Our first speaker on the theme of hope and healing was elana levy (not a typo; she prefers lowercase). elana has lived in Syracuse since 1972; the past 22 of those years were spent at 1030 Westmoreland Avenue, the only property her immediate family has ever owned since immigrating to the United States. On March 22, 2007, the house was totally destroyed by fire.
elana said that she quickly learned two practical lessons. First, you never know what will happen, and therefore insurance is important. When you are not in control, insurance makes a huge difference in your recovery. Second, birth certificates and important documents should be kept inside metal boxes or file cabinets, where fire and water take much longer to reach them. She urged us: “Just do it.”
The major lesson that elana learned, however, and that she wants us to remember is that when disaster strikes, SHOW UP. Nothing was more important, less irreplaceable, than her angel friend, Nancy Riffer, who stood with her all day while the fire department fought her house fire, and another angel, Bonnie Shoultz, who made arrangements for elana to stay that night at the Zen Center of Syracuse, a stay that lasted four months. Other angels promptly filled two suitcases with beautiful things in elana’s favorite colors so she would immediately have some items to call her own.
elana learned other truths. She lost everything, including more than 2000 books and family furniture brought from Germany. But losing everything was also freeing and lightening. She no longer had attachments to things that would have taken her years to unhitch. As a math teacher at Onondaga Community College she had taught that something cannot be both A and not-A. Paradoxically she learned that emotionally you can have both A and not-A: that loss can be a gain. There is no knowing what will be in the next moment; Buddhism is sitting in the not-knowing, understanding the nature of impermanence, accepting that impermanence, being more in the moment. So elana has learned gratitude for having this very moment, which heightens and intensifies each experience.
In a very upbeat voice, Elisa told us of her own experiences with domestic violence and shared very personal aspects of her life. (It is WTB’s policy that our meetings are a safe place where all women can come together, in safety and harmony, to learn more about each other and to share their own life experiences. To ensure that our members and speakers are comfortable sharing within the group, we are respecting Elisa’s privacy and not including specific details of her presentation.)
Elisa now works at Vera House, where she is co-coordinator of the pet foster-care program. Women suffering abuse are frequently concerned that if they leave their controlling man, he will take out his anger on their pets, which cannot be accepted at Vera House. The pet foster-care program gives women the peace-of-mind that enables them to leave. Statistically, 87 percent of abusers injure pets before escalating to people—abuse is a manifestation of power and control—and 85 percent of women will not leave an abusive situation if they must leave their pets behind.
Elisa is also a Vera House advocate working with international victims (including migrants, immigrants, refugees, and victims of human trafficking and bondage) and is assistant coordinator of the Syracuse Area Domestic and Sexual Violence Coalition, whose goal is to help the legal system understand how victims fall through the cracks. She works with law-enforcement training and with sensitivity training for judges, who are petitioned for orders of protection. She brings to them her own history of being refused assistance until she received help from state police and attorneys.
Elisa is grateful for the experiences that have made her the strong woman she is today. She considers herself a survivor, not a victim. She sees life as a revolving door, with new opportunities constantly presenting themselves. She believes that difficult people teach us compassion, patience and tolerance. She, like elana, has learned to be present in the moment. Her experiences have taught her the truth of the saying that we were put on earth not to see through each other, but to see each other through.
Marian came to the United States in 2000 as a Somali refugee. She wanted to tell us her story because millions of refugees come here every year, yet most Americans do not know why. Marian explained that only three percent of Somali women have any opportunity for education. She was one of the lucky few, and in 1982 she earned a BA in economics from the Somali National University, where she then became an assistant professor. Because Somalia is a former Italian colony, Marian was able to earn a scholarship to Italy and in 1988 earned a master’s degree in finance from the University of Rome.
Marian returned to teach economics at the University of Somalia for another three years until civil war broke out in 1991. One day, after leaving work, she discovered that her house had been destroyed. She took her two sons from their schools, and together they walked, with no food or water, for 70 miles to her grandparents’ rural home, passing people dying on the streets. Although others were leaving the country, Marian wanted to stay and help her people by working with international NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) that had finally arrived to give humanitarian relief. She returned to Mogadishu and became a translator for an Italian NGO. She felt that giving food was not a long-term solution; what the people needed were tools, supplies and seeds, so she designed projects that provided food in return for agricultural work. The civil war continued, with clan fighting clan; Marian knew that most of the victims were women and children.
