Thoughts from Brussels

Exactly one week ago we woke to the news that 129 people had been murdered in cold blood by terrorists in Paris. These were ordinary people like you or I, who were letting their hair down after a busy week, enjoying a few drinks, dinner or a concert on Friday night. But the terrorists had other ideas.

It has since transpired that one of the masterminds behind the Paris attack came from the Molenbeek district in Brussels, one of the most deprived areas in Belgium, which is purported to be an easy target for Islamic State (ISIS) militants trying to recruit young Muslims. It is also, incidentally, where my office is located.

Belgium is coming under fire for its lax security measures where tracking terrorists is concerned. For a small country a disproportionate number of people have been recruited to ISIS and left to fight for them abroad – indeed some reports claim Belgium has supplied the highest per capita number of fighters to Syria of any European nation –between 350 and 550, out of a total population of 11 million that includes fewer than half a million Muslims.

These are worrying times, made more worrying still for those of us residing in Brussels by the news this morning, exactly one week on from the news from Paris, that the threat level in Brussels has been raised to very serious, with metro services suspended all weekend, concerts cancelled and a warning not to go to public places.

I feel conflicted by this latest threat. A part of me is defiant and wants to continue exactly as I always would, because to do otherwise, to change our way of life, is to show them they are affecting us, to let them win. But obviously there is also a part of me that is concerned for my welfare, for my partner’s and friends’ welfare. A portion of my daily commute involves taking the metro. Should I now avoid it, in case of an attack? Or carry on taking it and trust in the security forces (and statistics that would probably say my likelihood of being caught up in an attack is small) to protect me from harm?

At any rate, I can’t help but feel the terrorists would be stupid to do anything now the threat has been raised. Far better to wait until it has subsided, until people are less scared and come out of their shells to resume normal life, and do it then. We must remain vigilant. But, beyond that, what can we do?

The bigger issue does of course tug at my heartstrings every day. The ignorance, bigotry and racism shown by so many in the face of the refugee crisis is not only dividing communities but playing directly into the hands of the terrorists. I am not so naive to believe this situation can be resolved purely with love. Sadly now we have let it develop this far the only way it can be addressed is with more violence and bloodshed. But I do believe it is essential that people are tolerant, and that they seek to be informed about the situation instead of believing the hateful bile reported in the tabloids.

In the West, until now, we have been largely protected from the terrible things that have been happening across the world for decades – many of which were, ironically, brought about by the actions of our own governments. Our hands are not clean, and it’s time we stopped pretending that they are, that what is happening now in Europe is nothing to do with us. We funded terrorism for our own economic gain, and it backfired. Now those terrorists have become strong, and they are striking at the heart of the freedom we hold dear. They are also, let’s not forget, driving terrified people from their countries, terrified people who now reside at refugee camps across Europe. These people are like you or me. They are not, as the idiotic Republican hatemongers in the US would have us believe, ‘rabid dogs’ seeking to kill us all.

We started this, it is our responsibility to finish it. And beyond the guns and rhetoric, it is all of our responsibility to bring about a society that is centred around tolerance, hope and love. If we can succeed in this the world, and humanity as a whole, may yet be saved.

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Small Kindnesses in a Hate-Filled World

Few could fail to have been moved by the recent news (and news reporting – but that’s an inflammatory issue for another post) of American journalist James Foley’s death at the hands of Islamist militants in Iraq, or haunted by the images below of two of the many Yazidi girls who have been caught up in a war that’s not of their own making – one who looks little older than a child but is forced to carry a rifle to protect her family. Such stories and images are heart breaking, but, for westerners, it is still somehow so hard to grasp that atrocities like these are taking place on such a large scale when the comparatively ‘civilised’ society in which we live is at the opposite end of the spectrum of humanity.

