Dennis and Dionne Newton

Dennis and Dionne Newton
Dennis & Dionne Newton

Sunday, September 17, 2017


The Most Significant Event of the 21st Century (So Far)

The world has always been divided into the "haves" and "have not's." Recognizing that there are disputes a many, I believe it is safe to say that North Americans, Western Europeans, citizens of selected Asian countries, and Australians all enjoy privileged lives compared to the vast majority of those who inhabit our world. I still remember my first trip to China in 2000 and learning of the personal revolution that cellphones were causing among the Chinese. They would spend a month's salary for a good cellphone because it meant access to their families, to their communities, and to the world. In many cases relatively unfiltered access. I read one Chinese article which summarized that cellphones meant "freedom."

Selfies have transcended all borders! Dionne with a young refugee at the Kutina Croatia refugee center.
More recently, the so-called "Arab Spring" was caused, in part, by social media. Wireless technology has made the world much smaller and the "have not's" are no longer separated from the "haves" by once impenetrable barriers such as censorship, illiteracy, access to information, or government repression. Remarkably, peasants in small villages are watching the same YouTube videos as teenagers in Boston.

I am reminded of the scene in The Dark Knight Rises where Selina Kyle tells Bruce Wayne "There's a storm coming, Mr. Wayne. You and your friends better batten down the hatches, because when it hits, you're all gonna wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave little for the rest of us." I am sure that most people view this quote in the context of income inequality. I view it, however, in the context of the estimated 3 billion people who live in true poverty. What happens when these two worlds truly begins to intermingle with each other? When we realize that Christians only make up 20% of the population? That Muslims will soon become the largest religious classification in the world and that there are many more devout Muslims than Christians. Do we really understand what the 1.4 and 1.3 billion respective populations of China and India mean? And that their cultures are investing in education with a focus on STEM? As Catwoman says, why do we feel that we were born entitled to "live so large and leave (so) little for the rest of (the world)?"

Sister Melonakos has spent some time with us at the centers. There are no language barriers when you are talking baby gibberish.

Dionne and I have had a front row seat to the 21st century's first forced intermingling of cultures; a grand social experiment for our times. The aforementioned Arab Spring led to civil war in places like Libya and Syria. Another consequence was a power vacuum in Syria and Northern Iraq which provided the opportunity for the ISIS nation to form. These wars have been horrific and have led to the current refugee crisis in Europe and the Middle East. What Dionne and I are witnessing is the unexpected and unplanned mixture of European with Middle Eastern Arab cultures. This is the first of what I suspect will be many such events this century. In fact, I believe that the question of how to truly integrate and accommodate billions of third world humans into the "Western World" will be the largest social issue of the 21st Century.

Hyperbole? Of course. But I believe he is on to something here. But it is not limited in any way to Syria.

The Refugee Situation in Croatia

The European Union (EU) has agreed to accept a significant number of refugees from the Middle East. As the governing body, the EU has established some rules for dealing with refugees. When a refugee arrives in an EU member state, they are required to register in that country. They are not supposed to advance further into Europe until a determination is made as to their status. If they advance before this determination has been made, they are often sent back to their original country of entry.

This is me offering some cookies to some refugee children during a service project. Most of the children speak reasonably good English...but all seem to struggle, as I do, with Hrvatski (Croatian). I enjoyed these two kids but apparently the little boy on the left is quite mischievous and causes problems for the Red Cross staff.
These policies have caused significant problems along with human tragedy. Nirvana for a refugee is Germany. The basic social network is the strongest there. Refugees there receive better healthcare, more stipends, and more opportunities. So everyone wants to get to Germany. And a million refugees have made it there so far.

The Hungarian Prime Minister's blunt assessment is quite accurate. All of the refugees desire Germany as their final destination. There are very few that seek asylum in a more impoverished country such as Croatia, Serbia, Romania, or Hungary. And despite the majority Muslim population, no refugees have sought asylum in Bosnia and Hercegovina. 
But it is impossible for refugees reach Germany without registering in another EU country first. So there are a million refugees mired in red tape in Greece. And another million in Turkey. And this is not where refugees want to be. So many Libyan and other African refugees are taking advantage of the "first country" rule and boating to either Spain or Italy. And boats are dangerous. Another option is to pay a smuggler to get them across the border undetected. That way their first country can be Germany, Austria, or another prosperous EU country.

