprived of fresh water supplies may perish. Water, more than any other commodity, is the lifeblood of nations. There are countries today that are in desperate need of potable water, and with continual drought periods, will gradually face decline. Many African nations, Middle Eastern countries, and Australia have all borne the devastating results of the lack of rain. The poorest nations don’t have the finances or wherewithal to build monolithic dams to capture the rains in reservoirs, and many governments take drastic measures.

Zimbabwe, with a track record of government corruption, has withstood severe water woes. Water is rationed; absolutely no water flows through any pipes or comes out of any faucets, period. The pipes that usually flow with fresh water from municipal reservoirs are as dry as savannah bones. So how do Zimbabweans survive without water? They find ways.185884042

There is a surge of water poachers and illegal H2O dealers that have sprung up overnight. Scavengers sneak to reservoirs or lakeshores at night and carry water in tricked-out trucks with huge water tanks and commercial barrels, and sell water of questionable quality, at 20 litres for $4.00.

One such town, Chitungwiza, with a population of two million, has had short water supplies during the long ration period. Some rural residents have their water turned on only once a week and have resorted to drinking acrid water from illegal boreholes; others walk to streams or lakes with buckets. Four thousand people died recently of cholera from drinking polluted, non-treated river or lake water. Parasitic and contaminated waters cause cholera, typhoid and bilharzia.

Some people have built tanks on the sides of huts and houses to harvest meagre rainwater roof runoffs. Farmers, even those who paid water bills, have been evicted from their land. The corrupt government claims there is no money to purify lake water for the poor areas. Yes, water can be used as a weapon.468489731

There is another drought on another continent wreaking havoc in the outback. Over the past few decades, droughts have hit Australia hard. Half million head of sheep and cattle perished for the want of water. Restrictions of water and hosepipe uses have been enforced with heavy fines, and watering gardens has been verboten.

China is dry too. Last summer, a shattering heat wave caused the enforcement of water rationing in China’s central and eastern regions. A ton of fish perished at fish farms near Shanghai in 30 ponds that overheated, raising the water temperatures beyond what the fish could bear. The fish literally boiled in shallow ponds.

Parts of the Middle East, Yemen and Jordan are in drought mode; the latter being the world’s fourth driest water-poor nation. Many of these countries have the added burden of an influx of millions of refugees from war-torn Syria who live in transit camps. UNICEF reports that the need for millions of gallons of extra water adds strain on already-limited supplies. It costs money for fuel and labor to transport water.458531269

According to a United States Intel report, water has become a global security issue. Competition for the power grab of dwindling water supplies could likely result in instability and potential state failures of America’s closest allies. With limited and non-sustainable water supplies food stockpiles would diminish. Water could potentially cost more than milk or the finest wines. Food could not be produced, livestock would die of thirst, and clean and affordable water would not be available to nourish nations.

This is not 1984 or Brave New World fiction; this is a stark reality of the possible future scenarios as we see the world population burgeon to over seven billion. Asia, the most densely populated region on earth, is blessed with water during monsoon seasons.

The destruction of a nation’s water supplies could deep-six the population within weeks. Weapons transportation and military manpower functions with water. The greatest weapon would be the strangulation or contamination of water supplies, and Governments could monitor water usage during droughts, and may even resort to detouring supplies from perceived enemy territory.

These situations are among the harshest scenarios, but experts foresee that this may not be so farfetched. We truly live in a thirsty world—both for land and man.

WATER USAGE

The State of California is encouraging conservation. The Sierra snowpack is meagre, reservoirs are shrinking, and concentrated mitigation may prevent future shortages. The town of Willits has already imposed a 150 gallon per day limit on residents, and reservoirs and aqueducts are scrutinized.Snow Survey Helps Drought-Plagued California Determine Water Allocation

Golf courses use a whopping 360,000 gallons per day, and if the drought continues there may be restrictions on water recreation, and other consumers. In dry and desert regions, xeriscaping and succulent landscaping is recommended.

Visualize, if you will, your own daily water use in gallons. Imagine that each gallon you use is filled in virtual gallon containers stacked in your kitchen. Approximate usage, shower: 7 gals per minute; bath, 30 gals; running faucet, 3 gals per minute; washing machine, 50 gals per load; dishwasher, 15 gals; toilet, 6 gals per flush; brushing teeth/washing hands with running water, 3 gals per minute.

