To get in the mood to hear about the travels of our speakers, we first gathered in small groups of three or four to share our own stories. We introduced ourselves to our group and described a personal trip that had changed us in some way. From mundane locations to the exotic, from vacation to escape from oppression, our stories focused on how these experiences affected our subsequent understanding of ourselves and the ways we could live our lives.
Our first speaker was Donna Richards, who has educated visually impaired in the Syracuse area for 30 years. Her students, ages 3 to 21, are taught to be independent and self-reliant. Donna also conducts in-service workshops around the state on technology for the visually impaired.
This past summer Donna traveled to the Gambia in West Africa for four weeks as a volunteer with Starfish International, founded by WTB member Yassin Sarr. This initial six-week program focused on educating and empowering 107 girls, and provided yearly school fees for the girls that successfully completed the six week summer program. Donna also spent time offering teacher training at the Gambia school for the blind.
Donna told us that she had missed the January 2009 WTB meeting when Yassin told of her foundation whose mission is to teach teen-age girls in Yassin’s home village to improve their English literacy, to set goals, and to gain confidence. However, the minutes of that meeting inspired Donna to volunteer to join the project. Sabra Reichardt, also a WTB member, was the second volunteer. They lived in a rented house near Yassin’s mother’s home, with Sabra and Donna sharing a room, and Yassin, her husband, and their daughter sharing a room.
Donna illustrated her talk with a succession of images of Gambia natives and many school-age girls with radiant smiles. Donna explained that this was the inaugural program for Starfish International, which will eventually open a school for local girls. The students were 13 to 16 years old. The volunteers helped the girls set measurable, attainable goals for themselves. An important aspect was to help these girls, living within a strongly patriarchal system, to recognize the contributions that women make to their society, to recognize that they are experts in what they do and to build their confidence and ability to self-advocate.
Sabra designed a project where the girls learned to make beaded bracelets. In a female recognition ceremony, the girls gave the bracelets to their mothers or aunties. The emotions were so strong that the girls and mothers embraced openly, an unusual occurrence in this restrained culture.
The curriculum for the project had been designed by Yassin, who as a native of this village understands its culture. The girls were taught the five qualities of a Starfish Girl that they will need to be successful. The first is Knowledge. In the past girls have been raised to be mothers, and schooling has not been considered important. Indeed, some girls are taken out of school to work to earn $75 for school fees for their brothers.
The second quality is Courtesy, as contrasted with obedience. In the past, girls have been accustomed to keeping their eyes down and complying with parental and societal directives. Instead, Starfish Girls listen politely, think about what is best and share their thoughts politely.
The remaining qualities are Nobility, Independence, and Service. One girl knew that she had become more confident when she was able to tell a bus driver to stop the bus at the place she needed. Other girls were starting to buy more personal items for themselves and not rely so completely on their families. A major focus was placed on Service as each girl is required to give back to her community as a part of the Starfish International Program.
On Thursdays, local female guest speakers spoke to the girls about how they had fought the odds to get an education. The girls learned to have confidence that they had talents to offer their communities, and they could now recite in front of audiences of 200 people and speak up for themselves.
Toward the end of the program, the girls elected nine Council members from their midst. These girls selected assistants and the group engaged in discussions that led to decisions about their goals for the rest of the year, after the Starfish organization returned to the United States. The girls understand that they must repay their society for this educational opportunity by providing service, specifically by helping in the local library. In the publicity for this meeting, attendees and WTB members had been asked to donate books for children of all ages, and possibly money to help pay for the shipping (“a book and a buck”). These books will contribute to the first children’s library in the country. In addition, the girls decided that they would be involved in peer tutoring and community service.
Donna read to us from the journal that she kept during her Gambia stay, while continuing to show projected photos of the village and its people. It is a communal culture, with extensive sharing of food and tasks. The warmth and regalness of the population is pervasive; the people build extended families, they visit and welcome, and they pray together.
