Some Thoughts from the Front Lines

Some Thoughts from the Front Lines


Casey Stengel

Editor - One of the ways we avoid catastrophe fatigue and protect our denial is to avoid knowing the details, the day to day trials and tribulations of those directly affected by whatever disaster, natural or man-made, is unfolding before our eyes. We maintain our standard of living and its accompanying point of view, deliberately entangled and mutually dependent, by expressing empathy when convenient or necessary to defend our emotional and physical status quo.

Essentially we ignore what is inconvenient or painful to ponder. Like a complex pattern made out of dominoes, once one is unsettled, all are eventually disturbed. To deeply and honestly consider the plight of faraway refugees in Greece, Turkey or wherever they flee ultimately leads to direct acknowledgement of the deliberate and unconscionable political meddling and war making foreign policy of the United States, enthusiastically supported by both political parties, and its compliant allies.

From there, it’s just a short leap directly to you and me. And that’s just a little too close to home, isn’t it? So why even go there? It’s so much easier, and emotionally safer, to swallow whole without chewing the comforting pabulum served up by the US Government and its propaganda arm, the mainstream media. We like our truth carefully filtered and pleasantly intoxicating.  

By accident of birth I was born a US citizen, therefore ‘entitled’ to various rights and opportunities which, while under direct and sustained assault from all quarters, still greatly exceeds those afforded the majority of people on our planet. I do not possess the courage to wade directly into that ocean of misery and despair, but Mr. and Mrs. Stengel, friends of ours for several years now, have and do. The following was written by Casey Stengel (and lightly edited by me) during a particularly difficult time in his work when he was struggling to find the proper mix of empathy, constructive assistance and inner peace. – Cognitive Dissonance


Mrs. Stengel and I are working with refugees from the Middle East (ME) and Africa. Not because we especially want to, but we sensed that little voice within saying we should do this. Several years ago, in the wake of the financial coup d’état of 2008-09, Mrs. Stengel and I made great strides in our awakening to the reality of the corrupt central bank warfare model the US lives under and propagates on a global basis.

We began to ask ourselves what our role was going forward and we both came to the same conclusion: we should live our lives in such a way that others will benefit from the blessings we enjoy. We endeavored in our hearts not to waste the years between 60 and 70 solely on selfish pursuits, but to use those years to make the world a better place for at least a few people.

To begin, let me say the refugee situation in Europe is truly beyond belief. We are witnessing the largest migration of refugees since WWI, a situation involving millions of people. There is a landfill near the rocky coast of Lesvos Island where hundreds of thousands of refugees landed in Greece. It is where life-jackets are dumped after refugees arrive. The landfill is approximately the size of a football field, 8-10 feet deep and is estimated to contain between 700 and 800 thousand life jackets. And this is just Greece.

Image via Wired

I suppose a few life jackets were taken off the bodies of the unfortunate, but most were shed on the beach by happy but severely traumatized individuals and families. Over the years I have loved hearing stories from the lives of folks in places outside the US, but the stories I hear now are the stuff of nightmares. Babies with throats slit, drowning children and wives, smugglers stealing all their money, bombed homes and hospitals. Horrible tales of the Taliban, Daesh and ISIS told firsthand by the survivors.

The horror stories coming from overcrowded refugee camps are full of despair, anger, frustration and violence. In my job I find myself trying to manage kids whose mothers are seeking a respite from the fact they are a refugee, live in a tent or shipping container and are pregnant with an infant and/or toddlers with no end in sight. And yes, suicides happen.

When I first came to the island I visited the north shore where 90% of the refugees make the crossing from Turkey. As the car descended the steep mountain side navigating the switchbacks, I began to envision a mother with an infant on her arm and a toddler walking beside her. Her climb is steep and the crossing of the Aegean was harrowing for her and her child. Her energy drained, the mother is at the end of her rope.

I began to think…who is to blame for her plight? My mind rewound back to Hillary and Obama saying, “Assad must go”. I rewound further to GW Bush, Dick Chaney, Colin Powell, et al, saying “Weapons of mass destruction”.

Who is so callous, so evil, to wreck havoc in the lives of so many people for the sake of power and money. This is no longer a sound bite on network news or even on YouTube. This was real and I am staring it straight in the face.

