Category Archives: Cultural Identity

Interview with Gloria Mindock, Author of Whiteness of Bone: Poetry as Witness


In this space, usually reserved for issues of refugees in Sicily , I tackle a  twin topic: that of organized killing and slaughter worldwide in repressive countries with brutal regimes.  Poet, Writer and Activist Gloria Mindock answers some of my questions about her latest collection of poems, The Whiteness of Bone, which focuses on systematic killing as a worldwide  modern scourge.  Not coincidentally, brutal regimes and all that goes with them are often just one of the reasons people flee their country of origin, their home. Her newest poetry collection, The Whiteness of Bone, tackles this subject matter.

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MR:Your collection of poems, Blood Soaked Dresses stunned me with its stark portrayals of how banal evil really is. It reminded me so much of Carolyn Forche’s The Country Between us. In that collection you focused on the legacy of violence, oppression, terror and death in El Salvador. In the Whiteness of Bone you cast your net wider and speak of human tragedies in the world at large. Tell me a bit about how this collection came to be, and what your preoccupations were when you were writing these poems.

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GM:After Blood Soaked Dresses was published, I continued to write about the atrocities. The slaughter of the innocents was happening in so many countries. I knew I had to continue to be a voice for those who could not speak. I felt the world was silent and ignoring what was going on. I was not about to ignore it, so I kept writing about it. Finally, I had enough poems that I felt good about and put them into a manuscript, Whiteness of Bone. I am so excited and honored that Glass Lyre Press published this work.

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MR:Andrey Gritsman, so astutely called the poems in this collection “a long weapon piercing human conscience.” In fact, once one reads these poems, it would be difficult if not impossible to perceive what is going on in the world at a distance, since the human essence is so very vivid: you do not hold the reader at arms length—in fact, you are speaking directly to the reader when you write, in the poem “Don’t”

Don’t tell me my writing is too graphic

for you as you sit in your nice apartment,

enjoying the day, sleeping peacefully at night.

You can do this, they can’t.

MR:Who are your readers? What effect do you think or hope these poems have on awareness of political, military and social violence in the world? 

GM:Besides friends and others in the writing community, I am hoping I can reach those that feel like I do and want to wake up the world to these killings. Some people have said to me that it is difficult to read some of my poetry at times. It should be. This means I am doing my job as a writer, as an activist. Right now, the world is falling a part and it is over greed, money, power, religion, oil, land etc… I am hoping people will read more on what is happening and get involved. Voices need to be heard. The slaughter has to stop.

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MR:Your prose poem “Random Thoughts About a Boy” touched me deeply. What came to mind was the little Syrian boy Aylan Kurdi, found face down on a beach while trying to flee his war torn country. That was a graphic and gut wrenching visual provided to us by worldwide news, the image of which I will never forget. What you do with words here, is also so evocative, one can imagine children everywhere who are either lose their lives’ or who take the lives of others, as is the case with children being conscripted into war. If killing is learned, how can it be unlearned?

GM:Killing is learned and it can be changed, starting with the adults and parents not teaching their children to hate by watching what comes out of their mouths and demonstrating the actions of peace and caring for others. Change can happen if responsibility is taken.  For some people, it is rooted from one generation to another. People have to be willing to change, work at it to stop the cycle. Strapping bombs on children, or giving them a gun and teaching them to shoot is , clearly, not the answer.

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MR:In your poem “Shrapnel” hope feels lost. You write: No matter how hard we try, we can’t attach ourselves back to solace. then further, you write: The vine stays, the debris adds up, and the angel laughs— truthfully, as fine a line as I have ever read. So fine, in fact, I copied that line into my journal. while so much poetry has an ineffable quality, explain to me, if indeed you can, what you mean by that line. Do you really believe there is no longer a place or room for solace.

GM:The line means the vine to heaven stays but the debris of the killings adds up. No one is going to climb the vine but it is there if you do. The angel laughs because no one climbs it. She is cynical and feels there is no hope for this world. I feel the same way lately because the slaughter is getting worse. Evil is getting worse. Again, the world stands by and does nothing to put a stop to it. I believe in comforting and helping the innocents in these countries but I can’t do this alone. I feel alone in this calling at times so where is the solace? There are a few out there speaking up like I do but not enough. I will never lose hope and my love for mankind but I am human. I want to shake the world up and put a stop to all this killing. If enough people say stop, I believe it all can change.