Donna would awaken early on school days to walk the village, armed with a few greetings in the native language. Children would greet her, and women would point out their food preparations. Donna knows she is an oddity, hard to ignore and harder to comprehend. Her fast pace and foreign clothes set her apart yet the villagers always focused on their sameness and respected differences. A photo shows tall, blond Donna standing with short, dark-skinned villagers, all smiling. They respected one another and would part with smiles.
Yassin had instructed Donna and Sabra not to give gifts during the visit, as that sets an imbalance in relationships. Relationships based on smiles and greetings encourage the lowering of barriers and they are able to enter one another’s lives. One woman greeted Donna daily with her only English words, “my friend.” Before leaving, Donna wanted to give some gifts: sweets, sports equipment, and school supplies. Donna had a favorite child, Tomalo, who always wanted to be near her, but spoke no English. She seemed to be a sad child. When others received parting gifts, Tomalo’s wish was translated to Donna. Tomalo wanted Donna to phone her on a neighbor’s phone. Donna protested that they couldn’t understand one another; Tomalo made it clear that just Donna’s voice would be enough to bring her joy. Donna’s voice was breaking with emotion as she showed a final photo of Tomalo with a dazzling smile.
Yassin needs land to build her school. This must be arranged by the female acalo, the land deeder, located at the President’s Garden. Donna and Sabra accompanied Yassin on her walk to visit this official. On the way, they approached an open-air hut where four women were cooking in a large pot. They were recognized by a Starfish mom, stirring the pot and wearing her bracelet given on female recognition day. Donna realized that at the ceremony, the girls were wearing uniforms that obscure financial status, and the mothers were wearing their very best clothes and the smiles of proud moms. Here in the fields, the poverty of the area was apparent.
Yassin and Donna passed many groups of women resting in the limited shade of scattered trees. They stopped to chat with these people, addressing each of the ninety women, and taking group photographs to give equal respect and dignity to each person. Throughout Donna’s month-long visit, the dignity toward each and every person was apparent and shared and directed toward visitors as well.
This volunteer opportunity gave Donna the eyes to see and the heart to feel humanity’s brilliance. Other volunteers are needed for the summer 0f 2010. Visit www.starfishinternational.org for more information on how to get involved.
Our second presenter was Vonn Lee. She is a native of Laos who came to this country in 1976. Vonn now works as a Registered Nurse, coordinating surgery at North Medical Center. She described what she called “the journey of a lifetime.”
Vonn’s family are Hmong, an ethnic group from South China that in the 1700s dispersed to Laos, Thailand, Myanmar, and VietNam. The population of Laos, Vonn’s birthplace, is about six million and the people are primarily Buddhist. Like the people of Gambia, education was only considered valuable for boys, and girls were raised to marry and have a family.
Although Hmong are primarily farmers, they were recruited by the CIA in the 1960s to assist America’s guerilla war. When the United States withdrew from Vietnam, the rulers turned on the Hmong, who were forced to flee. In May 1975 Vonn’s stepfather had crossed the Mekong River to Thailand to prepare a place for the family, leaving her mother to arrange a boat crossing for herself and her children. Because it was monsoon season, the river was turbulent, and during their crossing water filled the boat. Vonn and three younger siblings were rescued by a boat launched from Thailand, but her mother and three older siblings were lost. The remaining family lived in a refugee camp in Nong Khai where there was not enough food and disease was rampant. At age eleven Vonn was now the oldest and responsible for her three younger siblings. This experience inspired her to become a nurse.
In 1976 Vonn’s family was sponsored by a church in Berne, Indiana, and they lived there for awhile. However, by 1978 her family moved to Chicago because it had more Hmong people. There she helped her community, translating for people at doctors’ offices and clinics. Nursing became her inspiration. However, when Vonn was sixteen her step-parents arranged a marriage to a good man from a good family. She acquiesced “whatever you think is best” but was hurt that she hadn’t been asked if she wanted this. Her major distress, however, was that the man was from Syracuse and she cried because she had to leave her family behind. An audience member asked Vonn about the success of the arrangement, and she said that her husband is a very good man whom she came to trust, respect, and love. They learned how to love one another. When pressed, she said that she will not arrange her three children’s marriages, although her son is not happy with the dating scene and has told her that she should choose for him!
