They Are Gone

Disappearing like thieves in the night, our Afghan/Iranian refugee family is gone. Off to Columbus, Ohio. Greener pastures. Hope for a better future.

Last week, Embry spent a day with them helping them cram the last few pieces of furniture and assorted stuff into their car and rental truck, which towed the car the next day all the way to Columbus. The wife and two kids rode in the towed car while her husband drove the truck. The evening before, our daughter, Jessica, and husband, Peter, hosted a neighborhood goodbye party at their house attended by 25 or 30 people, with great food, toasts, speeches, hugs (no hugs by men with the mother, of course), and a few tears. Pure Americana 2019, I thought as I looked around and saw a mix of people with various shades of skin color and a broad range of ages. Another immigrant family from Mexico/Honduras was there as well with their seven-year-old son. The father, a DACA recipient, has built up a very successful business as a builder/contractor, and they are now pillars of this mixed race/income community.

Only in America, I thought. As bad as things are at the national level in the Era of Trump, on the ground in neighborhoods all across America, immigrants and refugees are accepted and welcomed and become  “ordinary Americans.” This is who we are– a nation of immigrants, of people who took great risks and pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps against almost insurmountable odds. 

Consider this refugee family. They moved into Jessica and Peter’s basement apartment about two years ago with not much more than what they were wearing. The father fled years ago from death threats by the Taliban, ending up in Iran, where he married his now wife. Two years later they both escaped death threats again, this time from his wife’s irate father. With a toddler in tow they hiked for several days climbing mountains and crossing streams ending up in Turkey where they spent five years in internment camps and temporary housing before they gained official UN refugee status and were awarded a coveted refugee visa. Then they finally ended up in the Promised Land, speaking almost no English, having few skills, and knowing no one. 

And it turns out the Promised Land is not all milk and honey. The refugee agencies help a little by providing a small, temporary stipend, Medicaid, and hand holding, but it is still up to the refugees to figure things out, to get a job that pays enough money to cover rent and the basics, to get their kids in school, to learn a new language, to find a doctor, and to make friends—in other words to start a new life. Much credit goes to our daughter’s family and to Embry for stepping up to the plate. Were it not for them, and others like them providing a helping hand for other refugee families, I do not see how they–or any refugee family without the ability to read or write English, with minimal education, and few job skills–could have made it. But this is America, and we Americans do step up. In neighborhoods throughout the country this is happening despite what we hear from the White House.

Of course, a successful resettlement ultimately depends most on the refugee family. This is what this family has accomplished during their first two years here: Husband and wife have both gotten driver’s licenses, and both now drive. They acquired two cars, one a brand new SUV. The other, a gift from our church, they just sold for $800 before they left. Within a few weeks after their arrival the father landed a job without help from anyone as a welder paying $14/hour with lots of overtime. A year ago they found and moved into a new, larger apartment on their own and have a wide screen TV that is almost the size of the wall it is mounted on. The mother has made additional income by cooking for others, house cleaning and chauffeuring another Afghan child to and from school. Their two girls are in school and preschool. They have made friends. They have paid their bills (with Embry’s help doing the paper work.) They have been to the doctor many times and appear to have gotten their health problems addressed—and there are many. The most important was getting the father’s eyesight restored in one eye with a special contact lens. This all happened because the Wilmer Eye Clinic at John Hopkins Medical Center is the best in the world and happens to be only an hour’s drive away. And now they have moved to Columbus where they have a better apartment for lower rent in a nicer neighborhood and where the father now has his dream job, a driver of big trucks transporting goods across the country. 

The two years have not been easy, for them or for us, but the progress they have made is, in my view, remarkable. Others who know more than I do about immigrants and refugees would probably say their story is pretty typical. Their grit and determination are beyond anything I have ever seen. They simply refuse to take no for an answer and charge ahead, let the rules be damned. I never thought that they would get a drivers license, that they would qualify financially for a larger, more expensive apartment, that the father also would get a commercial  drivers license permitting him to become a truck driver, or that he would quickly land a job as a trucker. But they set their eye on a goal and go for it, kind of like the proverbial junkyard dog that hangs onto your leg and does not let go until he gets his bone.

Is all going to be well in Columbus? Of course not. They know people there, so hopefully that will help with the transition, but still it will be hard. That is the way it is with first generation immigrants and refugees. It is never going to be easy. The parents really need to improve their English. Doing routine paper work and paying bills will be a challenge. They have to find new doctors. There are already desperate text messages from the mother about needing help enrolling their kids in school. (We have contacted four churches in the area with pleas for assistance but have not been able to get any of them to call back or email.) But will they get through this next challenge? Of course they will. Their grit, courage and determination will get them through it.