So many terrible, evil things are happening all around the world, and though we fortunate folk may feel sickened, we also feel powerless to help. And, granted, when it comes to the poor souls being persecuted in Iraq, Syria, Gaza and all the other places where oppression, violence, corruption and hatred are as widespread as the oceans between us, we ARE powerless. But there is one thing we can do: Reach out to the people in our immediate vicinity, undertaking acts of kindness that will bolster the collective morale and prove not only the strength and beauty of the human spirit, but also that goodness still exists in the world. Just like this man, hairstylist Mark Bustos in New York, who gives up every Sunday to roam the streets in search of homeless people who need a haircut, whilst his girlfriend takes the trouble to ask them what they want to eat (rather than giving them scraps and leftovers). You might think a haircut is a shallow thing, but he said this of one of his most memorable beneficiaries:

“After offering him a haircut and whatever food he wanted to eat, he didn’t have much to say throughout the whole process, until after I showed him what he looked like when I was done … The first thing he said to me was, ‘Do you know anyone that’s hiring?'”

It’s small acts of kindness just like this that have the power to restore people’s faith – in themselves, in the world around them, and in humanity itself. I’m not saying we should all go out with a pair of scissors every weekend, but I am saying this: We may not have the power to heal the world, but the power to heal those closest to us is absolutely in our hands – if only we choose to acknowledge and act on it.

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Choose life

After yesterday’s doldrums I went out of my way to get to work early, intent on having a cheerful and productive day. But despite my best efforts to complete the main (now urgent) task on my to do list I was thwarted at every turn; pulled into meetings I hadn’t known were happening or that I was meant to attend, asked for input on far less urgent things and generally wound up by events that were beyond my control.

By 5.30pm I was thoroughly disenchanted with life, having achieved none of what I’d planned. I was also, thanks to the weekend’s excesses, still feeling under the weather, which I knew full well would mean abandoning running club and sitting on the sofa enveloped in a grumpy mist of Eau de Woe for the remainder of the evening.

It was then that I remembered the film screening that two of my colleagues were attending with some of our young people this evening. It was for a documentary called One Mile Away, about two ex-gang members from warring factions in Birmingham coming together to try and bring about peace and end gang violence. I’d originally said I couldn’t go but now what was stopping me? My grumpy voice turned up its nose, folded its arms and demanded I go home and mope. But a louder voice said no, I will go to this screening, because instead of making it all about me I should do something to support my colleagues, our young people and the film makers who risked their lives to bring this issue to light.

And so I went. And I’m delighted that I did, because it interesting, illuminating and inspiring (and also because there were free drinks and popcorn, though I appreciate that doesn’t paint quite such a philanthropic picture). The young men in the film were intelligent and frank about their reasons for wanting to change their ways and fight for peace. They explained how hard it was to make the film, how frustrating it was to come up against so much opposition, time and time again. But at no point did they give up, because what they’re fighting for is too important to give up on.

I was particularly struck to learn that two young women in the audience had done 12 years in jail between them, one for armed robbery and the other possession of firearms. These were attractive, confident, articulate girls who had been dragged into gang culture and whose lives had nearly been ruined. And yet here they were, backing the cause for peace to ensure that other girls in their situation didn’t make the same bad choices they had.

Because that’s what it’s all about, this life: Choices. You can make good ones, you can make bad ones. At 5.30pm today I made the choice to turn my back on a frustrating day and the opportunity to wallow and instead spend the evening at an inspiring event with inspiring people, learning about a cause that needs to be shared. And just as I made my choice, so did the boys in the film, and the girls in the audience. They’ve chosen to shun the negative choices they made in the past and make new, positive choices for themselves and their families.

I’ve learned today that whilst you can’t always change your circumstance, you can choose the way you react to it. It’s never too late to turn things around, no matter how bad they seem. We only get one shot at life – no pun intended – so we should everything in our power to fight for it.

Hate for hate’s sake

I know I shouldn’t jump on the bandwagon after yesterday’s shocking attack on a soldier near his army barracks in Woolwich, but I’ve been so shocked and appalled by the outpouring of anti-Muslim sentiment on social media in its wake that I feel compelled to write about it.