The following story was told to me today. I hope it's not true, but I fear it is. The 13 year old boy is hungry and had been up all night working the ‘night shift’. His story is a nightmare. He is alone in a big city in a foreign country and his father is in jail.

The boy sells his body at night in the section of town where pedophiles pay for sex just so he can buy some food. Unaccompanied minors become prey to human traffickers and sexual predators. His father paid a smuggler to ferry them across the sea where they could start a new life away from the war. Once they were away from land, the smuggler put a knife to the father’s throat and told him to steer the boat. The smuggler then jumped overboard and swam to a waiting vessel. The father piloted the boat to the new land of safety, but because he was piloting a boat full of refugees, he was arrested as a smuggler and put in jail.

So much for starting a new life!

The stories are endless, but our emotional and physical capacity to help is limited. Part of the problem is while the needs of the refugees are overwhelming, our resources are finite. We know without a doubt we are making a difference in the lives of some, but also realize for each soul we touch thousands of others are not.

At our request the Arabic speaking interpreter sat down next to the woman. She always looked so sad and we wanted to understand why. Was it because she was pregnant with two toddlers? We suspected this was the reason. We watched them converse, sometimes looking at pictures on cell phones, occasionally laughing, other times speaking seriously.

Eventually the woman drifted on back to the refugee camp. The interpreter came over to say “Do you want to hear her story”? I now wish I had said no. All the stories I hear from the Middle East begin the same way. “Once upon a time we lived a normal life in [insert ME country]. Then the war started.” For this lady, she had a husband, two kids and a mortgage. They probably had a white picket fence, but you get the picture.

ISIS/Daesh came to town during the fighting and took over. Eventually they established their own rules, justice system and punishment. Her husband spent time in jail for shaving the 5 day stubble on his face. One day an ISIS fighter noticed the woman was very pretty, so he decided he wanted her for himself. The ISIS guy goes to the woman’s father and says he wants her. The father says she’s married with two children. ISIS guy says no problem, she can divorce and the husband keeps the kids.

The father will hear none of this and that’s the end of it…except that is not the end. The ISIS crew takes the father and cuts off his head in front of the woman. Immediately the woman, husband and two kids flee the country. On the way to Greece they hear pregnant women receive priority status to travel to the European mainland. So now she’s pregnant, a refugee, has two toddlers, lives in a shipping container, barely has two nickels to rub together and can’t get the vision of her beloved father’s beheading out of her mind.

Oh…OK, so that’s why she looks so sad.

I felt a tremendous sense of embarrassment that my government, my tax dollars, helped fund the men (as a moderate rebel group opposing Assad) who did this. It is one thing to read about this on Zero Hedge, quite another to watch someone tell it to you and witness the results. Need I go on…about the father whose baby was beheaded or the mother whose son was injured in a bombing? When she rushed him to the hospital, she discovered the hospital had been bombed as well.

Does it strike anyone else as odd when the US wants regime change in a foreign country, a civil war soon breaks out? It’s probably just coincidence. What do I know? I’m just a guy singing, “What a long strange trip it’s been.”

The exhaustion so prevalent among long term relief workers gave way today to the painful stage of my work. We have a rule that small children must be accompanied by their mother in order to come into our center. We don’t run a babysitting service. When the six gypsy girls showed up, there was a four year old and a three year old among them. I explained to them that the little ones couldn’t come in without mama. The oldest daughter sat outside with the two little ones.

The three year old was wearing a t-shirt, but no jacket. She had dirty clothes, dirty skin, dirty hair and the wind chill index was below 50 degrees Fahrenheit. I felt terrible for all of them, but for her in particular. So I took hot tea and cookies out to them. That made them happy, but I felt worse. I was getting too close to their plight by touching and talking to them. But I simply couldn’t ignore the need for a coat on the littlest.

My wife found a new sweatshirt in the closet and told me to take it out to her. I was happy to deliver it, but as I began to put it on the little girl her smile began to grab my heart and I could hardly keep my composure as I zipped it and rolled up the sleeves. It came down to her knees, but that didn’t matter. She would be warm just like my grandkids when I bundled them up in their jackets.

