Monday, December 31, 2007

Getting Ready for the New Year

2007 has seen a lot of changes at Refugee Women's Network. Among the most visible is our revamped website, at

We finally have a staff person dedicated to working on it so it will become updated more often and be more user-friendly. We also had the great fortune of having some professional MBA students from Georgia State University conduct a communications audit of RWN and we have begun to implement some of them.

One thing I will try to do is to update this blog more often. Every week, we have success stories that warrant a mention.

For example, Kumari, one of our microenterprise clients is getting ready to open her own hair salon. As the store front is being readied, she's working at another salon, which is looking for a hair braider. Anna, another microenterprise client, her business is African hair braiding, and she's looking for a shop to work with. The RWN staff were able to connect them for a win-win situation for everyone.

2008 promises to be as busy and successful as 2007. And this blog can be a quick and easy way for everyone to know what's going on at Refugee Women's Network.

A break in the blog

In March 2007, BryAnn Chen, the Executive Director of Refugee Women's Network participated in a fellowship trip for emerging leaders. She travelled to Washington, DC, Paris, Copenhagen, Rome, Belgrade, and Brussels.

The posts below are her notes from the meetings on her trip. She attempted to blog during the trip but the majority of the posts were written after returning to the US. Eventually these notes will be reorganized and made available on the website of Refugee Women's Network at

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Immigration and Access to Education in France

March 12, 2007, Paris, France.


Patrick Weil, Center for the Study of Immigration, Integration, and Citizenship Policies, and Ghislaine Hudson, principal, Dammerie-les-lys high school.

About immigration:
Since the 188os, France has admitted immigrants and now almost 20% of the French have grandparents who are immigrants who came from Europe, the former colonies, and Africa. Even so, France has not always embraced immigrants. In the 1980s, there was a political candidate who wanted to deport legal immigrants.

The speakers defined immigrants as people born in a different country and said that France receives 150,000 legal immigrants a year. 60% come for family reunification, 25% are undocumented immigrants who become documented, 10% are refugees, and 10% are workers.

In France, there is a statute of limitations on illegal immigration, just as there is a statute of limitations for other crimes. So, an undocumented immigrant can become legal is they have been in France for 10 years, or if they have created family ties in France that would suffer greatly if deported. About 30,000 to 35,000 people a year are legalized in this manner. I personally think it would be a great model to use the US.

A current French presidential candidate wants to create a Ministry of Immigration and National Identity. This was controversial because it says that national identity is based on immigrant origin and not on French culture, however that is defined.

We see that controversy in the US, where many Americans want newcomers to drop their old culture and put on the new "American" culture. But what is the "American" culture and who gets to define it? Culture is also a dynamic phenomenon, constantly changing (like our technology), being changed by us and changing us in an endless feedback loop.

About education:
In the French educational system, at 16 years old, students are tracked into either the classical education track (college-bound) or vocational. This is based on test scores and it's almost impossible to switch from one track to another. The goal of education is to pass the exit exam and about 60% pass, the rest drop out.

In Ms. Hudson's school, 15% of the classical track students are low-income and are over represented by immigrants. This brings to mind the image of Asian Americans as the academically overachieving model minority. In the vocational track on the other hand, 60% of the students are low-income and/or immigrants.

The French are very passionate about education. The mission is to transmit knowledge and the values of the French Republic (liberty, equality, fraternity). The public schools are free and the private schools are affordable because they are subsidized by the government.

The education system is highly centralized and teachers not only have college degrees but also 5 years of additional training. Teachers are appointed to schools so the quality of education is consistent nationwide. How different from the US where each school district recruits in own teachers, and school districts are funded by local property taxes, reflecting the income disparity of the country.

Immigration and education come to a head when immigrant students graduate from school, having absorbed all the French values of liberty, equality, and fraternity, and then can't find a job because of racism and lack of connections. This is true of students graduating from either the classical or vocational track. In the vocational track the discrimination comes earlier, when students must perform an internship.

The colleges use affirmative action, based on merit, and now low-income, ethnic minority, and other disadvantaged groups are attending college in increasing numbers. However the discrimination in the society at large will still make finding employment difficult.

Ms. Hudson and Mr. Weil both served on a commission to separate religion and school. Twenty-five recommendations were made, but only one, the ban on headscarves, was enforced. Interestingly, the French school calendar is based on Catholic holidays.

Mr. Weil supports a policy similar to the Texas 10% plan, where the top 10% of each graduating high school class is automatically accepted to attend a Texas public college. Mr. Weil would add the stipulation at these 10 percenters could not comprise more than 60% of any entering freshman class.

In France, undocumented immigrants have the right to emergency health care and preventative care (in the interest of public health) and the right to attend school. Otherwise what else would the young people do? If not in school, then the kids would be in the streets. That is not better.

The EU immigrant intergration plan in the last 10 years has emphasized language training and access to citizenship. An immigrant can apply for citizenship after 5 years of temporary residence. A child born to immigrant parents can become a citizen at 30 years old.

In the US, a permanent resident (green card holder) has to wait 5 years before they can apply for citizenship.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Paris Schedule

Paris Schedule
March 10 to 14, 2007

The French presidential elections, held over 2 rounds, were to be held in April and May, and this colored all the discussions during this trip.

Part of the fellowship experience was the opportunity to have individual meetings with organizations specific to our profession or field of interest or expertise. However, the majority of the meetings were attended by all 16 American fellows, as well as Amaya Bloch-Laine, Director, GMF Paris office and Daniela Manca, Program Officer, Trans-Atlantic Center, GMF, based in Brussels. The en masse meetings were generally held at the Maison de l’Amerique Latin.

The substance of the meetings will be addressed in separate posts.

Saturday, March 10
Daytime -- We arrived in Brussels, Belgium. Ms. Daniela Manca met us at the airport and accompanied us by train to Paris, the first leg of our European trip. She acted as our city coordinator for the duration of the Paris trip. It must truly have been like herding cats. (It reminded me of the Leadership Trainings RWN held in Boston and Sioux Falls in 2004. We had dinners in different places each of the 4 nights. The RWN staff and I had to make sure that all 20 refugee and immigrant women got to dinner and got back to the hotel.) However, she was very strict and no nonsense, pushing back when any of us complained. She treated us like adults.

When we arrived at the Paris train station, we were confronted with our first challenge – finding and using an ATM machine to get cab fare. As we stood in line for the ATM and then for the taxis, we were approached by a few women with long skirts, long wavy black hair, and headscarves, but not Muslim headscarves. They held cards that apparently stated in English that they were Bosnian refugees and could we spare some change? They did not look like any of the Bosnian refugees I have ever met. We speculated that they were gypsies/Roma but could not tell for sure.

We loaded into taxis, with all our luggage, and off to the hotel we went. Our route took us through the Louvre’s courtyard (it is massive), which I recognized only by the glass pyramid designed by I. M. Pei.

After checking in, we all gathered for lunch at a nearby Moroccan restaurant where I had a delicious lamb tagine. I sat across from Kwanzaa Hall, city of Atlanta council member, and we spent our first meal in Paris talking about Atlanta. Even though we both live in the Atlanta area, we had never met. He represents a district in downtown Atlanta which does not have any refugees living there.

We mainly discussed urban development, which generally is not seen as a refugee issue or a women's issue. However, urban redevelopment / gentrification affects housing prices in one area, with ripple effects throughout the metropolitan area. Refugees are certainly impacted by forces in the larger housing market.

For the first eight months of arrival in the US, refugees are given less than $500 per month for all living expenses. That includes housing, furnishings, clothing, transportation, etc. Therefore refugees live in very low rent apartments, in just those areas that get gentrified. The low rent apartment complexes get torn down to build upscale housing, so they are pushed out. And to where? To where ever else they can find affordable housing, on a transportation line. Therefore urban development issues are very much refugee issues as well.

This is also a women's issue. A recent survey of women's issues in Atlanta found that there is no match between where there is the greatest need for child care, where the child care centers are, and where the jobs are. So a working woman has to leave her home and travel some distance to drop her children off at a child care center, and then travel some more to get to work. If she is driving, she has some control over how she accomplishes all this. If she does not have a car and has to rely on public transportation, it can be a three hour ordeal twice a day. This is a stark example of how urban development is a women's issue.

Yet where is the gender lens or refugee/immigrant lens in the all the discussion about the built environment?

6pm – Program Briefing
Rest of the evening was free. We went to dinner en masse. Several fellows had prepared by studying travel restaurant guides.

Sunday, March 11
As it was Sunday, we had no meetings scheduled. We did have the option of a side trip to Versailles. One piece of advice I received from prior MMF fellows, was to say yes to the optional events, to say yes to new experiences. So I went to Versailles with 3 other fellows.