As you can see, there have been waves of migrants arriving in Italy this summer. There are worries that Spain is going to pick up as Italy is beginning to drop off. We have heard that Bosnia has become one of the smuggling routes. We also have heard that the Balkans may become a more popular route for refugees soon.
A few years ago during the height of the refugee crisis. 4 to 5 thousand refugees were crossing into Croatia everyday. Since Germany and other EU countries have tightened their borders, fewer refugees are crossing through Croatia (except through smugglers). This means that the refugees that remain in Croatia are asylum seekers who have either want to stay in Croatia permanently or who have been sent back to Croatia from another country.

Common refugees routes from Syria. Notice that Croatia is on the route but Bosnia is effectively bypassed. Millions of Syrian refugees are now stuck in Turkey and Greece. 

By agreement with the EU, there are rules that govern asylum seeking. It takes about a year for a refugee's asylum application to be ruled on. During this year they are not allowed to work. Kids can go to school. They can travel around the country if they want. Their basics needs are supplied at two refugee centers (Porin in Zagreb and Kutina). They are given a bed, food, clothes, basic medical care (but not OTC drugs or Class 2 pharmaceuticals), and Wifi. . They are also given a small amount of spending money each month (the equivalent of about $20). NGOs are embedded in these two centers to help them with medical, legal, social, counseling, language, and other needs. The biggest NGOs in these centers, the Red Cross, Medicin du Monde, and Jesuit Refugees Services (JRS) are our partners at the two centers.

The "Porin" facility in Zagreb is an old converted hotel. There are two wings, one that houses the men and the other that houses children, women and families. This is one of the rooms that is shared by four asylum seeking men.
If they are granted asylum, the refugees are then given an apartment for 2 years to help them integrate into Croatian society. If their asylum application is rejected, they are allowed to appeal. Or they are sent back to the country where they last came from (e.g., Serbia).

This is a picture from Kutina. The Red Cross worker pictured, Mario, considers this young 16-year old to be an adopted son. The young man is from Afghanistan and is now alone in the world. He and Mario have formed a deep personal bond. Unfortunately, his asylum application does not appear too promising. There is intelligence that a member of this young man's extended family have Taliban ties. His application was rejected in another country and so he is trying Croatia. Mario is fighting for this young man but does not know if he is going to be able to save him from being deported back to Afghanistan.
Life in these refugee centers is put on hold. There are constant dramas as families seek to reunite (spouses and/or children are often in different countries at different centers). But mainly the issue is boredom, anger, frustration, worry, and trying to deal with the human trauma that many have witnessed. Because they have free wifi, many sit on their phones all day. Some lash out at the people trying to help them, complaining about the conditions, the staff, and the food. Some run away; there are no bars keeping the refugees in these centers.

Refugees in Kutina with nothing better to do than use their cellphones all day.
And some, like this wonderful man, have figured out how to keep busy. We first heard about him when we visited Kutina for the first time with Downi and Boyce. He asked the staff if he could open a workshop. They worked with him and now there is a thriving workshop that refugees can come and build things. We were in his workshop a few days ago and he has hundreds of starter plants ready to be placed in an outdoor garden.

The camera crew was watching him work on his homemade table saw. All of us cringed as he taught this young man how to make a cut on THE MOST UNSAFE SAW I HAVE EVER SEEN! One week of working in this shop and I would have lost at least two fingers. 
Our friend with the workshop excepted, these refugee centers are, admittedly, teaching the wrong lesson to the refugees. They are being conditioned to receive handouts from the government, NGOs, and others. Which is why they all want to go to Germany, they receive bigger handouts. A great example of this is the laundry situation at Porin. Because there is not a laundromat at the hotel, refugees bring their laundry to a Red Cross volunteer who washes their laundry for them. We are trying to fix this problem with a LDS Charities project. It is important to us and the Red Cross that we give the refugees as much responsibility for their own lives as possible.

