A week in Iceland

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You don’t live in the best country in the world: Lessons learned about nationalism in Berlin

East Side Gallery, where artists painted murals on remaining parts of the Berlin Wall

This might be a tough pill to swallow, but here it is: You don’t live in the best country in the world.

My semester abroad has taken me some exciting places, but I’ve never been more moved than my solo trip to Berlin this weekend. The city itself was incredible: it has an awesome art scene and lots of energy and young people. Looming over Berlin, however, is its dark history. Berlin chronicles the worst and most vile side of humanity: it’s where Hitler rose to power, grasped and held onto control of its citizens through terror and orchestrated the mass extermination of an entire race.

Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp just outside Berlin

The Berliners are well aware that they live on the ground Hitler terrorized Germans on. Unlike the rest of the world, however, I noticed that they talk about their country’s horrifying past. They don’t try to sweep it under the rug. They want to learn from it. My biggest takeaway from my time in Berlin:

Nationalism is dangerous.

I’ve been aware of the dangers of nationalism for some time now, especially in an era where politicians seem to be thriving on riling up its people with this idea: for example, Donald Trump’s promise to “Make America Great Again”, Brexit, Marine Le Pen’s campaign in France, etcetera. Never, until this weekend, have I thought much about how far it can go past mere ignorance.

Let me take a moment here to make the distinction between nationalism and patriotism. I love my country. I miss the United States dearly, and I can’t wait to return in a month. I am patriotic. Just because I love something, however, does not mean I find it without flaws. It does not mean I think it is the best country in the world. It also does not mean I think I am better than anyone else because I am an American.

This does not just apply to the United States. I took a tour of the important historic sites of Berlin, as well as a tour of the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp just outside Berlin. On both tours, the tour guides noted an important mindset of the Germans. Whereas many countries and their politicians condition its citizens to believe that they live in the best country in the world and that no other country measures up, Germans are not so overtly nationalistic. Why? Because they’ve seen the dangers of nationalism firsthand and how far it can go.

Hitler manipulated a overwhelming mass of people by exploiting the struggles of the country. World War I left Germany devastated. The Treaty of Versailles had the people feeling humiliated. Throw in the financial crisis of the 1930s and many people starving to death, and you’ve got the perfect setting for an authoritarian leader to take charge. It’s easy for someone with a strong demeanor to come to power when he’s promising to restore the country to its previous glory.

Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp just outside Berlin

The Nazis did a lot of terrible things. Other nations, however, are not the totally blameless saviors they often paint themselves to be. In fact, Germany modeled its anti-semitic Nuremberg laws on the United States’ racist Jim Crow laws, which were in still in place decades after the fall of the Nazis.

That’s not the only inspiration the Germans gathered from the United States. In their letters home, many German soldiers used Manifest Destiny (the westward expansion of America at any cost, often displacing and murdering Native people) as justification for conquering Eastern Europe.

A portion of the Berlin Wall standing outside the Topography of Terrors, a museum about Hitler’s rise/stronghold of power through political terror

I’m not insinuating in any way, shape or form that the United States or anyone other than the villainous Nazis are to blame for the Holocaust. I’m just pointing out how twisted our own history is. We, among many other colonizing nations, kidnapped countless Africans, displaced them from their home and forced them into slave labor for centuries. We massacred Native people because we felt like we had a right to their land. We inserted ourselves into conflicts like the Vietnam War and killed innocent women and children. We had — and still have — major institutionalized racism.

Every nation has skeletons in their closet. They each still have their own struggles, corruption and social issues. The difference, however, is that many modern nations pretend that history never happened and does not still affect the way the country is conducted and the people within the nation.

Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp — “Work brings freedom”

(On a quick side note, I would also like to note the difference between remembering and memorializing. Just because the Germans remember doesn’t mean they memorialize. The site above Hitler’s bunker where he committed suicide is now a simple parking lot with a small plaque noting what it was. That plaque was not even placed there by the government, and the government has long since destroyed any entrances and exits to the bunker. They did not want to attract the wrong kinds of people to the site. After the Charlottesville incident, many Americans rushed to the defense of keeping up Confederate soldier statues, saying they were “remembering” the events of the past. No. Those sites memorialize and glorify a dark era of racism and slavery.)

I’m not trying to be completely doom and gloom. Every nation also has its positives. Think of any profession or field, and there’s a famous German that contributed to its growth. Science? Einstein. Music? Beethoven. In every history of journalism class I’ve ever taken, my professors contributed the birth of the modern newspaper to Gutenberg’s printing press. Every nation has so much to be proud of, but one country’s accomplishments or downfalls does not make the people who live there any better or worse than another country.