9:30am -- meet in hotel lobby, take commuter train to Versailles. It was an elevated train that followed the Seine River.

In the middle of the river, on a little island, was the Statue of Liberty. I was absolutely surprised by it, and tears came to my eyes. Seeing this very American symbol, a gift from the French, made me very emotional. Just months before, I had finally seen the Statue of Liberty in New York City and was surprised by the tears it evoked. This visceral reaction made me realize that yes, I am American, and I do love the US, even when it didn’t always love me back.

So to see it again in Paris brought those feelings back. It also made me sad and angry that now the US is no longer welcoming people from other places, refuting the poem by Emma Lazarus. And on reflection, it’s sad that centuries ago France and the US were very good friends and allies and now many Americans have only contempt for France, deeming it weak. Makes me worry, pride goes before the fall, and all that.

10:15am – La Matinale des Ecuyers, equestrian show. Which we missed, so we toured the Chateau de Versailles. It is utterly enormous, opulent, and gold. After a few hours, we returned to Paris.

After a quick nap, I took a walk around the neighborhood to find lunch and came across a Chinese restaurant. I had to stop it and see what Chinese-French food was like. The food looked like what one would find in an American Chinese restaurant buffet, but in deli cases. I had the duck and broccoli and white rice, all pretty good.

It was a small business, run by what seemed a mother and teenage daughter. How wonderful to be able to support an immigrant entrepreneur! Neither spoke English and I don’t speak French. However, we did both speak Mandarin Chinese and so I was able to order. I could have pointed as well, though, if we didn’t speak any of the same languages.

I was the only customer sitting at the formica tables. The proprietor sat at a table in the corner counting the days earnings. Two French men came in and sat at a table near her and the cash. She yelled at them, and one of the men yelled back. Lots of loud French. The men moved. Then the one man got up and walked behind the counter to get something. She yelled at him again and he yelled back at her. However, he smiled at me and said “Nee how” which means “How are you” in Mandarin.

Soon after, a Chinese woman and European man walked in and sat with the proprietor at the corner table. She proceeded to tell them, in Mandarin Chinese, about how rude the man was to sit so close to her and the money and then to walk behind the counter. Such utterly inappropriate behavior! Can you believe it?

If her Chinese speaking friends did not come in, I would not have fully understood what was going on. Now I understood how refugees feel when they are resettled in a place where they don’t speak the language.

7pm – Welcome Dinner: The French Presidential Elections
Speakers: Harold Hyman, Journalist, BFM-TV, and Pascal Riche, former Liberation correspondent in DC and MMF 1992. No notes as I forgot to take my note book to dinner. However, I do remember that most of the conversation regarded the upcoming presidential elections. The front runners were Segolene Royal, a Socialist who would be France’s first female president; Nicolas Sarkozy, a conservative who has a grandparent who was Hungarian, that is not-French; and Bayroux, the centrist.

Monday, March 12
8:30am to 9:45am – individual appointments for some of the fellows.

10:30am to 12pm – A French Perspective on the European Union. Jean-Michel Demetz, journalist, L’Express, and Jacques Rupnik, Research Director at the Center for International Studies and Research.

In preparation for this trip, I read "The United States of Europe" by T. R. Reid. While not comprehensive, I did feel that I understood basically what the EU was about and how it came about. In this meeting, I learned that the European Union was developed by the French as a balancing power of the United States. While the EU is not exactly like the US, citizens of EU member countries can move freely from one country to another. Now, most young French view the UK as the land opportunity and move to London in great numbers. People joke that London is France's 7th largest town.

The biggest concern France has with the EU is enlargement because the more members there are, the power of each member is diluted. And the big question (no pun intended) is Turkey. This is a theme that we would hear through out the trip, as well as an undercurrent of Islamophobia. The concerns are: Turkey has 100 million people. It is by far the largest and poorest country. It is culturally and religiously different from the rest of Europe. It is the gateway to the Middle East.

Militarily, France and the UK are the largest supportors and funders for NATO. The EU mostly goes along with the US and is happy to let the US pay for it. However, now there is great disagreement with the US regarding the Iraq war, so things may change. After the Cold War, there was a missed opportunity to rethink the role of NATO. But there was the idea of a European pillar in NATO and to reintegrate France into the Central Command. However that was mishandled by numerous sides.

The speakers also noted that France was the first country to be bombed by Islamic terrorists. However, their response has been to work with Algeria and other gov’ts to get the intelligence about what’s happening in Algeria and in the Parisian suburbs. France engaged and used human intelligence and not military might, the subtext being that the US used only military might and see where that got us?

12pm to 2pm – Immigration and Access to Education in France, Patrick Weil, Center for the Study of Immigration, Integration, and Citizenship Policies, and Ghislaine Hudson, principal, Dammerie-les-lys high school.

3pm to 4:30pm – Meeting the Next Generation at Lycee Helene Boucher high school.

We made a site visit to the Helene Boucher high school, which used to be a girls only school and I think is now a magnet school. If set in the US, it would certainly be recognized as a school. but in the US, we probably would not have a bilingual (English/French) display about women and science, and definitely would not have a plaque on the wall commemorating the students who were killed in the concentration camps in WWII, as Helene Boucher high school did.

We met in the library with about 4o English speaking high school students. We broke up into groups of 3 to 8 people for conversation. I met 2 girls both of whom spoke great English who did not see their future in France. The educational and career system was too strict and regimented and so they plan to going to college in France, but seeking careers abroad, for example in London, echoing what we learned earlier in the day.

I was so impressed by these students, both of whom were multilingual in French, English, Latin, and some German. One girl also learned Mandarin Chinese, seeing that China is ascendant. I reminded myself that these students were volunteers and we would not be meeting with them if there was not already some congruence in interest in globalization and language compatibility.

Before coming on this trip, we were told to prepare token gifts for each of our meetings and encounters. For this meeting, on behalf of all the American fellows, I presented a copy of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, printed on parchment paper, suitable for framing and displaying in a school.

Individual appointments for the rest of the day for some fellows.

8:30pm to ? -- Dinner with Jerome Guedj, Vice President in charge of Social Affairs at the Conseil general de l’Essonne, the legislative body of the district of Essonne.

It was wonderfully multicultural in many ways: Two white Americans, but one from rural South Dakota and one from the heart of New York City, a Somali refugee to Minnesota, and a Chinese American from Georgia, having dinner in Paris, at an Italian restaurant, with a European MMF fellow who traveled through out the US, and now represents a multicultural district of Paris.

In France, the suburbs are the low income areas, with people housed in high rise apartment complexes. Many refugees and immigrants live in those suburbs. Many young people in France have difficulty finding employment and refugee and immigrant youth face additional discrimination. Several years ago, many young refugees and immigrants rioted and burned cars and building in protest. Essonne was one of those suburbs and it was interesting to hear Mr. Guedj mention that these were not random youths rioting (which connotes randomness and aimlessness), but angry, frustrated, and thwarted people trying attract attention and create change.

Tuesday, March 13
9am – take the Metro to the National Assembly
10 to 11:30am – Tour of the French National Assembly and Meeting with Laurent Wauquiez, Member of Parliament, leading figure of the Conservative Caucus, head of Franco-American friendship group. Mr. Wauqueiz was unavailable to meet, so we had a little free time. Several of the American fellows were attorneys and took this time to check their Blackberrys to see if any more US Attorneys had been fired by US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

12 to 2pm – French and American Relations with regard to Foreign Policy and Security, Frederic Bozo, Professor, Universite de Paris V.

The relationship between France and the US is cyclical with its ups and downs, but on the whole it is solid.

In the short term, there is a reconciliation between the 2 as domestic policy has become more of a priority in France. The good relations will probably continue, as the three major French presidential candidates want to have good relations with the US.

The medium term outlook is not so good due to serious disagreements over the role of NATO, goals in the Middle East, and domestic politics. Regarding the Middle East: The US used Lebanon as leverage against Syria; France is interested in keeping Lebanon secure. France wants to preserve the nonproliferation regime in Iran; the US wants regime change. Also, Iraq has been a close French ally because Saddam Hussein supported a secular pan-Arab coalition and in the 1970s France worked to stabilize the region. We all know that the US invaded Iraq to depose Saddam Hussein.

Domestically, France has the same attitude towards the US as other European countries do. There is no contender who supports closer ties to the US and in the US, people feel free to insult France. There is no French minority in the US to advocate for closer US -French relations.

The Cold War drew the US and France close. Now, with globalization, it is much more a US-Europe relationship and it would be more pragmatic to use the EU as a buffer between the US and France.