Although they are not supposed to, many of the refugees (especially the women) do the wash by hand in their bathrooms and then hang the clothes to dry on their balconies. 

A Few Refugee Stories

Since Dionne and I do not work at the refugee centers, we have not gotten to know many refugees personally. Rather, we have great relationships with the NGO staff that work there everyday. This gives us unfiltered access to some of the shop talk. At Porin, for example, there was a time when the Red Cross decided it was unsafe to allow their staff into one wing of the facility. An incident occurred where a Red Cross staff member was struck by a female refugee. The Red Cross decided to boycott that wing in order to get the government run facility to beef up security there. These are the kind of stories that we hear.

Gilles Francois (LDS Charities) chatting with some of the refugees at their room doors. Gilles knows enough Arabic to be dangerous and he enjoyed talking to some of the refugees.
When the camera crew was in Kutina, they asked to interview a family. During the interview they learned that the family was originally from Mosul, Iraq. They tried to stay but the fighting became too intense. The mother (shown below in the wheelchair) was hit by some shrapnel and it literally tore her stomach apart. The doctors there did what they could. But she and her family had to leave in order to save her life. With better medical care her life was saved but she can hardly walk and will be permanently disabled. They are just so grateful to be together and in Croatia.

This family was willing to share their story with the LDS Charities camera crew. 
A week before I was planning to play in the Krešimir Čоsić basketball tournament, I jokingly invited my Red Cross friend Dino to join us. He quickly accepted the invitation. But instead of joining the Bosnian team (he said he had played semi-professional ball, so I was looking to stack my team!), he asked if the Red Cross could bring a team in. And so a Red Cross team that included three refugees played in the Kresimir.

The Red Cross team which included players from Senegal, Afghanistan, and Northern Iraq (standing in the back row). The big guy sitting in the front row has to be 6' 10" and the player from Senegal could jump like a kangaroo. This was quite the team that they pulled together.
I was asked to do a write-up for this tournament for the Church News. I interviewed Dino and asked him for a statement from the refugees who played. He told me that "they were just excited to play something other than football...they are getting little tired of that. While they had only played basketball a few other times in their lives, they keep asking when the next tournament is." About a month ago I was walking around the Kutina center and noticed my friend from Afghanistan wearing his Krešimir shirt. I had to get a picture, of course.

Turns out this young man is only 17. I would of thought he was much older when I was playing against him in the Krešimir. I was so excited to see him walking around in our T-shirt!
The Red Cross is using this picture as their screen saver! 
As I was doing a little research for this post, I came across a British-Somali woman who has written a book of poetry that includes a number of refugee stories which have been shared with her. Although somewhat graphic, I think this entry sums up many of the experiences of refugees, especially the women.

Accepting Their Humanity

The last time we visited Porin, I was surprised to see police van parked outside. After they were there a second day, I asked one of our friends at JRS what was going on. This is the story he told me.

Regional leaders of JRS meeting with President and Sister Melonakos and Sharon Eubank. 
Two refugees had gotten into trouble during the past month. One who is socially awkward was riding on public transportation and decided that he wanted to kiss a young lady who he thought was attractive. So he tried to kiss her, she freaked out a little, and he ended up head butting her instead. His forehead contacted her mouth and she started to bleed. The police were called and he was arrested. The workers know this guy and understand how this could happen. But do not feel like it was a sexual assault or anything like that. The other case, however, is more nefarious. Another refugee was caught breaking into a woman's apartment with a knife. Nobody knows what his intentions were (robbery, rape, or something else) but he was also arrested. When I asked about this guy, all they would tell me is that you get some bad people when you put this many together.

With two events in a month's time, the media got a hold of this story. Stories soon began to run about two sexual assaults committed by Porin refugees and how Croatians should fear these refugees. Right or wrong, it is nearly impossible to overcome negative press like this. And so public opinion about the Porin refugees has been permanently damaged by these press articles. It is going to make integration all that more difficult.

This stack of mattresses sits outside of the refugee center. Not sure what the plan is but they are certainly a fire hazard. And I would think bed bugs would be problematic as well. 