And then it hit me like a freight train. The lottery of life had smiled upon my grandkids and family, but had dropped this little girl into the dumpster. I struggled to keep it together as I took a selfie with her. Sitting her back down on the rock that served as her chair, I felt tears welling from deep within as I walked away. I had to stop and cry, thinking while sobbing that my heart would break. I don’t cuss, but between sobs the injustice of it all compelled me yell S#%T!

Finally regaining my composure I re-took my seat at the desk by the door. Immediately the little girls began to test my resolve to follow the rules. They sat in the doorway coloring pictures, hoping I’d let them in. They could probably tell I’m a grandfather and therefore a pushover. Giving in a little, I put the little girl on a chair at my desk. Technically she wasn’t really in the center, so I wasn’t breaking the rule. She was just coloring with me at my desk. Yes, that’s it! If any of the staff cocks their head with raised eyebrows I’ll just say she’s coloring with me at my desk. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

At closing time the gypsy girls went away happy, but my heart still ached. The following Sunday, Mrs. Stengel attended the local international worship service. As she was speaking to some of the other Americans she felt the squeeze of two little arms around her leg. It was the little gypsy girl who was thrilled to see her and sat on her lap during the worship service. Same dirty clothes, dirty skin and dirty hair. “Suffer the little children to come unto me and forbid them not for such is the kingdom of God”.

Today one of the young widows came in at closing time. We were ready to lock up and her laundry was in a bag in our laundry room. She had brought it in this morning, but it was now too late. She had missed her appointed laundry time and she was out of luck. She explained to the young girl who could translate she had been filling out paperwork at the police station to complete the process to continue her journey on to the European mainland.

We knew this woman was often at the end of the line for laundry and a few days ago were informed her husband had been killed in the war in Syria. We also discovered she didn’t have teenage kids to come early and hold her place in line. She had toddlers and was obviously struggling, but we were tired and just wanted to go home. If I give in this time I’d be setting a precedent. Stick to the rules. On the other hand the Bible says, “True and undefiled religion is to care for widows and orphans in their distress”. Alright…short wash cycle and she can dry her clothes on the line. The widow went away happy and so did we.

One of the huge problems the refugees face is the lack of something productive to do or be involved in. I often sit with the husbands outside the center while their wives do the laundry. I’ve talked with bakers, shepherds, engineers, electricians, building contractors, military translators etc. They all express the same despair from not being productive. But this anguish is not just among the men because the children feel it as well.

At closing time we break down all the tables and stack the chairs in order to clean the floor by first sweeping, then mopping. The kids often want to help, but it’s much more efficient to just do it ourselves. The other day I sent away a kid who wanted to help and I couldn’t help but notice how his little shoulders slumped as the futility of wanting to be a normal, productive person fell upon him once again. I called him back and handed him a cleaning cloth. He scrubbed with reckless abandon.

When it came time to mop he worked the lever on the mechanism that squeezes the water out of the mop. We were a team. He helped me set up the tables and chairs and as he finished I went to the chest freezer and got a Popsicle for him. He smiled and headed towards the door. I watched him walk across the parking lot. Suddenly his pace picked up and he began to skip. A skipping kid is a happy kid, a fundamental human expression that transcends all political and social borders. From that day on I have selected a child each evening to help with the cleaning. The competition has been fierce among the children to be the one chosen.

We recently had a new intern volunteering at the center and he worked with a little Syrian boy. When the cleaning was finished I went to the storage room to get a small pack of crayons and three coloring sheets. As the little guy left the building I called the intern over and said, “Watch this”. The little boy was running home with his new possessions and, right on cue, he began to skip. I looked at the new intern and said, “It happens every time”.

A young man who was smuggled across the Aegean Sea told me that all along the journey nobody cares, nobody cares, nobody cares. So when they meet someone who does care, they will never forget you. We hope we’re doing a good job of being remembered.

Mrs. Stengel and I play two theme songs with increasing regularity. As we take off on another adventure we sing with Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again”. And when we cross the county line on our return to the farm we sing with The Grateful Dead’s “Truckin, I’m goin’ home, whoa whoa baby back where I belong.”  But on our present journey I find myself singing from a different line of that song. "Lately it's occurred to me, what a long strange trip it's been".

 Yes it has!



Casey Stengel


Please note all images were selected by Cognitive Dissonance from various sources and were not taken by Mr. and Mrs. Stengel.

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