Tuesday, December 30

Thanks

A writer could not ask for a better year than 2014.

The year began by concluding the sequel to Fear of Beauty - and Allure of Deceit underwent three big revisions. Writing a suitable follow-up to Fear of Beauty seemed an impossible task, but I am pleased with the result. Fear of Beauty is Sofi's story, and Allure of Deceit is the story of her husband, Parsaa. The characters from Afghanistan are strong, good, and uncomplaining as their daily routines and tiny remote village are buffeted by the forces of globalization. The fictional village of Laashekoh is in northern Helmand. For Parsaa and Sofi, their knowledge of the world is limited, but in their way, they are good citizens, extending hospitality and kindness to travelers and strangers regardless of beliefs or country of origin.

Throughout the year, Fear of Beauty surprised with a number of awards:

- Nominated for the Mary Higgins Clark Award from Mystery Writers of America.
- Finalist for suspense, Love is Murder Conference.
- 1st place, at-large regional best book for adult readers, National Federation of Press Women, and then 2nd place in the national contest.
- Gold star award for mystery/suspense, Military Writers Society of America.
- Youth Literature Award from the Middle East Outreach Council. 

And as the year ends, I am embarking on the third in the series about Laashekoh.

It was a very good year, and I owe so much thanks to so many groups, reviewers, and readers who take the time to visit and explore the tiny village of Laashekoh. Thank you and a very happy 2015!

Tuesday, December 23

Vulnerable

YaleGlobal describes dangerous trends in the Middle East and how extremists compound the desperation.

The Islamic State adds to record numbers of refugees and dangers for aid groups.

The United Nations relies on faith-based charities.

The lead host countries for refugees include Pakistan, Iran, Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey where Islamist charities are on the front lines.

Meanwhile, governments want to prohibit any funds headed to the extremists and charities being used to launder their money. Wide bans on aid groups is adding to the challenges and desperation.

Vulnerable refugees are easy marks for extremist recruiters. "The protracted plight of these refugees has become an international security issue as terrorist groups have recruited from refugee camps," notes Jill Goldenziel of Harvard University.

The YaleGlobal article concludes, "The UN anticipates 27 percent more funding is needed for humanitarian aid in its 2015 budget over 2014, with the bulk of that to be spent in Syria, Iraq, South Sudan and Sudan. Reduced aid could transform humanitarian emergencies into security crises."

Photo of Syrian family collecting bread and other aid, courtesy of H. Murdock, Voice of America and Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, December 16

Dangling hope

Some older folks, the insecure ones, like to think they can control the young.  Fear of change can lead to bitterness, religious extremism, and opposition to education and innovation, as indicated by today's Taliban attack on a school in Peshawar. More than 135 million, most children, were killed by six attackers, reports the BBC News.

"This brutal attack may well be a watershed for a country long accused by the world of treating terrorists as strategic assets," writes Aamer Ahmed Khan for  BBC News. "Pakistan's policy-makers struggling to come to grips with various shades of militants have often cited a 'lack of consensus' and 'large pockets of sympathy' for religious militants as a major stumbling-block."

A handful of bullying extremists, especially those with weapons, can wield excessive influence over routines or policies, especially those of a small community. The stunning observation that Taliban only numbered 75,000 or so in Afghanistan - a country of more than 30 million people - prompted the story behind Fear of Beauty.

Bullying is easier when a huge segment of society lacks power. The median age of Afghanistan is 18, so half the nation's people are under that age. Half the population is women. That leaves 25 percent adult men in control, and the literacy rate for them is but 43 percent.  For women, it is much lower.

The graph offers a glimpse into the median age of other countries, ranging from 17 in Chad and South Sudan to 32 in Qatar.

Governments with large, young populations should avoid dangling hope while not providing the resources for achieving their dreams, suggests Yara al-Wazir, writing for Al Arabiya News. She refers to young Arabs but the sound advice applies to all in pointing to a dangerous trend: "I’m talking about the wave of lectures and talks about entrepreneurship, leadership, and motivation with little to no follow up or support on actually achieving the messages these lectures call for. Young Arabs don’t need talks to inspire them; they need a job and an opportunity to inspire everyone else."