Not including garden or landscape watering, give or take a gallon or two, we use in excess of 150 gallons per day per person. Now imagine you have collected 150 one-gallon containers. In one month you will have filled 4,500 jugs. Multiply this by number of people in the household—this drives home the reality.

Buying bottled water on a regular basis adds to the problem. It takes, not only energy, but three liters of water to produce 1 liter of bottled water. Forty one billion litres of bottled water is consumed globally per year, and some is not even purified; much of it comes from faucets hooked to municipal water supplies.

Plus it takes energy and water to manufacture the light-weight plastic bottles made of polyethylene terephthalate (PET), a form of polyester made from fossil fuels. It takes unknown gallons of fuel to transport cases of bottled water, and untold gallons of water and fuel to convey and crush the spent receptacles into recycled cubes.

Keep in mind that plain old tap water costs about $2 per 1,000 gallons. So what do we actually pay for the convenience of buying bottled water?  When we stop at the gas station we are shocked that gasoline is about $4 a gallon, but think nothing of paying $2 for a liter of ice-cold bottled water. At just under 4 liters to a gallon, we are paying $8 for a gallon of water—twice the price of gasoline. Think about it.

Lost Passport

Pray tell, what is the disaster that world travelers fear the most? What can happen that absolutely destroys a pleasant vacation? What possible item can bring a seasoned traveler to tears? Let’s see. A long security check line? No. A bad case of food poisoning? Perhaps. A terrorist threat? Quite possibly. But the one thing – the ultimate nightmare – is to lose one’s passport. Stranded without hope, unable to communicate with the locals, a person without a country. Oh! Woe! Actually it wasn’t so bad. Let me tell you about it.

During a three week stay in Munich, Barb and I decided to visit a dear friend’s relatives in Skopje, Macedonia. The foray was not without its difficulties. While Macedonia is quite modern in most respects, the shadow of the past internal wars and a shaky record with tourists has kept it off most travelers’ agendas. The flight between Germany and Macedonia required a plane change in Vienna, Austria. This necessitated our passing in and out of Austrian security where both English and German are spoken. While we can get along quite well with the German language and/or in countries where English is a prominent second language, when we arrived in Macedonia, we found Macedonian quite undecipherable. Here they speak their own internal language. In addition, their use of an adaption of Cyrillic letters kept us permanently in the dark when trying to read signs. Nonetheless, the people were very friendly, the weather was wonderful, and all in all we were enjoying our visit.

While Skopje is the capital city and does contain a number of enjoyable sites and places, we read where the city of Ohrid, about two hundred kilometers to the south is the vacation capital of this country. Naturally we had to visit there, and we were well rewarded. Ohrid sits on beautiful Lake Ohrid, surrounded by mountains. The city itself is a resort town, visited by many from other nations. The lake sports flocks of swans, lots of decorated fishing boats, and a colorful fleet of tourist boats. The food was very good, and the prices were by far the best we found in Europe. A large lunch on the patio of a fine hotel on the lake’s edge cost a mere twenty five U.S. dollars for four of us. There is a wide spread of opinions on which currency to use. Macedonia has its own denar which is preferred by local merchants. They have applied to become part of the EU which would require the use of the Euro. This change is popular among politicians, not so among locals.

But alas, (and I’m stealing from my story ending here,) when I pulled out my wallet to pay at this pleasant hotel – unknown to me – my passport jumped from the protection of my cargo pants and very quietly fell to the floor. Here it hid unnoticed while we meandered back to our car and drove the three hours to our hotel in Skopje. There, for the first time I noticed I was naked of my United States protective shield.

The next morning after a frantic search through everything I owned, I notified the local police of my plight and took a cab to the United States Embassy. It was Sunday, and I was told the Embassy was closed but would be available to me on Monday morning at 9:00 a.m. This was cutting it close, as our flight back to Munich left early Tuesday morning. But, I had little choice. I wasn’t getting out of Macedonia without a passport, much less back into Germany. I suffered a great deal of kidding from my wife, Barb, who promised to send me cookies here in Skopje after she got back home to California if they would not let me out.464678863-2

The Embassy sits high on a hill overlooking the city – a huge concrete structure – surrounded on all sides by ten foot high wire fencing with razor wire on top. Cameras are everywhere. In the guard booth sits a pair of Marines who are polite, but formal. I made the appointment for the next morning.

