Breaking bread with refugees

Something kind of amazing happened in the last few weeks here in The Hague. Robin de Jong, who works for STEK, created a think tank to come up with ideas to welcome the refugees from Syria, Eritrea and other countries who are temporarily housed in our neighborhood through December 31st, 2015.

Robin de Jong, STEK and Minister Ruud Stiemer, Christus Triumfatorkerk
Robin de Jong, STEK and Minister Ruud Stiemer, Christus Triumfatorkerk

The think tank quickly brought together ministers from multiple churches and other organizational leaders to brainstorm on the best way to help this population within a short time frame.

Thing is, groups like this, despite their best intentions, quite often get bogged down by finding a date that works for everyone to gather, proposing ideas to church boards or government organizations, trying to get budgets approved, waiting for responses, etc. But because the 600 refugees in our neighborhood are only here for a total of 6 weeks, we had to act swiftly . . and we did!

Multiple events have been formed in the last few weeks, from concerts and high teas, to shared meals and exercise programs. But this post is mainly about a meal that changed my perspective about the refugees.

This past Monday, we organized a dinner for 30 refugees and 30 people from the neighborhood in our church with a theme of bringing people together to break bread and learn about each other as individuals, rather than as concepts.

Refugees and neighbors from the area sharing a meal together.

In other words, a “refugee” and all the preconceived notions we might have formed about them via our exposure to the media, is replaced by a table mate who is a real person with a name, a history and stories to share. And “we”, their temporary neighbors or potential future countrymen, are also transformed from strangers to people who look them in the eyes and listen to them speak, whether it is about their favorite foods, a fiancé back home, or their trials in fleeing their war-torn nations and leaving loved ones behind.

Syrian chef Tarik (That’s rosemary from my garden in his pocket!)

The Hague branch of Vluchtelingenwerk, who helps support the refugees, found out that one of the refugees was a chef from Damascus, the capital of Syria. Before long, we had enlisted him to cook an authentic Syrian meal and recruited a few more refugees to work as translators from Arabic to English.

Friends of ours who come from Arabic nations who are fluent in Arabic and Dutch also volunteered to help cook. The Diaconie from our church, and Bezuidenhoutfonds both made financial contributions. More volunteers from the neighborhood as well as our own cook and volunteers from the weekly meal made for the elderly enlisted to help. In other words, people from five different cultures, multiple organizations and committees came together to quickly turn an idea into a reality.

As one of the organizers, I was a bit stressed, wondering if we could pull off this kind of event in one week’s time. We sent invitations around via e-mail, asking everyone to share the invitation with anyone they thought might want to register. A few days before the event, we had all 30 slots for the refugees full, but only twelve neighbors registered. A bit more recruiting and the list began to grow.


The evening of the event, we had 35 neighbors and 35 refugees turn out for the shared meal. The refugees were thankful to be outside the center, grateful for the food and all of the effort, and pleased by the chance to interact with others.


The neighbors who signed up felt thankful for the opportunity to interact and connect with this group of fellow humans who have been through such harrowing experiences, but are still surprisingly upbeat and willing to share their stories.

And Tarik the chef, who cooked from 10:00am until 6:00pm at night without stopping, did an amazing job of turning out a delectable buffet of authentic Syrian dishes.

Photos courtesy Frouckje van der Wal
Photos courtesy Frouckje van der Wal

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Word must of spread, because our second planned “Maal en Verhaal” is already completely sold out!

It wasn’t until a few days after the shared meal that I realized the significance of such an event: I see with different eyes. Fears are dispelled. You read the news differently and think about “the other” differently. You realize that acts of kindness, compassion and understanding are the steps needed to understand others and create common ground across cultures and beliefs.

I hope that if I have to flee my country–whether it be from a war, extreme poverty or a country made uninhabitable by drought or flooding from climate change–I pray that others receiving me as a refugee will recognize me for what I am: a person just like you with a desire to pick up the pieces and live my life.

Not everyone is pleased that the refugees are here. However, goodwill seems to be outweighing the negativity born of fear.

Other great events are popping up all over the neighborhood, including an action to provide a Christmas dinner for all 600 refugees spread out in six different churches and businesses.








