Collaborative Survival by Paula Kahn


I  am the granddaughter of both refugees and “economic migrants.” I am alive because people conspired to save the lives of my grandparents. I am alive because they were able to escape, by “chance” perhaps. There were non-Jews who made strong efforts to increase their chances of survival. They did not have any pressing obligation to do so, in which case, one might say it was their divine, moral obligation to not look away.

The summer of 2014 was psychically and spiritually painful for me. I was studying abroad in Mexico when the media suddenly blew up (war is in our metaphors) with news of the huge wave of unaccompanied Central American children refugees, crossing the United States-Mexico Border. They were fleeing perpetual violence and often searching for their dearly missed family members. In Oaxaca, Mexico, I met three middle aged men, perhaps a bit younger than our fathers, who were making the long journey from Chiapas, Mexico to Salem, Oregon to find work because there were no sources of income for them in Chiapas. I walked with them and we made a stop at my hostel so I could share the little I had to offer for such a huge journey. That summer, I wailed amidst a panic attack in my mother’s arms when I was informed of the missile attack that killed four Palestinian children- children of the same family- while they innocently played soccer on the coast of Gaza. That summer, one of my closest friend’s boyfriend was on the ground in Gaza for the IDF. He lost a friend or two that summer. He now has PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) and they struggle to engage romantically. By the summer of 2014, I was already a passionate social justice organizer and student leader, but it was that summer and the following year that catapulted me and forced me to the point of no return. The raging injustice of world-wide, systematic violence was hitting the entire spectrum of diversities that encompass humanity. It didn’t matter whether you were a soldier, child, mother, family member, and so on: violence was creeping its presence into all of our lives.

Fast forward to Lesvos, Greece 2016. At this point in my life, my mom was dead and I no longer had the comforting nest of her arms to have panic attacks in. I have my own PTSD but I knew there were others with far more severe PTSD than my own. I found my way to them in Lesvos at a refugee transit camp called “Better Days for Moria.” I arrived to Lesvos in the middle of the night and took a gamble with a taxi driver I shared no language with. The following week and a half was a dizzying storm of empathy, improvisation, expressive body language, smiling, laughter, private tears, hope, hopelessness, transnational solidarity, and so on.  I worked in the distribution tent my entire time there, with an occasional trash pick-up shift. People arrived to the camp at all hours in the day and night, sometimes soaking wet from the journey. I saw humans of all ages and of all abilities. There were elders in wheelchairs who crossed the sea, just a few miles from Turkey, but those few miles were fatal. At the distribution tent, we were responsible for offering one change of clothes and handing out hygiene packets. But more often than not, we were under resourced and never had enough to offer. We could not give everyone a new pair of shoes or a new jacket. It turned out to be a complex dynamic: for the volunteers to exert some power over selecting who received what. Some volunteers had a power complex, but then again we were speaking more than 7 languages at Better Days for Moria and it was unique when volunteers and refugees spoke the same one. I found teammates in that distribution tent, whom I thrived with. We would change families’ clothes in a frenzy, redressing them from head to toe, sometimes with a lot of struggles to find clothing that was truly fitting and truly comfortable. In those moments there was a mixture of despair, laughter, exchanges of funny faces, people convincing volunteers to keep looking for another item, volunteers convincing people that an item was good quality. I remember not being supplied in the tent with underpants for elder women of a larger size. This was all they needed at the moment, yet we couldn’t offer it to them. Nor could we offer folks backpacks; it was rare for us to be stocked with backpacks. And even then, we had to reserve them for families. Communicating this in body language and broken words across multiple languages was painful. I wished I had so much more to offer. I reflected on how our governments were failing us because I did not see any significant government efforts responding to the crisis. I was seeing the Greek government implement a rigid system of processing incoming migrants in which some were considered refugees and were allowed to leave the island and others were considered “economic migrants” and were stuck on the island. Either way, they had risked their life to arrive there. I was seeing the efforts of humanitarian organizations but I was mostly seeing ordinary people, like you and I, flocking to Lesvos to see how they could be of service to the incoming waves of fleeing people. In this way, the efforts to support those fleeing violence were very improvised.  Many of us were there to fill out whatever duties or roles were needed, and to do it full heartedly, with friendliness, with empathy, with care, although many of us were not highly skilled or trained life-savers.

