Tag Archives: Engaged Buddhism

Educating the Children of Backpack Medics from Myanmar Conflict Zones

By BGR Staff

The oppression and persecution of religious and ethnic minorities by military forces in Myanmar (Burma) has a long and violent history. According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, an estimated 401,000 people are internally displaced, living in isolated villages or in IDP camps, without access to sufficient medical care.

Since 1999, the U.S.–based Burma Humanitarian Mission (BHM) has partnered with the Back Pack Health Worker Team to provide health care to members of the country’s oppressed and persecuted ethnic minorities. In 2019, BHM supported 30 teams of backpack medics from the ethnic minority Karen, Kachin, Shan, Pa’laung, Mon, Chin, and Rohingya communities. The teams of five medics each travel to between nine and twelve villages each month, working with local village health volunteers and midwives to provide health care to people from their respective communities. Serving the most vulnerable areas of Myanmar, each team provides care to an estimated 2,000 people each year.

The regions where the medics carry out their work remain highly dangerous. Our partners write: “In January 2018, one BHM-supported medic was killed when a Burmese jet bombed the village where she was caring for the villagers. In July 2019, soldiers raped and killed a mother in Nam Sung village. In August 2019, soldiers fired mortars into a village, killing four family members in Mawhik. Such incidents occur weekly.”

Many medics relocate their children to Mae Sot, Thailand, where the medics’ headquarters is located. There, a school and boarding facility called the Children’s Development Centre (CDC) provides education, housing, and other support for displaced children from Myanmar, from preschool through grade 12. The school fills a critical need, as authorities in Mae Sot do not permit migrant children from Myanmar to attend local schools. While the classes are not formally accredited, students can earn a diploma through the Thai Non-Formal Education program or a GED program.

A Buddhist Global Relief grant over the past fiscal year provided an education to 55 children of backpack medics at the CDC in Mae Sot. The children received tuition, food, uniforms, and school materials through the grant. Thirty-two of the children are girls or young women.

The backpack medics generally belong to the ethnic groups they serve, and in addition to providing a basic education to these students, the CDC also prioritizes teaching the children about the cultures and histories of the ethnic groups to which their families belong.

Three-quarters of the backpack medics and staff are women, many of whom come from oppressed ethnic minority groups. Our partner writes: “For women from Burma’s isolated ethnic conflict zones, training and opportunities outside of the traditional maternal head-of-the-household role are limited to nonexistent.” By providing an education for these women’s children, this grant provides the women the support they need to pursue their valuable work.

Their children receive the gift of witnessing their mothers as role models of empowered leaders serving their communities in the work of social justice.

Seventeen-year-old Naw Wah Shar Leh is an eleventh grader at the CDC. She was 9 when conflict broke out in her home village in northern Shan state. Like many Burmese girls from conflict zones, she did not attend school before she enrolled at the CDC.

Naw Flora Hnin, 9, lives at the CDC and is in the fourth grade. She is also the daughter of a backpack medic in Shan state. She and her family are members of the Pa’laung ethnic group. “I have a lot of friends, and I like math and reading the best,” she says.

Six-year-old Nant Su Myat Noe Oe is in the first grade. She and her family are members of the Karen ethnic group. Her father works in the medics’ headquarters in Mae Sot.

Naw Tha Dah Bleh, 16, also lives at the CDC. Her father is a backpack medic in Karen state. She says: “The army and soldiers have been fighting around my village for a while.… That’s why we have no school. I feel safe at the CDC. It’s fun and I have a lot of friends. I like math the most in school.” She hopes one day to become a teacher.

Dr. King’s Radical Revolution Of Values

By Richard Eskow

Martin Luther King Jr. addresses a crowd from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where he delivered his famous, “I Have a Dream,” speech during the Aug. 28, 1963, march on Washington, D.C. http://www.marines.mil/unit/mcasiwakuni/PublishingImages/2010/01/KingPhoto.jpg

Today, January 20th, the nation celebrates Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. If Dr. King hadn’t been murdered, he would be 91 years old. How would he view today’s activists?

The words to his “I Have a Dream” speech will be repeated from podiums and in classrooms across the country. But many of the people repeating these words have never heard other King quotes, like this one:

“I am convinced that if we are to get on to the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values.”