She concludes by urging readers to give the young a chance to inspire. As we have noted on these pages before, be wary of any who discourage curiosity or education. A country's future is threatened if attending school is dangerous.

Photo of schoolchildren in Paktya Province, Afghanistan, courtesy of  Capt John Severns, US Air Force, and Wikimedia Commons. He notes: "The school has no building; classes are held outdoors in the shade of an orchard." Population data on graph, courtesy of Worldometers; median age, courtesy of CIA World Factbook.

Tuesday, December 9

Organic

Concerns are plentiful about food shortages amid a changing climate, society’s focus on eating healthy, food status as necessity versus art. A number of trends - not to mention that organic foods offer undeniably wonderful taste - combine to make organic farming a popular hobby and career aspiration on college campuses. Students have driven the grassroots effort on organic farming.

Since 2003, the Sustainable Food Project at Yale University has managed an organic farm on the urban campus, selling its produce and collaborating with the campus dining halls on sustainability. “By creating opportunities for students to experience food, agriculture, and sustainability as integral parts of their education and everyday life, the Sustainable Food Project ensures that Yale graduates have the capacity to effect meaningful change as individuals and as leaders in their communities, their homes, and their life’s work,” notes the project’s Facebook page.

Since 2007 students at Wellesley College have developed a productive farm, while working to raise awareness of food justice issues. Dartmouth has an organic farm, too.

 The roots of Michigan State University’s Student Organic Farm began in 1999, a result of students wanting to practice methods learned in classrooms: "From the beginning, the aim of the farm was to provide a place where students could come and volunteer, work, visit, and have input on the development of land and farm." With solar-run greenhouses, it was the nation’s first year-round community-supported agriculture model farm.

Many agriculture industry specialists may have thought of organic food as a passing fad. Some even suggest organic farming raises food costs and adds to global poverty But MSU, the nation’s other land-grant agriculture schools, and Ivy League schools have made organic farming part of the curriculum. The University of Georgia offers a certificate program in organic agriculture.

The US Department of Agriculture and corporations are funding research on sustainability. USDA has awarded $52 million in grants for organic growing and local food economies including farmers markets and development of standards, just a tiny fraction of the 2014 Agricultural Act.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Services offers information on hundreds of internships and apprenticeships - including the Rodale Institute Experimental Farm in Pennsylvania. "Internships are based around hands-on and 'direct work with researchers on short- and long-term trials and experiments covering everything from soil quality indicators to regenerative farming's impact on global warming,'" notes Rodale. "Positions are available in research, farm operations/ demonstration and communications."

Organic farming offers promise for small farmers in the developing world. Only a systematized and certifiable approach is required, suggests IFAD, the International Fund for Agricultural Development, an agency of the United Nations. IFAD conducted evaluations, part of its efforts to reduce poverty in many agricultural nations, and determined "In almost all of the countries where the evaluations were carried out, small farmers needed only marginal improvements to their technologies to make the shift to organic production." IFAD likewise offers internships. 

Similar studies on organic farming have been conducted in Afghanistan: "The organic farming and food business in Afghanistan can only become viable and competitive (especially in the mid and long-term) if a wider enabling environment is put in place, too: accompanying organic policies, research and education, extension and inspection and a certification system," suggest Martien Lankester and Darko Znaor for USAID. USAID also has internships for students interested in agriculture.

The mystery novels Fear of Beauty and Allure of Deceit are set in rural Afghanistan - and focus on the diverse aid work underway. Among the many conflicts are age-old dilemmas for farmers - who must decide whether and how to adopt new methods suggested by aid workers, some of whom attended the programs on sustainability described in this post and others who have disdain for such programs.

Photo of the Clapboard and Stone Bakeoven at the Rodale Institute Organic Experimental Farm is courtesy of Final4one and Wikimedia Commons.


