Tag Archives: Compassion

Still Opposing Refugees the Right to Safety and Peace? Better Check Yourself…


…because up close and personal, THIS is the reality, this is the face, (one of many) of the most vulnerable of the vulnerable.   Still oppose refugees right to cross borders ?  If you can ,. you are cold , hard and shiny plastic ,for sure. And I hope your society, and your country never burns under your feet.  What a way to come into the world, right?  This infant boy and his twin brother , along with their mother braved a 3o hour, arduous journey, some of it in the pitch black of night, for a safe shore.  Fifteen rubber boats (unbelievably) and one made of wood were rescued in the Mediterranean.  Thousands were rescued.

Compassion is in play here, thankfully, but the naysayers, the bigots and the ill-informed cannot be far behind. The harsh truth is that the 30 hour  journey, treacherous as it was, will not be the end of a life full of instability, fear, and an intense longing for a land and a home that, for all intents and purposes no longer exists.  The refugee escapes one set of unbearable circumstances for another.  But , at the very least, the ground is no longer burning under their feet.

The face of this tiny infant , a mere 5 days old, and others like him will haunt me.

SYRIAN BABY.jpg

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The purpose of human life is to serve, and to show compassion and the will to help others

Albert Schweitzer

If one pays close attention, the traveller or more specifically the tourist in Sicily will see “need” at every turn.  The evidence of poverty , homelessness  and the displacement of refugees to those enjoying a  vacation  is an “inconvenient truth” , with most people choosing , whether consciously or subconsciously , to ignore what, in reality, cannot and should not be denied.

homeless in Sicily

I am not much of a tourist. In fact, I never have been. The place where I love to dwell, literally and figuratively, is in everyday life.   I have a friend that used to joke that I was a true member of the often-castigated “hoi polloi”. I am proud of that. In general, I am not interested in seeing whatever is in a guidebook and I am quite certain that no matter where I have found myself in the world, I have missed things that are deemed by the venerable guide books (that people clutch like the Bible) a “must see.” Honestly, I have never really cared about such things.

For the past 4 years I have been lucky enough to lead my students to Sicily each March, which is the travel component of my class, “This Sea is Not My Home: Immigration, Migration and Social Justice in the Sicilian Context.” As you can glean from the title, what started out as class that on the vagaries of immigration, migration and refugees, has slowly morphed into examining the realities of not only migration as a worldwide movement and phenomenon, but, perhaps more importantly, the lives’ of refugees themselves. The people, not just the geopolitical situation.  

PEOPLE

I have staunchly defended (and still do) the rights of people to migrate from one place to another, most particularly for reasons  that people seek asylum. I could also reason the cruel irony of how protected merchandise is and how easy it is to cross borders ($$$$$) though masses of people are seen as a scourge. I have had to listen to Sicilians and Sicilian-Americans, often with fingers in my face trying to tell me how bad the situation is for Sicilians in their own country. I sympathized—how could I not— but my particular focus was on refugees into the country, not those suffering from a decimated economy resulting in an  unemployment rate so high , the first time I was told what it was, I though I had misheard. But, in fact, I would have to be cold, hard, shiny plastic not to care. ,

I care

Last week my students and I helped out at a Catholic Relief Agency one evening. The students were tasked to shop during the day for the food in the open market. On the menu was fruit salad, green salad and chicken stew. We washed and chopped and the wonderful men and women at the agency did the actual cooking. But my students and I portioned the food out. And we served. We served a hungry, possibly homeless (at least some of them) and grateful bunch of people. Among a group of perhaps 45 there was a family with two young boys. There were approximately 4 refugees that I could easily identify. The others were Sicilian.

To think of them now ties my heart up in knots.   I have listened to, read and discussed the situation in Sicily with people I deeply trust there: friends, advocates, cultural mediators and educators, all on the front lines , involved and passionate.   I have come to the conclusion that at least one of the reasons that  many are opposed to the  influx and presence of the refugees is that many  themselves are also suffering—and they perceive (not accurately) that their jobs, or at least the possibility of employment will be taken from them.   How can you possibly convince those with that mindset otherwise? It is hard to be compassionate in the face of your own fear and suffering.