King’s Answer

To those who condemn idealism, who preach the quiet cynicism of self-limiting “pragmatism” and insist it’s “how the world works,” Dr. King had an answer: He was, in his own words, “maladjusted.”

In a 1963 speech at Western Michigan University, he said:

There are certain things in our nation and in the world (about) which I am proud to be maladjusted… I say very honestly that I never intend to become adjusted to segregation and discrimination. I never intend to become adjusted to religious bigotry. I never intend to adjust myself to economic conditions that will take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few. I never intend to adjust myself to the madness of militarism, to self-defeating effects of physical violence.

But in a day when sputniks and explorers are dashing through outer space and guided ballistic missiles are carving highways of death through the stratosphere, no nation can win a war. It is no longer the choice between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence or nonexistence…

Dr. King also said: “This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.”

“We must… realize,” he continued, “that the problems of racial injustice and economic injustice cannot be solved without a radical redistribution of political and economic power.”

A Radical Spirit

In other words, Dr. King was a radical.

A few years ago, invocations of Dr. King’s radical spirit were hard to find. They’re more common today, but even the best-intentioned of these pieces tend to place his radicalism in the past tense. That’s a mistake. Dr. King is gone, but his ideals live on.

We can never be sure how Dr. King might view current events, but he can still guide us through his rich record of words and deeds.

Here are six ways that the revolutionary spirit of Dr. King lives on.

Nonviolent Protests

Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored … there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.
– Letter From a Birmingham Jail, 1963

Some politicians who invoke Dr. King this holiday will try to reduce his memory to an emoji they can paste onto their platitudes. But Dr. King was a troublemaker, in the best sense of the word. He knew what it meant to create tension, and discomfort, and disharmony.

While he lived, Dr. King was the target of almost unimaginable hatred and condemnation. It rained down on him from the streets of Southern towns and the corridors of FBI headquarters, from the boardrooms of bus companies and the booths of Boston diners.

Dr. King preached communication, but experienced excommunication – from that cozy world of ‘insiders’ who may argue but will never risk their lives or careers for higher ideals.

Would Dr. King have supported the actions of NFL protesters and movements like Black Lives Matter? It’s hard to imagine otherwise. Their actions make some people uncomfortable, but he wouldn’t have been bothered by that. Protests, he wrote, “merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive.”

The attacks on BLM protesters and the blackballing of Colin Kaepernick would feel very familiar to Dr. King and his associates. It’s impossible to believe he would not see their struggle as his own.

As for their motivations, Dr. King said this in his “I Have a Dream” speech: “There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, ‘When will you be satisfied?’ We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.”

The Struggle for Economic Justice

“Call it democracy, or call it democratic socialism, but there must be a better distribution of wealth within this country for all God’s children.” 
– Negro American Labor Council, 1961

King’s spirit also lives on in the movement for economic justice.

A 2014 Princeton study which has since been validated confirms that the United States has become an oligarchy, for all intents and purposes.  Multinational corporations are dictating the rules of employment and trade. The ultra-rich accumulate more and more of our national wealth and income, as the middle class dies and 40 million Americans – including one out of every five children – lives in poverty.

Corporations seek to inoculate themselves from being held accountable by promoting what they call “corporate social responsibility.”  A few people may be helped, but these programs are little more than coins flung at beggars.

Dr. King would probably not be impressed.  He would probably see more of himself in the work of groups like FED UP who are fighting for economic justice.

Expanding Access to Health

Dr. King also told the Medical Committee for Human Rights in 1966, “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane.”

The provenance of this quote was questioned for years, until attorney and editor Amanda Moore tracked it down and confirmed it.  Dr. King said it less than a year after Medicare was passed into law.

Given what we know of his values, is it unreasonable to believe that Dr. King would stand with those groups that are fighting to ensure that Medicare’s protections are available to every American? And can there be any doubt that he would be committed to expanding Social Security, ensuring decent vacation and family leave benefits for all workers, and taking other steps to expand the social safety net?

The Fight for Workers’ Rights

The two most dynamic and cohesive liberal forces in the country are the labor movement and the Negro freedom movement. Together we can be architects of democracy.”
– Address to the Fourth Constitutional Convention of the AFL-CIO, August 1961

Dr. King’s spirit lives on in the most progressive and transformative elements of the labor movement.