Women sitting on the benches outside of Porin.
A few days after the stories began to appear, a local who lives near the Porin center misplaced his bag. Out drinking with some friends, he became convinced that he had not misplaced his bag but that the "thieving" refugees had stolen it. A few more beers and soon 5-6 large Croatian men had decided to visit Porin and take their revenge. Fortunately there is ample security at Porin and they were turned away. But all week the police were taking no chances and parked a large police van outside the center. Welcome to some of the growing pains of this grand social experiment.

The idea that refugees would steal is not that far-fetched. They steal all of the time and the center has to take extra security precautions to control it. At one point they used a locked room as a small barbershop. But one day they noticed that someone had broken in through a window which they considered inaccessible and stole all of the scissors and other hair cutting items. It is best of remember that these a humans we are dealing with. 

The Power of the Media

The war in Bosnia effectively ended with one major event; Srebrenica. Until then the world was content to watch Bosnia slowly tear itself apart. But the massacre at Srebrenica was a galvanizing moment, an atrocity so great that it could not be ignored. The media had video of the killings, America soon became involved, and the war ended 9 months later.

The refugee cause had a similar moment. And it was the publication of this image that changed everything.

This picture was taken in 2015. 
Look at the daily papers in the U.K. the next day.
Never mind that there were 11 other bodies that washed up on the beach that day, all that mattered to the world was this one little boy.

One of numerous memorials to 3-year old Aylan Kurdi.
There is a certain amount of hypocrisy to the media game. Why does it take an emotionally charged event to get people to take action? By action I mean pressuring their governments into becoming involved. Since 2015, there have been hundreds of additional Aylan's who have perished in the Mediterranean Sea. But without good video, nobody really seems to care.

We get regular updates that tracks some of the stats. Almost 2,500 people have died this year trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea. But the world has moved on. We had a collective feel "bad" moment in 2015 followed by some limited action to assuage our guilt. These days not even Aylan's death could break through the 24x7 CNN Trump outrage coverage.

"He Is Whoever You Want Him To Be For You"

The masterminds behind musical Les Miserables (Schonberg and Boublil) also created the lesser known Martin Guerre. We happened to see it on it's brief U.S. tour. During a pivotal scene, a simpleton character is on the witness stand and being asked who Martin Guerre truly is. Frustrated about what they want from him, he finally responds to the question "who is this man" with the answer..."he is whoever you want him to be for you." As I have pondered the fate of the refugees I have gotten to know, I have realized that many in the States and Western Europe treat the refugees the same way. For some reason (politics, religion, ego, who knows?), they treat the real-life refugees as proverbial straw men; useful if someone needs to demonstrate their mental agility when arguing with another. But they are never real flesh and blood humans with real problems, weaknesses, and lives.

Meeting with real refugees and learning about their lives. Note Sisters Dahl and McColn making an appearance at the end of the table. 
Inside of me, there is a deep sense of sadness when I see the world painting refugees with broad caricatures. Slogans like "Keep America Safe" and "Jesus was a Refugee" are equally troubling to me.

Fear mongering is a common tactic.

True...but it likely has much to do with another wave of refugees invited to France after WWII. The truth is much more complex than these simplistic arguments.
Don't even get me started.

Despite the historically questionable assertion that "Jesus was a refugee," these messages are just designed to score political points. I mean, who really cares if someone's ancestor or someone important once was a "refugee." 
More fear mongering. 
It is easier to raise money if your victims are children. 

Posters and pundits are doing these people a disservice when they intentionally sanctify or vilify them. It is obvious what is going on. Refugees are being used to make an argument. To fight the Democrat-Republican war. To reengage the Crusades and renew the Christian-Muslim debate. Fighting for the America that you grew up in. Or fighting for the America that you want your children to grow up in. That is fine. Just do not use these people for your selfish needs. If you really care, get involved. If not, leave them alone.

But please quit making them "who you want them to be for you."

So What Is Going On? And What Is the Solution?

I started this post by suggesting that there is a brewing conflict coming between the "haves" and the have not's." But there is also something else going on. I am going out on a limb here because I do not see this discussed often in the press. And hopefully I am not misreading the tea leaves.