What I know is that in that room when the bell was struck for the Our Father before the eating of the meal, everyone in the room stood and there was utter silence. There was respect, too, that everyone in the room had for one another: young, old, black, white, immigrant and refugee.  In that moment, everyone was connected somehow, and our differences did not matter.

hunger-hurts

With each plate I set before someone who was waiting to eat,  I said “buon appetito”. Every single person responded, warmly, with a smile and a “grazie.” This is not to fetishize those in need—far from it, but I see poverty of every kind as a sort of equalizer—it reduces us to the essence of our humanity—and it elevates us too, when we lend a hand, in any way, to help alleviate it.

When we passed out the fruit cups, the two young boys very carefully enunciated “thank you” to me in English.   I replied in kind. The mother looked up at me and asked, in a bit of an embarrassed way, if I could maybe find a cup of fruit with more oranges.   “The boys really love oranges,” she said

Oranges

The reality of having to bring your children to a social service agency in order to feed them, hit me in a very vulnerable place. While intellectually, I know this a sad, but common occurrence, I’d never faced it so up close.  It felt personal  Most people who will read this blog post will be very far from such an experience.  I looked at those kids and I felt my face flush.  Time seemed to stop for just a moment.

I will continue to seek and narrate the voices of refugees in Sicily—I am committed to this work. Sicily is , a complicated but wonderful place, and  my eyes are now more open to the need everywhere. It is not like taking sides: refugees need very particular help, being such a vulnerable and at risk population. The homeless , poverty stricken , the addicted, the forgotten,  need help and compassion, too. Compassion for everyone can go a long way.

At the end of the evening, one man came up to my students and jovially observed , “You can’t understand me and I can’t understand you, but yet, here we are together!”

After all, hunger in the belly hurts us all in exactly the same way.

 

Silhouette of stick people on hillside and sunset in background

Hunger in the Belly Feels the Same to Us All: Feeding the Needy in Sicily

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Trying Times in the Wake of Migrant Deaths: Speaking in the Language of Crisis and Fatigue


Lately, the language with which many of us use to  communicate with one another feels and sounds fraught.   Maybe we feel irritable, sad, angry.  Maybe we blame it on overwork, lack of sleep, too much caffeine, not enough caffeine,  lack of love or world-weariness in general.

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Our language when we speak with one another is fraught, because we, ourselves are fraught.   We communicate in the language of crisis and fatigue.  Fatigue of crisis.  We look to one another for a moment of reprieve , but these days lately are tough ones and in one way or another, we are feeling it.

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I am writing this while watching “breaking news” on CNN who is reporting that a peaceful, but large gathering of people in Philadelphia , protesting the unexplained and tragic death of Freddie Gray , an African-American man who died while in police custody, have begun to “clash” with police.  Or, perhaps, police have begun to clash with protesters.  (note: protesters are citizens, not criminals, and they deserve protection!)  I suspect, but hope and pray otherwise, that the situation may get more out of hand as the evening wears on and darkness descends on the City of Brotherly Love.

We are deaf

We are deaf

Last week, when over 800 migrants died in the Mediterranean attempting to escape death and chaos,  I was approached by more than just a few people on the “situation” “over there”.   I was feeling raw from the news,  sad in a deep place that I could not adequately articulate to anyone.  I have spent time with migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, have witnessed to and for them with what I hope is care and responsibility and have never, ever, not even once , taken that responsibility lightly.   The ethical pitfalls of working with such a vulnerable population are many and I am all too aware of them.    It is not anyone’s responsibility to know how emotionally fragile I felt over the situation—-I have not even an iota of the vulnerability these brave men and women have to cross an ocean with nothing but the shirts on their backs, but I was amazed and dismayed by the lack of compassion for these people by those who did not have an understanding of the situation. And so, I began with great patience in discussing the situation .