He understood that inequality, “the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth,” could not be defeated without organized labor. Dr. King didn’t hesitate to challenge the labor movement when unions practiced racial discrimination.  But he was a fierce advocate for labor rights. He was in Memphis on behalf of striking sanitation workers, in fact, on that terrible night when bullets took his life.

Dr. King understood that the fight for civil rights was closely connected with the fight for workers’ rights. “Negroes in the United States read this history of labor and find that it mirrors their own experience,” he told the AFL-CIO. “We are confronted by powerful forces, telling us to rely on the goodwill and understanding of those who profit by exploiting us.”

An End to Militarism

“We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation, for those it calls ‘enemy,’ for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers.”
– Beyond Vietnam, 1967

His spirit lives in the groups fighting to end our country’s campaign of permanent war, and in the brave men and women who work to end the illegal and immoral practices of our military and intelligence services.

Dr. King said this, too, in his 1967 Christmas sermon on peace:

“… when we say Thou shalt not kill, we’re really saying that human life is too sacred to be taken on the battlefields of the world. Man is more than a tiny vagary of whirling electrons or a wisp of smoke from a limitless smoldering.”

He undoubtedly would have opposed the extrajudicial drone killings ordered by our current president and his two predecessors, and the torture campaigns orchestrated by the CIA.

This element of his spirit does not live on amongst the 117 Democratic members of the House, and the  41 Democratic senators, who joined their Republican colleagues in voting for an extravagant $770 billion boost to what was already the largest military budget in human history. They include some people who have been widely characterized as “progressive heroes.”

These politicians stand rebuked by the words Dr. King spoke to the National Labor Leadership Assembly for Peace in 1967:

Congress appropriates military funds with alacrity and generosity. It appropriates poverty funds with miserliness and grudging reluctance. The government is emotionally committed to the war. It is emotionally hostile to the needs of the poor.

The New Poor People’s Campaign

“A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth.”
– Beyond Vietnam, 1967

Dr. King’s spirit surely lives on in the recent revival of his Poor People’s Campaign, the project he was focused on at the time of his murder in 1968. This initiative, led by Revs. William Barber and Liz Theoharis, plans a “Poor People’s Assembly and March On Washington” on June 20, 2020,  to protest King’s “triple evils” of racism, poverty and militarism, and ecological devastation. This new campaign describes itself as “A National Call for Moral Revival.”

The original Campaign had a highly progressive economic agenda.  It called for $30 billion to be spent every year on anti-poverty programs. That would amount to roughly $213 billion per year in today’s dollars, or $2.13 trillion over a ten-year period. That may sound astronomical, but it’s not much more than Congress just gave away in tax breaks skewed toward the rich.

King’s Campaign was scheduled to begin with the construction a shantytown on the national Mall in Washington, DC, followed by a civil disobedience and mass arrests, and concluding with a nationwide boycott of major corporations and shopping areas to pressure business leaders to support its goals.

The original Poor People’s Campaign also called for a program of guaranteed employment and guaranteed income for all Americans, as well as the construction of 500,000 low-cost housing units each year until all slums were eliminated.

Jobs, income and housing for all. King’s vision is as radical and urgent today as it was fifty years ago.  A society dominated by the wealthy, one that has given so much to the few for so long, can surely do this much for the many.

Dr. King’s spirit lives on in the new Poor People’s Campaign, and in every place radicals gather to change the world.

Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism.

***

Promoting a Food-Sovereign City in Detroit

By Patricia Brick

This year Buddhist Global Relief’s partner Keep Growing Detroit (KGD) celebrated its sixth anniversary of supporting gardeners and creating food distribution pathways to ensure as many Detroit residents as possible have access to nutritious locally grown fruits and vegetables.

With a median household income below $31,000, nearly 38 percent of Detroit residents live below the poverty line, and 42 percent of households rely on food assistance programs to feed their families. KGD was founded to promote a food-sovereign city, in which all Detroit residents have access to healthy, sustainably cultivated food grown by Detroiters within the city limits. Through the long-standing Garden Resource Program, founded in 2003, KGD provides seeds, transplants, and resources to support Detroiters in growing their own food gardens and securing access to fresh, low-cost vegetables.

Last year, 24,362 gardeners participated in the Garden Resource Program, collectively growing more than 385,000 pounds of food in 1,603 gardens in backyards, side lots, schools, community gardens, and other private and public spaces citywide. More than a quarter of these gardens were cultivated by families with children under 5, thanks to KGD’s dedicated outreach to young families through educational programs for children and families as well as through a partnership with the Detroit Health Department that helps families buy vegetable transplants using Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.

