Thursday, December 29, 2011

Goodbye Christmas Tree

I took down all my decorations last night, and put away my Christmas tree this morning.  Izzy, of course, was more than willing to help, and by help I mean sit in the empty box so I couldn't pack up the tree, chase the twine I was trying to tie it shut with, and do that thing where she runs laps around the apartment and howls like she's hopped up on amphetamines.  I think she was miffed that I was taking away her personal jungle gym.  Here are pictures I took the night I put it up:

You do realize I'm going to wreck this thing, don't you?

Screw those other ornaments--I want the star

These are quite shiny, actually

Why do you have to hang my new toys so high off the ground, woman?

Hmm, or do I want it in silver?

Ah, this'll do

Wait, what's that sound?

Oh, squeaky bird, I'll never forgot you.  You're better than any of Rachel's cheap dollar-store crap.

Merry Christmas, everyone, and have a Happy New Year!

Christmas Cookies, Stockings and Black Henna, Part 3

Day 3 was a bit different from the other days.  We didn't visit anyone at home; instead, we all met late in the morning outside Suuqa Karmel, the largest of the 3 Somali malls in South Minneapolis.  I got there first; even though it was December 18, it was almost 50 degrees outside, so I didn't mind standing out in the sun for a few minutes, reading my Kindle.

Suuqa Karmel was an old Midwest Machinery warehouse that was bought in 1997 by the...ahem...controversial Basim Sabri, a Palestinian immigrant who renovated the building along the lines of an indoor, Middle-Eastern marketplace.  He divided the building into stalls, where local Somalis--mostly women--opened their small, start-up businesses selling everything from prayer rugs and hijabs to perfume, bed sheets and tea sets.  There is a mosque on the upper level, and a branch of Franklin Bank, one of the local banks that caters to the Somali population by offering Shariah-compatible services.

I waited in the parking lot between the two buildings that comprised the mall, and people-watched for a while.  Men in dress shirts stopped in at one of the little coffeeshops on their way to and from work, while women and children piled out of minivans, probably visiting the sisters and aunties who were on shift at their stalls.  When the rest of the group arrived, we all went in together, though I hung back to get a coffee and a couple of sambusas.

Somali coffee is amazing.  It's like diabetes in a cup.  I don't know how much sugar and milk they poured into that thing, but it was a lot more like a chai latte from Caribou than the thick, gritty Arab-style coffee I was expecting.  Sambusa is like Indian samosa, only better, because it's got meat in it (which can pretty much be said of most East African food--like Indian, but not vegetarian, so better by leaps and bounds).  You can get them with ground beef or ground fish--the quintessential Somali snack food.

We got there right at noon, which meant that the mosque upstairs was blasting the Call to Prayer over the loudspeakers, and I was instantly back in the Old City of Jerusalem.  The smells were all there--frankincense, fried food and gasoline, and the cramped, winding hallways with their tiny shops stuffed to overflowing with the same ten kinds of item reminded me so much of Christian Quarter Road.  I think Basim Sabri was a little homesick when he drew up the blueprints for Karmel.

But the Somalis have found it well-suited to their own entrepreneurial ventures, and as I said, it was mostly women.  I bought a guntiino (sarong) from a nice lady whose name I can't seem to remember.  I asked how much and she said "For you--fifty dollars."  My heart sank.  That was bargaining language, and I suck at bargaining.  Had I actually been in the Christian Quarter, I would have haggled a bit, but this was Minneapolis, and I'd just taken it for granted that the rules would be the same here as the Kmart down the road.  I paid the fifty dollars.  I would later find that a guntiino fitted for a tall, African woman would not necessarily fit a short, potty Norwegian-American girl.  Natch.

We wandered around there for an hour and a half or so.  Me and Sarah, another IV volunteer, stopped in at the Islamic Bookstore for some Somali grammar guides and dictionaries, and eventually, most of the group made their way over to stall #110, where I found five of us girls in line for henna.  I hung back for a while; the tattoos were huge and only $5 apiece, a price that screams "hair dye in a tube."  I'd seen pictures online of where people got henna tattoos using "black henna," which is not actual henna at all.  These unlucky souls found out too late that they were allergic to the chemicals used in it, and erupted in painful rashes that left permanent (though lovely) paisley-shaped scars all over their feet and hands, but gosh darnit, the girl was so good at what she did that I was mesmerized.

