December 2015 Archives

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Palestinians wait to get through at checkpoint at the separation wall in Bethlehem [file photo], (Photo: Activestills.org)

A separation wall encircles

Birthplace of Prince of Peace

I want to write a poem about it

But I can't find the words.

It ought to be a rap

That's not my style.

How far is it to Bethlehem?

Today, much too far.

Would they let the shepherds through the checkpoint?

Or foreign dignitaries bearing gifts?

How far is it to Bethlehem?

My favourite childhood carol

Choked by teargas, drowned by gunfire

I ought to write a poem

But I'll never have the words

To speak this tragedy, express this travesty.

I was just a young teenager during the six-day war. Unquestioningly, I supported Israel. I believed what my grandmother said--we had to have our own country, because during the Holocaust no country would accept us. At fifteen, I didn't think in great depth about whose country Israel was before Jews got there, or what was happening to the previous residents. After all, Jews were profoundly ethical people--Grandpa told me that every month when we visited. If Israel was a Jewish state, surely everything would be done in an ethical way.

In the nearly fifty years since that war, I've had time to grow up, time to study Middle Eastern history. My unquestioning support of Israel is long gone. To say I'm 'pro-Palestinian' would be a misnomer. True peace activists hold a non-partisan stance. It's not that I'm pro-Palestinian--it's simply that I've come to understand that all true religion, including Judaism, calls on us to protect the poor, the weak and the defenceless, to be a voice for the voiceless and speak for peace and kindness. So how can I support the illegal occupation of Palestinian lands, the blockade of Gaza, the killing of civilians, the imprisonment of children, the demolition of homes as an act of collective punishment? The Hebrew prophets call us to stand on the side of the oppressed, and that's where I stand.

In the last weeks that my late mother still had the power of speech, she reminded me of a moment of profound awakening. After my first year of paid work as a junior doctor, I spent my accumulated salary on taking my parents to the Holy Land--Israel and the West Bank. There we saw refugees living behind barbed wire. We talked to Palestinians who shared their grief and frustration with us. We awoke, the three of us, my parents and I, to the Palestinian cause. Looking back, I can see that in one of my final conversations with Mum, she was reminding me to keep holding that torch, once she and my father were no longer there. Injustice is being perpetrated every day in our names--the names of those who lost family in the Holocaust. With my parents gone, I'm left to say, 'not in my name!'

Israel and Palestine--a topic I tend to avoid in this blog, because so many of my friends and supporters will be angered by these words. I'm sorry, dear friends, I don't want to hurt or offend, but my mother's memory calls me to speak out. Walls don't bring safety, guns don't bring peace and I can't trade someone else's rights for my security. Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow. (Isaiah 1: 17). Having nowhere else to go but social media to fulfil this call of the Hebrew prophets, here I am.

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Pope Francis touches the wall that divides Israel from the West Bank, on his way to celebrate a mass in Manger Square next to the Church of the Nativity, believed by many to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ, in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, Sunday, May 25, 2014.
Image: Osservatore Romano, ho/Associated Press

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Greetings dear ones,

Of many events that took place for us this year, from a pilgrimage to Tunisia to an unprecedented expansion of Alandi Gurukula, by far the most momentous was the death, on 15th October, of my beloved mother, aged ninety. I'll be dedicating this year's letter to her legacy.

On 5th July 1948, Britain's NHS (National Health Service) was born. The world's first publicly funded single-payer universal healthcare system officially started when Health Secretary Aneurin "Nye" Bevan opened Trafford General Hospital in Manchester. At the time, my mother, then Joyce Board, was a medical student at London's Royal Free Hospital. She was to spend her entire working life as an NHS doctor, and at the end of her life was cared for lovingly by NHS Wales.

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Nye Bevan opens Trafford General Hospital

Joyce's personal legacy is inseparable from the vision of healthcare as a right, free to all at the point of use--a vision to which she dedicated her life. As a poor child growing up on Skipton Street, a South London slum, Mum became aware early in life of the challenges poverty brings. She vividly described the day she accompanied her father, a lab technician at Bart's Hospital, to a Christmas party at a doctor's house. When the little girl asked to wash her hands, she was brought into a beautiful bathroom with a claw foot tub. It was a far cry from the toilet she shared with several other families, and the tin tub brought out for a weekly bath. Immediately, little Joycey decided that she too would become a doctor and have a lovely bathroom! And despite poverty, the Great Depression and the ravages and dislocations of the Second World War, the young Cockney girl fulfilled her ambition.