In addition to improving their access to healthy food, participating gardeners reported saving an estimated $1,000 in grocery bills each year. KGD’s Grown in Detroit program, founded in 2006, also offers opportunities for growers to collectively sell their extra produce at market days. Last year, growers at 55 gardens participated in this program, together earning over $50,000. In a related program, growers at 34 gardens and farms sold their fruits and vegetables to local restaurants and food businesses, earning more than $20,000. Alumni of the Grown in Detroit programs continue to sell their produce at farmers’ markets and other outlets.

BGR has supported Keep Growing Detroit since 2015. A 2019-20 grant from BGR funds the distribution of 2,000 pounds of produce from Keep Growing Detroit’s farm to food-insecure families in the city; it also funds 30 community outreach events to increase awareness of KGD’s programs. In the coming year the organization aims to bring 400 new households into its Garden Resource Program.

Patricia Brick is a Zen student, chair of BGR’s Communications Committee, and a BGR staff writer. She lives in New Jersey.

Helping Marginalized Working Women in Peru

By Patricia Brick

A BGR project in Peru, with Peruvian partner, Asociación Grupo de Trabajo Redes, is dedicated to providing marginalized women with access to vocational educational training, information about their labor rights, and opportunities to find dignified work.

Across the globe, women who work as domestic laborers fall into an unregulated “gray market” where jobs may require them to work long hours, for inadequate wages, often under exploitative conditions. Many are also vulnerable to physical abuse or sexual harassment or violence by their employers. In Peru, women who live in the pueblos jóvenes (shantytowns) surrounding Lima are often excluded from the mainstream job market by racism, classism, and limited access to education. Many of these women work in gray-market domestic jobs like housecleaning, child care, and elder care.

BGR partner Asociación Grupo de Trabajo Redes (AGTR) works to change the lives of these women through its project, “Conditional Capabilities: Providing Marginalized Women Access to Vocational Educational Training, Labor Rights, and Dignified Work.” Working from AGTR’s community center, La Casa de Panchita, or from La Van de Panchita, a mobile training unit, specialists educate women about their labor rights, provide training in vocational and interpersonal skills, offer counseling and job-search assistance, and host a variety of workshops and educational opportunities. AGTR also is home to a public-education initiative to raise awareness of the rights of domestic workers and hiring practices among employers and the general public, as well as resources and advocacy for child laborers.

Last year, through a BGR grant, 2,197 women participated in an introductory educational session from AGTR including information on the Peruvian Law of Domestic Workers (Law 27986); 466 of these women joined additional in-depth training sessions on topics including job interview preparation, the legal rights of domestic workers, and adapting to the cultural expectations of their Lima employers—more than 70 percent of Lima’s domestic workers are internal migrants from the Andes and the Amazon region. Women who participated in AGTR training received instruction manuals, a cookbook containing recipes for healthy meals, and a stipend to cover their transportation to and from the community center.

At year’s end, 262 women had obtained new jobs with decent working conditions and fair wages; 156 of these were employed in full-time, permanent positions. An additional 138 women maintained or improved their working conditions through AGTR’s counseling and mediation services.

One of AGTR’s training participants, Verónica, spoke to the value of the community created by AGTR. “After taking part in AGTR’s and La Casa de Panchita’s workshops, I feel more comfortable with myself,” she said. “I have met other women working in domestic service in Lima, and that has given me more confidence. I felt understood there, because other domestic workers also went through the same difficulties I had to face. I have learned to value my work experience and the knowledge I have acquired in recent years, to organize myself better in my work, and to know how to adapt to the customs of my new employers.”

Karina immigrated to Lima from Venezuela because of economic need. “At La Casa de Panchita I felt included, like I belong, and I felt comfortable here,” she said. “In my situation, as a migrant still trying to rebuild my life in a new country, this was very important for me. This place and the people here are very warm, and one can feel it from the very moment they open the door.”

Through her participation in AGTR’s trainings, Victoria found a new confidence in herself. “Here I learned that I have rights; before, I knew nothing about rights,” she said. “Also, I have learned to value domestic work, not to feel less than others, that one should not be ashamed for being a domestic worker. I had never thought about how many years I have been working and how much I have learned from those years working in domestic service.”