MR:You do not shy away from the graphic, which is just one of the things that give your poems their great power. In Maria’s Uncle, Maria holds her uncles guts in her hands, then tries to push them back in. Her lips actually touch them. Such a stark and stomach churning image, but it is the last two stanzas that move me the most:

Now Maria travels the world, speaking about the dead, telling the

world it is hopeless, that no one is capable of a quiet tongue. 

With outstretched hands, she handed everyone a flower, said:

you must water it to live, but if not, the depths of hell will assign you a seat.

This poem both expresses despair that is unending and then hope. Is Maria a composite or a real person? Are you expressing here the stubborn hope in the face of unspeakable tragedy? 

GM:Maria is a real person who fled El Salvador in the 1980’s. She escaped at age nine. She laid in a pit by her mother who was dead and faked her death so she would not get shot. The trauma and PTSD this young girl suffered was heart breaking. I had a translator when speaking with her. In the book is a poem called “Maria” which I wrote for her. I have no idea what happened to her but hopefully, she still is alive and living here in the United States.

I decided to use Maria in many of my poems and made her into a saint- like figure. To show everyone, that there is always hope in this world.

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MR:We can only imagine some of the locations of the poems that you write about, since you are not explicit and do not name names of the countries. As a poet, this appeals to me greatly—because while each tragedy is unique in its own way, oftern the effects, the loss of life and other horrific vagaries of war are the same. Was this lack of specification intentional on your part? If so, why?

GM:  I did not name the countries because there are so many of them. There are only so many ways to kill a human and so many countries slaughter in the same way. How many different ways can you use a machete, shoot a person, rape, chop up, and torture? It all is horrific. I don’t need to name the countries because it is everywhere. This world is becoming a cruel place. Towards the end of the book, I do mention a few countries.

MR:The last poem in the book “Orchestra” brings it all home to me. You give the reader something of yourself, which is brilliant:

I don’t think you understand who I am—

Bohemian girl, who never sleeps…

Can I speak to you about my poetry?

Listen, you will hear new words

coming from my voice.

MR:Who is Gloria, the writer, the poet, the activist?

GM:I am someone who believes in helping others, speaking up;  being a voice for others.

I am a protestor, a warm-hearted person who cares about the world and how people treat each other. I will never understand all the mass killings.

I write on many different subjects and write poetry, plays, and flash fiction. Not all of my work is about the atrocities.

One of my biggest gripes is  that many people don’t care about what is happening in the world because it does not directly affect them. These are the people I am trying to reach, to wake up. I want people to say “enough”.

I have always helped people in so many ways. I work in addictions and have for close to 36years. It is not easy some day working with people who are suffering and addicted to drugs,  but I love it—it is very rewarding.

MR:You are so active and present on the poetry scene both in the US and abroad. Your press Červená Barva Press has published poetry from writers the world over. What is the philosophy behind the press?

GM:Červená Barva’s mission is to publish poetry, fiction, plays, and translations from all over the world. The press tries to bridge gaps between countries. To name a few, we have published writers from: New Zealand, Australia, Poland, Northern Iraq, Canada, Romania, Asia, South Korea, Czech Republic, England, Argentina, Mexico, Sweden, Estonia, and many more.

I have more countries to reach. We have so much to learn from what is written in other countries. Failure to read work from other countries make a person’s view rather  narrow You will never grow as a person or writer if you don’t expand your view. Translations were once difficult to find , but more presses are publishing translations. This makes me really happy.

Oh my, I have so many influences–here are  just some of them: Neruda, Agosin, Allegra, Milosz, Amichai, Hikmet, Celan, Vallejo, Dugan, Radnoti, Alberti, Zagajewski, Lorca, Herbert, and really a ton more, mostly foreign.. These are the writers I read over and over again.

MR:What would you like people to know about the power of poetry as witness?