The birth of the NHS paved the way for Mum to have a future quite different than that of doctors of previous generations. Instead of running a business and receiving payments from patients, Joyce was paid by the government as a public servant, free to provide care to all, regardless of ability to pay. Soon the NHS was to train generations of doctors and nurses who believed in healthcare as a right and found their greatest satisfaction in providing quality care on the basis of need.

In December 1951, two and a half years after the birth of the NHS, I was born in a small town in the Midlands as a member of the first generation entitled to receive cradle-to-grave care from the new healthcare system. In fact Mum, Dad and I all spent our first Christmas in St Mary's Hospital, Dad sick with brucellosis, Mum recovering from the birth and I, a tiny premature baby, in an incubator. I wonder how our little family would have survived without the NHS! A few months later, Mum was back at work as junior partner in general practice. However, she soon saw that the life of a GP was not optimal for a wife and mother--and began to shape her career within the NHS' nascent public health system. This started with infant welfare clinics and soon blossomed into care of children with special needs. Joyce would pay a home visit, assess the child and assign the needed services. Most of her work was among mining families in rural Nottinghamshire. The poverty of these families made a lasting impression. " The woman of the house makes her husband a bacon sandwich to take down the mine. She gives the children bacon rind sandwiches and she herself takes a bit of bread and wipes it around the frying pan for a taste of bacon," she told me.

Meanwhile, as I attended primary school in Melton Mowbray and Mum cared for the needs of children in the community, universal healthcare was slowly beginning to spread around the world, coming to Sweden in 1955, Iceland in 1956, Denmark and Japan in 1961 and Saskatchewan, Canada in 1962. The revolutionary vision of healthcare as a right, afforded to each on the basis of need rather than wealth, was beginning to become the norm rather than the exception.

In 1966, I announced to my parents that I had decided to become a doctor. Of course, Mum was delighted. A few years later I began my training at Bart's Hospital--the same place where my late grandfather had been a lab technician. London's diversity was thrilling to me and played out in unique ways within the fabric of the NHS. The hospital porters were, almost without exception, Sikh. On my midwifery rotation at Hackney hospital I also noticed that Italians did the cooking and catering, the senior nurses were Irish, the student nurses Philipina or Malaysian and the midwives Jamaican. Meanwhile, many of the resident doctors were Bengalis or Palestinians. Our different cultures and accents enlivened the workplace and everyone seemed cheerful and at home amid this 'London soup.'

Even more thrilling was the opportunity to provide the finest care to the homeless residents of the City of London. This came into clear focus during my Casualty (ER or A&E) rotation at Bart's. The police would bring in an elderly tramp found injured, coughing or comatose. Nothing delighted me more than to see the old man clean, warm and comfortable in a hospital bed, having his pneumonia or TB treated by world-renowned doctors. And then, since we were not allowed to discharge an elderly person to the streets, the social worker had to find housing for him!

While I studied medicine in London, Joyce was ascending to the top of her career, reaching the level of Senior Consultant in the new specialty of Community Medicine. Much as she enjoyed her professional success, the most important thing for her was the opportunity to help shape a caring society, ensuring the provision of quality services for special needs children and their families as well as for other vulnerable populations. Mum still remembered the 'bad old days' before the welfare state and took great pride in being part of the creation of a society based on the premise, 'Each for all and all for each.' Her chosen specialty led her to look beyond the confines of hospital care to the larger issues confronting the county, the nation and the world as whole. Britain's 'care for all' promise meant that everyone--the young, the sick, the elderly, the homeless, the disabled, as well as addicts--must be provided the opportunity to receive the needed services.

As the decades rolled on, Mum went from being a provider to a recipient of services. In the last months of her life, she received outstanding care from NHS Wales. I sat with her during an in-depth visit from the District Nurse, to determine what services and support she might need while ageing at home. Soon after, Joyce suffered a stroke. The EMT who arrived with his ambulance, very promptly despite the rural setting, made a careful assessment. Mum reached hospital quickly and was immediately taken for a CT scan. Thereafter, she got outstanding care in the Acute Stroke Unit at Bronglais Hospital. Not only was the care timely and compassionate, there were no worries or concerns about 'what is your insurance,' no copays or deductibles, no lingering bills to burden the family. Universal healthcare, free at the point of need--Joyce Hudis dedicated her life to it and benefited from it when she herself needed help.