In 1992 Marian founded her own NGO, a women’s farming organization to help women in rural areas and to fight famine. Since there were no public services, Marian also opened an elementary and middle school especially for young girls. She traveled to Kenya to share with the international community what was happening in Somalia. In 1994 she attended the fourth African Women’s Conference in Dakar, Senegal, planning for the fourth World Women’s Conference to be held the following year in Beijing. The women presented photographic evidence and stories of Somalia’s crisis.
By the end of 1995, the warlords had decided to kill all educated people and all those cooperating with NGOs. Two of Marian’s coworkers were killed, and military men twice came into her house. Because there was no security force to help her, she decided to leave the country, walking with her mother and children for 35 days to the border of Djibouti. Italian friends sent her money so that she could travel, with no visa or current passport, to Islamabad, Pakistan, where she became a refugee. For five years, she was an advocate there for about 300 Somali women, most of them heads of their households but with no income. Because Marian speaks four languages, she was able to work with the United Nations and foreign embassies, verifying that these people were at risk in their homeland, this being a requirement for resettlement. Finally it became necessary for Marian to write everyone’s story in one month’s time in order to meet the United States’ timeline for accepting all 300 families, 800 people in all.
By August 2000, Marian had helped all these people find resettlement throughout all 50 states of the United States. She chose to be the last to leave Pakistan so that her countrywomen would not be left without an advocate. Ironically, she was the only one to be relocated to Syracuse, where she received a furnished apartment for herself, her children and her mother.
Although Marian lost all of her material possessions, her education could not be taken from her. Refugees are given four months to find employment. Marian, because of her education, had a choice of two jobs: one in a bank, the other providing refugee assistance. In January 2001, she became a translator and provided refugees with medical transport and assistance; she sent one fourth of her paychecks back to Mogadishu. Two years later, she became a case manager at the Catholic Charities Refugee Resettlement office in Syracuse.
After 17 years of civil war, Somalia still has no peace, no public services. Marian became an American citizen in January 2006 and decided to visit Mogadishu the following December. Her school building was still there, and she gave $1000 to reopen it. When she returned to Syracuse, she applied for and received from the Catholic Diocese of Syracuse a matching grant for $5000, which has been matched yet again; all this money has been spent to support the school for a year. The school now teaches 200 children, mostly girls. Education will empower the girls to become powerful mothers. The warring men do not care about the children, but these women will provide a future for the next generation.
After listening to these powerful stories, we broke into small groups to share our own stories of loss and redemption. Then we gathered in a circle, unifying us. We had all received strips of colored fabric; now we tied our strips to those on either side. Tanya Atwood-Adams, our Program Committee chair, said that in doing so, we have bound ourselves together in a complete and unbroken circle, the ancient and universal symbol of unity and sacred space. The circle is the simplest of geometric forms, yet it is the strongest. It represents wholeness, the infinite, eternity, timelessness, the feminine spirit, movement in cycles. Its shape is found in cells and seeds; in planets, their stars and systems; in the circular cycle of seasons; and in life itself, the embryo. The circle holds in creative tension both latent and flowering energy. It includes all, accepts all, giving no individual or point-of-view preference, each flowing from the center.
We as women share much in common and are vulnerable in many of the same ways. Let what has been shared here today bring us closer together, helping us be sensitive to the hidden and sometimes unspoken pain of others whose actions might confuse or hurt us, sharing our strength and taking our strength from the circle of women: women transcending boundaries.
We ended by singing “Let the Circle Be Unbroken,” with the following words rewritten by Renee-Noelle Felice:
Let the circle be unbroken
In our lives, yes, in our lives.
Let the circle be unbroken
As we strive, yes, as we thrive.
There are circles within circles,
No beginnings nor an end.
There are circles within circles,
Loving friends, yes, loving friends.