I believe that there is an unidentified and unnamed war that is currently being waged. Most Westerners are ignorant of this war because we are egoistic, self-centered, and generally care about what effects our little world. I believe there is a civil war underway for control of Islam. With 1.6 billion adherents, the Muslim world does not have a unifying authority. The cellphone revolution is also taking its toll on Islam and its traditional powers (e.g., the Arab Spring). And so the chief question is: Who is going to lead Islam into the modern world?

Just taking terrorist attacks as a barometer, you can see that the real battle is being waged in Muslim countries and the vast majority of victims are Muslims. Attacks in the U.S., U.K., and France make news. But nobody seems to care about the other more successful attacks. Like the suicide bomber who attacked a Kurdish wedding in Turkey and killed 50. Bet you didn't even know about that one.
It is likely that 400,000 have died in the past few years in Syria. The siege in Aleppo made for horrifying television. The world is gearing up for another tragedy in Yemen. But this war is not just about death and killing. It is about power and control. Or about piety and faith. It depends on who you talk to. The West, of course, thinks it is about the West. But it really is not. It is about control of Islam. Physical control, theological control, doctrinal control, and sociological control. Everything happening in the West appears to be collateral damage.

Mario playing with some of the children at Kutina.
So what can we do? I don't know. But I do know what I am doing. While I am a missionary here in the Balkans, I will continue to love and care for the refugees that fall under my purview. Even the good ones and the bad ones. While it is easiest to love the children, I will try to love their parents and the aggressive young men who many feel are such a threat.

President Melonakos and I got into an impromptu football match with this young man. He was much better than either one of us!
But our turn here is over in 4 months. Who's got next?

The missionary team that helped get these two young girls ready for their first day of Croatian school. As much as we are trying to help, we also understand the social quagmire that these young refugees are walking into. They are outsiders who do not understand the it will be uphill for them. Hopefully there will be other Croatians that embrace and love these little girls along the way. Such love, while it cannot guarantee success, can enable it. 

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Sisters in Service

These smiles are one of the reasons we are here, doing what
we can to ease the burdens of others. 
The blessings continue to come as we move forward aiding God's children in the Balkans. We had the honor of having Sister Sharon Eubank join us for a recent refugee project! She is a member of the Relief Society General Presidency which oversees the church's women's organization throughout the world. The LDS church Relief Society has approximately 7.1 million members in over 188 countries, making it one of the largest women's organizations in the world. Not only that, but she is also the Director of Welfare Services for the entire church. She's definitely a VIP. We had a service project planned for church members in Croatia to assemble hygiene kits and school supplies for the refugees when her visit was announced. I contacted Sister Melonakos, the mission president' wife, to see if we should reschedule the service project or perhaps invite Sister Eubank to join us. Sister Melonakos was inspired to turn it into a fantastic day of service for women and when Sister Eubank was contacted about the idea, she wholeheartedly agreed. 

Penny Plus has been a great partner with LDS Charities for obtaining a vast array of supplies ranging from toilet and sanitation materials to school supplies. The only problem is they are based in Sarajevo. So...once again we faced the challenge of smuggling goods across the border... hundreds of notebooks, art supplies, pens and pencils, pencil bags, crayons...and one little hatchback car! We've become pretty adept at making things look like we are just "traveling". We packed notebooks in suitcases, shoved crayons under the seats, art supplies found themselves in the cargo area buried under more suitcases and pillows. I'm not sure we could have fit one more ruler in the car! Thank goodness the backpacks had been shipped directly to the refugee center from the church area headquarters in Frankfurt. Once we were safely across the border without incident, we had to drop our full load of supplies off at the refugee center so we could fill the car up again with school supplies that are specific to Zagreb. This wasn't the first time I had longed for my big SUV here on the mission. 