A coffin waiting for a refugee

A coffin waiting for a refugee

I have been keeping this blog for almost 4 years, documenting the trials of the migrant, refugee and asylum seeker in the Sicilian context, but I suppose it is not a sexy enough subject for people to care about in their day to day lives.   I have attempted to methodically chronicle my thoughts , experiences and encounters from my ethnography in this blog and was (and still am!) grateful to anyone to whom it provides any enlightenment.  But to those who simply do not want to understand, who have already prejudged these people, who say that Europe has no responsibility  for the troubles the migrants are fleeing and therefore have no right to protection have left me feeling…well, here I am at a loss for words  And then I realized that people were baiting me in an attempt to clobber me on the head with their own opinions which, to be generous in a situation where I probably shouldn’t, were disturbing at best, sickening at worst.

One person asked  me, in an imperious and razor-edge tone ,’ if the migrants can afford to “pay” human traffickers so much money, why don’t they just buy a plane ticket and go to Europe like normal, civilized people?’ This person is highly educated. And, in fact, born and raised in Europe, but a naturalized American citizen.   I had no words.  I put my hand up to stop the conversation and willed deafness to be able to block out the senselessness that  was coming out of her mouth.

In essence, in her opinion and the opinion of many others who I have spoken to, the underlying problem, really, is that the migrants are simply the wrong color.   This should not shock or surprise anyone.  This is not new.   In the United States  right now, Baltimore is burning, protests are spreading once again across the country against police brutality  and  against racism that is firmly embedded and institutionalized.

What does this have to do with the refugees?  If you cannot see the parallels, I probably would not be able to explain it to you. And , unfortunately, my patience is wearing thin.  Because I thought that I could educate people, I thought I could “bear witness”.  But people will see, hear and believe what they want to believe. And it seems as though tragedy is polarizing us now, more than ever.

While Europe dallies,  and those who have been ignoring  a situation that has been going on for years act as if this terribly tragic situation just came out of absolutely nowhere, the migrants will continue to come.  They will not ever stop coming. They have the right to protection, which is not only a humanitarian imperative, but is a part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  

I had posted a tag one day on Facebook , in response to migrant deaths, proclaiming “refugee lives matter”  and was asked by a friend I respect profoundly  “when will we say all lives matter?”  I gently called him out on this.  I responded thus:  when the lives of the most vulnerable matter.  Plain and simply.  He sent me a message that meant a lot to me. He acknowledged my feelings.  As a thinking and feeling person, he felt the strain of tragedy himself and was looking for a universal answer–an all-inclusive message that we all matter.  And in fact, we do.   The point is not to value one life over another.  But one must, in the final estimation, look at how uneven the playing field is.   It seems almost criminal to even describe it that way.

I stand in solidarity with the refugees and will continue to act as writer/activist , with care and witness.   And hopefully, a multi-pronged solution can be implemented, but I fear it may be too late.   So many lives, undocumented in life and undocumented in death.

Indeed, refugees lives matter. So let’s start acting like they do.

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Stirred but Not Shaken? A Philosophical Rant on Italy’s Reception of Asylum-Seekers, Refugees, Immigrants and Migrants and the Color Black.


Or is that the other way around?  Shaken, but not stirred?

This is my first blog since the end of August 2013.   I have been wondering, since then, the value of doing anything to alleviate suffering…not because it is not our duty as human beings, but because there is so very much need/agony/suffering in the world, it seems like a mere drop in a vast, vast ocean.  I needed time to process.

After spending time in the refugee camp in early October and in the wake of the horrific Lampedusan tragedy where more than 360 desperate Eritreans lost their lives’, I became overwhelmed by two things:  my sense of duty as a human and as an activist and the feeling that I was just bumbling around in the dark.    I saw anger, confusion, displacement, sickness, and fear of the unknown and profound homesickness in the camp.  I saw this up close and personal.  I had people wanting to tell me their stories.   These refugees were the Syrians.  They abandon their homes.   They were young, old, sick, lame, and pregnant.  You name it. They were akin to microcosms of their villages and reminiscent of the Palestinians’ flight years ago.   In fact, most of the refugees I met were Palestinians, living a relatively good life in Syria.  They support Assad.  They fear the rebels.  Everything I assumed was wrong in this picture. They were educated. They were well spoken.  They had dignity. They knew the unfairness with which they were being treated.  They were not unduly grateful. They very clearly wanted out of Sicily.

