Since mid-April, I’ve been working as a senior reporter for Civil Eats, a nonprofit news organization dedicated to telling stories about the food system and agriculture. So far, I’ve written about the mining of phosphate ore to make Roundup, the race to develop healthier chicken genetics, and the exponential growth of the controversial agricultural guest worker program. For other stories, please see my author page here.
Last year, when I wrote a story about domestic violence in rural areas, I came across a stark statistic: a survey conducted by the Women’s Foundation of Oregon had found that 100 percent of the respondents at the Umatilla Reservation said they knew someone affected by domestic violence, the only location in Oregon with such a high percentage. I had heard about the epidemic of violence claiming the lives of Native women across the nation. Here was a chance to write about its impacts in Oregon. I was also introduced to Desireé Coyote, Umatilla’s Family Violence Services program manager, who would be my guide during this story. I had pitched the idea to Cascadia Magazine, a cool online publication dedicated to the stories of the Pacific Northwest. I drove from Portland to Pendleton (a 4-hour drive each way) while more than 8 months pregnant because I thought the story was important. It took me a long time to write it – my son arrived before I was able to finish the draft. But I stuck with it and eventually finished the piece. The fact that Congress dragged its feet on the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) helped keep it fresh. I put my heart into this story, and I thank those who spoke about their experiences.
After a work hiatus and time dedicated to being a new mom, I’m joining Civil Eats as a senior reporter! Civil Eats is an award-winning online news organization featuring thoughtful, timely stories about food policy, agriculture, and environmental issues. In 2014, it was named the James Beard Foundation Publication of the Year. You’ll be able to find my stories here.
We’re excited to announce two new senior reporters our joining our editorial team, @NadraKareem and @GosiaWozniacka! They’ll be producing weekly news and features focused on the food system. https://t.co/07zYQoC1nM
— Civil Eats (@CivilEats) April 9, 2019
The cookbook is here! It’s beautiful, large in format, with high-quality paper and great photographs. You can purchase a paper copy or e-book from the City of Gresham. I loved working on this project. My goal was to represent the culinary traditions of the immigrant and refugee communities who have found their way to Rockwood, a diverse neighborhood on Portland’s edge. I met many wonderful people, ate mouthwatering food around their tables and listened to stories…
Some of these stories were bittersweet. Some full of challenges. All permeated with aspirations and dreams. One of our cooks had worked as a chef at a famous Baghdad restaurant. During the war, he cooked for the U.S. Embassy and the U.S. Institute of Peace and hence was later able to escape the war-torn country. Here in Portland, he works at a local Middle Eastern eatery, struggling as most newcomers are. He dreams of opening his own restaurant, but speaks limited English and works long hours to provide for his family, making this dream an unlikely reality for now. But who knows in a few years?
So many of my interviewees came from war. They told stories that could not be included in a family cookbook. Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya… Our Libyan cook, a wonderful lady full of spunk and warmth, spoke of incredible violence in her home city of Tawargha. Ethnic cleansing, torture, rape. A city turned into a ghost town. Yet here she was, with her husband and children, in the middle of Rockwood, trying to move forward, attending community college. Her recipe for stuffed peppers and swiss chard rolls is one of my favorites in the cookbook. Another story of war also had a good ending. Our Belarussian cook recounted how, during World War II, families in Nazi-occupied Minsk were forced to host German officers in their homes. Her aunt had to open her doors to one such enemy officer, who thankfully turned out to be a nice guy who liked to cook. He taught her a special recipe that’s now passed on in the family and cooked for special occasions.
These are just a few stories from the Rockwood cookbook. The people with whom I cooked and whose recipes the cookbook replicates conveyed perseverance, self-reinvention, and hope. Though most live in low-income apartment housing and work entry-level jobs, they’re studying English and have big dreams for themselves and their children. They value food, enjoy cooking and sharing. They are open-hearted, generous. I was deeply moved when, after our cooking session, the Bhutanese husband and wife sent me home with delicious leftovers and a large bag of onions they had planted and grown in Rockwood. Below please find a few page spreads from the cookbook. While I was the lead writer, several others also contributed.
As part of Portland Monthly‘s May Oregon Woman issue, I wrote a story about domestic violence in rural areas. I drove down to southern Oregon to report this story and spent the day with the Cave Junction-based Illinois Valley Safe House Alliance. In a very small town that lacks the most basic resources and doesn’t have much of a law enforcement presence, this organization is doing vital work on a shoestring budget. My story begins:
When Christine, a resident of Cave Junction, was punched repeatedly in February by her drunken estranged husband, she could count herself lucky.
It took an Oregon State Police trooper more than 40 minutes to arrive, but at least someone responded—more help than domestic and sexual violence victims often get in this rural part of Oregon, just 20 miles north of the California border.