Rothko at the Gemeente Museum

Can an artist portray emotions of happiness, fear or ecstasy through the sole use of rectangular shapes of color?  Can they do so without explanation or words? That is the question that came to the forefront Saturday afternoon during a visit to the Gemeentemuseum to view the Rothko exhibit

I have to admit, his large swaths of color, with their soft edges and meditative yet simple rectangular shapes do elicit feelings in me. But not, perhaps, what he intended. We have seen Rothko exhibits before in San Francisco, and I’ve seen a sampling of his work in New York as well. But never before have I spent so much time contemplating them, and letting the colors and feelings wash over me.

imageMy tendency, as a social female and a writer, is to write about the art I see and to discuss them in terms of color and shape. But as I read about the artist, I soon realized he had an aversion to people trying to convey his art through words. Words, according to Rothko, desecrate the art. And they are not about color either; they are about the emotions; about a personal relationship between the painting and the viewer and the emotions that are evoked. They are intentionally hung low on the wall, so the viewer can “step into” the painting, and really experience the art.

As if to drive his point home, all of his works are untitled, as in the name of the paintings are Untitled, followed by the year they were created. Thus, without a title, we lean toward a description through color. “The one with the purple on top and black on bottom edged in orange.” More words, not feelings. But colors are known to be associated with feelings and terminology.

Red: anger, passion, danger, love.
Blue: calm, serene, sad.
Gold: regal, wealthy, happy, holy.
You get the idea. Colors are also a language of emotions. Yet who is to say if these color associations are universal?


Coronation of the Virgin, by Enguerrand Quarton, 1454
Coronation of the Virgin, Enguerrand Quarton, 1454

Take this untitled cobalt blue and gold Rothko painting above. What do you experience when you see it? For me, I see a spiritual work of art.

The gold rectangle in the upper third pulls to my mind the halos encircling the heads of angels and biblical figures from the fifteenth century a la Corination of the Virgin style (right). The deep cobalt blue reminds me of opulent gowns and the richness of a night sky.

But my associations have a lot to do with my Catholic upbringing and my western orientation with color and art. How would a Muslim woman or man experience this Rothko painting? Or a Hindu? Or someone with a western upbringing who has never entered a church in their lives?

Or how about the happiness and warmth I felt BEFORE I listened to the commentary about this painting. It was one of Rothko’s smaller canvases that he painted during a period of depression, right before he swallowed pills and slit his wrists, ending his troubled life. So much for the happiness that had enveloped me.

What was Rothko striving for in his paintings? As observers, we like to discuss the art. Take this man for example; he stood before the painting, gesturing with his hands, explaining a concept to his son–a concept that was not laid out in the untitle of the painting or in the curator’s interpretation of the art, as these were rather non-existent. image

So for an artist who didn’t want to be categorized, refused to participate in many group shows, and was very controlling of how his art was presented, what was he actually trying to convey?

This explanation struck home: image





In case that’s too hard to read, let me pull out a few excerpts:

“I am not interested in colour.” He regarded color as merely a means of expressing something far greater: something sacred, almost divine, that would only be desecrated by the introduction of language.

When I read this, I imagine a man who was extremely controlling and difficult, but also a man that strived to connect in a beautiful way–through the core; trying to touch the essence of what makes us human.

I liken this to the conundrum that is meditation; we can talk all we want about how to do it, but it is in the practice of meditation and the silence of the mind that we get to the essence of spirit. I imagine Rothko would like us to experience his paintings in the same way: Stop talking, be in the moment, step inside my painting and experience the emotions waiting there to engulf you. Sorry Rothko, I’m using words again to imagine your artistic desires and to say just how much I appreciate the feelings you evoke in me through your art.

It’s been 40 years since such an extensive Rothko exhibit came to the Netherlands, so don’t miss your chance! Rothko’s work is on display at the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague through March 1, 2015. 



Fancy* Nancy

Mom. I love so much, there’s not even words for it. So how do I write a post about how important you are to me? I suppose the easiest thing is to make a list of things you do that have positively shaped me and informed who I am.

First, you have a crazy sense of humor. You can tell a joke that’s not even funny, but your full rolls of laughter that follow the punch line make us all laugh so hard that our eyes water. Further, you say flippant things, followed by that gut busting laugh, and suddenly a world that seemed serious and foreboding is shot through the middle, rendered wobbly and no longer able to take itself so seriously.

Second, you love nature, animals, living in the country. Because of you, I grew up loving trees and tall grass. After having two boys, you were so happy to finally have a girl. You got your girl, but one that loved, not surprisingly, trees and tall grass. You tried so hard to put ribbons in my hair, send me to modeling class, get me interested in dolls and hair brushes and dresses. It paid off in the long run. I have a dress section in my closet and I do brush my hair once in a while. I gave my Hotwheels and G.I. Joe’s away at least a few years ago now. Because of you and dad, I love nature, being still, listening to night descending upon the countryside.

Third, you are the illustrated dictionary example of Hope Springs Eternal. You never give up on people close to you (or on animals or plants). You ALWAYS try to see the good side in situations, even when things are rough. Yes, this can have a down side. But, whether its the Pollyanna Principle or positive thinking, it has played a positive role in my life.

