Saturday, 5 June 2010

If you only had 3 minutes to get out...

what would you take with you? 
So begins the MSF (Doctors Without Borders) tour of a refugee camp.

In a country as rich in money, resources and security as ours, it is easy to take the basics for granted. The average Canadian uses 306 litres of water a day. In a refugee camp, the quota is  5 litres per person, often carried long distances by the women and children.
How many bathrooms are there per person in your house? Ours has 3 for 4 people.
In a refugee camp, there are typically 100 people per latrine, with digestive disorders the norm. And that's if you are lucky enough to even reach the safety of a refugee camp in the first place.

The tour started with us having to "bribe" the border official to let us pass since we weren't carrying passports.

The cholera tent was particularly eye opening. Those who make it there and recover tend to do so quickly once given intravenous fluids, but many don't survive. Dehydration from chronic diarrhea is a major killer. It is common, as displaced people must often travel long distances with little access to water in order to reach relative safety.

There are the usual kinds of photos that we've all seen at some point (children with bloated stomachs receiving nutritional supplements, long lineups of people behind razor wire, etc.), but there are others too. We saw pictures of people who are dressed in clothing like any of us here would wear, clearly people who recently enjoyed privileges similar to our own. These really hit home for me. People don't plan on being uprooted.

Could we cope living like this? Sure, maybe for a weekend. But these aren't always temporary situations. This isn't a family camping trip. Through no choice of their own, some people live like this for years, even decades, often with the fear of being sent back to certain death, often wondering if relatives are alive and if they'll ever see them again.

We saw the mental health tent, full of children's drawings of violence they'd encountered. In many countries, gang rape is used as a weapon against women and children. HIV is not a stranger. And the culture ostracizes its victims.

42 million people are uprooted by war. That's more than the entire population of Canada. It's difficult to comprehend, and all too easy to forget or ignore.

The tour is child-friendly (not a lot of graphic images, upbeat, but realistic too) and takes about an hour. It is currently at Waterloo Town Square in Ontario and will be touring the west coast next summer.

See:  for more information.

Photo credits:
Top:© Pascale Zintzen/MSF A camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Masisi, Democratic Republic of Congo, where 2,300 families have sought shelter after fleeing violent attacks throughout North Kivu province (2008).
Bottom: © Daniela Abadi/MSF Ethnic Hmong refugees from Laos are currently confined to a camp controlled by the Thai military in Thailand’s northern Petchabun province.  Once a day, Hmong refugee children are allowed to leave the camp to attend school (2008).

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Rules, Signs and Other Attempts to Impose Structure and Control Others

My high school motto was "Know the reasons". At the time I thought it was a little lame, why not have something a little more inspiring? But I have come to appreciate just how powerful those words can be.

Years ago in teacher's college, we had a discussion about classroom rules, and what they should be. Some felt the teacher should decide on the rules, declare them, and enforce them regardless of details, and some felt that they should seize the opportunity to discuss the purpose of rules with the class and have the students generate the classroom rules. Admittedly, this would take a little longer, but it was felt that if the rules came from the kids, they would be better respected and that the kids would better recognize their purpose as well as times when common sense might allow for a little rule breaking (which was a concept that horrified a few of those who felt the rules should be imposed and followed to the letter).

The divisions were clear: those who believed that the kids should be taught to follow and "respect" authority without question, and those who believed that kids should be taught the intended purposes behind rules, and how rules and laws should serve society.
The proponents of the authoritative approach argued that their way was quicker and more efficient, and allowed them to quickly move on to "actual teaching" (aka academic subjects). The authoritarians felt that important learning was to be had in understanding the purpose, creation and enforcement of rules and laws.

So what is the purpose of a given rule? It is to allow us to control others, to gain and maintain absolute authority, to impose a mindset in which the threat of punishment is the driving force in maintaining order? Or is it to allow people to understand, remember and respect how their actions or inactions may affect others in negative ways and to keep that from happening whenever possible?