Before we had actually met the family, we asked Josie, our 10-year old granddaughter, how it was going with the refugee family living in their basement apartment. She said with a twinkle in her eye, “Well, we love them, but they’re a handful!”

Yes, a handful, but we will miss them and wish them well on the next leg of their American journey.

Faux News Returns: Trump Rallies Followers Around Wall Victory, “the Greatest of All Time”

In a hastily called rally in the  small hamlet of Jefferson Davis, Alabama, Trump held a nationally televised rally,  packed with 20,000 supporters, all jammed into  a high school basketball gymnasium designed to hold only 500 people. Tens of  thousands of other supporters waited in line outside in the rain. His supporters, all sporting new, red baseball caps with the words “WALL NOW” inscribed on the front, screamed and hollered at every word. At multiple times the National Guard had to be brought in to restore order.

As the president took the podium, more than two hours were required to bring order to the event, forcing television stations throughout the country to run continuous commercials of Viagra and Bud Light. Here is the exact transcription of what the president said during his brief appearance:

“Friends and supporters and those who love and respect law and order, who hate immigrants, and most of all who love me, thank you for your support.”

Another pause of 16 minutes while the crowd goes wild.

“I am pleased to say I have accomplished more today  than any human in the history of the world has accomplished. Everyone combined. I have stopped the greatest, Emergency Crisis the world has ever known or will know, and I have done it on my own without any help from anyone, least of all the Democratic controlled House. I have stopped the massive invasion of the United States by marauding bands of rapists, murderers, robbers, drug dealers, and known terrorists whose only goal is to take over and destroy the United States. I have overruled the Democrats, the weaklings and cowards, who are a disgrace to the country, and I have started the Wall I promised you. It is happening now!”

More cheers lasting 23 minutes requiring National Guard intervention.

“Now that I have started the Wall with  billions I am taking from wasteful and unnecessary programs like the military and disaster relief, we are now safe. The world is safe.” 

More cheers

“Now that the Wall  construction has begun, this concrete, massive, beautiful, gigantic, incredible structure, it will be completed in record time. And it will be beautiful and high. Maybe 20-30 stories, and no one will get through. Ever. There will be no doors. I am sending 250,000 troops, whom I am removing from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan and other shithole countries and putting them on the job. It will be finished so soon and so quickly, and it will be so beautiful. Maybe not tomorrow or the next day but soon, very soon. Incredibly soon and beautiful. And if the 250,000 soldiers can’t get the job done, I will bring in more from other shithole countries. There are a lot of shithole countries where we do not belong. Take Germany for instance. Enemy. Merkel is a dog face. We don’t need troops there or anywhere in Europe to defend us from our friend and ally, Russia. I don’t know if we have any troops in England, but if we do, I will remove them. May is another dog face.

“And I want to thank my faithful Republican friends in the Senate for standing behind me and supporting my actions. They are the greatest. And as for the few Republican defectors, you are history. We will destroy you in the primaries. You might as well quit now like the flake Flake, and the midget, peanut brain, Corker. You defectors are toast.

More cheers

“Now some traitor Democrats have talked about taking my action to the courts. “

Boos continue for 17 minutes before order is restored.

“This will never happen. Won’t happen. When it gets to the Supreme Court, I’ve got five votes in my pocket and everyone knows that. I own them. Whatever legal action I want, I get and it makes no difference what the Democrats do.”

More cheers. Trump asks for quiet.

Now what the American people need to know is that this is not the only national emergency we face right now. There are many others. Take the so called “Dreamers” who came here illegally and were given a reprieve by the Fake President Obama, who was not even born in this country. They too are trying to destroy our country and take it over . We know who they are and where they live. Low hanging fruit. Get ‘em. 

Audience goes crazy.

And there  are a lot more of these lowlifes, almost  20 million illegal immigrants. Now I know that some say only 11 million, but I know there are 20 million, and until each and every one is locked up and put in jail, America won’t be safe. We will continue to be in a state of National Emergency unlike anything the world has seen, and it is going to stay that way until all these no good , illegal immigrants  are out of the country or locked up. All of them. That is why I am recalling almost all of our military who are wasting their time overseas in shithole countries supposedly defending our country against a friend like Russia or North Korea. They will return home, build new prisons,  and lock these people up. I am  transferring another $500 billion from worthless agencies like EPA, HHS, and HUD for this purpose. In fact because of the emergency I am closing them down.” 

More cheers

So this is a great day for America and a great day for me, the greatest president of the United States, ever. I will fight and fight and fight until all national emergencies are over, and that is likely to take a very long, long time.