Fourth, you can call it for what it is. I remember one break up with a very handsome boyfriend. I was heartbroken. You listened to me for a good half hour and then you asked what seemed the obvious.
“Well, why don’t you give him another chance?”
“Because he broke up with me!” I responded forlornly.
“Oh! Well, then. what’s the problem? Forget about him. If he can’t see how precious you are, he’s not worth another tear!” That was almost 15 years ago now, and I don’t know if I got the words exactly right, but the message was clear; I am absolutely valuable, and if this guy doesn’t get that, then he’s not worth it. I wanted to argue, but there was no arguing. Why would I ever want to be with someone who didn’t appreciate me? Her simple words seemed to break the spell that was keeping my heart bound to a place it didn’t belong.

Fifth, you value stories and you pay attention. As a retired librarian, you know how important stories are. You told us stories throughout our childhood, emblazoning a love for stories both real and imagined. You created a biography about your father. You developed a family tree and are working on your own biography. Further, you clip articles out of the paper and send them to us, wherever we may be, to let us know what is going on with our long-lost high school friends, former teachers and home town characters.

Sixth, you make an awesome cheesecake.

Seven, you are my mom and my friend. The list goes on of course, but for now, this is my message to you, mom! I love you!

*Even though you gave up the big city years ago to go live in the countryside, you still have a fancy side to you; the part that grew up playing violin, going to balls in fancy gowns, spending your Saturdays in the library devouring knowledge.

Old Books versus Mother Nature

Usually I love nature. Just last week I was saying to my husband how much I want to live in a natural environment, away from the screeching sounds of the tram rails, the bricks and concrete and the compressed feeling I experience when I’m among the crowds in the shopping district.

But when a biting cold wind ushered in the first of June beneath a pewter gray sky, I wasn’t feeling the love. It’s like this nation is being punished by mother earth for some crime against nature. What? Too many bicycles? All of that public transportation upsetting you? Or perhaps its the recycling they do here–multiple drop off bins for paper and glass in every neighborhood. That’s got to be irksome.

But there’s only so long one can stay inside on the first of June. So, refusing to bow to the cold, I put on a lightweight fleece and announced to my family I was going for a walk. They looked at me skeptically. I set out alone.

I didn’t know where I was headed, but my feet didn’t lead me down my usual route to the forest a block away, but into the city. The city, where the crowds are; where things are happening in warm, brightly or dimly lit interior spaces away from the dreadful cold of nature.

I walked in the direction of the train station in search of adventure. But on the way, a well designed poster caught my eye, and I found myself turning into the smooth glass entry of the Letterkunding Museum. I walked up a flight of stairs. At the top you have a choice of experiences. You can turn right to enter the Kinderboekenmuseum, a fabulous museum where children’s books (all written in Dutch) come alive through a series of interactive exhibits. Or, you can go left through the thick glass doors, which open automatically for you, into an exhibition room that is either a part of the Nationaal Archief or the Letterkundingmuseum. But in either case, it is a surprisingly exotic experience (at least to someone who once worked in a bookstore in the rare book section, and whose mother was a librarian).

The room was dark, save for blue lighting that gave the space a retro-futuristic glow reminiscent of the starship enterprise control room. The entire left wall acts as a projection screen, the contradictory images of old and new merging into one another. This exhibition space is filled with small glass cases on columns, each holding a rare book or book-related antiquity, some close to 600 years old. I gazed at the gold, ruby and sapphire blue illustration in an historical bible from the 1600s surrounded by Latin text. Would those monastic scribes have brought their quills to the page with even more precision had they known the copies they were making would still be on display half a millenium later? Talk about pressure.

And then there was the book Max Havelaar, by Multatuli, the pseudonym of Eduard Douwes Dekker. Up until that moment, I’ll admit, I only knew that Max Havelaar was a brand of Fair Trade products for sale in Europe. I didn’t know a cultural history was tied to the name, originating from a work of fiction that criticized the Dutch East India Company’s (VOC) treatment of the natives in Indonesia.

It was here in this darkened room, gazing at the treasured books resting on velvet cushions beneath protective glass that I had a realization; nature isn’t the only object of my desire; culture, in all of its lushness, absurdity, timidity or boldness also has me entirely smitten.

The walk home through the crisp air synergized my two loves, the cold snapping me into mental and physical alertness, the ancient books filling me with a lust for knowledge. Perhaps such dark and miserable weather, combined with mental acuity is what drove all of those brooding European philosophers to greatness over the centuries.

Over dinner, I talked to my family about the books I had seen. My husband, a brooding philosophical type, related to my excitement. My son related to his pasta. And then the sun broke through the fortress of clouds, blasting its happy beams through our window onto the dining room table. Thank God for the sun.