But while Christine, whose last name is withheld for her safety, ended up at the hospital with a concussion and bloody bruises, the trooper didn’t file a police report. OSP took the estranged husband to a sobriety center instead of jail. And with the Josephine County courthouse closed for the weekend, Christine couldn’t file for a restraining order.
Her husband was released the next day. He broke into Christine’s house and waited with the lights off. Fortunately, her friends and family found him first.
“Sitting in the hospital, I thought, ‘How can a woman ever go back to a man like that?’” Christine says. “But when you don’t have the help to feel you can stand strong, if you don’t have a support system, you almost don’t have a choice.”
In rural Oregon, that support system has been lacking for years. “Rural women have a hugely difficult time accessing help,” says Emily Evans, executive director of the Women’s Foundation of Oregon. “Cave Junction [shows] how communities have catastrophically underinvested in their capacity to support survivors.”
You can read the rest of the story here.
The number of people living in recreational vehicles has exploded in the Portland area (and other parts of the country) in recent years, and it has stirred controversy. RV’s and motorhomes are everywhere, parked in residential and industrial areas, often in rows. This year, according to the 2017 Point-In-Time homeless count, a greater portion of unsheltered people reported sleeping in vehicles than in 2015 – and that percentage has climbed over the past decade. Notably, in 2017 over a half of the unsheltered families with children slept in vehicles. I decided to pitch this story to the magazine Non/Fiction, a quarterly focused on long-form reporting and based in Warsaw. My story, titled On Wheels, appears in the winter issue focused on the theme of “Home”. I spent several days with each of the couples and individuals I portrayed. I sat inside their RV’s, petted their cats and dogs, and listened to their stories, humbled that I can return to a large, warm house after the interview. I am most grateful to those who opened their doors to me. I learned to overcome my own stereotypes and saw that “home” can be many things to many people. And it matters little whether it has wheels or a foundation.
Here are the proofs of the pages. Because the magazine is really a good-sized book, it doesn’t post its stories online. You can also see the photos I produced as part of the story. Click on each thumbnail to call up a full-page proof.
When I visited the French-Italian border on the Mediterranean coast, I was shocked by what I saw… hundreds of young boys huddled on the beach, all staring at the sea. I still remember their confused, dejected eyes. The locals told me of Frenchmen in mountain villages above Italy aiding these boys, as well as women and children – a sort of French Underground Railroad. For this, they were condemned by the state, detained and brought to court. At press time, the results of their appeals were still unknown. Now we know: university professor Pierre-Alain Mannoni received a two-month suspended prison sentence on appeal, while farmer Cedric Herrou a four-month suspended prison sentence. Herrou was also again detained and placed under house arrest. Read about why these two Frenchmen risked – and continue to risk – their livelihoods and more in my story for the Pacific Standard magazine.
I’ve started on a new, exciting project – something different, professionally speaking, yet complimentary of my journalism and life experiences. I’m working on a cookbook! Rockwood Food Stories will be published by the City of Gresham, which abuts Portland. My role: find participants, cook and eat with them, then write the recipes and the stories. Given that I love to cook, I feel I’ve won the lottery!
The cooks hail from Kabul, Guatemala City, Baghdad, Minsk, and Cairo, among others… they’re housewives, chefs, food entrepreneurs, speaking in Arabic, Russian, Spanish, a little or no English. This, then, is Rockwood — one of the most ethnically and racially diverse areas in the region. It has the highest concentration of immigrants and refugees in the Portland Metro area; more than 60 languages are spoken here. The newcomers come to Rockwood because this neighborhood on Portland’s edge is chock-full of low-income apartment housing complexes. It’s affordable, not yet gentrified, and it lacks many resources – including a grocery store. Rockwood’s residents tend to be poor, and many are learning to survive in a new country. The food they make is an anchor to a world rapidly being lost, the ingredients and flavors a reconstruction of home.
I have been welcomed into their kitchens, invited to chop, stir and smell. Allowed to observe the intimate acts of home cooking. Summoned to listen, to eat, to learn. Sometimes with the help of a translator, often through gestures. Always with our hands.
I occasionally write personal essays. They allow me to analyze and understand what I’m living through or seeing, to gather scraps of experience into a unifying whole. Essays leave vast space for storytelling; they tend to be more intimate. Maybe that’s why readers respond to them readily.
This past January, I transformed into a college professor. Over six months, I taught Journalism 101 and Digital Reporting (photojournalism, audio and video production). Teaching college journalism was an intense and absorbing experience. I enjoyed sharing my skills and stories with the students. But teaching, it turned out, was about a lot more than that. This month, as a guest blogger on the Rough and Rede blog, I write about those first months of teaching.
