Friday, September 27, 2013

The Faces of Food Stamps + DVD Giveaway (Read till the end!)

By Phoebe Farag Mikhail

It didn’t hit home for me till I read about an adjunct professor at Duquesene University in Pittsburgh who died almost homeless, in absolute poverty. I’m an adjunct professor. If I had to live alone (thank God, I don’t) on the average salary of an adjunct professor at almost any university, I would be eligible for food stamps – and I would need them.

And then I read an essay by a US war veteran on food stamps. “I didn’t risk my life in Afghanistan so I could come back and watch people go hungry in America,” he writes. “I certainly didn’t risk it so *I* could come back and go hungry.” This veteran is not alone. At least 5,000 Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) participants (the official name for food stamps) have identified themselves as working for the armed forces, and many more are spouses and children of people serving in the armed forces.

If the idea of college professors and US war veterans using food stamps isn’t surprising enough, the makers of the documentary “A Place at the Table,” (nowavailable on DVD), have created a website highlighting SNAP “alumni” – people who once used food stamps and who are now leaders in their communities. They include actors, members of Congress, state governors, authors, athletes, teachers, lawyers – and all of them have one thing in common – they used food stamps at some point in their lives, and this crucial government support when they needed it most helped them move on to the important leadership roles they play today.

Perhaps the most important face of food stamps is the face of a child. Currently, 45% of food stamp users are children, and another 26% are adults with children in their homes – making children the largest group of beneficiaries of the SNAP program. I personally know many working families who rely on the SNAP program to keep food on the table for their young children while trying to make ends meet. Kayla Williams, also a US war veteran, was one of them. In her article about SNAP she writes:
Kayla Williams, Author/Veteran
Like many on public assistance, my family was made up of a working single mom struggling to make it and provide for her child. She was a small business owner, an artist who ran a series of galleries ... There were good years ... then the economy sagged, and there were lean years – years of food stamps and bland government cheese, Christmas presents from charities, peering around the corner to watch my mother sobbing into piles of bills, wondering if the landlord would get fed up with how often we were behind on the rent and kick us out. Even when I was young, I could pick up on the looks we got when buying groceries with food stamps. In high school, it was mortifying to hand over tickets for free or reduced-price school lunches. Those tiny colored scraps of paper might as well have been a scarlet "P" sewn to my shirt, announcing to the other teenagers that I was poor.
Last week, the US House of Representatives passed a Farm Bill that cut the SNAP program by $40 billion. There is still time to save SNAP and invest in the potential of these children by ensuring that they do not go hungry. The Bread for the World blog provides information on how to continue to take action on this matter. I will be contacting my Representative to express my anger at his vote on this bill.  

In addition to taking action on the Farm Bill, I am spreading the word about the SNAP alumni website and the documentary, A Place at the Table. I encourage everyone to explore the website and watch the film, which not only talks about the overall hunger problem in America, but puts a real face on the people that live with hunger, and who are trying to get out of poverty. If you would like to win a free copy of the DVD, there are two ways to gain entries: 1- You can comment on this post below AND share the post via Facebook or Google+ and 2- You can subscribe to my blog via email and verify your subscription using the form below. The winner will be randomly chosen on October 4th, 2013, and contacted thereafter. Please note that I can only ship to US addresses.
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What are you doing to end hunger in your community?

Friday, September 20, 2013

Work with Us - Go See This Exhibition!

By Phoebe Farag Mikhail

“Work with us.” That is what marginalized people around the world are asking, and it sounds unusual. We expect poor people to be asking for funds, for some wealthy “expert” quoting the Millennium Development Goals to swoop in and save them from their troubled lives, transforming them into comfortable, Western middle class lives. The research done by Participate has shown the opposite. Marginalized people want, most of all, to be able to tell their own stories and determine their own futures. They want and need help from others, but what they want is to be worked with, to be partners, not charity cases. “The people were so happy to be able to tell their stories,” Nusrat Zerin, a program officer from Sightsavers in Bangladesh told me. Sightsavers works to bring eye care to the poorest communities, and provide education to those who are already visually impaired. This desire for dignity was shown, in fact, to be more important than the need for economic resources.

Mwangi Waituru, Kenya, and Nusrat Zerin, Bangladesh

The result of this research is being toured in an interactive display in New York City this week and next in conjunction with the launch of the Participate report. Whether you’re interested in international development or not, a visit to this exhibition and its related events is worth your time. You can see the schedule here:

At the exhibition launch this past Monday, I was able to learn about a sample of the different organizations and activities around the world through interactive displays that included videos created by the participants themselves using a process called participatory video. One such video showed a young woman in the West Bank preparing for a birthday celebration in her home, and getting phone call after phone call from friends who tell her they can’t make it because they are stuck at a checkpoint and did not know when they would be allowed to leave. The video was done with the organization Middle East Nonviolence and Democracy (MEND), which works to promote nonviolence and open media in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

The Participate process isn’t just a learning event for the viewers. The participants all over the world, and the local researchers that worked with them, learned just as much. “When you live in a community or are from the community or are from the community,” Mwangi Waituru told me, “you think that you already know everything about it. But through this research process we discovered many things we didn’t know about ourselves.” Mwangi is responsible for policy research and advocacy at the Seed Institute in Nairobi, Kenya. Its Participate activity focused on raising the voices of vulnerable women and children in the Red Soil settlement using drawing, essay writing and film production.

Phoebe in front of the pledge board
Viewers of the exhibit participate in it as well. After walking through, reading, watching, and talking with the researchers, organizers, and curators, I got to the end of the room, where I could take a pledge, write it down, photograph myself with it, and then put it up on a wall where I could read other inspiring pledges. My pledge was to make participation a way of life. I encourage everyone who can to visit the exhibition - it might change the way you think.