On Monday I was ushered into the facility, signed papers, swore my allegiance to the United States Constitution, and was politely given a ninety day temporary passport paid in full with US currency. Ah, ‘twas a joy to be whole again.

There is a p.s. to this story. I did speak to my friend’s relatives about my situation. He asked where we had eaten in Ohrid, and I told him. He used his cell phone and called a friend in Ohrid who went over to the hotel and asked the maître d’ whether or not they had found a passport.

“Yes, we found a passport under a table but did not know how to contact the owner. We hoped he would call.” This friend in Ohrid retrieved the passport, went to the local bus station, and gave the passport to a bus driver who was on his way back to Skopje. Truly, four hours later we met the bus at the terminal in Skopje and sure enough – the driver had the package! A nice tip followed. I salvaged all of the past “Stamps In My Passport” – a very comfortable feeling.

 

Tax Time (aka April Madness)

“Our new Constitution is now established,and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes”                                                                        —Benjamin Franklin

The month of April is synonymous with Tax Time. As everyone over the age of ten, maybe 9 (child labor laws), knows, April 15th is the last day to file your tax return for the previous year. That is… if you pay taxes. Personally, I’ve been living off the grid for the last few years. That’s why I don’t use my real name for these silly articles. However, if you do pay taxes, like a vast majority of the country, the next few weeks is a chaotic time as we frantically attempt to get our tax returns gathered, finished and filed during that period of the year commonly known as “Tax Time,” or, “April Madness.”

By definition, taxes are money people and businesses must pay to suppfedort the government. We all understand that as U.S. citizens it is our responsibility to pay for essential services such as our armed forces, police and fire departments, public school educators,  the maintenance for our city, state and national parks and various other not-so-appreciated expenses (elected official salaries), but that doesn’t mean we like it. I’m probably not the only one who feels like I pay way too much in taxes. It hurts to give away my hard earned money. It’s like passing a kidney stone when I mail that check to the IRS. In fact, I may just mail my actual kidney stone in with this year’s tax return. Can you write off a kidney stone as a charitable contribution?

Thanks to the crackerjack research staff at Alive Magazine (me, surfing Wikipedia), I could take this opportunity to explain the complicated history of taxation in the United States and quote various state and federal tax laws, but I might fall asleep at my keyboard. Normally that’s not a big deal, but I’m I hammering out this article on my smartphone while driving to see my accountant so a nap could be dangerous. I will tell you that in 1862, in order to support the Civil War effort, Congress enacted the nation’s first income tax law. It was a forerunner of our modern income tax, in that it was based on the principles of graduated, or progressive, taxation and of withholding income at the source. Additionally, The Act of 1862 established the office of Commissioner of Internal Revenue. In 1913, the 16th Amendment to the Constitution made the income tax a permanent fixture in the U.S. tax system. #taxes.

Taxes come in a variety of shapes and sizes. On a regular basis, we are subjected to state and federal income tax, sales tax, inheritance tax, personal property tax, estate tax, TicTacs (a tiny but effective breath freshener) and taxidermy. Somewhere out there a creepy guy is stuffing a dead possum in his parent’s garage apartment knowing he’ll have to pay income tax on his next big sale. His customer, another creepy guy who acquires taxidermy road kill for resale, knows he’ll have to pay sales tax on his petrified dead animal purchase. Fortunately, both creepy buyer and seller have tax loop-holes, allowing them a certain amount of business write-offs for their slightly twisted obsession.

It’s a little known fact that the notorious gangster, Al Capone, eventually went to prison for tax evasion and not one of the many more serious crimes (murder, arson, extortion and racketeering) he was suspected of committing as a gangster in the 1930s. An equally interesting, while lesser- known fact, is that in the final years of Capone’s life, he suffered mental deterioration due to late-stage syphilis. I doubt however that that had anything to do with his tax issues, but we’ll never know for sure.