2:30 to 4pm – France in a Globalized World, Nicolas Veron, Bruegel Institute and Paul Atkinson, Groupe d’Economie Mondiale
France is experiencing huge demographic changes. There is an increase in the elderly population and a decrease in the number of younger workers. There is also increasing migration from Eastern Europe to Western Europe. This results in increasing fiscal pressures especially regarding health and medical care and the pressures of taxes and spending. The solution is to increase resources, mobilize people to increase productivity and need to make the business environment more welcoming.

This contrasted with another economist speaker who was very proud that the French private sector was very strong. It made me think of an old "Bloom County" comic strip showing two economists arguing, as the ultimate nightmare.

The largest French businesses are now privatized and competing throughout the EU. Human resource directors feel this most strongly because they deal with employees and brand identity.

Many people are moving to London because it's easier to start businesses, has fewer regulations, adn more business-friendly labor laws. In France, however, top management and entrepreneurs are unwilling to step down so there is a lack of succession.

This resonated with me because founders of nonprofits are entrepreneurs. They see a need/niche in the market, develop a service or product, get funders and customers, and the organization / business is built from the passion of the founder / entrepreneur and much of the decision making and record keeping occurs in the mind of that one person. Additionally, many NGOs do not offer retirement plans, so if the founder does step aside for new leadership, what income will she/he have for living on?

In France, the 35 hour work week is not uniformly popular, but it is effective as workers are more productive. The bigger issue is access to markets. Small businesses have little access to financing because there is little competition among banks for the business of small businesses.

Rather ironic, as the word "entrepreneur" is French, and entrepreneurship is a staple of the American psyche (fits well with individualism). Little known fact -- in the US the largest government funder of small businesses is the Small Business Association (fittingly). The second largest is the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), to help refugees start their own businesses. ORR is a major supporter of Refugee Women's Network, including our microenteprise program for refugee women.

5pm – individual meeting at GISTI (Groupe d’information et de soutien des immigres), an immigrant rights nonprofit organization. To be another post.

6:30pm – group debriefing and end of Paris segment of the trip. Tomorrow our group of 16 American fellows divide into three groups of 5 or 6, going to different north European cities: Copenhagen, Denmark; Hamburg, Germany; or Lubeck, Germany. Tomorrow, I will be going to Copenhagen.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Brussels Schedule

The exchange trip ended in Brussels, where all the fellows reconvened March 28 to April 1, 2007. This was our schedule:

Wednesday, March 28
Arrive in Brussels from the Eastern European cities of Bucharest, Romania; Krakow and Warsaw Poland; or Belgrade, Serbia.
Taxi to Hotel Leopold and check in.
5:30pm -- meet GMF-Brussels staff in hotel bar
6pm -- introduction to Brussels program
7:30pm -- Welcome dinner with GMF-Brussels staff, with keynote speaker Ronald Asmus, executive director, GMF-Brussels.

Thursday, March 29
7:30am -- meet in hotel lobby and wall to European Parliament
8 to 9am -- Introduction to the European Parliament: the Challenge of Communicating Europe to Citizens working breakfast with members of European Parliament. The European Parliament is the only supranational institution whose members are democratically elected by direct universal sufferage. There are 785 members, elected every 5 years in 27 member states, who are involved in drafting numerous laws (directives, regulations, etc.) that affect the daily life of every citizen.
9:15 am -- visit EU Information Shop
9:30 am -- Walk to GMF office
10:30am to 12pm -- The Council of the European Union: Organization and Policy Agenda on TransAtlantic Relations of the EU Intergovernmental Body. The Council of the European Union in the institution that represents the 27 member states within the Union's decision-making structure. Holding a dual role, the Council acts as a supranational body when dealing with community issues and as an intergovernmental institution when foreign policy, security and justice, and home affairs are being discussed. This duality reflects the political nature of the Council of Ministersl and contrasts with the European Commission which acts as an impartial body.
1pm to 2:30 -- lunch meeting on Lobbying the EU: a Regional Approach. The Committee of the Regions (CoR) is the political assembly that provides local and regional authorites with a voice at the heart of the European Union, like the House of Representatives in the US Congress.
2:45pm to 3:30pm -- I had an individual appointment with Mary Collins of the European Women's Lobby (EWL). EWL is the largest umbrella organizations of women's associations in the EU. The EWL Secretariat is based in Brussels, but EWL has member organizations in 25 member states of the EU. The EWL focuses on promoting women's rights and equality between the genders in the EU. They have activities regarding women's economic and social position, women in decision-making, ending violence against women, women's diversity, etc. EWL works mainly with the institutions of the EU: The European Parliament, the European Commission, and the EU Council of Ministers.

Some fellows had home visits for dinner and the rest of the evening. I did not and went with the other fellows to dinner at a local restaurant that served mussels and (french) fries, apparently, a very Belgian cuisine. For my dinner entree, I had another local delicacy, filet of horse.

Friday March 30
8:30am -- meeting GMF staff in hotel lobby
8:45am -- depart by bus to NATO (North American Treaty Organization) headquarters.
9:30am -- arrival at NATO, where all cameras, Blackberrys, and other electronics with memory sticks, were checked in at the security gate.
10 to 11am -- Welcome briefing by Ambassador Victoria Nuland, Permanent Representative of the United States to NATO. Ambassador Nuland was very articulate and the only woman who is a permanent representative.
11:15 to 12pm -- Briefing of NATO operations
12 to 12:45pm -- Briefing on NATO's fight against terrorism
1pm -- lunch in the NATO restaurant hosted by the US Information Office.
2:30pm -- depart NATO headquarters for GMF office
3:15 to 4:15pm -- Enlargement and Neighborhood: the Turkish Dilemma. Enlargement is one of the EU's most powerful policy tools. Joining the EU requires significant internal political, economic, and operational changes to qualify.
late afternoon -- some fellows had individual meetings. I did not.
8pm -- Shyam Reddy, Atlanta attorney, and I had a dinner in the home of Mr. Luca di Preso, European Parliament and an European Marshall fellow in 2002.
Those who did not have host dinners schedules had the option of viewing the documentary "The Arab World Seen Through European Eyes" with Olaf Deussen, one of the producers.

Saturday, March 31
Free time until evening
5 to 6:30pm -- Wrap-up session with GMF staff
7pm -- farewell dinner with GMF staff and local European Marshall Memorial Fund fellows.

Sunday, April 1
Return to US.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Kosovo Roundtable

On March 27, 2007, we met with the following persons to discuss the situation in Kosovo.
Ø Chad Rogers, National Democratic Institute – moderator
Ø Isak Vorgucic, Radio KIM
Ø Krenar Gashi, Balkan Investigative Reporting Network
Ø Nenad Djurdjevic and Danijela Nenadic, Center for NonViolent Resistance
Ø Gyrogy Kakuk, United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK)
Ø Nenad Sebek, Center of Democracy and Reconciliation in South East Europe

Mr. Rogers provided an overview of Kosovo, which is an autonomous province of Serbia, bordering Albania. It has no official economy and lacking political leadership. The Serbs consider Kosovo their ethnic heartland, where Serbia was founded. However, the majority of the residents in Kosovo are ethnically Albanian and Muslim. After Yugoslavia fell apart, all that was left was Serbia and Macedonia. Last year, Macedonia (peacefully) separated from Serbia and now Kosovo wants independence.

(National Public Radio has an overview of the Kosovo situation here:

In the 1990s there was a Kosovo war that is connected somehow to the disintegration of Yugoslavia, ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, and Milosevic. It is rather appalling how ignorant we Americans are about what happened in this part of the world, although I dimly recall President Clinton ordering troops to Kosovo. Not once do I think I was taught about the Balkans, other than there are many ethnic groups living there that don't get along. Now I was in the heart of it.

Since 1999, Kosovo has been administered by UNMIK, an interim civilian administration under the authority of the United Nations. The UN also appointed a special representative, Martti Ahtisaari, to investigate the possibility of Kosovar independence.

As we were in Belgrade, Mr. Ahtisaari released his report that paved the way for Kosovar independence with UN supervision. The UN and the European Union said that they would support the report's recommendations. Russia, a permanent member of the UN Security Council with veto power and Serbian ally, may delay the process. They are concerned that the Kosovo case could be a precedent to be applied to Chechnya.

The contrast with our lives in the US was vast. Can you imagine any state in the US wanting to become independent and the UN appointing a special administrator to oversee that state? Very little in our lives are affected by the UN, and here the fate of a province the size of Connecticut was a pawn of UN, Russian, and other international powers.

The roundtable discussion was deep, touching on events and hostilities in Serbian and Kosovar history stretching back to the Middle Ages, major events in their history that we Americans were absolutely ignorant of. It quickly became impossible for me to follow the discussion as the 7 panelists talked at each other. Again, I was impressed by their English, which was fluent, rapid, and polite.