Monday, September 9, 2013

The Wrong Kind of Muslim (Book Review and Giveaway!)

by Phoebe Farag Mikhail

Congratulations to Cathy von Hassel-Davies, the winner of my first book giveaway, "So Good They Can’t Ignore You" by Cal Newport! Cathy also blogs at This month, I will be giving away one free copy of "The Wrong Kind of Muslim: An Untold Story of Persecution and Perseverance" by Qasim Rashid. To enter the giveaway, all you have to do is subscribe to this blog via email by entering your email in the subscription box and verifying your subscription. Current email subscribers can enter the giveaway by emailing me at listenlearnactandreflect (at) gmail (dot) com with the email subject, “Wrong Kind of Muslim.” The winner will be chosen by September 20th and announced soon after. Remember, email subscribers also get a free copy of my time management resource, “The Essential Elements of a Time Management System.”

About 70 years ago, after World War II and the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we thought a book like this would never need to be written. And despite what he writes about in The Wrong Kind of Muslim, Qasim Rashid still believes that one day, his book will be obsolete, relegated to the shelves of libraries in the section about the history of a barbaric, but bygone, age. Qasim believes that one day, it may be possible for people everywhere to practice their religion, or decide not to practice a religion, to believe, or to decide not to believe, without fear.

That day is not today.

Today, freedom of conscience is under attack in almost every part of the world, with billions of people living in fear of discrimination, persecution, or death for practicing their own religion--5.5 billion people, to be exact. A very recent example, and one that hits home for me, is in Egypt, where over 80 (we have lost count) Christian churches and institutions have been attacked or burned as Egypt’s Christian minority gets scapegoated by Islamists for the Muslim Brotherhood’s fall from power (see for more information). When the Muslim Brotherhood was in power, Egypt started to see a rise in the accusation of “blasphemy,” with several Christian school teachers, and even some young children, being charged with “defaming Islam.” Egypt had gone so far as to see Shiite Muslims get lynched while the Muslim Brotherhood led government stayed silent. From Qasim’s book I learned that the Muslim Brotherhood’s founder was influenced by extremist, bigoted preachers from Pakistan.

Rashid discusses the danger of blasphemy laws in great depths. He focuses on a country not far from Egypt in many respects – Pakistan, where within a majority-Muslim country, he is part of a community of Muslims that are marginalized, oppressed, persecuted, and sometimes massacred for practicing their faith. He describes the plight of Pakistan’s Ahmadiyya Muslims, a community I knew nothing about until I read this book.

Besides what I learned about this remarkable religious community, I have benefited greatly from Rashid’s generous spirit, which shines through his writing. Even as he describes, in painful detail, the unimaginable and unbearable torture of his cousin by Pakistani police, for being an Ahmadi missionary; even as he chronicles brutal massacre after brutal massacre of Ahmadi Muslims, usually in their mosques during prayer, even as he describes the treacherous betrayal of his community by the Pakistani government, whose politicians used them to win votes only later to declare them “apostates,” he is fully convinced that education, awareness, and nonviolent action can bring peace to the Ahmadis and to other religious minorities in Pakistan, and all over the world.

Qasim comes from a pedigree of this kind of generosity. He starts his story with an incident in grade school, when he and a younger friend were bullied on the school bus, and he retaliated in self-defense and in defense of his friend. He was surprised by his father’s reaction when he told his side of the story:

                “Am I in trouble?”
                My father shook his head no.
                “Then …?”
                My dad took a deep breath. “Listen, Son, I’ll never tell you it is wrong to defend yourself, or your friends. I’m glad you stood up for someone who couldn’t stand up for himself.”
                I knew a “but” was coming.
                “But you need to learn that sometimes people won’t treat you well. That’s part of life.”
                I asked what any ten-year-old kid would ask.
                “Because people are afraid of what they don’t understand.”
                “Well, why can’t we make them understand?”
                “We can, Son, but not with our fists. Never with our fists.”
                I paused and shook my head. It didn’t make sense.
                “Then how? I told him to stop but he wouldn’t . And he was bullying me for weeks. What was I supposed to do?”
                “You try to win his heart.” (p. xvii)

Throughout the rest of the book, Qasim takes his readers along with him to Pakistan to discover his religious and ethnic identity. With him we become friends with his cousin Danyal, and with him we develop a great admiration for his grandfather and for his wife Ayesha, who also works with Qasim against the repression of their community. We join Qasim in his quest for the answer to the question, Why even bother? Why continue to be an Ahmadi Muslim, or a Christian, or any sort of minority religion in a country that persecutes you, when you could abandon your faith and live freely and happily? Here is what Qasim writes:

I was but fourteen or fifteen, and in the United States, when all this happened to Danyal. In fact, I didn’t even discover any of this until much later. But as I listened to Danyal relate his torture, I couldn’t help but recognize that this was the answer to my burning question after the Mong massacre. Why live a life in the open, but subject to intense persecution, when you could instead live a relaxed life and enjoy your family? The answer was simple. The alternative wasn’t a quiet life “to watch your children grow up.” (p. 157)

I won’t spoil the story by explaining any further – you will have to take this journey with Qasim and read the book yourself (buy it here). You can also hear him talk about it in a radio interview on the Mimi Geerges Show at

Qasim concludes his book with hope, and with real actions readers can take to fight for freedom of conscience in Pakistan. Those actions can be found on his website at: I’ve taken action, and I hope, with Qasim, that The Wrong Kind of Muslim will soon be obsolete.