Read the essay here: Notes from a greenhorn teacher
The man did not hesitate. He knew this single-aisle Gothic church with a slender tower. It was here he was baptized and attended mass as a child. The old priest was hearing confessions in the confessional. When he finished, the man followed him.
“I know you,” the parish priest smiled benignly. At the office, he pointed to a chair, then reached for the glass armoire behind his desk. He pulled out a voluminous Book of Baptisms and quickly browsed through it.
“Maciej Psyk… I can’t find your last name. Nothing can be done.”
“But that’s impossible. Can I have a look?”
The priest passed the book to him. On large, withered pages, columns of dates and names of newborns, parents, and godparents were recorded chronologically. Each column included the creed: Roman Catholic. Psyk’s name was nowhere to be found. He stood up, thanked the priest and left. It was July 2008. (…)
So begins my five-month investigation into how the Polish Catholic Church, with the blessings of the Polish government, has circumvented and abused data protection and privacy laws. The story was produced as part of my residency with the Polish Institute of Reportage, a program focused on long-form & literary journalism. Though I can’t translate the whole piece – it’s pretty long – here are some of the highlights:
A month after arriving in Poland, I read an article that sparked my curiosity: the Polish Catholic Church had just simplified its procedure for apostasy, by way of which a person can renounce or leave the church.
I was intrigued, to say the least. Religion is an integral part of the Polish cultural and social landscape; it permeates and shapes everything, from architecture to values to relationships. The Catholic Church is also very much involved – and often actively interferes — in national politics. That this Church would let members of its flock leave with such ease was fascinating and somewhat suspicious.
As I started doing research, I realized there was a lot more to this story. The church was, in fact, promoting apostasy – essentially a meaningless procedure, since under canonical law baptism cannot be erased – to counter a wave of dissenters who had decided to leave the church with the help of secular law. They had been baptized as children, but no longer believed in God and/or disagreed with the Church’s meddling in politics. And, like my main character Maciej Psyk (who opens the story), they wanted to be removed from church registers.
For six years, they fought so that the secular law – Poland’s Personal Data Protection Act – would be deemed more important than canonical law. Hundreds of cases were filed in the Polish courts, and continue to be filed. This litigation campaign is partly based on a similar approach in Italy, where former Catholics won (also through the courts) the option of leaving the Church under secular law – the Italian Data Protection Act. Italians no longer need to follow the religious procedure of apostasy to leave the church. Instead, they can send a letter to their parish priest, who must make note that they’ve left the church for good. Similar campaigns have also been successful in France, Belgium, and Spain.
In Poland, things didn’t go so smoothly. In short: parish priests and the Church leadership hired lawyers to fight the lawsuits. The cases went through the appeals process. For the first few years, the court declined to honor the country’s secular law, arguing that canonical law had a higher standing. Once the cases reached the Supreme Administrative Court, there was a breakthrough. The judges ruled on the side of secular law: “Leaving the church should be considered only on the basis of secular law,” they wrote, “because it concerns the freedom of conscience and religion and the protection of personal data, ie. the fundamental rights of citizens.” After that, the Polish agency in charge of personal data ordered hundreds of parish priests to note in their Books of Baptisms that their parishioners had left the church.
Many of the priests refused to follow those orders, and government officials didn’t interfere. And within three years, the higher court reversed its own decision and gave canonical law the upper hand. No one knows exactly why. It could be that the conservative Law and Justice party (PiS) had just won the election and the Church was one of its closest allies. Whatever the reasons, the verdicts uncovered a state that the Polish government did not wish to admit: that the separation between Church and State isn’t yet a full reality in Poland.
And why, you may wonder, is data protection important for churches? For one, churches now use complex online databases to store myriad information about their parishioners – from their beliefs and family relationships to financial information. Some of those databases may not be fully secure, based on some testing of sample databases, and it’s not known whether database administrators (mostly priests) properly follow security procedures. Also, churches in Poland sometimes post names and addresses of parishioners who didn’t pay church dues, for example. Church leaders also use the total number of parishioners in Poland to get government subsidies and other perks.
It was fascinating and challenging to report this story. I pored over hundreds of pages of litigation, sat in on several cases in Warsaw, interviewed in person half a dozen participants throughout Poland, spoke to countless experts and lawyers, read government documents, etc. I loved reporting in Polish, my native language. One challenge was to use the techniques of narrative writing to write a story that concerned hundreds of court files. To do this, I chose several characters and told the story through their personal lives and legal cases. I think this was a great approach.
If you read Polish and don’t have paid access to Gazeta Wyborcza, here’s a PDF of the story.