What I did understand was that the Serbs and Kosovars, despite living in the same towns, do not interact. As Mr. Sebek said, Kosovo is not a multiethnic society, rather more a collection of unrelated ethnic enclaves and independence will not magically make Kosovo into an integrated multiethnic society. And that borders exist only as the dominant power/superpowers recognize them.

The concern is that if Kosovo becomes independent, there will be no agencies to protect the Serbian minority, if things go bad. That is a real possibility since Kosovo has no real economy and ethnic hostilities breakout when people feel financial stress. If the Serbs in Kosovo move to Serbia, they would essentially be refugees, and need help resettling in Serbia.

Originally, a visit to a refugee shelter was on our schedule, but it didn't work out. I was very interested in seeing a refugee camp. In Serbia, the refugees are largely ethnic Serbs who lived in other parts of the Balkans, forced to leave and then "return" to Serbia, even if it's been generations since their families lived in Serbia.

One of the AMMF fellows asked "Why should Americans care about Kosovo?"

This is how the panelists replied:
1. President Clinton began the in intervention in Kosovo because of human right violations by the Serbs against the Albanian Kosovars.
2. However, after 9/11/2001, Kosovo fell off the radar. Since the war in Iraq is a failure, the US needs a foreign policy success and Kosovo could be it. And since the US broke it in the 1990s, then the US has to fix it.
3. Stability in South Eastern Europe will prevent the next human rights problem.
4. Stability will bring economic development and US businesses can benefit (for example, US Steel)
5. The US can help a Muslim country/area and prevent a blossoming of Islamic extremism. There was great debate about the possibility of Islamic extremism occurring in Kosovo. 400 years ago, Albanians were forcibly converted to Islam, and yet extremism has not ever occurred. Albania (and the Albanians in Kosovo) are majority Muslim, but there is very low religiosity. They are more ethnically Muslim, the ethnic Jews or Christmas/Easter Catholics. That is they are religious only on the major holy days and largely secular otherwise.
6. The US no longer has an airbase in Germany and so the US needs Camp Bonsteel in Kosovo to reach Russia and the Middle East.

They are concerned that the US is trying to reduce foreign aid to SE Europe and the Western Balkans. US Agency for International Development is focused on building business rights, human rights, and other political, military, and economic infrastructure and then withdrawing. The panelists felt that transatlantic relations were are at low point.

Economic concerns
Ø Since 1999, Kosovo has been de facto independent, due to UN intervention, but there has been no economic development because no de jure independence.
Ø Kosovo is a consumptive economic and 40% of consumables consumed in Kosovo are made in Serbia.
Ø politicians talk about independence with no plan for economic development.
Ø 47% of Kosovo’s GDP is funded by remittances from Kosovars living outside Kosovo and much of it is invested in bricks.
Ø The government has still a good success of collecting revenue, a flat 20% VA tax.
Ø Education and health care comprise 17% of the governmental budget, as opposed to the regional average of 30%.
Ø The mafia/criminal gangs operate freely in this environment of stagnant official economic growth. And there are NGOs and civil societies that cooperate with them.
Ø If Kosovo signs it own contract with the IMF, that removes $1 million from Serbia’s debt and then they could borrow more for Serbian capital projects. So Kosovar independence would begin with the country in debt.

I was so impressed by the depth of the panelists’ knowledge of the US and our foreign policy needs. Of course, we were meeting with a very select and knowledgeable group of people. Still, I would bet the majority of Americans don’t know what the US’s foreign policy priorities are, our history in interacting with other countries, and probably don’t care. And probably have no idea where the Balkans are and their issues. That is to our detriment.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Belgrade Schedule

This was my schedule in Belgrade, Serbia, March 23 to 28, 2007.

Serbia was part of the former Yugoslavia that broke up into 6 new countries in a civil war in the 1990s. This war was the first time that gang rape of women (Bosnians Muslims, mostly, but other women too, by Serbian Christians) were recognized as a tactic of war, and the massacre of Bosnians, Croatians, and other ethnic groups in Yugoslavia were recognized as genocide. Several war criminals, including Ratko Mladić and Radovan Karadizic remain at large, and believed to still be in Serbia.

Serbia wants to join the European Union and become a modern state. A major challenge is locating and apprehending the war criminals and sending them to the Hague to stand trial. However, as we heard over and over again, 30% of the population are nationalists and don't want to join the EU and regard the war criminals as war heroes.

I travelled with Natasha Jones, Communications Manager for King County government: Jeff Merritt, Eastern Regional Director for Government and Public Affairs for KB Homes; Hussein Samatar, Executive Directorof African Development Center; and Michael Webber, Associate Director of the Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy and Professor at the University of Texas-Austin. We were joined part way by Todd Culpepper, Executive Director of the International Affairs Council.

March 23, Friday
Afternoon -- arrive in Belgrade from Rome. This process involved a layover in Vienna.
7:30pm to ? -- welcome dinner with Balkan Trust for Democracy, a project of the German Marshall Fund, and our local host

Back at the hotel room, I watched a CNN documentary about the Bosnian children of war. During the war, tens of thousands of Bosnian Muslim women were abducted and held in concentration camps and gang raped by Serbian men. The systematic use of rape led to the U.N. war crimes tribunal to recognize ethnically motivated rape as a war crime, part of the Serbs’ campaign of ethnic cleansing.

The women who didn't die in the rape camps were held captive until birth. Many children were abandoned because the women could not face the constant reminder of their ordeal, or were killed. Others were adopted. Most do not know about their origin and are now old enough to ask where their mothers and/or fathers are. The show also profiled Bosnian women going to Belgrade to testify against their Serbian rapists. These women are so brave to go into enemy territory to do so.

At RWN, we work with refugees who are fleeing exactly this kind of persecution and do work with many Bosnian women. It just absolutely blows my mind that I was actually in Serbia and my first night there, to see this program.

March 23, Saturday
10:30 to 12pm -- meeting at Civic Initiatives, Citizen's Association for Democracy and Civic Education. This organization was founded in 1996 by activists in opposition to Milosovic. The purpose is to educate citizens to be active participants in building a democracy. We met the founders, Mr. Miljenko Dereta and Ms. Dubravka Velat. A longer post about democracy in Serbia will follow. Several of our meetings were with pro-democracy activists.

12:30 to 6:30pm -- visit to the US Steel mill in Smederevo. During the war in the 1990s, the steel mill was shut down. Recently it was bought by US Steel and the Serbs are very happy, as it is an indicator of economic stability that will allow more foreign investment.

We also learned that Serbs eat lunch at 3pm. We Americans were not used to it, and can now confirm that it is true that hunger deters learning.

The tour itself was fascinating and our guide said that watching molten metal turned into thin sheets of steel never got old for her.

8pm to ? -- dinner with civil society representatives:

Dragan Popovic, Youth Initiative for Human Rights

Jelena Rankovic and Srdjan Mitrovic, Hajde Da...

Miljenko Dereta and Dubravka Velat, Civic Initiatives

Miodrag Shrestha, Group 484

Daniel Sumter, Euro-Atlantic Initiative

March 25, Sunday

12 to 2:30pm -- tour of Belgrade, including the Kalamagdan park, the Military Museum, Sava Church, and Tito's grave. We also saw many buildings that were bombed by NATO during the war such as the Chinese embassy (an accident) and the headquarters of the secret police (not an accident). Amazingly, the buildings on either side of those buildings were untouched. Talk about precision bombing. Underneath the highway overpasses, we saw families living among trash dumps. The guide told us they were gypsies/Roma.

This tower was built by the Hungarians in the 1800s to mark Serbia as a part of the Hungarian empire. You can see a bit of the graffitti at the base. Our guide said that 14 ethnic minority groups live in Serbia, a legacy of centuries of being part of different empires, such as the Hungarian, Bulgarian, and Ottoman empires.
Part of the exhibit at the Military Museum The tan waters of the Sava river meets the blue Danube river

evening -- dinner in, at the hotel, just by ourselves.

March 26, Monday

10:30 to 11:30 -- individual meetings. I met with Ms. Maja Bobic of the European Movement in Serbia. We discussed their women in government project, as there are very few women in the decision-making positions in the government.

In 2006, they conducted a virtual campaign to create an all-women government slate. There are 2 executive posts and 18 ministry posts in the governement and therefore they published in the newspapers the profiles of 161 women already holding office and invited the public to text message which of the women they would vote for to hold each of the 20 posts. During the 21 day virtual campaign, they received 30,000 votes. There was significant media coverage and there was an increase in women holding office from 10% to 21%.

The women who won the virtual election have been meeting regularly and have created their own nonprofit organization to continue this work.