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin

It’s important to not wear blinders. Be educated. Read books. Watch documentaries. For the sake of my journalism-driven heart, read the news. Know what has happened in the world and what is still happening. Don’t get wrapped up in thinking you’re any better than other people just because of your address.

I will end on this note. I spent a significant amount of time walking around and reflecting at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. It is composed of 2,711 concrete slabs of various heights. Whenever architect Peter Eisenman is asked about what it means, he always replies that it is up to the viewer’s interpretation. My interpretation is that if you look at all the slabs, they are all slightly different, but are fundamentally similar. To me, that represents that even though we are all different and come from different backgrounds, we are all fundamentally the same: we are all humans.

As we conduct our day-to-day lives, keep that in mind. We are all fundamentally the same.

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin

How Utkarsha pushed past gender discrimination toward her dream

Photo by Abbey Marshall

If Utkarsha Mahadeshwar followed suit of the rest of the girls from her slum community of Dharavi, she would’ve been married by age 13 and had a baby by now.

Instead, the 16-year-old is about to start junior college at Ruparel College, one of the top universities in Mumbai.

“Gender inequality is a huge problem in my community,” Utkarsha said. “After age nine, we’re not supposed to play with boys or even play outside. I would have neighbors yell at me when I would try to play.”

People in Utkarsha’s family had written her off because of her poverty and gender. Utkarsha’s relatives did not speak to her family because they were so poor in comparison to the rest of her family.

Utkarsha found her saving grace in Magic Bus, which provided her the hope to one day break out of poverty.

In weekly Magic Bus sessions, she interacted with both boys and girls her age and was taught lessons around the importance of health, education and gender equality. Around the time of puberty, Utkarsha and her peers were taught sessions around reproductive and sexual health, which Utkarsha claimed was “extremely helpful.”

“Mothers here don’t like to discuss private things such as periods or pads,” said Utkarsha’s mother, Pramila. “I even learned a lot of things I didn’t know through Utkarsha. I am very thankful for that.”

Many girls in Dharavi drop out of school after getting married, or if they go to school, they do not continue past 10th grade. Not only has Utkarsha flourished in school, but she plans to pursue a Master’s in Business Administration. In her spare time, she tutors her neighbors and helps her 12-year-old brother with his studies.

Utkarsha’s education has been fostered through Magic Bus, and her parents are forever grateful. Her mother was a high school dropout, and her father did not pass the  12th grade. He now works in a small restaurant.

“Since I dropped out, I am a housewife.” Pramila said. “I do not want Utkarsha to repeat my mistake. I want her to complete her education and help other children in our community.”

Her outstanding performance on the 10th grade exam made everyone sit up and take notice. She was invited to the United States last year for a program funded by the U.S. State Department because of her leadership skills and academic success.

“That was the proudest moment of my entire life,” Pramila said.

Word of Utkarsha’s high test score and her trip to the United States travelled quickly through the Dharavi community, and soonafter, Utkarsha was paid an unexpected visit.

“My cousin and his son, who is in the medical field, came to our home,” Pramila said. “I never expected they would visit. They didn’t care about us before because we were poor. But they came and they were so proud of her. They blessed her.”

Since the visit, Utkarsha has kept in close contact with her uncle, who is mentoring her while she prepares for junior college.

Utkarsha was recently selected to be a Magic Bus Community Youth Leader in Dharavi. She is now excited to begin running Magic Bus sessions for children just like her and making a change within her community.

“Before Magic Bus, she was so shy,” Pramila said. “Now because of all the interaction and all the learnings through Magic Bus, she has built confidence and is so smart. I am very proud of her.”

Utkarsha is one simple story of change within Magic Bus participants. She is one of nearly half a million children in India in Magic Bus programs who is working toward her dreams of continue her education and breaking out of the poverty cycle.

Originally produced for Magic Bus.

11-year-old stands up against domestic violence in Bombay Port Trust

Photo by Abbey Marshall

Nazifa Kachi was playing with her friends in Bombay Port Trust when she noticed something odd about her neighbor.

“Her whole eyes were swollen,” she said. “She told me that her husband and his family beat her up with a belt. I tried to tell her to file a police case, but she just ran away the next day.”

That wasn’t the first time Nazifa saw women in her community beaten and bruised by their husbands. Even as an 11-year-old, she is no stranger to the horrors of domestic violence because it was right in her own community.

BPT is a community located along the coastline of Mumbai. Nearly 100,000 families live on the land in less than humane conditions. Since BPT is an illegal slum, residents are not provided with basic necessities like water and electricity and have to pay 50 to 200 times more for inconsistent access to those amenities than more affluent citizens (Subbaraman, 2015). The possibility of the government destroying the shanties looms over residents every day, and demolition in some areas has already begun.