GM:The poetry of witness can make you aware, not let you feel alone, can help action to proceed, can make people think, cry, and is so  powerful. It  grabs at your heart.

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MR: Well said. Thank you , Gloria!

 

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Vu Cumpra? The refugee street vendor in Sicily.


My friend and I are sitting in a cafe in Sicily enjoying the warmth and the coffee on a  particularly and unusually (for Sicily) cold day.   I see her look up. She says , in a low voice , “Here comes a vendor.”  Before I could ask her to elaborate, I look up and right beside be is a full-figured woman, her hair beautifully wrapped and her arms laden with cheap plastic bracelets and various other trinkets that she, along with many other “Vu Cumpra” , sell on the beaches and on the streets of nearly every Italian town and city in which refugees have made their home.  In fact, I have met up with this woman, who has never told me her name, many, many times in the past.  The routine is nearly always the same,  her approach unfailingly cheerful and high-spirited. It goes something like this:

Where are you from?” “What is your name?” Then: “I would like to give you a gift!”   

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Amulet, Cornicello

 

Before I know it, as in the past, she has placed a bracelet on my wrist, tossed a trinket into my lap, or otherwise has placed one of her wares so near me and with such seemingly good intentions that to deny her the pleasure of bestowing the “gift” would seem crass, a gross social faux pas, at the very least, mean.  At first I mildly protest, and then am ashamed of myself. She has given me a charm called a “cornicello”—in this case, it is a small bunch of “cornicelli”, which is an amulet said to ward off the evil eye and fashioned after a red pepper which it is often and understandably mistaken for. She insists.  I lean over to grab the wallet from my bag to look for change.  I find a 2 Euro coin which I give her. She winks at me, smiles widely.  She seems to recognize my companion, who , in fact, says she came in contact with her a few days ago. The woman,  a Senegalese refugee , does not attempt to give her a gift.  Just me, since she has not seen me in a while.   Once the coin is in her hands, she leaves as gracefully as she entered, wishing us wishes for a good New Year.  “Auguri!” she calls softly. “Buon Anno!” her voice trails as her eyes dart around the crowded cafe, looking for another opportunity.

As annoying as these interactions are, I understand them and I hate the story behind them.  It is not the first time I have been “gifted” an item from her.  In fact, I have a growing collection of these trinkets in a box at home.  I say “growing” because I will never not accept what I am offered.  Really, what does it cost me?  The Senegalese are an extremely enterprising immigrant population in Italy—and are said to be the most hard working and, as a result, the most successful.  I admire them for so very many reasons.  And while their appearance while eating dinner or deep in conversation over coffee while with a friend, can be jarring—they often seem to come out of nowhere, they are trying to make a living.  This is not the work that they would like to do, most of whom are educated people.  It is not easy to ingratiate yourself to people who you know will not want what you sell, who have no need for the cheap trinkets, poorly made ( and illegal ) knockoffs, but until something better comes along, IF , in fact, something better comes along, this is what they do.

So when they ask “Vu Cumpra?” (roughly, “you buy?”),  go ahead and buy.

 

 

 

 

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Words Matter: The Associated Press Discontinues the Use of the Term “Illegal Immigrant”


Remember that little ditty our mother’s taught us as a mantra to ward off those who bullied and teased us?

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.”

Um, your mother was wrongSo was mine.

Words matter. Words can hurt like hell. Words can break you.

In an interesting move and one that activists applaud, the Associated Press has banned the term “illegal immigrant”.   But before we all get too excited, the AP have expressed a desire to avoid “labels” rather than show sensitivity toward immigrants, though they would like to be sensitive to others’ feelings.  Standards editor, Tom Kent told TIME magazine,” We’re trying to put the emphasis not on describing people but on describing actions or situations that they are in.”  They have also rejected “undocumented immigrants,” because even that language lacks the precision they strive for.

Illegal Immigrants CrackdownWords are important.  Our language shapes our perception of reality and others’ perceptions of our condition(s) as well.  Ask any “single mother” whose “illegitimate” children come from a “broken” home.  No one who is reading this blog today will be ignorant of the endless list of labels that haunt, crush and defeat those who desperately try to bear up under them. You will have been a victim of at least one, possibly more.