11:45 to 12:30pm -- individual meeting with Marcel Grogan, Balkan Trust for Democracy regarding philanthropy and support for nonprofit organizations / NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) in Serbia. Essentially all NGOs are funded by foreign sources, mostly governmental, such as the US Agency for International Development (USAID). There is no philanthropic infrastructure to support charities and NGOs.

12:30 to 1:30pm -- tour of the Museum of Contemporary Art. Stretching your mind in a totally different way. There was an exhibit of British art, called Breaking Step / U Raskoraku. The most memorable pieces were:

  • M-path by Adam Chodzko -- shelves and shelves of shoes, arranged by size. Viewer are invited to borrow a pair and to literally walk in another person's shoes while in the museum. Hence the play on the word empathy. The shoes were donated by the residents of Belgrade and at the end of the show, will be donated to charity. This piece resonated with me, because in Serbia the alphabet is Cyrillic not Latin and I was rendered absolutely illiterate and dependent on our city coordinator in Belgrade. It reminded me of how difficult resettlement is for refugees and immigrants.
  • Replica of a witness box at the Hague tribunal -- don't have the name of the piece or the artist, but it was relevant, given the issue of genocide and war criminals yet to be sent to the Hague.
  • Translated letters -- again did not write down the name of the piece or the artist. The British artist had written a letter to a museum, proposing an art piece involving mindwaves and telepathy. The letter was only a few lines long. It was translated into French. The French letter was translated into Chinese, the Chinese letter into another language and so on, and back into English. The last letter bore no resemblence to the original English letter.

2 to 3pm -- Lunch with Obrad Savic, editor in chief of Belgrade Circle journal. He is also a professor of journalism and spoke about the need for a free media in a democracy. He is writing a book called Post-Secular Europe. Religion is re-emerging in post-communist, secular, small Eastern European countries which are also panicking about globalization. There is a need to find ways to balance religion and democracy. He spoke at length about the Turkey being Europe's change to build a bridge to Islam and for the European Union to come into the future.

4 to 5:30pm -- visit to CeSID, Center for Free Elections and Democracy. One of their major activities is election monitoring. They also monitor the monitors to ensure that they have not been "disappeared" by the nationalists. They also do public opinion polling, voting trends analysis, and get out the vote campaigns.

CeSID finds that there are 5.5 million registered voters (people are registered at birth) but half a million do not vote. Of the 5 million who do vote, about 1.4 million steadily support the right wing parties, and 2.5 million identify more with the democratic parties. There is a 30% of the population that are very traditional, looking to past, to 500 years ago (side note -- in the US, we barely have half that much history to look to.). They are nationalist, patriarchal, and anti-European. They are those who did not benefit when Yugoslavia fell apart, when communism ended, and so they are afraid, uncertain, and angry, so they vote conservatively.

Another universal truth.

8pm to ? -- dinner with media representatives:
Duska Anastasijevic, Vreme Magazine

Dejan Anastasijevic, Vreme Magazine

Slavica Vuceljic, TANJUG News Agency

Katarina Zivanovic, B92 Fund

Lidija Bartus-Vasiljevic, Studio B

Milica Mancic, BETA News Agency

Jeta Xharra, Balkan Investigative Reporting Network -- Kosovo

Krenar Gashi, Balkan Investigative Reporting Network -- Kosovo

It turns out that one of the journalists is a member of the Hapsburg royalty, but she didn't make a big deal out of it. It was more along the lines "Oh, my father is a Hapsburg count."

Later in the evening, two of us wanted to go dancing. Our city coordinator suggested a club managed by his cousin. In the end it was the city coordinator, another AMMF, and myself getting into a cab to go to the club. The club turned out to be a rave in an empty warehouse under a highway overpass.

We were not on the guest list and we waited at least 15 minutes as the city coordinator tried to call his cousin's cellphone and talk our way in. With each passing minute, the other AMMF and I began to get a bad feeling. I looked into the dark rave and considered that I didn't speak the language, couldn't read any signs, and if I were to go into the loud, dark rave with hundreds of dancers, it could end badly. I could be human trafficked and the other AMMF if he was with me, just killed. Eventually, he and I jumped into a cab and returned to the hotel.

March 27, Tuesday
10:15 to 12pm -- Kosovo Roundtable discussion with

  • Chad Rogers, National Democratic Institute -- moderator
  • Isak Vorgucic, Radio KIM
  • Krenar Gashi, Balkan Investigative Reporting Network
  • Nenad Djurdjevic and Danijela Nenadic, Center for NonViolent Resistance
  • Gyrogy Kakuk, United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK)
  • Nenad Sebek, Center of Democracy and Reconciliation in South East Europe

This will be discussed in another post.

12:30 to 2:30pm -- visit to the European Union Integration Office. We met Tanja Miscevic, the executive director, and professor of political science. The EU Integration office is the department within the Serbian government that liaises with the EU and monitors and coordinates Serbia’s progress in meeting the criteria for joining the EU. This office also communicates with the general public about the process and the media has identified their office as the most transparent governmental agency. They are also designed to cover the western Balkans.

The biggest challenge Serbia faces in this process are:
Ø the fact that war criminals still have not been apprehended and sent to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia or ICTY, a body of the United Nations (UN) established to prosecute serious crimes committed during the wars in the former Yugoslavia. It is located in the Hague in the Netherlands.
Ø At the time of our visit, Serbia had no government. Elections were held in January, but for some reason, the government had not formed. An interim government was running the country until a permanent government could be seated. (That occurred in May 2007.)
Ø 20% to 30% of the population that is very conservative, isolationist, and nationalistic and do not want to join the EU and consider the war criminals to be war heroes.
Ø Lack of communication with the general public of the EU states, who have a vote on whether or not Serbia will be allowed to join.
Serbia also thinks Turkey’s inclusion is necessary. If Turkey is shut out, there will a rise in Islamic fundamentalism. Given that Serbia’s history with Muslims, that could be problematic.

However, Serbia’s concerned more with the integrity of the EU process. If they (Serbia, Turkey, any other countries) meet the EU criteria, they should be included. There has to be faith that following the rules will result in EU membership. Serbia is also concerned that EU expansion fatigue will set in and Serbia, the Western Balkans, and Turkey will be shut out.

I found it interesting that Ms. Miscevic said that they want to join the EU even though there is no clarity on what the EU means and where it is going.

They are hoping Serbia, the Western Balkans, and Turkey will join the EU by June 28, 2014, the 100th anniversary of World War I. I knew WWI began with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. However I did not know the killer was Serbian.

3 to 4pm – lunch with European Marshall Memorial Fund fellows and selection committee members:

Ø Lazar Mricevic, Center for Development of Serbia
Ø Dusan Vasiljevic, OSCE Head of Economic and Environmental Development
Ø Vera Didanovic, journalist and Balkan MMF fellow
Ø Senad Sabovic, International Crisis Group (Kosovo), and Balkan MMF fellow
Ø Lana Pavlovic, Coordinator of the Deputy Mayor Cabinet of the City of Belgrade and Balkan MMF fellow
Ø Aaron Presnall, Jefferson Institute
Ø Nenad Sebek, Center for Democracy and Reconciliation in South East Europe

4:45 to 6pm – Tour of B92 Omnimedia studios. B92 began in 1989 as a youth radio station and has been active in opposing oppressive government and advocating for human rights. They have now grown to include a TV network, internet providing service, book publishing, audio recording label and a cultural center. The co-founder and chair of the board of directors, Sasha Mirkovic said that their visibility is their protection. They are so popular that if the government tried to silence them, the public would protest.

8pm to ? – farewell dinner with the staff of the Balkan Trust for Democracy at a riverside restaurant. There was a live band who performed three songs in English, including “Love Shack” and “New York, New York.”

March 28, Wednesday
8am – flight to Brussels, Belgium for the last stop on the fellowship trip.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Italy's Policy towards the poor and the immigrants -- the role of NGOs

On March 21, 2007, we spent the evening in the community of Trastevere, a neighborhood in Rome with many refugees and immigrants. We met with Claudio Betti, who works with English-speaking countries on behalf of the Romanic Church of Sant'Egidio, in Trastevere.

Ms. Betti showed us a building owned by the church that houses people with disabilities, a restaurant run by the church and staffed by people with disabilities, and we visited a soup kitchen for people who are homeless. The people cooking and serving were reflective of the clientele, that is Romans and international on both sides. Mr. Betti said that most people who are homeless in Italy were immigrants.

I was impressed that the church was able to attain a street address for the soup kitchen, so that the people who are homeless could have a mailing address, which is necessary when applying for jobs.

After the tour, we returned to the church to learn more about their grassroots programs. As we were walking down and down through stone doorways, I wondered if we were going all the way to the catacombs, but we did not.