Monday, December 8

Uncertainty

The UN secretary-general urges that physicians not refuse to do abortions on women who report being raped in the camps serving refugees from Iraq and Syria. 

""The Secretary-general’s comments are part of an ongoing dispute between nations and the UN bureaucracy on how best to end rape and sexual violence in conflict," reports Susan Yoshihara for the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute and LifeNews.com. "Like the work of the [UN Security] Council, major political initiatives in the last few years have emphasized ending impunity for perpetrators and making reparations to survivors of violence.... UN staff, however, have promoted a feminist agenda which views deconstructing traditional social relationships and abortion rights as necessary steps to ending discrimination and violence."

The secretary-general suggests that his recommendation is in line with UN Security Council Resolution 2122, adopted in 2013. The resolution does not specify abortion, but does recognize "the importance of Member States and United Nations entities seeking to ensure humanitarian aid and funding includes provision for the full range of medical, legal, psychosocial and livelihood services to women affected by armed conflict and post-conflict situations, and noting the need for access to the full range of sexual and reproductive health services, including regarding pregnancies resulting from rape, without discrimination...."  

The resolution also points out that women are especially vulnerable in armed conflict with "forced displacement," "unequal citizen rights," "gender-biased application of asylum laws," and "increased risk of violence." It also urges participation of women and consideration of gender-related issues. 

Syria and Iraq are "red" countries on the World Abortion Laws map from the Center for Reproductive Rights: In Syria, abortion is explicitly permitted to save a woman's life, but spousal authorization and parental notification are required. In Iraq, the law is not explicit on exceptions on saving a woman's life. 

Permanent members of the UN Security Council - United States, China, France, Russia and the United Kingdom - are "green" countries, where abortion is generally permitted for most women without restriction on reason. Non-permanent members are a mixed bag: Chile and Nigeria are red which allow for saving a woman's life or are prohibited; Argentina (allows for cases of rape), Chad (allows for fetal impairment), Jordan, Republic of Korea (allowed for incest and rape; spousal authorization required) and Rwanda (allowed for incest and rape) are orange, allowed for various health puproses; Australia, Lithuania, Luxembourg are green. 



"According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), over 3 million have fled to Syria's immediate neighbours Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. 6.5 million are internally displaced within Syria," reports the Migration Policy Centre at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, also noting that "the influx of refugees has been an enormous challenge for Syria’s neighbours, with strong implications for the stability of the entire region." 

As of July, 22 countries, most in Europe, have agreed to help resettle more than 34,000 Syrian refugees who have fled to a second country. The United States, Kuwait, European Commission, United Kingdom, Canada and Japan lead in pledging funds to support UN appeals to assist Syrian refugees, reported the UN Tribune. 

The camps are bleak places offering little in the way of education for children or work for parents. More than 30 million children worldwide cannot attend school because of violent conflicts, reports UNICEF. 

Allure of Deceit, to be released in February 2015, is a mystery novel about post-war Afghanistan and the small village of Laashekoh. The novel explores how charitable giving can come with a hidden agenda and upend incentives. Children run away to an orphanage. A caregiver accepts donor funds for women's health care, but lacks patients. A Michigan foundation director pursues programs for the purpose of solving the murder of her wealthy son. Lying is a means of self-defense. 

Contact the publisher for review copies. 

July 2013 photo of Za'atri camp for Syrian refugees is from the US State Department and Wikimedia Commons. 

Wednesday, December 3

Refugees

"Stunning" - that is the consensus on the cover for Allure of Deceit, the sequel to Fear of Beauty set in the remote and fictional Afghan village in northern reaches of Helmand province, due to be published in February.

Most then wonder about the identity of the little girl in the cover photo. Many have asked how they can help her and her family.

Her identity is unknown and the image comes from Corbis, a company that supplies stock images. The AP photo was taken by photographer Emilio Morenatti in Peshawar, Pakistan. "Emilio has years of experience in war zones, working for AP in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Israel and Palestinian Territories," notes his bio. "While on assignment in Afghanistan on 11 August 2009, Emilio was injured in a bomb blast. He is now back in action and based in Barcelona as the AP chief photographer for Spain and Portugal."