Once Vonn was in Syracuse and living with her in-laws, against all Hmong tradition she wanted to continue her education. Her husband and in-laws supported her in this, but after high school, she was pressured to have a family. She had a daughter and then attended Onondaga Community College nursing school while her in-laws babysat. Counselors said that her English was not good enough, she would not pass state boards, she should not waste her money and time. Her husband, however, encouraged her and she graduated in 1987.
Since Vonn did not have a son, the family pressure returned, and she became pregnant two more times, with two sons. When they were grown, Vonn felt empty, so returned to school to complete her dream of a Bachelor’s degree at Keuka Nursing, an adult accelerated program. One requirement was to do 140 hours of field work or spend two weeks on a medical mission. Vonn had heard of medical missions to Africa or South America, but not to Asia. Eventually her sister called her with information about Christian Missionary Alliance Church which sends medical groups to Laos and Thailand. At the end of a phone call in which the program was explained to her, Vonn said, “Sign me up!” Immediately she had second thoughts about returning to the site of such sadness in her life, but at the same time she was excited.
All members of Vonn’s medical team were Hmong, although some were born in the United States, and did not speak the native language. Because they were denied entry to Laos which actually needs more assistance, they were only able to work in Thailand.
Vonn projected photos of clinics held by the group. One delay was that the donated medications that they had arranged were detained, so they used funds that had been donated to their mission to go into town to buy what they needed. Since medicines are unregulated, they had no problem acquiring drugs. One consistent problem was malnutrition of women due to lack of protein; women are care-takers and feed others before themselves. Vonn gave many vitamin B shots while she was there. The group also offered several well-child clinics. Venues varied, including an orphanage, a Buddhist Temple and Nakora Islam Church.
Vonn wanted to visit the refugee camp where she had lived, and the river that had taken half of her family. She found it difficult to visit the camp although it now has beautiful signage and nice lawns. At the Mekong River Vonn’s legs were weak and her throat was tight. She laid flowers on the water for her mother and paid respect to her family. She thanked her mother for taking them across the water to what became a better life.
Vonn’s husband had accompanied her on the mission, and they visited his cousin who had been in the last group to escape Laos.
An audience member asked what voices tell her to hold on to her Hmong culture. Vonn responded that she follows “what is right,” not a particular culture. However, her daughter is more traditional than she is. Service is a very important value, and Vonn and her husband expect to join another medical mission in two or three years, with the same church.
Vonn summarized her life lessons learned: First, life is full of surprises and your plans may not work out. Second, have faith. Third, take one day at a time. Fourth, there are wonderful people in this world. Fifth, learn to swim; her three children are all lifeguards. Finally, take a chance on something new. She jumped into this trip and it was wonderful.
Vonn ended with a traditional portrait of the medical group, each person in jewel toned native clothing and jewelry, and a quotation from author Amy Tan, “If you can’t change your fate, change your attitude.”
In closing, all of the women present gathered in a large circle, holding hands. President Gay Montague reminded us that the next day would be the World Day of Peace, and read the following statement concerning WTB’s desire for peace. “Women Transcending Boundaries extends our deepest sympathy and condolences to the people who have been victimized by violence in recent weeks. We hold all who have experienced loss and who have been traumatized in our thoughts and prayers, and we continue to grieve at the ongoing violence against women, children and men in so many countries throughout the world, including our own. In doing so, we renew our commitment to improving understanding among all people and to focusing on the common concerns that unite us as we continue to create a more peaceful world. “
In conclusion, Renee-Noelle Felice led us in singing “Give Us Peace” in three languages: Latin, Arabic and Hebrew: Dona nobis pacem, Salaam, Shalom.