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The Byrne Report

American Heart

By

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WHEN I MOVED TO San Francisco from Manhattan 20 years ago, I swore never to wear Birkenstocks, chant to a picture of some guy wearing saffron robes or vote. I was a nihilist, an existentialist, a fallen Irish Catholic. I looked to Guinness, doobie and Johnny Rotten for spiritual uplift.

Years passed. I wore several pairs of wooden sandals to splinters, gave up the booze and dope and cigarettes, and started eating vegetables. I checked out Buddhism, Unitarianism, Judaism, Taoism and radicalism. One day, I woke up in a North Bay suburb. Shockingly, I had become a husband, father, homeowner, credit-card addict, a registered freaking Democrat.

But I still consider myself to be a radical at heart.

That's why I went to Berkeley to interview Barbara Lubin, director of the Middle East Children's Alliance (MECA), which is holding a benefit for itself and radio station KPFA at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds on Saturday, Jan. 22, at 3pm.

For the last 14 years, Lubin has personally escorted millions of dollars worth of medicine into Palestinian refugee camps and bombed-out cities in Iraq. In May she visited Baghdad with Spearhead singer Michael Franti, who is documenting his recent travels in Israel, Iraq and Palestine in the film I Know I'm Not Alone.

Currently a work in progress, the film seeks to portray conditions in the war-blasted region. To that effect, MECA and Global Exchange recently delivered valuable medicine to Iraqi doctors tending the survivors of Fallujah. Years of heartless sanctions and blockade have stripped Iraq's medicine chests. Lubin obtained vital supplies from Northwest Medical Teams, a nondenominational Christian organization based in Portland, Ore. For $15,000, she received $390,000 worth of Larabid, a powerful antibiotic.

An object lesson that kindness (sometimes) begets kindness: When the terrible scope of the Indian Ocean tsunami disaster became clear to the world, the people of Dheisheh, a Palestinian refugee camp that MECA visits, instructed Lubin to use $10,000 of money raised for their children to buy medicine for tsunami victims, which she did.

Lubin, 64, is entranced by the American public's empathetic and financial response to the tidal wave tragedy and how it contrasts with our seeming indifference to the bloodletting in Iraq and Palestine. "There is no child who watches television in America today who is not petrified by the sight of the ocean swallowing up all those people. And by the sight of people starving. We need to take this moment and use it to teach."

Our sudden generosity may be just a spastic twinge of the national heart. "People are shocked and frightened by what they are seeing, but they are still buying things they do not need. They consume without understanding that the more we have, the less they have."

Lubin vibrates with anger. "How selfish we are, how stuffed with one magnificent restaurant after another, people spending hundreds of dollars for a goddamn meal. We are responsible for the lack of infrastructure, clean air and clean water in the Third World. And the more we consume, the more people in the rest of the world hate us."

Lubin says it's wonderful some peace groups are raising money for tsunami relief. But she wonders why "progressive" people in general are not drawn to Iraqi relief projects? Why "the movement" as a whole basically ignored the 12-year-long blockade of Iraq that killed well over a million people?

I asked Elizabeth Stinson, director of the Peace and Justice Center of Sonoma County, why the center is raising money for tsunami victims but not for the relief of the Iraqi people. "We do other things for Iraq," Stinson said. "We brought speakers to Santa Rosa from Voices in the Wilderness [which defied U.S.-U.N. sanctions on Iraq]. We work with active duty people who talk about what they witnessed over there. We work with solidarity groups, such as Iraq Veterans Against the War. But you bring up a valid question."

Of course, no organization can be all things to all people. Stinson's group sent antibiotics and a nurse to Sri Lanka. Its website links to tsunami aid funds of the American Friends Service Committee and Medecins Sans Frontieres. Everybody has a favorite charity.

I personally suggest the USA Freedom Corps, the same charitable organization recommended by our president. In addition to funneling private donations to tsunami victims, the corps, funded by the Bush administration, encourages patriots to report suspicious activities to homeland security authorities. Or you can send money to the United States Agency for International Development which, during the last two years, has contributed $873 million of our hard-earned money to relief work in Iraq via an array of corrupt United Nation agencies and well-intentioned Christian charities.

Just kidding. As a taxpayer, you already gave to these organizations. The world will probably be much better off if you e-mail your dough to Islamic Relief Global Programs, which is spending millions on tsunami refugees. It also provides relief for civilian war casualties in Iraq, children starving in Palestinian camps and refugees in Sudan, Bangladesh and Chechnya.

Now, where did I put those Birkenstocks?

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From the January 19-25, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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