BPT’s problems don’t stop there. Social issues and inequality run rampant through the community. Mumbai has seen a 354 percent increase in rapes since 2011, many of those taking place with alarming regularity in slums like BPT (Hafeez, 2016). Because of this, parents have to be very careful about letting their daughters leave the home for short errands or playdates with friends. Even a trek to school can be dangerous.

Nazifa’s family isn’t originally from BPT. They migrated from a nearby village for her father to work in the naval port. When asked if she liked her community, she was quick to shake her head and say “no.”

“I don’t like that the teenage boys and men use drugs and sexually harass women,” she said. “I want to make a change and tell people drugs and alcohol are bad and involve police, because it leads to worse things. Violence and fights happen a lot here.”

Since her parents and her four-month-old brother now call BPT home, Nazifa is determined to make a difference.

Nazifa has been a Magic Bus participant for four years and is in fifth grade. Every week, she and her friends attend Magic Bus sessions delivered by mentors from her same community.

“When Nazifa enrolled, she was silent and shy,” said Shanti Ravi, the BPT Magic Bus community coordinator. “Now she is taking initiative for issues in the community she cares about. I’m amazed. She’s so young and already doing this.”

Nazifa’s mentors are her favorite part about Magic Bus, and she said they have been helpful on her journey for justice. Their job is to deliver important sessions to participants such as the importance of health and gender equality, but they also helped Nazifa. She said after she complained to them about the violence in the community, Magic Bus staff raised awareness to local families and children that domestic violence is a dehumanizing and criminal offense in India.

“In the sessions, Nazifa reflects those lessons and wants quick action,” Ravi said.

Magic Bus also takes participants to the local police station, where they interact with officers. Nazifa befriended one of the officers and got their phone number in case she saw another incident of domestic violence.

“She is the only girl around here that does this kind of thing,” Ravi said.

Nazifa has big dreams for the future: both for her community and personally. She aspires to have a career in the medical field and will be the first in her family to go to college. Her ultimate goal, she said, is to help those around her.

“When I’m a doctor I will help these women,” she said. “For now, I will do what I can. I want to make sure they’re okay and I want people here to be happy.”

 

Hafeez, M. (2016). Nearly 300% spike in rapes in Mumbai since 2011. [online] The Times of India. Available at: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/mumbai/Nearly-300-spike-in-rapes-in-city-since-11/articleshow/55424613.cms

Subbaraman, R. (2015). The city’s outcasts. [online] The Indian Express. Available at: http://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/the-citys-outcasts/

Originally produced for Magic Bus.

From Magic Bus participant to mentor, one Dharavi girl learns to be a leader

Photo by Abbey Marshall

Being born into a slum community in India as a female is not very promising of a hopeful future. 17-year-old Komal Narayankar has been surrounded by people her whole life telling her “no” because she will be nothing more than a housewife.

But Komal is determined to prove them wrong.

Komal joined Magic Bus eight years ago as an extremely shy child. Very quickly, she blossomed into an enthusiastic young woman thrilled about her future. She would show up to Magic Bus sessions ready to participate and learn something new.

“I love the guidance from my mentors,” Komal said. “They were always ready to help and motivate me to do well for myself and my community.”

When she graduated from the program, she took on the role of a Magic Bus Community Youth Leader to help other kids in her community, Dharavi. She sets an example that they too can aspire for more.

As a female, however, Komal faces significant obstacles from those around her — including some family members.

“My aunt used to ask why I joined Magic Bus because I was a girl and I was only going to be a housewife,” she said. “But my mom and dad supported me and stopped her.”

Komal seeks out families who don’t allow their daughters to attend Magic Bus sessions and counsels them on why they should let their girls play and learn.

“I always use my own family as an example,” she said. “My older sister never had Magic Bus, and she’s very shy and never leaves the house. But me, I am confident and fearless.”

Komal said she is lucky to have parents who are very supportive of her. Her father has always valued education. He was the top of his class in 10th grade, but could not continue his education in college because he couldn’t pay his tuition.

Her family is not wealthy by any means. All six of them sleep on the crowded floor of their home, which floods up to their knees during monsoon season. They do not have a tap and only have 10 minutes a day to fill up water from the community spout for their entire family.

Her father works as a day laborer only getting about four to five jobs a year, while her mother sells snacks on the local train. They pour all the money they save into Komal’s junior college fees.

“I always want to help her and never want her to stop pursuing her dreams,” her dad said, beaming over his daughter. “I am so proud of her.”

Komal is studying business at Chetna College in Bandra with the full support of her family and Magic Bus.

“My parents probably love Magic Bus more than I do,” Komal joked. “We are all really happy for what it’s done for me and for the kids here.”

Komal is on her way to completing college and landing a job in the formal sector in India, where she will hopefully be able to give back what her parents have given her.

Originally produced for Magic Bus.