The church is rooted in the gospel, but is not interested in trying to convert people. Rather, they believe in the three pillars of the gospel, serving the poor, and the importance of friendship, which motivates their grassroots work.

Mr. Betti spoke about the need to rediscover the belief in nonviolence, in total nonviolence, and to believe in the power of the people and the possibility of change. It was wonderful to hear a message and philosophy that is so positive and empowering, like RWN.

It is this attitude that allows the Community of Sant'Egidio to be heard by hardline Muslim extremists. On the other hand, he finds that American evangelicals are difficult to talk with because they believe they have arrived and don't need to hear other viewpoints.

There was, as in every country we visited, extensive discussion about Islam. Mr. Betti spoke about the need for engage Muslims, not isolate them, and to understand that there are moderate Muslims, that not all Muslims are terrorists. That only pushes them away and hardens them against those who call them terrorists. Yet the US invasion of Iraq creates more extremism because violence begets only more violence.

We also discussed the situation in Darfur, Sudan. Mr. Betti mentioned that Nancy Pelosi referred to it as genocide. Yet if you call it genocide, the mass murder to extinguish an entire group of people, then you are morally compelled to respond, to send troops on the ground to stop it. You can't just talk.

He asserted that the Sudanese government in Khartoum airlifts the janjaweed from area to area, flying right over the African Union troops on the ground. Therefore the solution is to bomb the airstrips. Not sure how that jibes with the principle of absolute nonviolence.

As we talked, at 6pm, the church bells rang. The bells ring every day to give people pause to think about the poor and the sick. In that church basement, there was absolute silence. There was a window and we could see the sky, but heard no birds singing, no street traffic. It was incredibly peaceful to sit and just think about others. We need more of that in our lives.

After a minute or so, we finished the discussion about the culture of violence that makes people think that war is the solution.

For dinner, we went to the restaurant that is run by the church and staffed by people with disabilities. Unfortunately I don't have the name of the place, but it is near the church of Sant'Egidio and has been favorably reviewed by Roman restaurant critics. What a great example of a social enterprise: a for-profit business that also lives up to a social justice principle. We need more of that too.

The evening ended by going to mass at the church. Mr. Betti provided the English translation via headsets. My headset didn't work, but it was nice and peaceful to listen to the Italian.

Religion can be such an incredibly divisive topic, but there were no objections from the non-Catholics among us to attend the mass. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. Literally.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Telefono Rosa, hotline for women in Italy

On March 22, 2007 I visited the office of Telefono Rosa (TR), a national hotline for women in Italy, with offices or partners in Rome, Turino, Merona, and Montova.

I met with Luisa Rizzitelli, a volunteer who also runs a communications business. Ms. Rizzitelli has been selected as a European fellow and will be traveling to the US later in the year. I hope she comes to Atlanta, as I would like to reciprocate.

Telephono Rosa's mission to help women in trouble, be it economic, violence, etc. They have a call center with 4 phones, and the services are completely free. In addition to the hotline volunteers, they have 12volunteer lawyers, 12 psychologists, and 2 bankers who advise about personal finance and help women open bank accounts.

The executive director of TR is Ms. Gabriella Moscatelli, who was the first women to become a bank manager in Italy. That occurred some years ago, but Italy still has the glass ceiling that allows women to see the top positions, but prevents them from achieving it. Except Ms. Rizzitelli called it the crystal ceiling. Even the bad things in life sound good when spoken by Italians.

The gender situation in Italy is not very good. Only 15% of the parliment are women and 6 of the ministers in the administration are women. However, 4 of the 6 do not have a portfolio. That is, they have no funding for their responsibilities and have to rely of the prime minister for funding. In the business sector, many women are managers, but none are CEOs, CFOs, and other decision makers.

In contrast, they hold Spain as the best example of gender equity, where there is equal pay for equal work.

Ms. Rizzitelli was very proud that TR operates "like a business." I asked what that meant and she explained that the hotline is available 8 hours a day, 5 days a week. Made me think that if this a great achievement, which is it, then they must been able to provide less services in the past.

TR makes a deliberate effort to serve the international population of Italy. They have offices in the embassies of Argentina, Equador, Ethiopia, and Peru and thus are able to help women from those countries. However, they are having difficulty reaching out to the Muslim community.

They have opened the International Home of Human Rights, in Rome, the only such kind in Italy. It is a shelter for women fleeing violence based on religious or cultural issues. Examples include women who have had acid thrown on their faces or fleeing female genital mutilation. They provide medical and health services, including therapy.

In additon to International Home of Human Rights, there are also domestic violence shelters in Italy. They are very interested in learning about laws to stop batterer and batterer intervention programs to stop abusers from abusing again. They found that 30% of batterers batter again.

Each year, TR receives 7000 calls and see 1000 women in person in the office.

As we spoke, a reporter from La Corriere della Sera newspaper arrived to work with Ms. Moscatelli on a domestic violence public awareness article. As in many parts of the world, violence against female family members are considered private concerns and not a legal or human rights issue.

They were very proud of the facts that the wife of the president of the Czech Republic visited their organization and that they were able to recruit 4 Olympic athletes to tape a public service announcement to say that domestic violence is unacceptable.

It's sad to see that violence against women, in their own homes by the people who are supposed to love and support them, is such a global problem. I know that for a fact, in my head and my heart, but it is still very sad to encounter it again.

On the other hand, it was very uplifting to see what TR has done to serve and support the women in Italy. The meeting ended much too soon, and I left feeling very inspired and thinking at RWN we must do more.

Economic Outline of Italy

On March 22, our first meeting of the day was at the Banca d'Italia. Roberto Torrini, (European MMF fellow) gave a presentation about the Italian economy. Usually, a powerpoint presentation on economics seems like it would make my eyes glaze over, but it was actually very interesting. Most of the statistics were taken from the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, so I will mention only the highlights.

1. Until 2006, Italy did not have statistics on immigrants, because until 10 years ago, Italy didn't really have immigrants. After WWII, the Italians had their baby boom and Italians were still emigrating away from the country. Now that generation is retiring from the work force and the fertility rate has dropped below replacement levels. So they need immigrants now to work. Most of the immigrants are from Northern Africa, Eastern Europe, and South America. Of the Eastern Europeans, Mr. Torrini mentioned that Albanians and Romanians working in construction and manufacturing, and Ukrainian and Polish women working as domestic help.

2. Only 50.6% of women aged 15 to 65 are employed. They don't know why the rate is so low, but did mention that discrimination and cultural values may have something to do with it.

3. The Italian government have invested heavily in the elderly and not the youth. Pensions for retired people account for 15% of the gross domestic product (GDP). In Italy, people can retire after working for only 17 years! So people retire in their 50s. (In the States, I'll be lucky if I can retire when I'm 70.) There's no big disincentive to work because there's not a big government funded safety net. Young people (aged 15 to 24) live longer and longer at home because they can't find jobs, can't afford to live on their own, and so live at home and rely on their parents' pensions.

4. Like most of Western Europe, the gap bettwen GDP per capita and productivity is widening and the Italian economy is in decline.

5. Only 15% of Italians have a college education, compared to almost 40% in the US, 50+% in Japan, and 50+% in Canada. 6. 25% of Italians are entrepreneurs, compared to 7% in the US. That's because Italy has regulations in place that restrict chain stores from setting up in Italy. And entrepreneurs use their savings, pensions, or their parents' pensions for start-up capital.

Meeting at the Italian Parliament

On March 21, 2007, we went to the Italian Parliament to get a tour and to meet Mr. Umberto Ranieri, President of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Chamber of Deputies (similar to the US House of Representatives).

He discussed Italy's foreign policy priorities, which were to strengthen the European Union, and expand it to include the Balkans and Turkey, to create stability, and the Middle East. He said that last year, in the war between Lebanon and Hezbollah, Italy sent more than 2000 soldiers to support Israel. Supporting Israel was a priority and he thinks it's a mistake for Israel to ignore the new unified government of Palestine.

He also said that the war in Iraq is a big mistake. Stabilizing Afghanistan was the way to fight terror, not to open another theater of war. And military might is not the only way to deal with Afghanistan. We need to create a functioning economy in Afghanistan so it will stabilize and people will have less incentive to turn to force and the Taliban.

I asked about the rest of the world. I mentioned that China is investing heavily in Africa, and gaining influence in Africa. Africa is geographically closer to Italy than it is to China, what's Italy's stand on all this? He said that they are increasing international cultural cooperation with South America, Africa, and Asia, but that Italy's focus in on the European Union and the Middle East.

Regarding Turkey, he said it was important to encourage Turkey's inclusion in the European Union. It will be a 10 to 15 year process, but very important. He said "If we shut the door, it will be full of risk regarding Islamic extremists. Must keept the door open and the relationship open." I'm paraphrasing here, and was glad to hear the relationship-building language and pro-Turkey language.

