As a writer on human rights issues, I do not lack reasons for concern. Nowadays, in many countries, human rights are abused, and violence strikes in one of its multiple forms. Although writing topics are plentiful, this situation is especially upsetting for anybody who yearns to live in a peaceful world. At such moments, when the negative aspects of the human condition are overwhelming, I visit one of the many neighbourhoods outside Manhattan – where I live – and where the change of locale can do wonders for my mood.
One of my favourite places is Brighton Beach, an area on Coney Island in the borough of Brooklyn, a subway ride away from Manhattan. When the weather is pleasant, and I have some free time, I go to the boardwalk, sit in front of the sea and the salt breeze energises me. When it is cold, I visit one of the plentiful ethnic stores and delight in their variety. When my appetite is in full force, I go to one of the many restaurants in the area to savour food unlike what I eat at home every day.
The area is populated mainly by immigrants that left the former Soviet Union starting in the 1970s and whose influx, albeit diminished, continues today. Years ago, the area was dubbed “Little Odessa,” since many of its residents came from Odessa, a city in Ukraine. I remember the welcome surprise of a friend – with whom I was having dinner at one of the local Russian restaurants – when he realised how many patrons came from that city, his parents’ hometown.
Reading the news recently has been particularly disheartening: the continuous violence between Israelis and Palestinians, with no hint of an effective rapprochement between them, the sustained violence in Afghanistan and Iraq, countries whose sores never seem to heal, and the continuing conflict between Russia and Ukraine.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, hardly a week goes by without a bombing incident causing scores of victims. In the latest action by US forces against the Taliban, officials in Afghanistan’s Helmand province and international media reported that at least 30 civilians, including 16 children, were killed in the attack.
The carnages in Syria and Yemen have caused enormous losses in lives and the forced migration of thousands of people to neighbouring countries. In addition to these conflicts, there is the continuous mistreatment of immigrants coming to the US. In many cases, children are forcibly separated from their parents, sometimes permanently, something which can only be called an inhumane and perverse policy.
As if these were not enough dire facts, the US government’s Fourth National Climate Assessment outlines the potential impacts of climate change across every sector of American society. “With continued growth in emissions at historic rates, annual losses in some economic sectors are projected to reach hundreds of billions of dollars by the end of the century – more than the current gross domestic product (GDP) of many US states,” the report said. However, President Donald Trump, the Denier-in-Chief, acknowledged that “he does not believe the report,” adding that he only read parts of it.
I want to forget about these events, I desperately want to believe that I live in a world without wars and with a healthy climate. I take the subway and after almost an hour I am on another planet. I am sitting by the sea in Brighton Beach. Today is a relatively cold day so there are few people around. A young woman comes with her child and sits next to me. She sends her child to play on the sand. By the occasional remarks the woman makes to him I take her to be of Russian origin.
The child is happily playing with a ball. Suddenly, he leaves the ball. Seeing a line of giant ants moving along the sand, he takes a bunch of them and crushes them with one hand. On seeing this, and putting her knitting aside, his mother beckons him, puts her hand on his shoulder and in heavily accented English quietly but firmly said, “Do not do that ever again. You do not hurt anybody—do you hear me? You do not hurt anybody.” The child looks at her with a mixture of fear and surprise. Then slowly, very slowly, his head down in shame, he drops the dead ants, one by one, on the sand…When he sees his mother’s look of approval, the boy smiles and embraces her.
César Chelalais – international public health consultant and writer on human rights