After obtaining all the additional supplies we needed for the school children, we went to the refugee center in Zagreb to dig through the four huge pallets of shoes, clothes and miscellaneous boxes they had received from LDS Charities in search of the hygiene supplies. Once the hygiene supplies were located, we spent a few hours organizing everything for the service project the next day. We had a wonderful turnout of 25 women, including some awesome young missionaries, senior sister missionaries and two young women in addition to Sister Eubank and Sister Melonakos. As the project commenced, curious children began to gather around the doors of the workshop, drawn like bugs to bright lights in the darkness. Their excitement radiated as they learned they would be getting new things so they could be like the rest of the children when they went to school on Monday. They didn't seem to care that all the backpacks were the same black with orange trim bags, not embellished with Frozen or Spiderman. They didn't mind that they didn't get to pick out their own notebooks. They just knew that when they went to school on Monday they wouldn't sit at their desks empty handed. They would have new shoes to wear, pencils to write with and notebooks to write in as they begin learning a new language and learning to live a new life. And they knew that someone cared. 

They say, "A picture is worth a thousand words!" and I'm sure everyone would rather see pictures than read a thousand words.... so here you go! (Sorry we don't have more pictures of the refugees, but we were advised not to take many pictures of them to protect their privacy. We had permission from the few we did take pictures of.) I know that God loves all his children and I am blessed to feel that love everyday. And it's a good thing too, because the next four months will be fueled by that love!

Selfie with Sister Sharon Eubank! Doesn't she have a great smile!
What a joy to work side by side with such an inspirational woman.

Sister Grahovac brought several visiting family members to help!

Reading the list and checking it twice!
Look at that multi backpack technique.

We had a list of items to be put in each backpack. The list
included the grade and gender so the boys didn't get girly notebooks! 

These ladies had quite the system down as they assembled
500 hygiene kits in less than two hours. 

Sister Eubank jumped right in filling backpacks. I loved the
front pack idea to leave hands free for packing!

How many pencils? 

I thought the kids in the US needed a lot of school supplies
until we started gathering supplies for the Zagreb refugees.

I put the trio of young Sister Missionaries on "quality control"
after I discovered a few packing errors. They were super helpful!

Sister McColm and Sister Dahl were in charge of digging through
boxes and locating the correct size shoes for the school children.
Each child received a new pair of athletic shoes and "slippers".
They wear the "slippers" inside the school everyday.

President Melonakos is an avid videographer and enjoyed
documenting the amazing efforts of the women.

Sister Eubank was quickly converted to the "front pack" technique!

Sister Melonakos is always so full of energy! We are so blessed
to have such a great example of service and love leading the mission.

The children have to have lined notebooks, grid notebooks,
music notebooks, writing notebooks, information booklets, and art
notebooks... many of which are grade specific. This job required
some brain power and decision making.

Many of the children gathered at the entrance to the workshop
where we were working to see what was going on. They were very
excited when they learned they would be getting school supplies.
And cookies from Denny....

Sister Dahl and Sister McColm completed their task organizing
all the shoes for the children, however as we began the process of
distributing shoes to the children, things got a bit out of control
with children and parents lined up at the door waiting for their shoes.
(Exactly as the Red Cross staff had predicted - we will be better listeners next time!)
Red Cross staff decided it would be best to wait until the
children could be be called in one family at a time.We quickly agreed
and shut the doors, promising they would all get new shoes in time for school. 

We packaged over 500 hygiene kits. Notice on the right, a few
of the refugee children sneaked in and joined the assembly line.

These two refugee boys did a great job putting toothbrushes
into the hygiene kits with the assistance of the volunteers.

And more hygiene kits....

Sister Melonakos keeping her head in the game!

These young refugees loved talking with Sisters Dahl and McColm.

We assembled 50 backpacks full of school supplies. We were only
able to hand out a few backpacks before it was apparent that, even with the
help of the Red Cross staff, our distribution methods were not effective.
But every child will receive one before they head out the door of
the refugee center into their new adventure of school in Croatia.

500 hygiene kits packed and ready to be distributed. The Croatia
Red Cross distributes them twice a month to all refugees. This will
only be enough for one day of distribution! There are about 500
refugees currently living in this center waiting for asylum.

These two little girls were so excited to get their backpacks and
then they said they wanted to have their picture taken with the missionaries.

This is our car after the service project on our way to deliver
backpacks and shoes for the school children in Kutina,
  which houses only families and unaccompanied minors.

Half of the backpacks were taken to the center in Kutina. They were
so excited to have much needed supplies so the children could
walk into school on the first day and feel like everyone else!