It does not take a professional or a politician to value precious life. It does not take a university degree or a high school education to intuitively exercise one’s agency to protect life- to defend it from destruction. When it came to applying for the Muslim Jewish Conference, I feared I wasn’t Jewish enough to attend. My conviction to dive into transformational dialogue overpowered my hesitations….because regardless of how Jewish I feel or don’t feel or how much of an expert one is in theology, or how secular someone is- we desperately need to talk to each other. We live in a PTSD world. We live in a world in which violence is reproducing itself, reproducing pain, deepening archaic wounds that were never mended. How do we disrupt this vicious cycle? How do we heal ourselves and encourage others to do the same? Can dance, visual art, and music play a significant role in changing the course of relations amongst groups that have been pitted against each other for a few lifetimes? Is arts-therapy the window into an alternative future?

My suspicions of the power of creative expression and performance as tools for healing from trauma, identity based conflict, and war as tools for planting the seeds for coexistence were confirmed at the time of the closing ceremony of MJC 2016, when I saw many participants cry. The work of the Arts and Culture Committee was very intimate, striking, revelatory, meaningful beyond words, and revealed that bridge-building is a creative-imaginative process . A temporary human sculpture that a Syrian participant started turned into a scene of  a voyage at sea – open to interpretation – yet the Syrian refugee crisis was on most of our minds. We could not help but create a scene that projected the desperation of the Syrian Crisis. During another activity, we were sharing lullabies, family songs, religious songs, cultural songs, etc. By the end of our sharing session, we had weaved a song in Arabic with a song in Hebrew. I speak neither of these beautiful, ancient languages but was sitting in the middle of the two groups singing each song. I felt the sonic transition between the two songs, dialects, cultures groove through my ears and mind, ever so seamlessly, as they became a unified song, that belonged to a grander, a greater, more mystical, ominous tune, foreshadowing the magic that is possible with a little bit of listening and harmonizing of vibrations, the tones, the pitches, the timbres. This is what plurality might sound like.

There were many moments in which I wanted to weep at the conference but somehow sucked those feeling back inside because I feel much less impacted by identity based conflict, by war, and immediate threats of violence. I came to MJC to listen. Growing up as a Jewtina was strange. I remember my mom and I occasionally receiving funny looks at the synagogue and occasionally being told I wasn’t really Jewish. I remember never feeling “Jewish enough” and eventually rejecting this source of the feeling that made me feel excluded. I have two great aunts that survived one of the horrible “model” concentration camps. One of them, Aunt Ursula or “Ushi” absolutely hated talking about anything related to the Holocaust. It was an untouchable topic. She suffered an eating disorder after being liberated. If there were any left overs during a meal, she would not allow a crumb to ever go to waste. I’m unsure if  her refusal to touch the subject impacted my feelings toward the topic but I never committed much time to studying the details of the Holocaust. I felt assured I knew the “basics”. I didn’t need to know the details. Our visit to Sachsenhausen was nauseating but so essential to my path of purpose. I had avoided confronting the details for such a long time. The number 6 million is uttered in three syllables- how could those three syllables ever convey the individual human lives that were murdered? To have to confront the obsessive planning down to the smallest of details, the capitalist and imperial contracts to exploit Jewish and transgressive identities (Gypsies, LGBTQ people) was absolutely sickening and incomprehensible. Confronting human suffering makes my mind race. Contemporarily speaking, I never look away. However, with the Holocaust, I habitually looked away because of my turmoil of feeling like I didn’t belong to the Jewish community. Often I think, the only threads that bind me to my Jewish identity is the fact that I am alive because my family survived the epidemic disease of the Jewish Holocaust- and also the cyclical religious songs and prayers that showered each of my younger years. After visiting Saschenhausen, I felt empathy and understanding to many Jewish people in my life, who range in their commitments or critiques to Zionism. Some, who I’ve had diverging views with, even at the conference. I feel like my understanding has deepened in complexity, which I am learning is part of the process of resolution: to truly sit, float, swim, meditate, and reflect on the layers of complexity we must absorb, inhale, and take into account. I understand the severity and urgency of the statement, “Never Again.”