In the US we feel uneasy about universal healthcare. After all, 'each for all and all for each,' is a Socialist concept--and until recently Socialism was a dirty word akin to Communism. Now that an avowed 'democratic Socialist', Bernie Sanders, is seeking nomination as the Democratic presidential candidate, perhaps we can break that taboo. I've lived in a country that had universal healthcare in an integrated health system and I've lived in one that doesn't. If there is a benefit to not having universal healthcare, I've yet to discover it. But this I do know. If, in the dying years of the British Empire, a nation with great poverty and a rigid social class system could reinvent itself in few brief years, out of the rubble of war, into a welfare state with universal cradle-to-grave healthcare--it can be done. It has been done and it can be done. All it takes is the will to care. Healthcare is a right; let no one deprive us of it. As neo-liberalism rushes toward its inevitable end of oligarchy and corpocracy, it's time to seek sustainability in a new approach.

Each for all and all for each,

A fresh new song is in the air.

All for each and each for all,

For a world of sharing and caring.


Since I wrote the Caring Community Song in spring, many remarkable developments have taken place in the sociopolitical sphere, and most have arisen from the grassroots. Not only has Bernie emerged as a potential presidential nominee--Jeremy Corbyn has become leader of Britain's Labour party, Justin Trudeau has become Canada's Prime Minister and Podemos has made a great showing in Spain's elections. The people demand the fall of the oligarchy! The people demand true social democracy! We are glimpsing the power we have if we stand together and call for caring community.

For a tear-jerking glimpse of Britain's NHS, listen to this beautiful rendition by the NHS choir.

Wishing you a joyous New Year and peace and prosperity during 2016!

With my love and blessings always

Alakananda Ma

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It's a historic moment. After over twenty years of talking, wrangling and inaction, world leaders have signed a legally-binding climate deal--even agreeing that ultimately warming should be limited to 1.5'C, rather than the previously-discussed 2'C.

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We've all been fighting for this for years--and of course, it isn't what we asked for. As we knew going into the talks, current pledges by nations will bring us to a catastrophic 2.7-3.5'C. The document also says that we need to reach net zero carbon emissions in the second half of the century, whereas the UN's own climate science panel is much more specific, saying we must to get there by 2070.

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There's climate science and there's climate politics. Climate politics means striking a deal that oil producers like Saudi Arabia and Russia will sign. We knew this all along. COP21 won't save the world--but it will send a message. The message to global financial markets is loud and clear--the fossil fuels era is coming to an end. Put your money elsewhere. The oil still in the ground is worth billions of dollars only if there's a market for it. No market, no profit. Instead, investors will be looking to renewables and the low carbon economy, spurring increased development and implementation of green energy, electric vehicles and so on.

Meanwhile, Mother Nature is speaking loudly and clearly. Record floods in Chennai, record floods in the UK, record droughts in the Sahel, record droughts in the US, record fires in Australia...to mention but a few of her recent messages. She'll continue speaking and waking us to the need to change.

Before the Paris talks, we'd been sitting with an empty cup for twenty years. Truly slow service at the World Café! During the talks we lifted our voices. The type of tea being brewed wasn't really what we ordered. For example, emissions from shipping and air traffic were left out of the mix. Now the tea is poured. Our cup is half full--and that's progress. It is indeed historic.

Let's take a moment to join the applause, then consider how to get the other half-cup. As one Paris delegate, activist Anieesa Khan said, real change doesn't come from governments, it comes from grassroots action. So, what can we do?

  • Press your church, university or city to divest from fossil fuels.
  • Promote, volunteer for and vote for the potential world leaders who will make a difference-- such as Bernie Sanders in the US and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK. (Canada, congratulations, you did it!)
  • Be a voice for justice and peace. Every action you take on behalf of social justice and human rights will have a positive feedback towards environmental concerns. Climate justice, social justice and human rights go hand in hand.
  • Eat less meat. Get your dairy from small local producers. Cattle feedlots produce large amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas 84 times more potent than CO2.
  • Keep fighting fracking. Here's what Cornell professor Robert Howarth told The Nation: "If we stop producing methane, which means stop doing fracking of natural gas and oil, the world wouldn't run up against that (1.5'C) limit for about 50 years. So we could buy ourselves 25 to 35 years of time, which is critical."
  • Walk, bike, take the bus. It's what you do every day that counts. You don't need to go into agonies of guilt over an occasional plane trip, but choose nonstop flights and only for longer journeys.