What happened was both vile and unforgivable. But whilst the true nature and circumstance of the crime has yet to be revealed, let’s get one thing straight. Whether this was truly an ‘act of terrorism’ – as the media so gleefully report – or the act of two delusional individuals with extremist beliefs, it is beyond wrong to lay the blame for this incident at the door of the Muslim community.

For the English Defence League – whose website claims they are “are an inclusive movement dedicated to peacefully protesting against Islamic extremism” – to arm themselves with bottles and attack police and mosques in the wake of the incident is despicable.

Why do some people in this country – and the world at large – have such a strong propensity for hate? They claim to be fighting a cause but in reality it’s simply violence for violence’s sake. An eye for an eye is what they misguidedly believe, but do they even understand what they’re allegedly fighting for?

Yes, times are hard, and many people are looking for someone to blame. But for God’s (and by this I must be clear that I mean any god) sake let’s not lose the one thing that makes our species great: Our humanity. Because without that what are we but animals? And savage ones at that.

Doris

As the days go by he finds he mourns the passing of the time more than her. For this he bears such crushing guilt he is tormented through his every waking moment, sometimes even in his dreams. She was not, he recognises, an easy or a pleasant woman. Many a time he’d heard her referred to as formidable, cantankerous, nasty and mean.

But for all her numerous faults, she had been his mother; dark-skinned, curly-haired, thick-ankled Doris. No nonsense, take-dat-spoon-on-da-back-of-yar-legs-and-dat-be-a-lesson-to-ya Doris. He’d lived his life in a combination of fear and awe; fear of her anger at the world, which all too often manifested itself as anger towards him, and awe at her ability to cope after all she had been through.

It’s what she’d been through that made it hard for him to turn away. The people who gossiped in the street didn’t know, they took her at face value and never bothered to look beneath the surface. But he knew everything. Not that she knew he knew. He was only a small boy when he’d crawled under her bed, found the box with the photographs – and the letters.

In her native Jamaica, at the age of seventeen, Doris had been gang raped and beaten so badly that she miscarried her firstborn – his brother. Two years later, when she was heavily pregnant, her husband was murdered by the very same gang. It was all there in the letters, the heavy black scrawl of the condemned asking – no, begging – Doris for forgiveness. He never could bring himself to ask if she had granted her rapist – also her husband’s killer – the absolution he so desired.

He had simply allowed her to exert her grief on him.

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Thinking about a mother’s love for her son reminded me of my time living in a remote orphanage in Kisii, Kenya, in 2007. It was run by this lovely lady, Rebecca, and her husband Amos. They were the most wonderful hosts for the six weeks I spent there, and despite them speaking limited English we struck up a very warm relationship. Even though I sometimes found it so hard being there, I look back fondly on their family and the hospitality they showed me.

His face

Jess took a step closer to the trolley and swallowed hard as the crisp blue sheet slid weightlessly across the still form beneath. As the face was revealed she nodded to confirm his identity. Death, she thought, had robbed him entirely of personality – or at least of his personality, the one she had known every harsh detail of for the past twenty years. In its place she saw serenity – an expression that had rarely, if ever, registered on his hard-edged features. His thick grey hair, flecked lightly with silver, was shaved on one side. A scar ran from the base of his neck right up to the crown of his head. Instinctively she reached out to touch it. She trailed a finger down the congealed wound, imagining his skin was warm to the touch, though she knew that was impossible. He had been dead for several days.

The news reports spoke of a five car pile-up which had robbed a family of their patriarch – brother, husband, father, grandfather. They would have people believe his death was something of a loss when in fact it had set them all free.

pa·tri·arch 

Noun

The male head of a family or tribe

  • An older man who is powerful within an organization
  • The male founder of something

He had been powerful all right, but the only thing he’d ever founded was borne of hatred and deceit.

This death mask may fool others but it could never fool her. He had been a monster in life and would remain a monster beyond it. No place in Heaven would be waiting for him.

Jess nodded and the sheet began its steady ascent, obscuring his face for the final time.

She felt nothing.

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This photo was taken on the boat to Lombok in Indonesia. I don’t know why but writing this story made me think of a boat man, carrying souls across the water to the ‘other side.’