The Snakehead

The Book of the Week is “The Snakehead” by Patrick Radden Keefe, published in 2009. This ebook recounts the details of a pivotal human-smuggling incident involving people of Chinese descent.

In early June 1993, a boat hit a sandbar in Breezy Point in the borough of Queens (New York City) in New York State. Most of its occupants were illegal immigrants originally from China. They were “smuggled” rather than “trafficked” in that they had willingly bribed a “snakehead” to help them move to the United States without identification documents, knowing the risks of their journey full well. Trafficked individuals also have the desire for a better life, but are usually unaware that they will be sold as property.

Organized crime in Chinatown in New York City in the 1980’s was rampant, consisting of not just arrangements to further illegal immigration, but of extortion, gang warfare, conspiracy, hostage-taking and money laundering. “But there was only so much money in shakedowns, burglaries and kidnappings.” The heroin trade carried heavy prison sentences. On the other hand, there was big money (approximately $30,000 for the snakehead per person) in human smuggling and it carried light prison sentences.

At the start of the 1990’s, two major reasons that immigration laws were lenient for political asylum seekers from China were: 1) The 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre had reminded the world of oppression in China, and 2) The country had a draconian population-limiting political system, allowing women to bear only one child and thereafter be forced to have an abortion or the men, to have forced sterilization. Another factor that contributed to the arrival of an excessive number of illegals on U.S. shores around 1990 was the fact the the Immigration and Naturalization Service was a poorly treated, underfunded and understaffed agency, that competed with the customs department– whose contraband confiscations made it a political darling.

Read the book to learn: why, around 1990, there was also a shift in the transportation method, routes and entry points for illegal smuggling; which perpetrators got caught and their fates; and the valid arguments on both sides of the debate over the legal and ethical issues on people’s entering a nation without the legal means to do so.

Keeping Hope Alive

The Book of the Week is “Keeping Hope Alive” by Dr. Hawa Abdi, with Sarah J. Robbins, published in 2013.  This ebook is the personal account of a driven, fiercely independent Somalian doctor.

Around 1970, Abdi did seven years of medical training in the former Soviet Union. She then returned to her homeland of Somalia to practice obstetrics and gynecology. Through the years, she married, had two daughters and a son, and in August 1983, built a clinic.

By mid-1992, Abdi had made available a farm and campus on which poor people and war refugees could reside, and receive medical treatment. In addition, she was a law school graduate. She also took in her sister’s large family when they were destitute. She risked her life many times during hostilities between and among Ethiopians and Somalian clans ruled by warlords and sheikhs.

Abdi gathered quite a following because she was so generous to her community. Her dream was that the Somalian people would unite as one country, instead of killing each other in tribal infighting. “People who are fighting will never be able to build.” By the early 2000’s, “… after fifteen years of civil war, the women and youth ran everything, while most of the grown men had either been killed or were away– out fighting or somewhere abroad, trying to make business deals.”

Read the book to learn the details of: Abdi’s trials and tribulations in protecting her property and family, how she was betrayed by her husband; how in some ways, she refused to comply with Somalian/Islamic culture; the cities to which she evacuated her children, and of her interactions with relief organizations, soldiers and journalists.

The Bite of the Mango

The Book of the Week is “The Bite of the Mango” by Mariatu Kamara with Susan McClelland, published in 2008. This ebook is the personal account of a victim who survived Sierra Leone’s eleven-year bloody civil war that started in 1991.

Kamara was born sometime in the mid-1980’s– she doesn’t even know exactly when. Her childhood began in a way typical for her culture. She lived in a rural village hut with extended family and several siblings and half-siblings– due to her father’s polygamy. Lacking computers and even TVs, they sang songs and told stories around the fire at night.

WARNING: the story escalates quickly into a gruesome scene in which child-soldiers recruited by anti-government rebels perpetrate extreme evil.

Read the book to learn how the author received a lifeline unlike others similarly situated, in a miracle akin to winning the lottery. Prior to her being singled out for special treatment, however, she had it worse than the others, because in addition to suffering a life-changing disability, she was subjected to an extra ugly act by a different criminal, that sapped her physical and mental well-being for a prolonged period.