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After the visit I experienced a strange shift of emotions.  I felt depressed.  Looking at my field notes became painful.  Reading hard cold statistics lacked the narrative I felt (and still feel deeply) is lacking in truly understanding the refugee problem not just in Italy, which is my focus, but worldwide.  I am not a quantitative researcher.  While I am acquainted with the statistics, they do not impact me as much  looking into the eyes of a refugee, trying to find out who they are individually,  listening closely and plucking them from the masses.

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A refugee boat in Sicily

Anger is a strong emotion, and there is no dearth of media outlets that delight in reporting the right wing disgust at the refugee situation ( I refuse to use the word “emergency”) in Italy.  Days ago, an MP from the despicable Northern League, in one of the most disgraceful displays of xenophobia that I have ever heard of, “blacked up”—used black makeup to darken his face to protest Congolese-born Cecile Kyenge’s post as minister, who he accused her of  “favoring negritude,” while  claiming (God help me) ,“reverse racism,” because they are given free accommodation.  Perhaps someone should acquaint this idiot with what an asylum-seeker or a refugee really is.   The Northern League, refusing to be silenced or marginalized, has made in the past, and will continue to do so,  a stinking  roar over anyone of color aiming to find a better life in Italy.   How many times should I ask where is the outrage, but seriously, where is the outrage?

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Gianluca Buonanno “Blacking up”.

Are we shaken, not stirred to action?  Are we stirred, but not shaken enough to action?

Let’s not forget that last year, Cecile Kyenge was called an orangutan by another idiot in the Northern League.   While in Italy, I have seen her on television, quiet, wide-eyed.  I have heard her criticized by people whose opinion I value:  she is not doing enough, she is not qualified for her position, she is a token.  I feel disgusted by the rhetoric.  One wonders how she and her family, her Italian-born husband and children bear up under such blatant hatred.

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A stunned Cecil Kyenge

I spent a good amount of time in the refugee camp in Sicily just a few weeks ago. What I encountered there were the same conditions as befire, but the players were different this time.  No women, just men, mostly from Africa: Gambia, Senegal and Sudan, prominently among them.  These were the newly arrived.  On one day, I made mental judgment of the trauma I saw in some of their eyes. It frightened me. Their unwillingness to talk.  Or wanting to talk too much.  The hands that shake, the vacant stares, the proud bodies with shoulders slumped out of exhaustion, boredom or fear.    How anyone can spend any time with them and see what they have sacrificed, see the trauma they have suffered and how many years it will take for them (if they ever can) rebuild their lives’ deprived of their family, friends, culture, mother tongue, and meaningful work—and  still begrudge them the little (strong emphasis on little) assistance they get?  What manner of man or woman can do that?

Not me.

Am I emotional?  Okay, yes, I am emotional. Leave the statistics to someone else, leave the policy makers to do what they do best.   I write as a witness.  I write as an activist.  This is not an intellectual exercise for me.

Social justice is not socialism.

I return to my field notes, just 10 days after arriving home.  It takes strength to face the stories that I heard, the experiences I had there.  But it is nothing, nothing compared to what these men have already faced and what they have ahead.

The triumph of the surviving that difficult crossing by sea is short-lived.  They find this out almost immediately.

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I remember, in October, watching the big groups of Syrian refugees in the camp, preparing to leave.  While asylum must be filed for in the first country in which one arrives, the directors of the camp looked the other way as men, women and children, walked through the iron gates and down the long and barren road where the  cars with German license plates would be waiting to take them to where they would be offered automatic asylum—Sweden, for a price.  They would never be as vulnerable as when they left that camp.

The long road in the long road out

And I watched as the different levels of police—literally turned their heads as they left so as not to be witness . One boy had tied around his waist all of the family’s winter coats.  It was October but still frightfully hot in Sicily. They moved slowly, but did not look back.