When I think of the job or occupation I would most like to pursue, Tax Man was never high on my list. Internal Revenue Service Auditor, Correspondence Examination Technician, Data Transcriber or Taxpayer Advocate Service, Contact Representative are all actual job openings at http://jobs.irs.gov/opportunities.com. Those tax career options ranked right up there with prison guard, long haul trucker, circus clown and septic tank pump operator on my list of jobs I was least likely to have in my lifetime. Come to think of it, I would rather be the prison guard of septic tank long haul truckers who wear clown make-up, than tell my friends I work for the IRS. With all due respect to the fine men and women who are employed by this valued governmental agency, the IRS makes a majority of my acquaintances nervous, anxious, nauseous and stressed-out. Suffice it to say, if I worked at the IRS, it would be just one more strike against me in my already difficult pursuit of friends.

When my Dad’s Night Out group of bowling buddies was recently asked what the first word that came to mind when I presented them with term, “tax time,” here were their responses;

Sucky                                     (Censored)                              irritating

(Censored)                              Anxiety                                   (Censored)

Extension                                Poopy                                     (Censored)

Crappy                                   (Censored)                              Resentful

(Censored)                              Agitated                                  Uncomfortable

(Censored)                              (Censored)                              (Censored)

Money                                    Tearful                                    Confused

Painful                                    Frustrating                             (Censored)

These guys may not be the most articulate, but they speak from the heart.

Conversely, when I informally polled a group of local accountants and bookkeepers about their response to the same “tax time” phrase, here were their responses;

Exhausting                             Stressful                                  Demanding

Lucrative                                (Censored)                              Poopy

Sleeplessness                          Complicated                           (Censored)

(Censored)                              Cha-Ching                             Necessary

Patient                                    Maddening                            Vacation

“Tax Time requires that I have very sensitive interpersonal skills, almost a gentle bed side manor. People tend to be nervous and on edge around tax time, especially those that think they are going to owe money. These are individuals that I have a personal relationship with and I truly do care about them. Unfortunately, the numbers are the numbers. “                     —AJ Major of Vavrinek, Trine, Day & Co., LLP

Tax Time is nothing anyone looks forward to, but it doesn’t have to be a time to dread either. As I see it, we all have two choices. We can; A) Turn the house and office upside down feverishly searching for every 2013 receipt and record in our possession, stuff them all into an accordion file, shoe box or garbage bag and then run down to our neighborhood H&R Block office to file our return on time, or, B) We can file an extension. Even though the extension simply pushes off the strain, pain and brain (damage) a few months, it can provide us the opportunity to get comfortably organized, thereby eliminating the April Madness brought on by Tax Time. Why not enjoy the start of spring this year?

Healing Afghanistan

ALIVE Book Review by Robin Fahr

Healing Afghanistan: Hope for the Children By Judy Duchesne-PeckhamRedone poster H_A_edited-1

The story of House of Flowers, the only Montessori school/orphanage in Afghanistan

 In 2003, Judy Duchesne-Peckham, award-winning photographer, educator, and long-time social activist, joined a small humanitarian team headed for Kabul, Afghanistan. The mission was to provide aid to Afghan women and some of the country’s estimated two million orphaned children.

Duchesne-Peckham photographed and documented both the prevailing despair in the large government orphanages and the beginning of hope in one small Montessori-based orphanage/school, the House of Flowers. Here, Afghan teachers were being instructed in Montessori techniques that encourage the healthy development of the whole child, including peaceful conflict resolution, gender equality, and respect for the individual as well as the group. At first, much of the philosophy seemed antithetical to the Afghan perspective, in which children are seen as being capable of very little. The critical importance of the Montessori approach was stressed to the Afghan staff; the children would maintain their freedom to engage in their areas of interest, producing works that reflect their temperament, intellect, and emotions. Ten years later, the verdict is in: the House of Flowers is a resounding success and is being hailed as the model for all government-run orphanages in Afghanistan.

Healing Afghanistan is about the institutional transformation now under way in Afghanistan and the ways in which it is serving to teach, nurture, and heal the children. Filled with beautiful photographs and thoughtful essays, it tells the story of a country once renowned for its educational system, the effect of the Taliban takeover which closed half of the country’s schools and made education for girls illegal, and how in the midst of chaos, there is a sanctuary of hope for it’s children.