It seems to me that teaching kids to follow rules/structure rather than to think, evaluate, reason and to try and actively see things from various perspectives is a huge failing of our education system. Aren't we supposed to be encouraging kids to think deeply and make their own decisions? In this age of information, when kids are blasted continually with media messages, shouldn't we be working extra hard to ensure they can think, reason and evaluate for themselves? Or do we really want a society of blind followers who accept information at face value and ignore the broader implications of their actions and inactions?

Of course, when you encourage children to think in those terms, there are broader implications.
They are more likely to become politically active, to write to their politicians, to protest laws that do not serve the public interest, to challenge the status quo. This is bound to make many people uncomfortable. But this sort of discomfort, I would argue, is necessary in a "free", "democratic" society. Youth will rebel; it is up to us to help them do it in a constructive, well-considered way that enables them to improve their world.

I am of the opinion that if you are going to make or impose a rule, you had better have a very good reason for doing so, and be ready to enforce it to the extent that doing so follows the actual purpose for which the rule was intended. And if a rule becomes irrelevant to its intended purpose, then it should be abandoned.

As such, I question the validity of "zero tolerance" policies.

While on the surface, anything that keeps weapons and violence out of schools is a good thing, the most violent gangs and bullies are smart enough to buck the system, and those who make innocent mistakes are the most likely to be punished. An example is a story I heard told by Barbara Coloroso about a 7 year old girl who, in the rush to get to school, grabbed her mother's lunch bag instead of her own. Her mother had a paring knife in hers that she used to slice her apple with. As soon as the girl realized, she told the teachers on duty, but since the school board had a "zero tolerance" policy, she was expelled.

"Zero tolerance" policies give rules more credence than common sense. When we take away the consideration of individual circumstances, we become slaves to the rules that may no longer serve their intended purpose.

In our neighbourhood, we are fortunate to have little to no littering or vandalism. Despite this, the city had put up "No Dumping" signs in the local parks. As you can see, someone has found these to be offensive, and has, in fact, vandalized them. This is the only vandalism I've found here over the past year, and yet, it occurs on the very signs intended to prevent it from happening.

Every time I see one of these, I am reminded of the 70's song:


Sign Sign everywhere a sign
Blocking out the scenery breaking my mind
Do this, don't do that, can't you read the sign 

© 1970, 2002 Five Man Electrical Band

And I have to admit, while I am not the sort of person to wield a spray can, I feel a little admiration for those who saw the silliness of the signs that are the only real blight to the neighbourhood and chose to target them, and only them, and leave the rest of the neighbourhood untouched. Oddly enough, this lonely act of vandalism gives me hope for the future that there are youth who can think for themselves.

Monday, 31 May 2010

In Defense of the Lowly Dandelion

People curse them, spray them, and dig them out of their lawns and gardens, but did you know that they were brought here as a food source by early Europeans? Clearly, attitudes have changed about this plant.

One reason could be that they are an invasive species in North America. They are incredibly tough and hardy, being able to regenerate from the smallest root remnants. They are flood and drought resistant and tolerate a wide range of temperature, weather, and soil conditions. They are happy to grow in sidewalk cracks and other unlikely growing spots.

These things have added to their success as a species, but also to their reputation as an invader--aka "weed". I would argue though, that the invasive qualities of the dandelion are limited. Areas left natural may start off with many dandelions, but other plants begin to crowd in as well, and it is unusual to find more than a few dandelions in a truly wild area. Lawns, by contrast, are not natural areas, being typically either monoculture or a blend of 2-4 different grasses. The lack of variety lends itself to dandelion growth. Adding some white clover to the lawn helps with the nitrogen levels and also with the dandelions.

Dandelions (meaning "tooth of the lion") are highly edible and can be made into tea, the roots can be dried and ground for a coffee substitute, the flower heads and leaves can be eaten in salads and dandelions can even be used to make wine. On a lazy summer day they can be woven into crowns and chains. If you break the stem and squeeze out the white sap, you can coat a finger with it and let it dry into a rubbery finger cap. You can find out if someone likes butter with a dandelion flower plucked from a golden field, then return a couple of days later to find a field full of wishes. There is perhaps no other plant that can bring with it such extremes of dread and joy. It all comes down to the perspective you choose.

To dandelions!