Were you called lazy, clumsy, stupid, ugly, worthless, a bastard, a bitch early on or repeatedly in your life?  A faggot?  A retard?  A spaz?  A dago?  A wop?  A kike? A spic?  A loser?

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It is nearly impossible to  escape a label once it takes hold, growing roots deep into your psyche and those around you. You can spend the rest of your life trying to live it down, change it , turn it around.  And it is exhausting.

See where I’m going here?

The reprehensible Glen Beck weighed in ,  veritably foaming at the mouth: “They’re illegal!  They’re illegal!  They’re illegal!  They are here illegally!!!”  Glen Beck enjoys taxonomies, it helps him to keep people in dark, cramped boxes, away from him, labeled appropriately.

I wish someone would make Glen Beck illegal. Real quick, please.  We wouldn’t have to call him illegal.  We could just deny him the use of hate rhetoric and all that . Free speech be damned.  I know.  I know. Forgive me.

Alternate terms?  A few have been proposed.  The AP rejects “out of status” for being even more imprecise.  And so it goes.  And while the AP rejected the term “illegal immigrants” for precision and stylistic purpose rather than out of the goodness of their collective hearts, I am totally okay with that, because they eventually, will set the standard and I feel confident they will come up with something acceptable.

Sharam Khosravi, author of ”Illegal Traveller” states that once the refugee, the migrant, the immigrant is thought of in a certain way or is thus labeled, it is difficult or impossible to escape:

The invisible border keeps immigrants strangers for generations.  The Sisyphian plight of integration extends even to the next generation. The border exposes me to a gaze that does not see me as an individual but meets me as a type.  The visual field is not neutral.  The gaze is hierarchically interwoven complex of gender, racial and class factors.

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Sartre was right:

L’enfer c’est les autres.”  (Hell is other people)

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Calling immigrants illegal contributes to their invisibility.  Denies them access to humanity, respect, consideration and intervention.  In Italy they are called “clandestino,” forever hiding in the shadows for fear of being exposed for their “illegality.”

Khosravi speaks of not only crossing physical borders, but also, then, forever attempting to negotiate the borders in peoples’ minds—and insidious border, daunting, indeed.  “An invisible border,” Khosravi astutely observes, “is, however, impossible to reach.”

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He continues:

“ Being at home means belonging, but it also means constructing borders and excluding the other.  Any kind of group identification constructs the social category of the other.”

Group identification.  And who does the identifying?  Whoever is not in the unfortunate position of being labeled.

Forgive me my philosophical rant today.  I have a lot of these issues on my mind, as usual.   Every girl deserves, in fact needs, a “rant” every once in a while.  But wait.  I don’t want to label this a “rant” which has a negative connotation.  Because the words I’ve put down here were not penned lightly.  I am  nothing if not passionate about this.

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To close I should mention that immigration activists have praised the AP’s stylistic decision as well as the National Association of Hispanic Journalists who issued this statement:

“Those demeaning titles are not only inaccurate and disrespectful, but a propaganda tool used to dehumanize a group of people and instill fear in the general population in order to establish policy.”

I will end with another little ditty that both my grandmother and my mother, in their infinite wisdom repeated to me often:

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“Make your words short and sweet for someday you may have to eat them.” 

Thanks, Mom.  This one is not a lie.

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La Strada Dell’ Oblio: ‘The Way of Oblivion’: “Lost” by Ramzi Harrabi


 ‘Today the situation in Italy is changing in the direction of an even stricter control of refugees and migrants.  The main restrictions concern the possibilities of obtaining a visa as well as the militarization of the borders and the Italian territory.  The ‘way of oblivion’ is the specific shape assumed by exclusionary practices in the Italian context. Refugees are like ghosts in the Italian public space and discourse; their fate seems to be entrapped between their representation as an anonymous mass that threatens the Italian borders, and their oblivion as individual subjects and citizens.’