ALIVE Magazine sat down with Healing Afghanistan photographer and contributor Judy Duchesne-Peckham to find out why we should care about the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan and why she believes its children are the best defense against the return of darkness and oppression.

ALIVE Magazine: Why did you create this book?

Judy Duchesne-Peckham:  Of all the countries I had ever visited throughout the world up to the time of my first trip there in 2003, Afghanistan affected me the most profoundly. That still remains true approximately 34 countries (total) later. I had never been anywhere that was currently at war – and had been for more than 20 years. The suffering, as well as the resilience and strength, among ordinary Afghans was palpable and often brought me to tears. It also compelled me to think of ways that I, as a middle-class teacher and photographer in California, could help. Once I met the children and staff at the House of Flowers Orphanage/Montessori School in Kabul, I knew that my efforts on their behalf could make a real difference.Original residents at HoF-photo by Judy Duchesne-Peckham

Most of the news we get in the West about Afghanistan is negative. I wanted to share something hopeful and positive by focusing on the remarkable work being done at the House of Flowers; hence my book, from which 100% of profits from sales will go to House of Flowers.

AM: What was your objective?

JDP: House of Flowers is privately funded by a dedicated group of supporters but has always struggled to stay afloat since its founding in 2002. Though I have helped with fundraising these past ten years, it has never been enough to ensure that the House’s annual operating budget would be met. It seemed to me that with more global awareness of House of Flowers as a ten-year Afghan success story, raising $69,600/year shouldn’t be insurmountable. That sum provides care for up to 32 children/year, including monthly rent, food, clothing, school supplies, the salaries of a house manager, two full-time teachers, a cook and a night watchman! (visit www.mepoonline.org for complete details). But perhaps even more importantly, House of Flowers contributes to the critical development of well-rounded, intelligent, open-minded, and generous children who see themselves as global citizens. They are the best hope for future leaders who have been raised in an environment of gender-equity and peaceful conflict resolution. I wanted to celebrate that.

A couple of years ago, the orphanage nearly closed due to lack of funding. Also around this time, as the war in Afghanistan raged on, wildfires erupted and burned uncontrollably in southern California, where I live. I thought about the couple of thousand photographs I had made in Afghanistan stored in my house and what a shame it would be if everything burned up before the world had a chance to see unique images of the forgotten Afghan faces of war – the ordinary citizens, the women and children, the orphans, the disabled. I hoped the time was right to publish a book and use the profits to benefit House of Flowers. I contacted my friend, Dr. Mostafa Vaziri, founder of House of Flowers and its parent organization MEPO (Medical, Education, and Peace Organization) and asked for his advice and guidance. He approved and agreed to participate.Back cover-H_A- Judy DuchesnePeckham_062212_12-1

AM: Who is your intended audience?

JDP: The book is intended for anyone who believes that hope, healing, and peace can occur in the most unlikely of places. It’s also intended to show the importance of education in its power to change peoples’ hearts and minds through personal acts of courage, love, and humanitarian service. The book is also intended for people who don’t see things that way.

AM: What did you learn about Afghanistan that you didn’t know before and what personal stories and memories can you share with us?

JDP:  I learned so many things that it’s hard to know where to begin. I had wondered what ordinary Afghan citizens thought about the US intervention after 9/11/2001. I asked some of them, who told me that in spite of the bombings, they were very glad the Taliban had been deposed.

I wondered what type of reception our small humanitarian team of Americans would receive. Without exception, Afghans welcomed us warmly, with generosity, kindness, and goodwill. Those with the least to give often gave us small gifts and shared hospitality over many cups of tea. A teacher I met thanked us for coming and upon learning that I, too, was a teacher, embraced me tightly, crying, “Because of your visit, I know that God has not forgotten us.”

I didn’t know my heart would be broken by much of what I observed and what a lasting impact those trips would have on me. When I think of Afghanistan, I remember so many beautiful faces and eyes filled with sadness and uncertainty.poster1-HA_NadiaDancingObeidSmiling

I recall standing in Ghazni Stadium and weeping at the thought of the executions that had happened there.