Thank you. 

Joyous bedlam erupts. Chants of “lock her up, lock her up, lock her up.” National Guard moves in.

Trips Taken, Lessons Learned

It turns out that this year may be an over-the-top, travel year for the Howells, perhaps even surpassing the 2015 around-the-world-no-airplanes adventure. All the credit goes to Embry. I am just a tagalong. Next trips—the Baltic countries this summer when Embry will be joining a choir tour and then a cruise in the fall starting in Ft. Lauderdale, going through the Panama Canal, and ending up in Rio 35 days later with about a dozen stops for excursions in coastal, South American cities. I suppose the motivation behind this is “better do it now, when you can,” which at our advanced ages probably has merit.

So the question of the day is do people learn anything from  travel. The answer, for me anyway, is “yes” and here some of the lessons that I have learned:

  • Despite our ordeal getting home from Perth, Australia, involving 23 hours in flight and crossing 11 time zones, the world is actually a pretty small place. It is also pretty fragile as most of us are aware as we watch the effects of climate change. Globalism is present almost everywhere.  What happens in China and India in the future, for example, will affect us in the U.S. since we breathe the same air. (And the air is already pretty bad in both countries.) In fact they hold the hole cards since about half the world’s population lives in these two countries. We are all linked together on this small, blue planet and damn well better figure out a better way to live together and take better care of the environment, or it’s curtains for all of us.
  • People are the same all over the world. By that I mean good and bad, though in my experience, I think, mostly good. We are all humans and subject to the human condition. People who were once our mortal enemies become friends and vice versa. The people we have fought and hated in past years treated us on our travels with kindness and respect—Germans, Russians, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Italians, and Cambodians. If only we could just skip the wars and move on as friends forever.
  • We humans are not only imperfect creatures, we are also herd animals and follow our leaders. A leader makes all the difference—for good or for evil. The Germans had their Hitler, the Russians their Stalin, the Chinese their Mao, the Cambodians their Pol Pot, Spain their Franco, Italy their Mussolini, and France their Napoleon. You could add a bunch more names to the list of bad guys. But you also have Nelson Mandela, Deng Chou Ping, Gorbachev, Martin Luther King, Winston Churchill, Lincoln, our two Roosevelts, Kennedy, and Obama. Leaders make a huge difference. Many more could be added to the list of good leaders, but the current occupant of the White House is not one of them.
  • The United States is not anywhere near as great as we think we are. We are way behind most developed countries in a lot of things. Our infrastructure is decaying. Our trains do not run on time. Good public transportation is lacking in many cities. Neighborhoods in many of our cities suffer from disinvestment with boarded up homes, rundown buildings, panhandlers on every block, trash and graffiti everywhere, and in-your-face poverty. Income disparities between the rich and everyone else are increasing, and there is too much poverty. Racism persists. Homelessness continues to be a persistent problem. You don’t find these sorts of things in most developed countries. 
  • Our safety net is weaker than in most developed countries where there is more affordable access to essentials like health care, day care, preschool, higher education, decent housing, and better paying, low skilled jobs. Gun violence is much lower. Labor unions are stronger. Money does not play as much of a role in politics, and more people vote. This does not mean that other developed countries are perfect or don’t have problems, but the notion that we are number one in practically everything just does not hold water. 
  • The developing world, of course, is another story. While some progress is being made, poverty abounds in too many countries, and the disparity between the rich and poor countries continues to be way too great. Long term survival of the planet depends on leveling the playing field.
  • The United States is also not as great as we need  to be. We need to address better the areas where we fall behind the developed world and need to beware of troubling trends.  I believe that we are at a crossroads. The Era of Trump is a shot across the bow warning us that many of the things we have taken for granted—welcoming immigrants, a free press, democracy, and a country of laws—are not carved in stone. We could lose what has been the foundation of our country if we are not vigilant. It has happened before in many countries, and it could happen here sooner than we think. How we survive the Trump Era is a major challenge and remains a question mark. 

But while the United States is not anywhere near as great as we think we are or need to be, I think we remain the best hope we’ve got on the planet. Since our founding we have been the land of opportunity for distressed people who have immigrated here, and our diversity is extraordinary. Some other countries may technically be more diverse, but it sure doesn’t seem that way to me on my travels. No country has more natural beauty. Our national parks are a world treasure. While we are still battling our horrible legacy of slavery, and racial and ethnic prejudice persist, we are struggling to deal with these issues, often two-steps forward, one back, but we are still trying. People still are able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, and we have a free, independent press. We have been the world leader in technology and inventing things and we have championed (most of the time) the principles of democracy and freedom, here and elsewhere. Our economy is robust and resilient. Every year thousands of people from other, less fortunate countries still risk their lives to come here. I am always glad to return home. There is no place I would rather live.