AGTR estimates that each of the 2,197 women directly participating in trainings and other services shares what she has learned with five peers, raising the total estimated number of beneficiaries to more than 10,000.

Patricia Brick is a Zen student, chair of BGR’s Communications Committee, and a BGR staff writer. She lives in New Jersey.

On Global Hunger and Climate Change

By Randy Rosenthal

Over recent years funding for nutrition has increased and global poverty has been reduced, yet global hunger has still been on the rise. The number of hungry people has risen from 785 million in 2015 to 822 million in 2018. How is this possible? According to this year’s Global Hunger Index, it’s because we’re not efficiently addressing the newer causes of hunger–principally conflict and climate change.

The Global Hunger Index (GHI) is an annual report put out by the international Committee on World Food Security. Using data from 2014 to 2018, it scores countries using four components: undernourishment, child wasting (low weight-for-height), child stunting (low height-for-age), and child mortality. This year it measured 117 countries, forty-three of which show levels of “serious” hunger. Four countries—Chad, Madagascar, Yemen, and Zambia—have “alarming” levels of hunger, and the Central African Republic suffers from a level that is “extremely alarming.” While the report shows that progress has been made since 2000, the number of undernourished people across the globe is increasing. This is especially the case in sub-Saharan African countries affected by conflict and drought, and in South Asia, which shows the highest levels of child stunting and child wasting. Continue reading

Walk to Feed the Hungry in Connecticut

By Shim Bo Sunim

A brief account of the Connecticut Walk to Feed the Hungry, hosted by White Lotus Haven Zen of Connecticut, which took place this past Saturday in Collinsville, Connecticut. This is the first time the Connecticut walk was held in this location.

 

The Connecticut Walk to Feed the Hungry, hosted by White Lotus Haven Zen of Connecticut, took place on Saturday, October 5, in Collinsville, Connecticut. The walk was attended by about 20 participants. The day was lovely, with clear blue skies and a morning autumn chill that energized our walk. Alison Zhou and her husband John set up registration in front of the historic Collins Axe Factory building and kindly provided donuts and coffee.

The walk began promptly at 10:00am with Shim Bo Sunim inviting the participants to walk slowly and contemplatively, reflecting on those for whom we were walking. The route, which was roughly one mile, contained an area of the scenic Farmington River Trail that includes an old train bridge. All the walkers kept in single file as hikers, bikers, and joggers passed by. At the midpoint of the walk we entered busy Route 179, and made our way around on to the municipal bridge and proceeded to Main Street, around the block and down the hill to our gathering place, Canton Historical Museum. We concluded the walk at 11:00am. A big thank you to those walkers who carried the walk banner the whole way!

On the second floor of the museum, we set up a seating area and luncheon for the walkers. Walkers were invited to sit and rest, at which time Shim Bo Sunim asked the participants to share reflections about the walk, which were very touching and insightful. At the end of the sharing, Shim Bo Sunim read Bhante’s letter to the group. Thank you, Bhante, for the informative letter and your words of thanks.

After this, the group enjoyed a delicious lunch of roasted vegetables, rice, salad, fruit, and water donated by the ShopRite grocery store of Canton, owned by the Joseph Family. We thank them, and also Mr. Don Scott, the Director of the Museum, for donating the meeting space. The morning ended with participants kindly helping in the clean up.

Many thanks to members of the White Lotus Haven Zen sangha who participated and helped prepare for the event. Board Secretary Ira Morrison prepared and distributed a press release for us and also set up the luncheon. We also thank photographer John Schwenk and videographer Noah Barrios for capturing the event in photos and video.

The walk raised $881. Our youngest contributor, 8-year-old Odin Sakon, donated $6 plus change that he had been saving—a really wonderful act of charity! We look forward to hosting the walk again next year.

Walk to Feed the Hungry in Uganda

By BGR Staff

Bhante Buddharakkhita in front of the temple

On August 18th, the Uganda Buddhist Centre (UBC) in Entebbe, Uganda, held a solidarity “Walk to Feed the Hungry,” the third such walk organized by the center. The walk was led by Ven. Bhante Buddharakkhita, a Uganda monk who is the founder of the center and a long-time member of BGR’s advisory council.  The purpose of the walk was to raise awareness of hunger and malnutrition as a pressing issue both for Ugandans and for vulnerable communities around the world. Continue reading