I went for it.  She had me sign my name in a notebook and date it (for liability reasons, I guess), picked up her tube, and started work on my right hand.  She was a genius.  She had no pattern to work off of, but each one of us who got the tattoos got a unique design, and I'm pretty sure she was making it up as she went along.

"You're not allergic, are you?" she asked.

I looked at my hand.  She was already halfway done; it seemed a little superfluous to ask.  Then again, if I knew I was allergic and let her get this far, I'd deserve whatever flaming eruption I got.  When she finished, a short five minutes later, I was free to go, and spent the next twenty minutes with my fingers spread out, letting the black paste air dry.  Here's my design:

I reasoned if I was going to have permanent scarring on my hands, it should at least look awesome.

I never caught the girl's name.  Later, while shopping at Rosedale Mall, I'd run into a Somali lady who knew the girl and said her name was Sabrina, or something like that.  So if you're not allergic to black henna, stall #110 at Suuqa Karmel is your place to go.

We had pizza in Maplewood after that, and then the church group went back north to Superior, and I went home.  I think the retreat was as enlightening to me as it was to our visitors, and I'm eagerly looking forward to the next one.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Christmas cookies, Stockings and Black Henna, Part 2

Day two of our refugee extravaganza was similar to the night before--we started out late that morning for a different apartment complex and handed out Christmas stockings full of toys and school supplies to children we knew in the complex.  And, like last night, we spent a lot of our time lingering in the homes of the families we knew well.

Some people claim that immigrants are "stealing American jobs."  I'm a little confused by this, as my experience around immigrants is that they're all in the same boat as the rest of us--waiting at home, sending out resume after resume, applying for job after job, and hearing nothing in return.  I should point out that refugees are legal to work as soon as they step off the plane, and it is actually illegal to discriminate against potential employees on the basis of (legal) immigration status.  You can't pick one guy over another because he (or she) is a natural-born citizen, and the other guy just has a green card.  It still happens, of course.

There is a Bhutanese church that was holding a Christmas party and service later that day.  Incidentally, it was also a national Bhutanese cultural holiday, so attendance was going to be high, and everyone was dressed in their best suits and saris.  We visited a family in the next apartment, and their daughter was dressed in a gorgeous turquoise-blue sari that her mother had made for her the day before.  We sat with her mother and father for a while, and heard the same story--no work, and where there is work, no hours.  It's depressing.  This man had worked in Nepal for twenty years building furniture.  I thought of all of this untapped talent laying around, and got an idea:

First, wouldn't it be nice to have an online directory of refugee-owned businesses and skilled workers, so those who care about their new neighbors could help them by giving them business or hiring them for contract work?  Secondly, wouldn't it also be nice if those who are not working had some opportunity to create and sell their handicrafts and funnel some money toward the community in that way?  I know nothing about the Farmer's Market circuit or how that works, but the Hmong have had success selling their embroidery and folk art, and this might be a way for the community to use their ample down time in productive, empowering ways until the economy improves.  It's an idea, anyway.  Time to do some research...

We went to the Christmas service, where there were traditional and not-so-traditional Bhutanese dances and songs, and a short sermon in both English and Nepali.  We were invited for dinner afterward, and it all smelled so good (Bhutanese food is amazing).  Unfortunately, we had our own church service to get to that night so we couldn't linger any longer.  It was too bad; the Bhutanese will beat any American hands-down for hospitality, and it was really, really hard to leave :-(.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Christmas cookies, Stockings and Black Henna, Part 1

Every once in a while, International Village--my church and the place I volunteer--hosts small group immersion retreats where we give visiting congregations a first-hand look at refugee life in the Twin Cities. This weekend we had a group from Superior, near Duluth, and it was quite a treat.

I had a heck of a time getting there, though.  First, I putzed around the house for too long and got outside just in time to see the bus pull away from my stop.  Oh phooey.  I tried plan B--walk to the nearby Bethel Off-Campus Housing, catch the shuttle, make a loop to Rosedale and catch my bus by a different route, only to learn that the last shuttle to Rosedale before Christmas break had just left.  Phooey again.  Luckily, the van drivers took pity on me and got me to Rosedale anyway, so all was well in the world.