You Rock Luther Richmond!

I’m getting a little tired of awesome people I know passing away. And I’m even bummed when even not-so-awesome people die. I know death is part of life, but what I find strange is the gush of regret-laden feelings that comes to the surface at funerals; “I wish I’d told her how much she meant to me,” or “I wonder if he knew what an inspiration he was to those around him.”

Why wait to tell people post-mortem? Now is the time! So on that note, I am starting what I hope to make a ritual–celebrating and sharing now. Even if the person I write about doesn’t read my post, at least I’ve put my thanks out into the universe.

So here goes!

You ROCK Luther Richmond!

Many of my friends know me as a musician. I played saxophone for years in bands throughout the U.S.: Reggae, folk and rock in Santa Barbara, classical and jazz in Hawaii, ska in Boston, punk jazz in Bend, Country Rock in Santa Ynez, and even an international stint of busking on the streets of Amsterdam, earning more per hour for my jazzy notes than any hourly rate in my professional career. But where did this all start? I could herald back to the days of piano lessons as an 8-year-old, or flute in Solvang Elementary School under the direction of Bob Raliegh, or saxophone in high school jazz band under the direction of Dan Neece. But what took me to the next level was Luther Richmond, the lead singer of  Jah-B-One, or Jah-Bone, a talented reggae band from Santa Barbara.

So to understand why Luther gets the honor of the first write-up, I’ll have to start with the rather embarrassing story of our very first encounter. When I was eighteen going on nineteen, I played sax in the Santa Barbara City College jazz band and via friends, learned of a reggae band looking for a sax player. Even though I was not versed in reggae, I went to the tryout anyway. Afterall, I was an invincible, I-can-do-anything young adult.

When we pulled up to the house, my friend led me to a little shack in back. Upon opening the door, I entered a smoke-filled room sardined with musicians, all male, of varying ethnicities and ages. As a caucasian female, I seemed to be the missing link needed to complete the diversity snapshot. Luther, the lead singer, sat behind the drum set. No one needed to tell me he was the leader of the band. His cool cat presence conveyed it immediately. He was all eloquence and tact as he called out the charts, cut it off when something wasn’t jiving, or gave a compliment when it was.

They played a song that made me feel like I had no worries in the world. It had a steady beat that made me want to dance, simple lyrics about rocking a boat, and a sweet horn section throughout the song that sent positive vibes down my white girl spine. When we finished playing, I asked if was a cover or an original. “A cover,” Luther said without cracking a smile. “It’s by Bob Marley.” And with that moment of utter humiliation, a friendship was born.

After a few more tryouts, Luther Richmond and his band of friends welcomed me to their tribe. I not only learned about reggae music, but that friendships were not limited to people your own age, color or background. We played everything from Caribbean restaurants to frat parties, festivals and upscale bars. We had a following. During this period I learned that educated college students, i.e. my peeps, were sometimes among the dumbest people on earth.  I learned that reggae music has a depth to it that you need to learn through exposure, practice and listening; that one man’s drinking song can be another man’s anthem of living a life of integrity.

I was also exposed to great talent; Luther’s voice was one I could listen to for hours. He had this smooth, natural voice that could make men close their eyes and listen intently, swaying to the rhythms. He spoiled many mainstream musicians for me, as their voices couldn’t compare to his.  And despite this, he always remained humble.

Luther taught me through music, but also through his parenting style. His kids were little when I first started playing with his band, but he talked to them like they were adults. At first I found this strange. Most people I knew who had kids this age would  lilt their voices upward into sing-songy notes of affection when they spoke to their children. Not Luther. He listened to their needs, encouraged them to use reason, and used a firm yet gentle tone. And his children always listened to him. They were always polite, yet not afraid to share their thoughts and opinions.

Is it at all surprising that his children grew into successful, confident yet considerate adults? And what resonates in me when I think of Luther is how happy he is as a human being; not happy in the sense of someone who’s always smiling and kidding around, but of someone who’s simply satisfied with the choices they’ve made in life, rolls with the punches and keeps on going. In other words, a man of integrity.

Luther also stood up for what he believed in. One time I told him I wished I could find an office job for him so he wouldn’t have to work so hard. His response surprised me. He never wanted an office job. I don’t remember his exact words, but it was something like, Why would I want to be shackled to a desk?

Although I did use that sing-songy voice with my child when he was younger, I’ve held many an office job and my saxophone is a bit neglected, his positive impact on my life has shown itself in unexpected ways. Ways that speak of integrity. And more importantly, he’s still out there, vibrant and cool, gigging in Santa Barbara with Shades of Soul. You rock Luther Richmond!