This is yet another book that details the suffering of powerless victims of a war-torn country and/or ruthless dictator. The storyteller somehow beat the odds and got the attention of someone who helped publicize her plight. After apprising the world of her experiences, the survivor then returned home to assist her fellow citizens who were not so lucky.

The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind

The Book of the Week is “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind” by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer, published in 2009.

This ebook is the inspiring autobiography of a boy born in 1988 in Kasungu, Malawi. He grew up on a farm where corn, tobacco and pumpkins were grown and livestock was raised. The people there believe in witchcraft, but his father believed God protected his family from it because they were Presbyterian. Nevertheless, he wrote, “Sadly, our country’s constitution doesn’t have a clause that protects us from witchcraft.” He recounted incidents in the single-digit 2000’s in which people were put on trial for witchcraft and when deemed guilty, heavily fined.

In the mid 1990’s, entertainment in the “trading center” near Kasungu consisted of “… a thatch hut with wooden benches, a small television, and a VCR” on which to watch movies.  The author and his friends played a game they called “USA versus Vietnam.”

The Malawians celebrate their independence from Great Britain on July 6. Throughout his childhood, the author was a fan of the MTL Wanderers, aka the Nomads, a professional soccer club– the enemy team of the Big Bullets, in the Malawi Super League. He listened to the games on Radio One on a battery-operated radio. There was only one other radio station, Radio Two. Both were run by the government. The author wrote, “Only 2% of Malawians have electricity, and this is a huge problem.”

Read the book to learn of the extreme hardships Kamkwamba and his family faced with respect to famine and his education, and learn of his ingenuity, resourcefulness, persistence and industriousness in doing a project that was eventually noticed by people halfway around the world.

Running For My Life

The Book of the Week is “Running For My Life” by Lopez Lomong and Mark Tabb, published in 2012. This suspenseful ebook tells the extraordinary life story of a “lost boy” born in the nation that is now South Sudan.

Lomong’s childhood was cut short when he was snatched from his family at six years old, along with many other boys, by rebel soldiers fighting a years-long civil war between Muslims and Christians in that country. The recruits were called “lost boys” because they were forced into leading violent, empty lives, instead of becoming productive members of society.

Lomong, too, would have been destined to become a soldier or die of disease or starvation were it not for three older children who aided him in escaping from the captives’ camp. In the next chapter of his life, he still suffered extreme hardships, but he had a chance to play soccer, which he enjoyed, and excel at running, at which he was a natural athlete.

Read the book to learn how Lomong achieved tremendous success in various endeavors against impossible odds (considering his initial life circumstances), and what led him to set a goal to help his native people obtain what citizens of industrialized nations take for granted– clean water, health care, education and nutrition.

Between Two Worlds

The Book of the Week is “Between Two Worlds” by Zainab Salbi and Laurie Becklund, published in 2005. This ebook tells Salbi’s life story, whose themes include women, war, family and religion. During her childhood in 1970’s Iraq, her mother was a teacher and her father, an airline pilot. In the early 1980’s, since they were government workers, her parents were forced to join Saddam Hussein’s Baath political party.

Iraq had a liberal, Westernized culture because it had previously had close ties with the United States. Nevertheless, Hussein and his followers committed unspeakable acts of cruelty against the populace. Life was unbearably scary and stressful, even for the upper classes; especially those who were sucked into “friendship” with Hussein, as was Salbi’s family. Hussein derived power from his political party, army, the war with Iran, and oil but “he found time to keep meticulous accounts of our emotional peonage.”

Hussein initiated a witchhunt in order to deport people who were deemed to be of “Iranian origin” as indicated by their citizenship papers, to Iran. His military then looted their homes. He incited hostility between Sunni Muslims and Shia Muslims, and encouraged male dominance through raping of females of all ages an act whose perpetrators went unpunished.

The Iraqi people were powerless to protest when they found themselves living under a brutal dictatorship. “Boys and girls joined the Vanguards, the tala’a, and wore… uniforms… as they practiced marching and singing at school…” Teenagers were pressured to enter endless poetry, art and marching contests to exhibit their love for Hussein. His birthday was a national holiday. He built new palaces every few months. You get the picture.

Read the book to learn more about the emotional traumas Salbi experienced that led her to find her life’s work.

