Soul Sister in a Book

an apparition or double of a living person.

I met my doppelgänger as I was reading a book. No, the author doesn’t really look like me, although we both have dark brown hair and a face that has character but not what anyone would exactly call “beautiful.” But I saw myself mirrored in her words more closely than anyone else I have ever met.

The book is “Irritable Hearts: A PTSD Love Story,” by Mac McClelland, a freelance journalist (one of many characteristics we share). Why it is called that is a separate story, for another post. In chapter 3, she recalls how during a pre-vacation Internet search, she had accidentally stumbled upon some information about the Burmese refugee crisis. For the next couple of years, she’d followed the issue as best she could. Finding the explanations for the conflict in the media unsatisfactory, she finally ended up in Thailand, teaching English on a volunteer basis in a home for refugees who had fled the camps. One day, after showing her a video of murdered children on the ground and close-ups of a kid with a landmine wound, one of the refugees turned to her and said, “So, you will tell everybody in America?”

McClelland realized that she, of course, now had no other choice. From that point on, she writes,

Every move I made was in the service of one goal: to tell as many people as I could in America. My refugee housemates’ story had taken over my consciousness. It was all I talked about — for years. If you didn’t want to talk about genocide, you did not want to get stuck talking to me, my talking about the story only a mild antidote to its kicking around my insides.

McClelland found her way to a national magazine as a human rights reporter, wrote several articles about the refugees’ plight, attracted the attention of an agent and four years later, published a book on the crisis and went on a tour to talk about it. She did a pretty damn good job of trying to “tell everybody in America.”

So here is my parallel story:

Since I was a child, I have had a strong wanderlust and curiosity about other countries. When combined with my desire to be a journalist, kindled in high school by an English teacher, it blossomed into passionate interest in foreign policy. Unfortunately, I took a long detour into the “dark side,” leaving journalism and ending up working for corporate behemoths such as Monsanto and Johnson & Johnson. I don’t mean I worked in the rank-and-file. I was a global vice president.

The cognitive dissonance led me to a moment in early 2007 (only a year later that McClelland) when I stumbled upon the Global Exchange website and its “Reality Tours” — specifically, one to Israel and the West Bank.

My earliest awareness of the region was a teenage love for the romance in the Zionist narrative “Exodus” (turned into a movie starring heartthrob Paul Newman). But as I studied political science and consumed the news like an addict, I quickly came to realize there was more to the tale. What better way to sort of return to my “roots” and learn about it firsthand than a reality tour complete with visits to nonprofits and local residents? So, when I received a big, fat bonus from my employer that year, my then-husband encouraged me to “treat myself” (thinking I would go on a spa weekend or something similar). Off I went, in April of that year.

In Tulkaram, a Palestinian town in the West Bank, I met my equivalent of McClelland’s housemate, who asked me the same question. He was a farmer, who walked my group out into his field and showed me firsthand (not in a video), the separation wall that had cut him off from his source of income and pride, his land. And he asked me: “Why don’t Americans like us? What will you do for us when you go back home?” (As with McClelland’s Burmese friends, there wasn’t much awareness that American citizens are almost as powerless with our government as they are with theirs.)

I didn’t get a job with a national magazine, although I would have liked one. And I haven’t written a book, although I intend to (more on that later). But I have found my own way to rise to the farmer’s challenge. And unlike McClelland, the Palestinian cause is still occupying my consciousness eight years later.

Salma Shawa, one of the Gaza girls I took on an insane tour across the U.S. She now is attending college here.

After that first trip in 2007, I returned to the West Bank a year later as a volunteer with the International Solidarity Movement. Israel launched its first murderous assault on Gaza a month after I returned, an onslaught that didn’t end until 23 days later. I made my first foray there in March of 2009, and by the end of the year, I had left the corporate world behind, and my marriage, and made Gaza my home. Throughout, I was writing stories about the “real Gaza” for various news services and speaking wherever I could on my trips home. I even took two adolescent girls from Gaza on a three-week, coast-to-coast speaking tour (that could be a book on its own!).

Although I have not returned to Gaza since the eight-day Israeli assault in November 2012 (not for lack of recent trying, however), I remain as committed today as I was then. During the summer of 2014, McClelland’s comment that “if you didn’t want to talk about genocide, you did not want to get stuck talking to me,” was very applicable. My personal trainer, a restaurant cashier, my rheumatologist, all got an earful. Not politically correct? Too damn bad.

However, all of those months of writing and speaking were really all leading up to the “labor of love” I founded around this time last year, with the support and financial backing of another soulmate, the founder of the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor, and a bunch of Indiegogo contributors. It’s called We Are Not Numbers, a project designed to attract attention for the stories of all the people I have come to know and grown to love — both their beauty and their tragedy.

Today, the first “class” of about 35 Not Numbers writers have become “senior alumni,” we are about to train a new group of 15, the first cohort of Palestinian refugees from Lebanon has come on board, and we are assisted by an amazing, dedicated group of mentors from around the world. And each one has become a member of my extended family.

I don’t know if I am making a significant difference in their lives, or helping to bring a resolution to the overall crisis (probably not… sigh). But I am doing what I can, and I couldn’t be happier.

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Pam Bailey’s story.