He had to leave to vote to authorize a budget to continue funding their troops in Afghanistan. When he returned he asked us what we thought about the Italian journalist hostage exchange.

We were very quiet. This was a very unexpected question. Walking into the meeting, none of us quite knew who he was and what the meeting was going to be about (we talked about this among ourselves afterwards). And so to be asked about, literally, a life or death question was a surprise.

Fortunately, one of the other American fellows has military experience and serves as a judge advocate general (JAG, attorney), so he stepped up to answer. He said that the US would not have made the exchange such a blatant quid pro quo, but get the hostage first, then wait a few days, and then release the Taliban prisoners. Didn't seem like much of a difference to me, but then, I'm not a diplomat or military person. Maybe the protocols are different in those situations.

After this meeting, we took a tour of the Italian Parliament. Lovely, lots of wood paneling, marble, red velvet drapes. There was a hall with portraits of the Italian equivalent of speaker of the house. Not surprisingly, the vast majority were men, but there were one or two women. One of our hosts, former European MMF fellows, said something about women comprising a growing percentage of the parliament. I mentioned that women still comprise 50% of the population, so there was some ways to go. Just as there is the US.

At some point, the conversation turned to returning antiquities. Throughout the years, colonizers and conquers have taken artifacts and monuments from one country to another. One of our guides mentioned that recently Italy did a "very stupid thing" returning an obelisk to Ethiopia. I raised an eyebrow, and Hussein asked for clarification. Italy colonized Ethiopia, Somalia's neighbor, and took an obelisk. Last year or so, the Ethiopian government asked for it back and so Italy spent 4 million Euros ($5.3 million US) to send it back.

The Italian fellow thought it was a very foolish use of money that could have been better used for food aid. However, Hussein and I said, if Italy took it from Ethiopia, and Ethiopia asks for it back, then Italy should give it back. They shouldn't have taken it in the first place!

The rest of the visit went smoothly and we caused no international incident.

Roman Schedule

This was my schedule in Rome. I traveled with Cal Cunningham, lawyer from North Carolina; Chad Evans, VP of the Council on Competitiveness; Ellen Kackmann, associate with Wachovia Bank; Hussein Samatar, executive director of the African Development Center. We were also joined by Corinna Horst, Deputy Director of the Brussels office of the German Marshall Fund, sponsor of the fellowship.

March 19, 2007
Afternoon -- fly from Copenhagen to Rome
6:30pm -- program overview with city coordinator
8pm to ? -- Welcome dinner hosted by The Council for the United States and Italy. Six Italian MMF fellows attended. It was very interesting to hear about their experiences traveling around the US on their fellowship. More on that later.

March 20, 2007
9:30 - 11:15am -- Art as an Economic Asset, held at the Scuderie del Quirinal museum.
12 - 2pm -- individual appointment with the Emigrant Somali Women's Association. This was not set up for me, but for Hussein Samatar, another MMF fellow. He is a refugee from Somalia and he was very happy for the opportunity to meet other Somalis. Somalia is a former colony of Italy and so there is a significant Somali population in Italy. I sat in for about 15 minutes and met the ladies. Their English was limited and I didn't speak Italian or Somali. Executive Director, Ms. Zeinab Ahmed Barahow, did speak very good English.

The Emigrant Somali Women's Association was established in 2003 and there are 18 members, all volunteers. Four of the women have opened their own businesses, such as selling Somali clothing, operating a call center, and interpretation. I was so happy to hear about refugee and immigrant women as leaders and entrepreneurs!

They estimate that there are 3,000 Somalis in Italy, but they have started leaving for other parts of Italy because of lack of jobs. Many women work as house cleaners to earn a living. They were a great example of a mutual assistance association trying to help one another the best they can. One thing they try to do is raise funds so people who pass away can be sent back to Somalia for burial or to celebrate holidays. That's something all ethnic groups the world over do.

Ms. Barahow is the second from the right.

2:30pm -- meet in lobby to take bus to next appointment
3:30 to 5:15pm -- The media and press in Italy, held at La Repubblica newspaper. It was very timely because the day before, a reporter for La Repubblica was released by the Taliban in Afghanistan and everyone in Italy was very happy to have him safely back home. In exchange for his release, 5 Taliban prisoners were released. There is still debate whether that was the proper thing to do. Sadly, the Italian journalist's driver and interpreter, both Afghanis, were killed.
These are the American fellows, with Ms. Raffaella Menichini, third from left. Ms. Menichini is the foreign desk journalist for La Repubblica and an European MMF fellow. On our tour of the newspaper, we stopped by an editors' meeting. No women were editors.

8:30pm to 12am -- home dinners with European MMF alumni. The dinners are held in people's homes and they're very informal. Only 2 or 3 American MMF fellows attend each, to avoid overwhelming the host. There were at least 2 other Italian MMF fellows at the dinner.

One fellow (who was a woman. We need a better, gender neutral term other than fellow!) did not have good things to say about the American health care system. She started in Washington DC, then went to Raleigh, North Carolina. While there she went hiking with her host family (apparently European fellows sometimes have host families. We American fellows did not.) in the woods. Then she went on to Dallas, Texas. While there, she found a tick buried in her skin. Her only option for getting health care to remove the bloodsucker was to go to the emergency room. But she didn't want to go and "sit there with all the immigrants." So after a few more days, she went on to San Francisco, California. Finally, her host family called a doctor friend who came over after hours to remove the tick. She was incredulous that it was so difficult to get health care! Join the club.

March 21, 2007
9:30 to 11:15am -- Italian Institutions and their relationships with the European Union, held at the Italian Parliament. This will be discussed in another post.
Lunch -- at our leisure. I think I took a nap.
4:15pm -- meet in hotel lobby to take the train to the Community of Sant'Egidio.
5 to 6pm -- Italy's policy toward the poor and the immigrants. To be a longer post.
7 to 8:30pm -- dinner with Claudio Betti, of the Community of Sant'Egidio.
8:3o to 9pm -- Catholic mass with the Community of Sant'Egidio. It was held in Italian, with translation head sets. Mr. Betti provided the simultaneous translation into English. The mass is said every night by lay volunteers.

March 22, 2007
10 to 11:30am -- an Economic Outline of Italy, held at the Banca d'Italia, the equivalent of the Federal Reserve. The European Union is essentially an economic and trade body and so we had a power point presentation about how it worked. Fortunately, I had already read "The United States of Europe" by T. R. Reid. Very easy to read, made European economic policy interesting. I had to leave this meeting early to make it to my individual meeting with:
12 to 1pm -- Telefono Rosa, a national hotline to help women in distress. To be a separate post

2 to 3pm -- bus trip to farm

3 to 5pm -- visit Azienda Agricola Castel di Guido, a farm managed by the city of Rome. They raise longhorn cattle, dairy cows, olive grove, and make their own cheese, bread, wine and spirits. We had the opportunity to sample the organic food products and rode a tractor pulled wagon through the country side. We even had to Roman cowboys ride along side.
These are maremmana cattle, protected by the European Union and in danger of extinction. They're born reddish and turn grey as they age.

You will have to imagine for yourself the rest of the hilly vista, with the top of St. Peter's Basilica of the Vatican off in the distance in one direction, and the sea in the other direction. I was busy trying to stay on the wagon. There were no guardrails and nothing really to hold onto.

Between the farm and Rome lay a forest where our guide said 2000 immigrants, mostly from Eastern Europe, were living in shanties. The authorities had gone into the forest to tear down the shanties, but found no people. No one knew where they had gone or how they knew the authorities were coming. Even in this idyllic setting, the global economic reality was present.

6pm to ? -- Goodbye dinner with fellows, Ms. Horst, and Ms. Liberati, the city coordinator.

Next up: Belgrade, Serbia!

The Value of Cultural Brokers

In Rome, the opening dinner was hosted by the Council for the United States and Italy, and featured a talk by Dennis Redmont, the Head of Communications, Media, and Develoment. Mr. Redmond is an American who has lived and worked in Italy for a long time.

That was very significant. As an American, he knows that we, the Americans, get most of our information about Italians from TV and movies and the stereotypes of Italian-Americans. I may be oversimplifying, but the point is that he is bicultural, shares our cultural background and perspective, and was best able to explain Italy to us in terms that we Americans would understand.

Sometimes, in our meetings, the Italian presenter would talk in depth about European history that I had learned once but forgotten a long time ago. They assumed we knew more about them than we did.

They would say "As you know, in year..... this thing happened and then ......." and I would think "Actually, I don't know anything about that thing in that year. We didn't learn that in world history. And I'm an international relations major! But in the US, if it didn't impact America, generally we didn't learn it." I needed a bicultural broker.