I remember using my camera as a shield from the suffering I saw at the government-run Tahya–e­–Maskan Orphanage where, in 2003, hundreds of orphan boys stood in long lunch lines waiting for food to be cooked in large black cauldrons over wood-burning stoves, something reminiscent of a Dickens novel.

I didn’t know there were countless numbers of dedicated individuals from all over the world, risking their lives through their involvement in NGO’s (Non-governmental organizations) in Afghanistan, doing their best to help rebuild a devastated country. I didn’t know their presence would greatly inflate local rents.

I didn’t know I would meet older women in literacy classes who were thrilled to be learning to read for the first time in their lives. I remember sitting on the floor next to one of them who lifted her floor length skirt to expose her pulverized anklebone as she pointed to it and whispered to me “Taliban.”

I didn’t know that in the midst of the dust, the noise, and the chaos of Kabul, there was a little sanctuary of hope, healing, and light at the House of Flowers. I didn’t know that I would fall in love with the children who lived there and would have become an instant mother to them all if I could have.A welcome sight- girls returning home from school, Kabul, photo by Judy Duchesne-Peckham

AM: Speak to the importance of educating girls in Afghanistan.

JDP: There’s an old saying “to educate a girl is to educate a nation” since a child’s first teacher is his or her mother. Imagine a world where everyone has the life-long right to pursue an education, where learning to read, write, create art, and think critically are ordinary and expected activities for both girls and boys — where legal jobs of all sorts are plentiful and pay enough to support families with a decent standard of living, including the basics of safe food to eat and clean water to drink — where people develop understanding and compassion and learn tolerance toward peoples’ differences — where no one needs to kill anyone who shares a divergent point of view — where men and women live in peace and friendship, not fear and domination.

In Kabul, House of Flowers is a microcosm of this idealized world. When the new government head of orphanages discovered this thriving Montessori-based program, he recognized its success immediately in the well-adjusted children who live there. An orphan himself, Mr. Sayyid Hashimi supports implementing the same type of program in the government-run orphanages. Allison Lide, Montessori teacher and co-founder of

House of Flowers, returned to Kabul last year to begin a pilot program in those very orphanages. Lack of funding, of course, is a major obstacle to its full implementation.poster2-HA_Zahinandvisitorreading

I’ve always believed that education is the strongest antidote to societal ills and challenges, with the infinite power to change peoples’ lives for the better on so many levels. It’s why I’ve been a teacher most of my adult life, as well as a life-long student. Though not a panacea for everything, education can certainly address the roots of problems such as terrorism and extremism. When children are loved and raised in healthy environments, when they are taught self-respect, respect for others, employable skills, and peaceful conflict resolution, they grow into healthy adults, immune to despair, desperation, and hopelessness that leads to terrorism.

The team that I traveled with on my first trip included three therapists from the Bay area – Casi Kushel, Taghi Amjadi, and Suzanne Pregerson – who specialize in PTSD therapy with immigrant populations, primarily from Afghanistan and Iran. They were able to begin a pilot program for traumatized children in the orphanages using finger puppets designed and made through a network of women established by the trip’s organizer, Diana Haskins, of the Afghan Academy of Hope.

We’ve all seen what happens when ordinary people become truly desperate. As Americans, if we’ve learned anything since that fateful day in New York City in 2001, it’s that we are truly members of a global community, no longer isolated by continents and oceans. We have a personal stake in caring about children in remote countries half a world away. What kinds of adults will they become?  I am haunted by the faces of the once-young boys I met in the government-run orphanages and wonder what has become of them.Zacki welcoming visitors to HoF-Judy Duchesne-Peckham

AM:  What’s next?

JDP: I hope that enough books get sold to generate interest in a second and third printing so that House of Flowers never has to close its doors and can become the role model for other Afghan orphanages. I also dream of creating a sustainable educational fund for orphans who desire higher education, and I hope that compassionate benefactors everywhere will step forward and offer financial support to these very worthwhile projects.

HEALING AFGHANISTAN–Hope for the Children is available at www.HealingAfghanistan.com. 100% of profits from book sales will benefit the House of Flowers, Montessori school/orphanage, in Kabul, Afghanistan.