—-Enrica Capussotti and Lilliana Ellena, Feminist Review, 73, 2003

Lost by Ramzi Harrabi

LOST by RAMZI HARRABI

This piece is by Tunisian artist and musician Ramzi Harrabi.   I have meditated on this piece and it has grabbed me and moved me in a vulnerable place.

I see the boats going along their voyage,  moving away from its point of relative safety and towards what will almost certainly be a perilous journey with many promises at the outset, but really, no guarantees.

The ocean is a brilliant blue, seemingly peaceful and benign when viewed from solid ground , but is really  treacherous , as one is tossed about its waves . Allow yourself, for just one moment, to imagine this:  men , women, children, the elderly, board a rickety boat or a rubber dinghy.  The “captain” of the boat decides to remove the provisions—small  amounts of food and water meant to sustain those taking the journey, in order to squeeze more people on the boat.  This means more money for the trafficker, who charges what would amount to outright extortion in any other setting—human cargo.

Harrabi uses various shades of red and orange— perhaps the the licking  and persistent flames of hell—representative of the trials and tribulations the journey is rife with.  The yellow sun is interspersed and hard to shield yourself from as you bounce upon the ocean.  The night, when it comes, is even more sinister.

Witness the lost boat(s) upon Harrabi’s canvas, perhaps representing the many that never arrive at their destination.  How many has the Mediterranean claimed this year? Last year?  Five years before?  The nameless , faceless “ghosts,” who,  are already vulnerable take the chance of a lifetime. This is the ultimate gamble, where the currency with which they  pay, is often their  life.

There will always be the boats. People are on the move.  The men who profit from human misery, preying on hopes and dreams.   Those who never arrive.  Those that do and remain “clandestine” like ghosts, moving uneasily and with heavy hearts in the new place they’ve found themselves, far from those who love them.

Harrabi applies heart, mind and soul and tells an entire story on canvas. We can find so much there if we, both literally and figuratively, just open our eyes and , for once, are willing to see, and not, thoughtlessly, just look away.

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Culture: Yours, Mine and Ours: Some Thoughts


In my work, my interactions with people, my poetry and fiction—–in  my life in general,  I am always exploring the  question of  culture, identity and belonging. I do this less in an academic way than in a personal way.   I have asked myself questions regarding these notions for as long as I can remember—before I could put a name to the activity.  I only know what it felt like so long ago, as a young girl.  I call it “belonging, “ now, with so much distances, though I would not, nor could I have called it that then.  Children feel more, tend not to intellectualize, though even way back then I lived in my head, much as I do now.  Because for me, life  is guided by a series of questions I ask myself and must answer.  And sometimes getting at the answers means coming out of myself.  Thus this blog, as just one example.

As I have shared in a previous blog post, my identity is rooted quite firmly in the notion of being Italian-American.  But the interesting thing is that I was always so conscious of the identity.  I felt it through and through and would have had a difficult time, at best, extricating myself from it if I had wanted to—which of course, I never did.

Thankfully, I did not have to fight for my identity.  I did not have to assert who I was.  I felt comfortable (still do) in my culture.  Others accepted that  I was Italian-American.  My classmates all “looked” like me, our families had the same values, our mothers and fathers were friends, former classmates, my friends cousins married my cousins.  Culture was intertwined  and inextricable on so very many levels.

For many years, as I child, I would preface comments to my mother such as “When I was born in Italy,” and my mother would have to remind me that, in fact, I was not born in Italy and where I got that silly notion she had no idea.  I wasn’t until so many years later that the reason I thought that way was because I felt that way.  I used to proclaim that Sundays, in our home , were “Roman Days”. What that mean , to me, what that the smell of my mother’s “gravy” (Italian-Americans NEVER call it “sauce”) was bubbling on the stove just like every single home in our neighborhood.   I was a quiet and inscrutable child , so there was a lot that my parents did not question about me.  But, maybe by now you understand what I am getting at:  I could not have identified more with my culure if I tried.  And I didn’t have to try—–it just was. And as a child, food one just one of the ways I identified with culture.