That resonated with me because that's what we do at Refugee Women's Network. We are very deliberate in working with refugee and immigrant women to become the bridge between new arrivals and the larger American society. For example, when new Somali refugees and immigrants need to figure out something about American culture and society, they will ask other Somalis for advice because they share a cultural affinity. That's why ethnic self-help groups and ethnic enclaves are crucial in helping new Americans become integrated.

Just pronouncing names and places in an American accent was helpful. Our Italian city coordinator was Flavia Liberati, an Italian born and raised. She would say "We're going to the Scuderie del Quirinale museum."

What I heard was "We're going to the scuderiedelquirinalemuseum." It was one long unintelligible word to me because she said it in Italian. Mr. Redmont would say "We're going to the Skooderry del Kwerinall museum." He said it in American and then I understood.

By the way, the Scuderie del Quirinale used to be the stables for the pope's horses. It had a huge staircase with shallow steps so the horses could walk up to the next floor. It now is an art museum. We had a presentation about art as an economic asset for the city. Then we had a guided tour of their Albrecht Durer exhibit. He was a German printmaker, painter, and sculpter who studied in Italy over the years.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Pictures first, explanations later

I am back from the Marshall Memorial Fund fellowship. It will take a while to organize my thoughts regarding the meetings I had on immigration, European Union enlargement, the role of the US in the world, and other things. In the meantime, here are pictures. Most are recreational pictures, as I didn't think it appropriate to take pictures during meetings.

The orientation meeting for the American Marshall Memorial Fund fellows of Spring 2007. It was the first time we all met each other. In this group are 4 lawyers, 2 executive directors of refugee and immigrant mutual assistance associations, several VPs and other senior management of corporations, institutions, and think tanks, several elected officials (past, present, and future), one philanthropist, and one professor. A smart, lively, and intelligent group, for sure, but also personable, friendly, and very, very funny. That sense of humor was essential, especially for those who lost luggage or got scammed by taxi drivers.

After DC, the first stop was Paris, France.
The American MMF fellows on the steps of the French National Assembly. I love this picture, as it shows us in our business suits, but also relaxed and enjoying the sun while we could. A better group of traveling companions could not be found.

BryAnn, Kwanzaa, Carrie, and Ellen with Dominique Alba in the middle. This is the Pavillion de l'Arsenal, a center for urban planning in Paris. The huge picture in the background shows the new Louis Vuitton building, designed by Frank Gehry.

After Paris, we broke into three groups of 5 or 6 going to Copenhagen, Denmark, or Hamburg or Lubeck, Germany.

I went onto Copenhagen, Denmark.
Michael at the desk of the Prime Minister of Denmark. How understated is that? Note the computer at standing level behind him.

Chad behind the desk of the Prime Minister of Denmark.

The Danish police paving over the youth home that was destroyed amid rioting in early 2007. There are mounds of flowers against the short brick building. We had just spent the previous afternoon with the tough as nails Danish riot police (where they served us chocolate cake as afternoon refreshments), so we knew to behave ourselves around them.

The Copenhagen crew at the home of Morten Bangsgaard, European MMF fellow and Secretary General of the Conservative Party of Denmark
Standing -- Michael, Cal, Chad
Sitting on the ends -- BryAnn and Natasha
Middle: Bette and Morten

After Denmark was Rome, Italy with a different group of 5 or 6. The other groups went to Lisbon, Portugal or Athens, Greece.

BryAnn with the Somali Women's Association of Italy.

Ellen, Chad, and Cal stop for a quick photo-op in front of the Pantheon, in Rome, either to or from a meeting.

In Rome, we visited a "biological" (does that mean organic?) farm that was originally established to support a local leper colony. I photographed this cow and calf from the back of a tractor. Fortunately it moved faster than the cattle could run.

I can't remember what these cattle are called, but they've been around since the time the Roman gods and goddess walked the earth. Or something like that.

An art installation in Rome. It is a travelling art piece called Trash People. Imagine an ancient Roman plaza with a fountain, surrounded by thousands of these life-sized figures covered with trash.

From our southern countries, we reshuffled to go to Bucharest, Romania, Warsaw/Krakow, Poland, or Belgrade, Serbia. I went to Belgrade.

The Belgrade crew: Michael, Natasha, BryAnn, Hussein, and Jeff, with the ounders of Civic Initiatives, a nonprofit organization in Belgrade, Serbia that encourages people to become active in developing a democratic society in Serbia.

Posters showing human rights, offices of Civic Initiatives, Belgrade.

The western gate of the city of Belgrade, Serbia.

Here you can see the tan waters of the Sava river meet the blue waters of the Danube river in Belgrade, Serbia.

At the end we all reconvened in Brussels, Belgium to learn more about the European Union. We also visited NATO. There are no pictures as they required that we hand over everything with a memory stick, so out came the cellphones, digital cameras, and Blackberrys.

Group photo of all the American Marshall Memorial Fund fellows of Spring 2007, with some of the past European Marshall Memorial Fund fellows, and the staff of the Brussels office of the German Marshall Fund, sponsor of the fellowship.

And to end this post, a wonderful poster called the European Year of Equality for All, seen at the European Women's Lobby office, in Brussels, Belgium.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Another blogger

If you are interested in getting a different perspective of the same trip, visit Her blog has pictures, including pictures and commentary on the food.

Natasha and I have been traveling together to all the same cities, except she went to Lisbon and I went to Rome. In fact I'm borrowing her laptop while she grabs a nap before our 8pm dinner with media representatives in Belgrade. I'll be grabbing an energy drink. If the past two weeks have been any indication, the meal will start at 8:30pm and end at 12am. Consistently our day starts at 9am with meetings, then a lunch meeting, then more meetings, a 90 minute break, then dinner meetings.

Now I know why I'm behind in my blogging. Too many notes, not enough time to digest the information.

Last notes on Denmark

Immigration has been one of two significant themes of this trip so far, the otherbeing taxation. Most of the Danes refer to it as the immigration problem. I finally had to say it’s not a problem, immigration is good too, what can you tell me about the benefits to your society about immigration?

One person, from the radical left, did say that the media were doing more stories sympathetic to immigrants and refugees, showing how isolated they live and the discrimination they face when trying to seek jobs.

Taxation was a big theme too because people are taxed about half their income. In return, they receive free health care, free education including college, and many other benefits. Immigrants are a touchy issue because they comprise about 8% ofthe population but 30% of the welfare recipients. You can see why Danes are a bit upset about immigration.

However, the flip side is that immigrants are discriminated against in the jobsector. The Danes we spoke with openly said that people with non-Danish names don’t get job interviews. So immigrants cannot get jobs and then are blamed for not working. Clearly the Danes have a long way to go in figuring this out. In their defense, I have to note that they did not have any significan immigration until 40 years ago. To their credit, they are open about acknowledging that they could be more proactive in helping immigrants become intergrated instead of just thinking that it will automatically happen.

Finally, we met with the Danish Red Cross which resettles asylees and a representative of the Danish Refugee Council. If I understand this correctly, in Denmark, asylum seekers are housed at the Red Cross facilities until their cases are heard and they receive their papers to stay in Denmark. Denmark wants to keep them separated and not integrated into the larger society in case they have to be deported. They have families who live in the Red Cross compound for years before they get permission to stay.

After they receive their papers, it is the responsibility of the individual municipalities, such as the city of Copenhagen,to resettle them, such as find them housing, jobs, etc.

Flora Ghosh from the Danish Refugee Council spoke about many things, but what I think is most relevant to RWN is the fact that most resettlement/integration activities are only about getting people jobs, but not socially integrating immigrants and refugees. They are housed in areas separate from Danes, and even if they get jobs, it’s things like cleaning offices after the workday is done, so immigrants still don’t have any Danes to interact with.

There were many statistics given about immigration, integration, the second generation of immigrants, employment, and so on. What is disturbing is that refugees are being accepted based more on their potential for integration and less on humanitarian needs.

Also the needs of refugee and immigrant women are not being discussed, except as victims of non-Danish cultural practices, such as honor killings. Refugee and immigrant women are viewed as victims by immigrant men and this creates a wedge between the genders and creates more barriers for integration.

Only a handful of refugee and immigrant women are represented in governing bodies and none are in executive positions. This definitely resonated with me as RWN was created to develop refugee and immigrant women into leaders.

There is much more I could write about, such as meeting Flemming Rose, the editor of the newspaper that published the Mohammed cartoons that sparked intense protests in the Muslim communities across the world, the issue of Islamophobia, and the issue of human trafficking in Denmark. However this post is long enough and I have to move on to my meetings in Rome, Italy and my thoughts so far on my meetings in Belgrade, Serbia.