After witnessing that, I am incapable of ever being indifferent again.  In fact, it is hard to imagine how anyone could. I  simply can’t unsee or unhear.

Shaken and stirred.

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How desperate do you have to be? A meditation on compassion


More refugees will be coming. They are coming.

I wish I knew the names of even a few of them.   I wish I knew some characteristics. Their names.  The names of their parents.   I wish I did not have to lump them all into that unfortunate term “refugees”, but there you have it.   With the continuing unrest in North Africa and the increasingly unstable and violent situation in Syria (with possible impending US air strikes) the desperation of so many in the contact zone rises exponentially.

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Why do they leave?  How do they get where they are going? What do they bring?  Who do they leave behind?  Will they ever be able to return? What what the price they had to pay to leave?
But most importantly, will they survive the journey?
Witness this:  Just a few days ago in Siracusa , Sicily two boats with  carrying over 300 people between them were rescued.  Amongst all of those nameless, faceless people, on one of those small boats, on that most dangerous of voyages a new life came into the world.  A four-day-old baby girl, born at sea,  was found , miraculously doing very well—with part of her umbilical cord still attached.
For those who oppose immigration, make rash judgements about the lives’ of people who are just like us but who have found themselves in untenable situations, or who verbally bash and politically oppose their existence. think for a moment what kind of situation would make a heavily pregnant woman, step into a dinghy  to sail night and day , exposed to the heat of the sun by day, and the dark unknown at night?  These trips come with many promises, but, predictably with no guarantees.   Desire , hope, fear and desperation are prime motivators.  Those who oppose them their right to a life in relative safety lack what seems to be a rare commodity these days: compassion or at least the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.
I have always found the belief in something, in theory at least, to be easy.   We can be anti this or pro that, but until something touches us personally, until we become the victim, the bullied,  the afflicted, the denied, the scorned, the hated and despised we don’t really know, do we?
So here is a personal appeal to those of you who think that Italy has too many immigrants, too many refugees, to those of you who have marched against them, denied them jobs, refused them service, beat them in the streets, or smiled benevolently to them within the confines of your social service agency but then pretended you didn’t know them when you passed them on the street: STOP. Just STOP.  Dig deep and find your compassion.  It could be you or me someday. And with the way the world is going, it probably will be.
black+baby+feet
Just imagine that baby girl being born at sea.  How fearful her mother must have been. The potential for disaster.  Then imagine: What kind of life will she have?   Now ask yourself:  how desperate do you have to be?
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Can Compassion Become Toxic? The Merits of Not Rushing In


While I have written about a variety of issues here, I’ve not yet tackled the subject of how to help the immigrant, the refugee, the asylum seeker that we may come in contact with.  The term “bleeding heart liberal’ is often used  by some with derision  , and while we know that good intentions are, well, good, what about action?  We know that  intentions alone are not enough.  So how does one help the immigrant and/or refugee?

Bleeding Heart

According to my friend and mentor Ramzi,  a man who knows more about all aspects of immigration than anyone I know, said that a good place to start might be to ask them what it is they actually need.  And the answer  they are likely to give may surprise you.

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In March I took 24 brilliant and compassionate students to Sicily. I admit to feeling a bit of  trepidation.  This was my life, my intellectual and emotional interest, the place where I spend an inordinate amount of time researching , interviewing, studying.   I kept asking myself how best to  get across not just the abundance of information I needed to give them to provide the proper context, but how would they interact with the refugees, some of which had become my friends. What would they think?  How would they process what they found My class was focused on immigration and migration in the Sicilian context.   I spent 6 weeks before we left the country for Sicily, where, amongst other activities  we would be meeting and interacting with refugees.  I made a conscious and intentional decision that while I would give them as much concrete information possible, that what I was really after for them was “experiential” and “reflective”.  And I leaned more toward the activist/human element.

Hand in Hand

One among many refugees  that I have come in contact and interveiwed has become a very very  good friend.  I would say this man is like my family.   There is nothing that the two of us cannot say to one another.   We are both glad the other exists in the world. During each class I would tell my students stories about my friend, his life , his struggles.   If they were eager to meet him, I honestly could not tell, but I assumed they were curious.