Burned Bridge

The Book of the Week is “Burned Bridge, How East and West Germans Made the Iron Curtain” by Edith Sheffer, published in 2011.

This book discusses the history of the splitting of Germany post-World War II, and its effects on Neustadt, a Western border city, and Sonneberg, an Eastern border city, both connected by Burned Bridge. Pursuant to agreements made at Yalta, “… on July 1, 1945, Soviet forces entered Sonneberg, and the U.S. Army withdrew into Neustadt… bighearted Americans distributing gum and chocolate from tanks with images of brutish Soviet solders in tattered horse-drawn wagons.”

In the late 1940’s, frequent border-crossers included black marketeers, undocumented workers, refugees and begging children. In both the East and West, border guards were easily bribed to accept fake travel permits. Families had been rent asunder by the creation of the artificial border.

In 1952, the East German government cracked down on border residents who had made, or were liable to make trouble– activists and frequent border-crossers who might spread the word to Easterners about the Western (capitalist) way of life– by forcing Easterners to move farther east, away from the border. Through the 1950’s, the East German government launched propaganda campaigns to lure former Easterners back to Sonneberg, offering residences, jobs, wages and farms superior to previous ones. Returnees exploited such opportunities, obtaining high-level education for their children as well, in the process. The physical Wall was erected in August 1961.

For about a decade after the war, West Germany flourished economically, after which various untoward events in the 1960’s and 1970’s slowed its growth. There occurred the scandalous Spiegel Affair, violence stemming from student and anti-nuclear protests, terror perpetrated by the Baader-Meinhof gang, oil shocks and anti-immigrant sentiments.

The late 1980’s saw a relaxation of westward travel. Nonetheless, the East German government was resistant to change, and continued to oppress its people through the fall of 1989. In November, dissatisfaction reached critical mass. “Most still recall exactly where they were and what they did when Burned Bridge opened, and cry with joy at the memory.” During reunification of East and West, people who were infrequent border-crossers experienced shock at the stark economic, cultural and social disparities between the two.

Long Walk to Freedom

The Book of the Week is “Long Walk to Freedom” by Nelson Mandela, published in 1994.  This is Mandela’s autobiography.

The author’s father died when he was nine. The author was destined for a dreadful life of poverty under South African apartheid, were it not for a lucky break. His mother had a connection to a wealthy, powerful Xhosa chief, who raised him along with his son. They acquired a quality, British-style education.

Although he was a poor student, Mandela earned an undergraduate degree and eventually, after many years, a law degree. An attorney with whom he worked, advised him against entering politics, as this would cause him to “get in trouble with the authorities, lose all his clients, go bankrupt, break up his family and end up in jail.” Unfortunately, most of the above came to pass.

The South African government employed “divide and conquer” tactics to prevent the Whites, Africans, Indians and Coloureds from uniting and overthrowing White rule. However, there were indications that it cared about world opinion during the decades Mandela was in prison (the 1960’s into the 1990’s). The government could have summarily executed Mandela and his fellow African National Congress party members (as well as committed genocide against all dark-skinned ethnic groups), but it did not.

Instead, it held Stalinesque show trials to inevitably determine that politically active protest groups were dangerous subversives who had to be locked up. It oppressed all non-whites by restricting many aspects of their lives, including voting, employment, place of residence, local travel, curfew hours; even medical care. Mandela’s boyhood was completely absent of physicians. Black ones did not exist in his generation, and going to see a white one was unheard of.

In 1962, Mandela, was living “underground” during a respite from prison. With the help of friends, he found a way to travel internationally to attend political conferences. He recounted that, “…as I was boarding the plane I saw that the pilot was black. I had never seen a black pilot before, and the instant I did I had to quell my panic. How could a black man fly a plane? But a moment later I caught myself: I had fallen into the apartheid mind-set, thinking Africans were inferior and that flying was a white man’s job. I sat back in my seat, and chided myself for such thoughts.”

Mandela experienced conflicting feelings about his Xhosa-tribe origins and English upbringing. “I confess to being something of an Anglophile. When I thought of Western democracy and freedom, I thought of the British parliamentary system. Despite Britain being the home of parliamentary democracy, it was that democracy that had helped to inflict a pernicious system of iniquity on my people. While I abhorred the notion of British imperialism, I never rejected the trappings of British style and manners.”