Much like the age old question “Who is a Jew,” the notion of belonging , at its very essense is being  challenged in the European Union as people are on the move, for any variety of reasons, though most of them being economic.  People will go where the jobs are , because one must eat and live.   “Who is Italian,” is such an interesting notion to me as Italy has seen a burgeoning of immigrants and refugees in the past 20 years.  Let me qualify this:  if you do not look European, your identity is challenged. And where are most of the refugees  and immigrants coming from?  Countries in Africa, mainly.

We have our own problems in the United States with “Who is American,” and argument I eschew because it tends to bring out the worst in those who call themselves “patriots.” And yes, we all  know that none of us, no matter how many generations our family has lived in the US,  is a “native American” because we all came from somewhere, first.  But  in the United States, the argument is mainly about legality—who is a legal American.  We do not question ( at least not according to the law) that the child of an immigrant if born in the United States is a citizen.  That does not protect them from taunts, from hatred or hate crimes.   But they are entitled to life , liberty and the pursuit of happiness (such as it is), at least on paper.   And, for the most part, we celeberate cultures , these days—we do not try to hide who we are.  A friend from India once asked me why so many Italian-Americans do not speak Italian.  In her family, from New Delhi, India, it was imperative that the language live on through generations.  I pointed out to her ( a lawyer) that  no one had ever tried to squelch that, to force her or her family to “assimilate” or be discriminated against.  Italian-Americans were reviled during the first and most  intense waves of immigration and were forced to abandon the language for “American.”

I know of so many stories of bullying and  ridicule of those who spoke the language.  To speak your native tongue was seen as “unpatriotic.”  It is   still is a common sentiment amongst many that  “If you want to speak that language, go back to your own country!”  To which many can honestly respond “This (USA) IS my country!” The controversy over Barack Obama’s multiracial identity  would be amusing were it not so sinister in its implications.  A black man.  A white mother.  A Muslim name.  And the egregious campaign to accuse him of not even being a natural born citizen of the United States.  Culture and belonging are complicated things still used discriminate in ways one cannot even imagine.  That the campaign about Obama’s citizenship continued after he was already President speaks to the rabid emotions connected with it.  Abandon all intelligence upon entering here.

In my own experience,  at home I am perhaps too Italian (to some).  In Italy, I am perhaps, not Italian enough. Because, as we know, predjudice occurs with alarming regularity (and cruelty) amongst our own kind.  Sicilan vs. Italian.  Southern Italian agains Northern Italian. Well, you get the idea.  One wonders how anyone else trying to be who they really are,  can ever achieve it.  Sounds so simple , but really, it is anything but.

At the European Championship,  Mario Balotelli, a striker for the Manchester City team, born in Ghana but adoped and raised by Italian parents ,was subjected to  bananas being thrown at him by Croats (no strangers to one of the worst kinds of ethnic conflict in recent memory) and  racially degrading chants by  the Spaniards referring  to the obvious: black, but with an Italian name, and perhaps not quite so “evolved.”  On the other side, I consistenly read about Balotelli in saintly terms, his benevolent parents  raising someone totally out of their culture, etc.  And even that grates on me , somehow.  To be treated as some sort of “artifact” is less objectional, in my opinion, but objectional anyway. Balotelli’s story is a good and inspiring one, but that is not the sum of who he is.  And despite all of his achievements, when the story is told in this way, it seems somehow, well, reductive :  what upstanding and wonderful people these Italians were to go against the grain.  It says very little about the amazing striker that Balotelli really is. Do you see what I mean?

So what does all of this have to do with immigration?  The connections are quite easy to see.   Those who are brave enough to leave the what they know, the culture they were born into, to live in another, will have trials seemingly more difficult than the ones they left behind them.  Maybe difficult or next to impossible to find work without exploitation,  a place to live that has a measure of safety, enough food to nourish the body and a sense of belonging.  Being who you are and what you hope to become wherever you may find yourself in the world should not be that difficult.  It is the epitome of unfairness that it actually is.  Welcome here , there.  Welcome anywhere.  Welcome to the world as we know it.

Note:  I welcome anyone, anywhere , to add your own opinions about your own experience with culture and/or immigration.  It is a conversation I would love to have. If you would like to be interviewed about your own experience, please contact me. 

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