Saturday, June 21, 2008

Memories of the heart: Return to D.C.

In our minds, billions of images, sounds, colors, thoughts, and feelings speed before our eyes. But the most beautiful and extraordinary of those memories live within our hearts. When I first went to D.C. a little over a month ago, I was fulfilling a dream that I had longed for. I never in a million year excepted to return to D.C. so soon, nor did I ever excepted to be one of the winners for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Committee on Conscience’s annual Darfur essay contest. From the moment I entered the contest, I only wanted Mia Farrow, Mark Gearson, and John Prendergast (the judges) to read my essay. The prize to Washington D.C. meetings with NGO’s, and attending the Days of Remembrance ceremony at the Capital Rotunda seemed so out of my league. So when I got the call that I won the most surreal and wonderful feeling came over my body. A certain euphoria one doesn’t experience that often. This would be the first time that I was traveling all alone, without parental supervision. This new found freedom felt so good and yet scary as mom dropped my off the airport. Lucky, I managed to navigate the labyrinth of airport security just fine (and was only in line for about 10 minutes) Now I have to point out that I haven’t been on a plane for over 8 years and I was totally nervous on flying. I can remember quite clearly as the plane was picking up speed “Just fucking takes off already!” Holding on to my book “Shake Hands with the Devil” (reading it for the millionth time) for dear life and closing my eyes, my head started to float and my body started falling. “Are we falling?” I timidly asked the passenger next to me, in which he assured me that we weren’t. Talk about a first impression! But sure enough we landed safely at Regan National Airport.

“Is this your first time here?” The taxi driver asked.
“No, this is my second time here.”
It felt so good to be back here, I thought to myself as the sights glided past my eyes. It was such a gorgeous day as people walking their dogs and kids.
I happen to make conversation with the driver who had been here at the U.S. for several years and is from a country in Africa (can’t remember). Lucky, I had packed light unlike my last time in D.C. so before I knew it I was lying in my cozy and comfy bed in my ultra fancy hotel suite.
“They gave me the ultimate hook-up!” I exclaimed as I explore the bathroom.
So far, I navigated through the airports, survived the plane ride, and managed to find my hotel in a whole day. I must say at the time I felt very proud that my very first time traveling far away from home. I really didn’t feel scared or intimidated, on the contrary I felt very liberated from being with my parents. I could finally be an adult!
On that night, I met Kadian and another museum staffer. Kadian was Program Director for the Committee on Conscience and the one who broke the news to me and Jonathan the good news. We had a great conversation all four of us over five star Italian cuisine.
Lying in bed I still couldn’t believe my good fortune on winning. This whole trip would be like floating on cloud nine.

Riding on the metro in D.C. to me was enjoyable, unlike the metro here in Miami is slow and unclean. Of course, it can get very crowded with tourists and natives trying to get to work. Thankfully, it wasn’t too cold (I forgot to bring my sweatshirt since I was in a rush) that I couldn’t slip on my sandals.
Seeing the Holocaust Museum up ahead, I felt so elated to see it again. A feeling of pure euphoria that made me want to jump up and down like a crazy person since I was so damn happy to be back.
Me and Jonathan went in before everyone else for our guided tour to the permanent exhibition. Our tour guide asked both of us questions on what we saw in the pictures, which allowed us to think and feel more in our surroundings. I must admit that it made me think a lot more than the last time I went. After our tour we met Michael Graham who’s in charge of “World is Witness” a blog site in partnership with Google Earth, documents and maps places where crimes against humanity like genocide has taken place. He explained the work the Committee on Conscience has done to raising awareness places like Darfur and others where crimes against humanity are taking place.
We caught up with Kadian and went out to lunch at this lovely Japanese restaurant. She also introduced us to her co-workers, whom were just as nice as her. I could absolutely see myself working with these amazing people if I work hard enough.

Our first stop was Genocide Intervention Network where it’s completely run by young people. Walking in to their headquarters, I felt such a vibrant atmosphere which is what every work place needs. As I admired the atmosphere I suddenly stopped dead on my tracks: Adam Sterling, the director of the Divestment Task Force and featured in the documentary “Darfur Now” I just couldn’t believe my eyes! I told him I admired his work and he of course thanked me and congratulated me on winning.
Our first meeting was with John Bagwell, the student coordinator for STAND (Students Take Action Now: Darfur) and he explained his work and the work of GI-Net and of STAND. GI-Net was created by a couple of students from Swarthmore College, including Mark Hanis whose grandparents survived the Holocaust. They wanted to not only raise awareness about Darfur but wanted to involve ordinary people to the already growing movement. Thanks to those dedicated students, GI-Net has grown and thrived. As we left, I did manage to get a picture with Adam (see my entire photo album “Days of Remembrance”)
We then made our way to the offices of ENOUGH! where we met the acting executive director, Cory Smith. The ENOUGH project was founded from frustration and hope. Cory talked about the organization and even gave us a drafted report about how the evangelical community can help in regards to Darfur. I then asked Cory if John Prendergast was anywhere around to sign my copy of “Not on Our Watch” which he wrote with Don Cheadle. He was actually but he was super busy in a meeting. I was totally bummed, but still held hope than any moment he would open his door. It didn’t happen (Some days ago I got my signed copy of “Not on Our Watch” in which John wrote “Ruth, thank you for standing up for Darfur. John Prendergast.”)
The last stop we made was at Save Darfur. Luckily, we had to take a taxi (my feet were killing me!!!) since it was a long way on. We were to meet Jerry Fowler, the new President of the collation and former director for the Committee on Conscience. Couple of minutes later, he walked in and congratulated us for winning. He had a good likeability that one notices when you first meet him and going to his office you could see he was a well read and well informed scholar. Most of the books he had were about crimes against humanity (“A Problem from Hell” “Becoming Evil” and “Conspiracy to Murder” just to name a few.) He had this one photo of him and a group of kids on top of his file cabinet that might have been when he had gone to Chad in 2004. His expression in the photo was one of total bliss and I could tell he not only enjoyed what he does, but he finds deep meaning in his work. After we left, we bid a farewell to Kadian, which was her last day working for the museum and retreated to our rooms to gussy up for the Gala dinner.