Most of all, stay positive, keep hope alive and remember the seventh generation. Cynicism, bitterness and despair will only lead to apathy. Without us, all of us, there would have been no COP 21 and no Paris agreement. We can't save ourselves and our fellow species by acting from fear or anger, still less by giving up and withdrawing from the fight.

Get up, stand up, stand up for your right
Get up, stand up, don't give up the fight
Get up, stand up. Life is your right
So we can't give up the fight
.

Love will save us, gratitude will save us. With a big thank you to all Paris delegates who stayed up night and day to bring us the climate agreement, let's have a nice slow sip of the tea they have poured us, take a breath and keep on fighting as open-hearted warriors.

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Haiku by Paul Reps

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It's been a hard week on the justice and peace front--a week of violence, mayhem, hatred and prejudice. Wednesday saw the horrific mass shooting in San Bernardino. I was saddened by the deaths and injuries; the grief of those who lost loved ones. I was devastated that such an apalling act took place in a centre for developmentally disabled people. And then the final twist of the knife--the perpetrators were Muslim. We could only wait, in anguished anticipation, for the backlash against innocent Muslims.

And backlash indeed there was, culminating in Donald Trump's outrageous, unconstitutional and preposterous proposal to ban all Muslims--about a fifth of the world's population--from entering the US for any reason.

News of the next blow reached us via our Black Lives Matter contacts. On Friday evening, while on social media, we learnt of the death of stabbing suspect Mario Woods, shot twenty-five times by six San Francisco policemen--the 307th African American killed by police this year, according to mappingpoliceviolence.org. After watching witness video of the shooting, we found this killing even more horrific in its own way than the San Bernardino mass shooting--because Mario Woods was killed by public servants whose job is to protect us and keep us safe.

Just as I felt I could bear no more, came the stabbings at Leytonstone Underground Station in London, perpetrated by a would-be terrorist. Yet in that deepening darkness, finally we saw some rays of hope. First, l'd like to take a moment to acknowledge the courage and heroism of the San Bernardino police officers who responded to the 911 call--truly living up to their 'serve and protect' mission, placing their own lives at risk as they sought to 'bring calm to chaos'. Residents of San Bernardino came together to share grief and support, through interfaith vigils, free cupcakes and community expressions of care for those affected. Wherever there is the human heart, we will find beauty, courage and tenderness. We must keep this faith in human goodness, even when confronted again and again with acts of evil, racism and hatred.

And, friends, we can also light up the darkness with sparkles of British humour, one of the greatest gifts my native land has to offer. Leytonstone has several things to teach us. While Mario Woods died clutching a kitchen knife, shot twenty-five times in what has been described as an execution or firing squad, the Leytonstone stabbing suspect, Muhaydin Mire, was taken into custody after being subdued with a taser. During the attack, Mire shouted, "This is for Syria, my Muslim brothers!". In response, an onlooker shouted the now-famous words, "You ain't no Muslim, bruv, you ain't no Muslim." These spontaneous words didn't come to excommunicate a man we now know was mentally ill, rather, they express that such conduct is radically un-Islamic.

As Londoners trend #YouAintNo MuslimBruv to the top of Twitter, they speak not just to one deranged man, but to all who want to divide us, want us to live in fear. If you are a person of hatred, of violence, of prejudice in your thoughts and actions, if you seek to divide and spread fear, then whether you are Trump or a terrorist, a police officer or a priest, you ain't no Muslim and you ain't no Christian either, you ain't no Jew and you ain't no Hindu or Buddhist, for you have slammed shut the door of the human heart, the home of true religion. And instead of cowering before you, instead of closing our own hearts, we're going to keep lighting candles and making cups of tea, we're going to keep giving out free cupcakes and most of all, we're going to keep smiling--because you can never take our humour away from us.

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A candlelight vigil to honor the victims of the San Bernardino shooting on December 3, 2015 at San Manuel Stadium. Photo: Marcus Yam/2015 Los Angeles Times

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