Real News: The Washington Post Style Section today (February 5, 2019) contains an interesting feature about the chairman of Harvard’s astronomy department, Avi Loeb, who is an advocate of “cosmic modesty.” This is simply the idea that it is extreme arrogance to think that life on this small, lonely, blue planet, which is located at the edge of a run-of-the-mill galaxy of over 200 billion stars, is the only life in the universe. Estimates are there over 200 billion galaxies—some estimates are as high as two trillion–and maybe our universe is only one in a multiverse containing perhaps an infinite number of universes. 

Loeb and others have been following the path of a strange object in space called “Oumaumua,” (Hawaiian term meaning “scout”), which was first observed in 2017. Loeb believes this could be our first glimpse of a celestial object that has come from another civilization somewhere else in the universe, perhaps “debris from advanced technological equipment.” The scientific community has for the most part pooh-poohed this idea as outlandish though no one has come up with a compelling explanation of what it might be.

Outlandish that there is no other life—or certainly no advanced or intelligent life—anywhere in the universe? Please. Consider the facts: there is no evidence that the basic laws of science that we observe here are different in other parts of the universe. We now know that virtually all stars that we have been able to obtain information on have planets circling them. Some of these planets are  in the “Goldilocks Zone” –rocky bodies circling a star about the same size as our sun, about the same distance as we are from our sun, and about the same age as our planet. Even if the likelihood of meeting this criteria is only a tiny fraction of a percent, the actual number of such candidates for advanced life in the universe could number in the trillions.

And yet many believe that we are it. There is nothing else anywhere like us. There is no life and certainly no advanced or intelligent life anywhere else in the universe. 

In one sense the argument is irrelevant because of the great distances between the  stars and the galaxies. The closest star to us is about 4.3 light years away. It would take us 81,000 years to get there using the fastest speeds available to us today. Even if there is life out there somewhere, we will never have a chance to prove it or encounter it.

But in another sense it is a profound question, which has both scientific and religious implications. If there is no life anywhere else, why? What are all these celestial bodies doing anyway? Why are they there and why isn’t there life on planets that fall into the Goldilocks Zone? Many who have argued against life elsewhere do so because of religious reasons, but few religions talk about the “God of Earth.” They talk about “the God of Creation,” or “the God of the Universe.”

Okay, what exactly did God have in mind when he created this vast universe with life on only one planet? Sounds like a lot of trouble to me for not very much in return. And if there is life elsewhere in the universe, what is that all about? Are there other beings like us? And what does this tell us about God and about our faith? Will we ever know?

I confess that for most of my life I have been a believer that life on this planet is not the only life  there is or that we humans are the only “intelligent life” that there is. (Though some may argue with the term “intelligent.”) It really all started when I was eight and my 10-year old neighbor, George Singleton, witnessed a flying saucer land in his back yard. He even showed me the burned grass where the craft landed. In later years George recanted, confessing that he really did not witness the event after all, but that did not keep me from doing the arithmetic: All these trillions of celestial bodies out there—many not all that different from us—it just does not compute that we humans are it when it comes to advanced life.

Carl Sagan, the famous astronomer, was obsessed with the notion of intelligent life elsewhere and hoped to live long enough to at least get some hint that he was right. He noted that not only was distance a factor in preventing us from verifying what he believed to be true, but there was another factor. That was that as life on other planets evolved like life has evolved on this planet, he thought that it was quite probable that “advanced civilizations” would do themselves in. I recall his stating that if we ever did discover an advanced civilization elsewhere in the universe, the first question he would ask would be, how did you do it. How did you avoid destroying yourselves and your planet?

Which brings us precisely to the present day. We humans are on the verge of doing ourselves in. We are destroying our planet at an alarming rate. We have the weapons at our disposal to eliminate human life on this planet in the blink of an eye should we end up in a world-wide nuclear war. What are the chances of our making it into the 22ndCentury given that technology has so far outpaced our ability as humans to deal with conflict and competition for scarce resources? These are the questions that I ask myself as I ponder whether “Oumaumua” is the glimpse that Sagan was looking for. We certainly will not know the answer in my lifetime, but we humans had better figure out how to get beyond the survival challenges we now face or we could end up as a mere blip in the history of a small, blue planet that centuries from now could be absent the advanced life we cherish today and in Sagan’s thinking, yet another example of a planet that had a chance but blew it.