The Corbis site offers a simple caption about the child: "A Pakistani child looks on as women covered with burqas from the tribal region of Bajur and Mohmand agency wait to be registered at the Jalozai refugee camp near Peshawar, Pakistan on Friday, Jan. 30, 2009. More than 200,000 people have fled the fighting in Bajur and Mohmand agency to camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan."

The young girl with visible bruises is probably a teenager by now and could have moved on anywhere in the region. We hope the bruises have healed. As briefly touched upon in Fear of Beauty, it's not unusual for communities and families to be displaced by fighting and violence time and time again. 

Conflict has driven millions of Afghans to flee to crowded refugee camps. Pakistan hosts 1.6 million registered Afghan refugees, "the largest protracted refugee situation globally, reports the UN Refugee Agency. The agency has helped return of 3.8 million Afghan refugees, or more than 10 percent of the Afghan population. With support from the Pakistan government, refugee children have access to public schools and there health clinics for families, the agency reports. Returns are voluntary with agency and NGO assistance.

More than 40 NGO partners assist the UN Office of the High Commissioner on Refugees. "Within the 2014 budget, USD 58.1 million is allocated for the refugee programme, USD 28.6 million for the protection and assistance of conflict-related IDPs and USD 60.8 million for development projects aimed at the peaceful coexistence of refugees and host communities."


The UN agency has identified more than 10 million refugees of concern worldwide. A special area of concern is Syria, where brutal conflict has driven more than 2 million people to flee the country and displaced 4 million more internally.

Funding is tight for refugee services. The World Food Programme has announced it is ending food vouchers for Syrian refugees: "the United Nations said it simply doesn't have the funds to continue providing the vouchers, explaining it needs 51 million euros to support the refugees just until the end of December," reports Ruth Michaelson for RFI.  

The United States may grant refugee status or asylum to those persecuted or fearing persecution over race, religion, nationality or over social groups and political opinions. Hunger, joblessness, a lack of classrooms and education in refugee camps, supposed to be temporary, present a humanitarian and global security crisis.

Photo of Afghan boy in a Kabul refugee camp, 2011, courtesy of  SrA Christopher Hatch and Wikimedia Commons. Much thanks to photographer Emilio Morenatti and designer Jacqueline Nasso Cooke for the cover of Allure of Deceit. 

Tuesday, December 2

Top givers

The Global Journal  assesses hundreds of NGOs and then ranks them in terms of impact, innovation and sustainability. The top five with their headquarters and goals: 

BRAC, Bangladesh, micro-finance and programs for agriculture and food security; education, climate change reduction, health and poverty reduction; started as a limited relief operation in 1972 and turned into the largest development organization in the world. 

The Wikimedia Foundation, United States, free and open access internet source for mutlilingual and educational articles, images and reference materials. Founded in 2003 to promote free internet content and reference materials.

Acumen Fund, United States, loan, venture capital and investment programs to reduce global poverty; raises charitable donations to invest in companies, leaders and ideas to change how the world tackles poverty; incorporated in 2001 with seed capital from foundations and philanthropists.

Danish Refugee Council, Denmark, aims to protect refugees and offer durable solutions for ending conflicts; Founded in 1956, the group assists with housing, food security, job creation and more.

Partners in Health, United States, strives to reduce poverty that exacerbates infectious diseases. Founded in 1987 to deliver care in Haiti, the NGO has expanded its mission to establish long-term relationships in impoverished areas and maintains that health is a human right.  

Allure of Deceit is a mystery novel about a woman who runs a new and massive NGO that operates in developing nations, and how she uses that foundation to solve the murder of her wealthy son just days after his wedding.

Photograph of community health volunteer in Dhaka who goes door to door providing guidance for pregnant women and offers referrals on medical care - courtesy of UK Department for International Development and Wikimedia Commons.