Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Syria Dilemma, edited by Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel

A primer on humanitarian crisis in Syria and reasoning toward a solution

The Syria Dilemma, edited by Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel

(An edited version of this piece can be found on the website of Teaching for Change(TfC). Follow the link to access TfC's incredible on-line bookstore.)

The Syrian civil war, and the collapse of the Syrian state, is the direct cause of the most severe ongoing humanitarian crisis anywhere in the world today. According to the United Nations, an estimated seven million Syrians are internally displaced, another approximately four million are refugees living in the neighboring countries of Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq, and in even more distant countries in Asia and North Africa.

The total of refugee and displaced people is more than half of the pre-war Syrian population. Hunger is widespread and, in many instances, forces loyal to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad will not allow relief agencies access to trapped Syrians.

In Iraq, fighting between the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS—a militant group that owes much of its dramatic growth to the collapse of the Syrian and Iraqi states) and various Iraqi and Kurdish military units and militias has created another 2 million homeless people. The death toll from the fighting in both Syria and Iraq, including civilians, is probably 300,000 or more.

Conflict in Syria began in early 2011 as civil resistance to 40 years of authoritarian control by the al-Assad family. The situation quickly deteriorated after nonviolent protest was met by escalating repression, mass detentions, disappearances, and military and police assaults on demonstrators. Rebels, both Muslim and secular, sought and received military assistance from outside sources, including Iran, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United States and Russia. By 2012, the conflict had become a full-blown civil war that divided the country into multiple areas variously controlled by the Assad regime, secular and/or moderate Muslim rebel groups, and more extreme militant and fundamentalist groups, most notably ISIS.

Today, the situation remains fluid and the humanitarian crisis grows seemingly unabated. Democracy activists and advocates for civilian relief continue to agitate for more effective and sustained outside intervention by the UN and western democracies, despite the insufficiency that has characterized attempts to intervene so far. Two long and inconclusive U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq add to the difficulties in both arriving at a full understanding of the factors contributing to the crisis in Syria and developing a comprehensive, effective and sustainable response.

But The Syria Dilemma, edited by Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel, argues that the world has a moral obligation to intervene in Syria and relieve the suffering. Through a series of essays from a wide variety of knowledgeable observers, the book looks carefully at the many variables that will impair or outright prevent effective humanitarian relief. To the editors’ credit, the book does not settle for easy or platitudinous answers. Contributors call for antithetical solutions, for military intervention or for no military intervention, at all; for including all parties in a massive multi-party negotiation acknowledging that no peace can be achieved without the full participation of those involved and their sponsors, while others argue for the exclusion of the Assad regime, of ISIS, of Russia and others, on the grounds that those parties are guilty of war crimes or, at least, of deliberately exacerbating conflict.

Providing a useful account of the tensions and contesting agendas that are at the root of conflict and chaos both in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East, The Syria Dilemma is an important example of how to thoroughly investigate the type of moral challenge that confronts the world today without forcing a conclusion on readers (or allowing them to look away).

Many of the users of Teaching for Changes website and resources will be interested in the book for those reasons, and, even, in using it in their own classrooms. The Syria Dilemma will provide a serious challenge to students, and no easy answers. But that, after all, is both the challenge of a real education, and the challenge of the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Syria.

Monday, February 23, 2015

After 40 years in prison, there is a life outside to live

T.J. Spytma celebrates the six-month anniversary of his freedom

At the end of January, T.J. Spytma celebrated his first six months out of prison. Incarcerated in an adult prison for murder at the age of 15, T.J. spent the next 40 years of his life in one correctional institution or another.

A reckless, thrill-seeking, drop-out growing up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, T.J. stumbled from one petty crime to the next until he and a friend broke into a neighbor's house and committed crimes that shocked and outraged their home town community. The crimes, which I wrote about in "T.J. Spytma is out of prison," and the outrage were more than sufficient for him to be tried as an adult, and sentenced to prison for life, subject to court review.

For almost 40 years, the sitting judge in the case, and his successor, repeatedly barred a parole hearing for T.J. But when the successor judge was replaced once more, T.J. finally got his hearing and ultimately a chance to live free for the first time in his adult life.

T.J.'s behavior during his first few years in prison were not a big improvement on his early teenage years. A juvenile in an adult prison, he made the decision that the only way to protect himself was to be a total badass. The decision and the success of his pose protected him somewhat from rampant prison violence those first few years, but did little to gain him privileges and access to the kinds of services that might help him understand the forces that drove his behavior.

Eventually, T.J. did get into group counseling, built relationships with some prison professional staff, and got a coveted job transcribing materials into braille; and he did the heavy lifting necessary in coming to understand that despite his situation, despite having entered prison with no skills and no education, despite having no experience of a world that neither punished nor excluded, there was, in fact, always a possibility that he might leave prison to face and handle more rewarding and more ordinary challenges.

In time, T.J. became an in-house prison activist, helping fellow prisoners to manage the environment safely and to access services that would mature them and develop new skills, coaching still other long-timers, helping them to write letters to the parole board and prepare for parole hearings. By 1990, he was chair of the national board of a unique organization, the National Lifers of America. Even then, things could get rocky. A prison gang looking for a way to smuggle contraband into prisons approached him about using his organization's volunteers. When T.J. refused, he was stabbed in retaliation.

Finally, in 2013, T.J. got his parole hearing. Life in the free world has not meant escaping all the dreariness (and much worse) that was part of prison life. He still has to show up at the parole office on a regular basis. He has to piss clean. And he has to pay the state for his P.O.'s time and the lab costs associated with regular testing.

Penny Ryder (an old colleague of mine at the American Friends Service Committee-AFSC), who first met T.J. when she worked with a prison visitation program, has opened her home to T.J. Penny, now retired, has a pension from AFSC and gets a social security check, which covers her needs. T.J. works  two part-time jobs, one with AFSC and another as an assistant on a research project attempting to measure how Obamacare has changed health and health care for ex-inmates. But the work doesn't pay  very well, and Penny and T.J. have found that financially they have no wiggle room, at all.

T.J. is going to community college, studying to be a paralegal, but work and resources keep him from going full-time. He may be 60 years old or older by the time he gets his degree.

In the meantime, Penny and T.J. also have to negotiate a fraught family landscape. Penny's daughter refuses to see Penny as long as T.J. is living with her. Worse, though Penny's relationship with her grandchildren, her son's children, has always been a good and important thing for her (and for the children, too), her son's ex-wife has gone to court to bar Penny's access to her grandchildren, if T.J. is present. (A University of Michigan undergrad produced a short video about some of the challenges confronting Penny and T.J.)

For T.J. all of this is quite painful. He recognizes that his crimes still have a life in the present, and that Penny pays part of the penalty for what he did so long ago. But over these last 40 years, T.J. has come to understand that he cannot bury his past, and he must face the continuing consequences without succumbing to frustration or anger. In order to move on, he says, he cannot be blaming others for the position he is in now.

Shortly after his six-month anniversary as a free man passed, T.J. and I met for lunch. When I asked him how he was doing, he was clear. Time passes for him now in a way that makes more sense then it did when he was in prison, he said. Look around, he continued, extolling his sandwich and marveling at the fine tablecloths. "I'll be okay," he said. "It's a good life."