In Sicily, my friend came to speak to my class with a friend of his, a fellow refugee.  They told their stories, my friend, first.  He is an elegant man, educated. He knows how to frame his story so that his sufferings and his trials can be related to by others.  He neither wants nor seeks pity.  He understands that his struggle is not just his struggle alone.  That the structure of things, overall, must change in order to combat the racism and  exploitation that many immigrants and refugees encounter with alarming regularity not just in Italy, but in the European Union at large.

Students were overwhelmed. They listened with quiet and respect.  I saw tears.  I saw looks of disbelief.  What they saw, two handsome, strong and articulate men who were suffering in a variety of ways, probably did not compute immediately.  In one class I had talked about our “first world” concerns—there are so many—-and how they do not come close, and in fact seem utterly ridiculous in comparison with the rest of the world’s problems.   I knew they had to process.  I knew they would be writing in their required journals—their laboratories where they would record everything.  And write they did. What happened next was something that I was not prepared for: they were overcome with compassion and concern.  To say I was proud of them was putting it mildly.  But I knew that that was just the first wind of knowledge that hits heart before brain.  By the time they would pick themselves up from the floor, they would need to process further.

After all, what do you do  with a heart full of compassion?

It is a hard lesson to sit with the knowledge that we have of a situation before we act.  We live in a fast-paced world where a contemplative lifestyle is not respected in this bottom line world.  We are taught, in fact, encouraged to be people of action versus inaction.  But , in fact, there are times, there are definitely  situations most of all when they relate to the wellbeing of human beings, when it is prudent to press the  “pause” button.  To be circumspect.  To question yourself and try to discern that  if you want to help, how can you do it in a way that preserves the dignity of the person you want to reach out to?

In the education department of my university, a professor has a poster which says “Presume Competence” hanging on her office door.  I love that.  While this poster refers to those mainly with physical handicaps, warning others not to rush in until the signal is given that help , is indeed, required, I can apply it to this situation , too.  Has someone asked for you help?  If you rush in with all manner of  assistance or what you think will be helpful, lifesaving or  life changing, how will you feel if it is rejected?  Not appreciated as much as you thought?

At a church in Sicily, I and one of my students spoke with a refugee who told us how monotonous nearly every  day is for him: “I walk around outside.  Sometimes I go out for some pizza.  Then I come back.  Nothing.”  I asked him if he needed money.  I am sure he did , but that was the least of his worries.  They were taking care of him at the church. What he needed was hard to find: a job.  Finally he laughed, not without irony and just a touch of bitterness and said , “Really, what would I do with money?

My students have huge hearts.  They want to help my friend.  They would like to bring him here.   But I want to tell them, good intentions are wonderful, but dignity is too.  Today I told one of my students, one of the brightest most enthusiastic among them not to “rush in.” Not to ,in any way, get his hopes up, not to presume we know what he wants.  In fact, he cannot come here for many reasons.

I told her what my mentor/friend Ramzi told me:  That no one should underestimate this man’s capacity for survival. That we should keep things light and normal with him.  That to cast him in the role of “poor thing” threatens to rob him of the dignity he has. He is a beautiful person inside and out.  He is a person, not our cause.

We must presume competence.  Even the best of our intentions can become toxic to the person we are trying to help.

What did Ramzi advise we give my friend in abundance?  Friendship.  That is what he really wants.  He wants normalcy in his life.  He wants to talk about everything and nothing at all,  just like the rest of us do nearly every day.  I know my students will hold him up with their friendship. They are like that.

I called my friend  today.  I went outside of my office into the bright and warm day where students were milling around enjoying themselves in the carefree way students often do. I was conscious of how very far away he was.  I held my cellphone close .  I wanted to hear his voice loud and clear.

At the end of our conversation he said:

Thanks too much Micke, your smile is  always  inside me. . . there is  hope in my life and when I  go through your words , really,  I  find my self free to fly around…

bird with heart

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