I actually recognized most of the people in this visiting church group.  They were former classmates of mine from Northwestern, so we spent some time eating dinner and catching up.  We watched a short video about the Bhutanese refugees (more on them in a later post), and then set off to a couple of apartment complexes up the road to meet them personally.

Bob Flonkerton (not his actual name), the director of International Village, along with his wife Felicity, have spent three years developing a close network of friendships with the Bhutanese and a few Karen (Burmese) families, meeting with them in their homes and helping them with mail, ESL, occasional small crises, and sometimes just talking and drinking tea.  It must be difficult to regain a sense of trust after being driven from one's homeland, and the fact that Bob and Felicity have earned such close relationships with these families is a testament to how committed they are to the Bhutanese and their success here in America.

We split into group and went door-to-door dropping off Christmas cookies to the various Bhutanese and Karen families we knew.  We did this for an hour, and while the people from Superior went back to their hotel for the bed, we finished the night at a Christmas party in the home of one of our Bhutanese friends who has acted as a cultural liaison at the drop-in center.  Jeremy and Nancy, two other helpers at IV, were already there with their kids, and the kitchen was busy and full of people making fried pork and momo: boiled dumplings stuffed with fermented cabbage.  The food was wonderful, as it always, and dinner was finished with some steaming cups of chia.

It was nice to unwind at the end of a hectic day.  I don't know the community as well as Bob and Felicity, so most of the time I just sit and listen, and I learn a lot this way, and the stories are so interesting.  I've never met a Bhutanese family I didn't like.  I just wish that I lived closer to the neighborhood so I could get to know them better.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Grantwriting and Cheesemaking

Well, I'm back from Thanksgiving Break.  After finishing my second draft of The Dreamer, and after a few lonely evenings in my apartment crawling through Kindleboards' vast forum so I could join the conversation without making an ass of myself (thank you, Asperger's Syndrome), I remembered it was NaNoWriMo.  "Just how long is this thing I just created?" I asked myself.  I wasn't really keeping track as I was writing; the fact that I was writing my novel during NaNoWriMo at all was purely coincidence.  Still, I decided to check.  I copied and pasted my RTF file into Pages and did a word count.  Over three months, I'd written 150,280 words, which roughly translates to three NaNoWriMos in a row.  No wonder my brain hurt.  I also remembered the Distance Ed course I'd enrolled in five weeks earlier, which probably had a few assignments due by now.  Or a dozen.


With due apologies to Dr. Stone, I'm more or less caught up by now.  I still have a Case Study project due at the end the of next week on the topic of "Change Agency," or how to get a group of people or a culture to accept and propagate innovations.  I was reading and studying in the hopes of figuring out how to get thousands of people to buy my books and help me dig my way out of this swampy mire of student loan debt, but I think Dr. Stone was thinking more along the lines of getting more Bhutanese refugees to utilize the new drop-in center we've opened for them.

I just started volunteering at International Village, a brand-spanking-new nonprofit on Rice Street in St. Paul.  It's in a dinky little office building we've leased, but we've spruced it up quite a bit with some couches, lamps, posters, and almost every fake plant I could fit in a box at the Unique Thrift Store up the road, to make it look homey.  The beauty of working with an organization this new is that I feel so much freer to try new things and build up new skills; just this past Tuesday, Sarah, one of the other volunteers, gave us a list of philanthropic organizations to hit up for grants.  Seriously, grant-writing!  The most recession-proof job there is, and not a whole lot different than writing query letters and hitting up book blogs for reviews (okay, it's massively different, but something I can still get weirdly excited about).

Also, I learned how to make homemade farmer's cheese (paneer) over Thanksgiving.  It's easier than you think.  Here's my incredibly ghetto recipe, if you're interested:

1 gallon whole milk
1 cup white vinegar

First, bring the milk to 190 degrees F.  Add the vinegar, stirring for a moment or two until the milk separates into curds and whey.  When looks like it's as separated as it's going to get, scoop out the curds with a strainer.  Cool the curds, and mix in salt to taste (it'll probably take a lot, so be generous).  Then wrap the curds tightly in saran wrap and place under a heavy weight in the fridge overnight so it presses into a block.  What you end up with is something like ricotta salata, and I find it's best either crumbled over salad, or sliced and drizzled with honey.