The statement, “Never Again,” cannot be held true only for the transnational Jewish community. We must apply this principle to all ethnic, religious, and cultural identities. “Never Again” for Syrians, “Never Again” for the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas, “Never Again” for Cambodians, “Never Again” for the Aboriginal Peoples of Australia,  “Never Again” for Palestinians, and so on… This may be a striking declaration, potentially offensive but let’s unpack this idea:

Many of us would not be alive today if we had not found a place of refuge when our people were persecuted, generations ago, or in the recent past. There are many spirits that never had the chance to fully embody their potential for brilliance in this world. So many people did not fulfill their legacy, did not go on to pursue their dreams, or did not go on to start a family. I believe, as a descendant of survivors, that it is my moral obligation to do anything with the little power I have, to increase the chances for others’ survival and to support processes of profound healing, so that these efforts may expand exponentially. It is my moral obligation and in my best interest to advocate for an end to war, the global arms trade, inhumane forms of discipline, such as incarceration or immigrant detention, the destruction of vital ecosystems, the catastrophic extraction of resources, and so on. I humbly think it is our moral obligation to work together to help others survive genocide and mass atrocities and to resist and stop the forces that intend to breed more harm than to disrupt it. It is our duty to increase others’ chances for survival while affirming our own. I believe and trust that affirming and protecting our survival while affirming the survival of others is possible. It is our duty to be as imaginative and wildly creative with our dreams for coexistence and an end of all wars. If we can commit to creating such advanced military, security, and border technology, we can certainly improve our efforts in technologies and arts for peace and conflict resolution, disarmament, cross-cultural communications, and healing from trauma.  We are an innovative species, with many models of spirituality. We have the capabilities and capacities to invent the tools for coexistence, the tools for protecting the abundance this planet offers us. This planet has so much abundance for us, if we care for it and for each other. What if we treated all land and sea as divine and holy?

I  am the granddaughter of refugees. I am alive because people conspired to save the lives of my grandparents. There is no time to waste. The bloodshed is not worth it. All land is holy and we are its custodians. Let us study the most tolerant and compassionate messages of our faiths and share them with others! I envision MJC to grow into an inter-faith, global anti-war, pro-peace movement. I feel most spiritually connected when I do work in service of social justice, environmental justice, protection of human rights, social transformation, healing from trauma, anti-oppression work, and  when I co-create art, music, and dance! I currently run a pen-pal program in California that connects pen-pals in civil society with people who are facing the unjust system of for-profit immigrant detention in the United States. Many of them are refugees. Please don’t hesitate to reach out, if you are interested in sending someone a postcard or a message of hope!

Finally, one of my favorite and revelatory moments at MJC was during the late night, facilitated conversation over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Someone had proposed an end of the occupation and the creation of a Palestinian state. This caused many defensive reactions and comments in the room. One participant said, “But what will happen if there is a creation of a Palestinian state? What will be the consequences? What will happen?” This question raised a string of valid responses, comments of fear of security, Hamas, uncertainty, fear, and so on. My favorite response was that of one of the members of the organization, The Parents’ Circle, who said, “We have no idea what will or will not happen but we can’t let that stop us from trying. Who would have thought that one day after the Holocaust, Germany would have an embassy in Israel and Israel would have an embassy in Germany?” Many discussions were not comfortable for each of us for very intimate reasons; many questions remain open-ended and after MJC I feel more hopeful that we can grow our movement, revisit these questions, and allow for our conversations at MJC to make a presence in our everyday life.

The last day at the hotel, on Sunday, I was having so much trouble leaving the hotel. I kept looking at the magnificent, rainbow-reflecting crystals of the chandelier that hovered above where many of us congregated at the couches to discuss politics or spirituality or our countries, to talk for the first time ever, to talk late into the night and early into the morning, to figure out our evening plans,  to cuddle, or to play inter-faith truth or dare! I had a supernatural feeling that something out of the ordinary had transpired at the hotel in that week, something beyond what language has to offer. We made long lasting friendships and agreed to listen to each other and share our intimate experiences. We were vulnerable, brave, controversial, and compassionate with each other. Those commitments felt so uniquely and refreshingly promising. By doing so, we honored the spirits of our ancestors, the spirits of those who didn’t survive, and the spirits of those struggling to survive. I didn’t want to let go of that feeling of magical, transnational friendship. I kept staring at the sparkling chandelier above us as we all postponed to say our goodbyes a little while longer as we had grown attached to each other and this temporary place of refuge.

Paula Kahn