If there was ever a moment where I felt nervous of making a good first impression at a major social event, then this was the night. But as I entered the Ritz Carlton (right in front of the Marriot) I felt quickly at ease when I started to make small chat with some people and munch on some of the spring rolls and other goodies they served. As I made my way around the crowd, I spotted a man chatting and his name tag read “John Heffernan” and quickly recognized him from the itinerary. He was the one whom would take Jonathan and myself to the Days of Remembrance ceremony at the Capital Rotunda. When I introduced myself he was very happy to see me and I quickly realized that he was one of the nicest fellows I have ever met. He had an easy going personality that made me feel very comfortable with myself, which I think is a great trait.
Entering the ballroom was like walking into a dream filled with colors and glass. The soft lights made the room glow like a candle. At this year’s tribute dinner, the museum was honoring Father Patrick Desbois, a French priest who discovered after extensive research the mass slaughter of Ukrainian Jews during the Holocaust that no one knew about until now. I could hear the crowd gasp as photos of human remains in shallow graves flashed before our eyes on the screen.
As I made my way out, people congratulated me on winning the contest (the Museum’s director mentioned us as the winners at the beginning of the presentation) I spotted Wolf Blitzer from CNN among the crowd, which was totally weird since I see him on TV in the “Situation Room” every afternoon and now seeing the man in the flesh was just crazy!
That night, lying in bed I knew that the next day was my last day in D.C. before I go back home. I didn’t want to ever leave, my hotel suite, the museum, and the people I’ve met so far. The sadness rushed over my bones, slowly luring my body prisoner captive of this sad truth. After that, I went to sleep.

Walking in to the Capital Rotunda, I was struck by the beauty of the various statues of past presidents and oil paintings not to mention the amount of people attending this year’s ceremony. The ever reliable John Heffernan accompanies us to the ceremony and the three of us chat about his experiences in Sudan where he worked for Physicians for Human Rights.
The U.S. Army band got their groove on with the national anthem followed by the presentation of the division flags that liberated the concentration camps. Afterwards, the Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Salli Meridor spoke about the close relationship that both countries maintain after all these years and made sense since Israel is celebrating its 60th anniversary of independence. We also heard from Josh Bolton, the White House Chief of Staff who’s father Seymour Bolton was part of the efforts to establish the Museum. He said of how we must hear the echoes of the Holocaust, Bosnia, and Rwanda to making sure that we mean “Never Again.” But what was most moving was the Kaddish, which is commonly known as the mourner’s prayer. The cantor’s voice exploded into the hearts of those who were there and almost moved to tears from the whole magnitude of the words and the way he sang them.
After the ceremony was over, I said a fond farewell to Mr. Heffernan, and caught up with Bridget Conley-Zilkic, the Project director for the COC and one of the moderators for the “Congo Global Action” conference. Later on, we met up with Michael Graham during our last lunch at “Sonoma” restaurant. It felt nice to speak to people who are passionate for the same things as I was and this made it more hard for me to think that in a couple of hours I’ll be going back home. After our goodbyes, Jonathan and I went to the Marriot to get our thing and wished each other a safe trip.
Riding on the metro for the last time was a time for me to think about all the things I saw and the people I met along the way. As I made my way to the airport, I caught up with a great friend of mine and spoke while browsing books at Borders and had to part, since my flight was leaving soon.
As I boarded the plane, I knew I had left a part of my heart here in D.C.

It’s been over a month since that trip and still I feel a deep warmth I’ve never felt: that people thousands of miles away, like and respect me for who I am. I still think about Mr. Heffernan and kind of regret not talking to him during the trip. He is without a doubt one of the most inspiring human beings I’ve had the privilege of meeting. I also deeply admire Jerry Fowler from Save Darfur for his devotion for the people of Darfur as well as his deep regard fro humanity and just meeting him alone instilled in me a determination to not only following my dreams but to become the voice for those whom have none.
I’ve realized that my calling is within the wall of the Holocaust museum, for which that calling is so strong that I want to spill my heart to the place.
I hope someday when I’m working there, I can inspire some young person to follow their heart just like those special people who have inspired me.

Photo: With Jerry Fowler, President of Save Darfur.

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