Author Archives: Donatella Lorch

About Donatella Lorch

I am a former New York Times foreign correspondent and a former correspondent for NBC News and Newsweek. Lots of formers there. I am also a mom of four, a wanderer and I've lived overseas for more than a decade. Most recently, after four years in Kenya, three years in Nepal, and three years in Ankara, Turkey, we've returned to our home in the Washington DC area.

Nepal’s COVID Doctors

From the thousands of deaths in Nepal’s capital city Kathmandu and even more ramping up on the plains that border India and the towns and villages and hamlets in the mountains, hospitals and clinics are desperate for oxygen, medicine and vaccines.  There is death by COVID-19 and there is death because care-givers cannot access oxygen. With public health care inadequate or non-existent, the pandemic is crushing what is left. Politics are feeding the fire. For the second time in five months, Nepal’s government was dissolved on May 22nd, furthering bureaucratic paralysis. Nepal risks becoming an imploding catastrophe. It is already losing gains it has made in the past years in fighting malnutrition, child labor, early marriage and women’s rights.  But if Nepal is a petri dish of disasters, it is also one of innovation and individual dedication. This pandemic once again is a place where despair is often met by individual and community fortitude. Both in the cities and in the rural areas. Nepal’s diaspora has become a major donor

Then there are those in the pandemic trenches. Here is the story of two doctors- like many others – who are fighting against huge odds.

Young medical residents are the backbone of Kathmandu’s COVID wards.   

Bir Hospital Emergency Room (c) DLorch

Dr.Prashuma Malla had never felt so helpless. Her patient, a man in his 40s, was suffocating, incapable of drawing in breath. But the hospital ventilators were all occupied and the central supply of oxygen was very low. She pronated her patient while his wife sobbed near him.

“With no oxygen, we can do nothing,” the 28-year-old second year medical resident specializing in anesthesia at Bir Hospital in Kathmandu explained. “It is scary. It is non-stop. I try to tell myself everything is OK. But what can we do?(…)Eight people have died on my watch.”

        Malla and her colleagues are on the COVID front lines. Her world is a haze of 36-hour intense and at times terrifying shifts. Bir is Nepal’s oldest and best-known public hospital. As in many Nepali public hospitals, relatives follow patients inside providing food and running to pharmacies to purchase medicine.  Bir is overwhelmed. People are sleeping in hallways, stairways, curled up on patients’ beds, pacing from room to room. Doctors believe many relatives are sick as well. The hospital does not have enough PPEs (personal protection equipment). There is a serious shortage of oxygen.

  “We are highly exposed,” Malla said of her shifts with the sickest of patients. “Everywhere you go is a COVID ward.”  Malla and her colleagues have also become counselors. But with every patient, her job gets harder. Most of the patients are in their 30s and 40s and even many in their 20s. In the chaos, it calms her to explain every detail to relatives. What does it mean to be intubated? Once intubated it is hard to take patients off? Often the patient dies when you extubate. No, they cannot take the body to be cremated. Only police or soldiers can remove it from the hospital.

“They are confused,” she said. “they have never seen someone come off an intubator. I remind them: there is no guarantee.”

 Every move Malla and her colleagues make, every decision she takes, she reports to her superior, one of the 3rd year medical residents. And every day at the shift handover, the 3rd year medical students remind Malla  about the importance of safety precautions.

     At the end of her 36-hour shift, Malla heads home on her moped. The gargantuan traffic in Kathmandu is light because of lockdown. She lives in a tiny two-room apartment with her two brothers. She is terrified of infecting them. She washes immediately including her mask and face shield. Masks always on, they cook together. Briefly unmasked, she eats alone on a miniature terrace. She talks on Viber with her parents in central Nepal. Every day, sometimes every hour, they remind each other to stay safe. She tries to focus on her online medical classes. She doesn’t want to fall behind. But always that nagging fear. Death is there. Near her. Floating and invisible.


In Rural Nepal, where a country-wide lockdown and overflowing hospitals are keeping sick people home – ground-breaking telehealth is transforming medical care.

Dr. Hari Neupani is fighting COVID-19 with his cell phone. He leads a team of seven doctors in Dang District, in mid-western Nepal, a land of rural municipalities which shares a border with India and also stretches into Nepal’s mid-range mountains. It is soon rice planting season but a national lockdown has left fields, streets and roads empty, void of the everyday crowds and cacophony of passing trucks.  

Dang is on Nepal’s East-West Highway at 1,027.67 KM the country’s longest roadway. Like the rest of Nepal, it is on lockdown (c)Hari Neupane

    Telemedicine is new to Nepal. Neupani, who is simultaneously doctor, nurse and mental health expert, is part of Health Foundation Nepal, a Kathmandu-based 501c volunteer-staffed telemedical service that reaches out to patients across 35 districts in Nepal via its Kathmandu hotline. The medical teams are supervised by Dr. Ashok Devkota, a doctor of internal medicine in Providence Rhode Island. The organization’s seven full-time workers and 50 part-time physicians are all volunteers.

Hospitals across Nepal are overflowing. Most of Neupani’s patients have COVID symptoms. Working closely with local governments and hospitals, Neupani’s team identify symptoms, using cell phones – voice, photos and videos – as medical communicators. They connect patients via cell phone with pharmacies and if necessary portable oxygen. The very sick are taken to hospital. So far, the government has acknowledged more than 11,100 cases but doctors believe they are vastly undercounted.

    “We focus on people in home isolation and counsel them on the medicines they need and how to get them. We prescribe steroids and do follow-ups and notify local government officials.”  

      In Dang, where more than 20,000 people live in rural municipalities and villages are isolated, some reachable only on foot, cell phones have become transformative lifelines at many levels. They are a critical means of money transfers from relatives working abroad mostly in menial jobs. These jobs pay school fees, medical bills and even food when the harvest fails. Most recently, the pandemic lock-down has made day-long walks to access medical care, virtually impossible. Even if they could get to a hospital chances of a bed are slim. In Dang there are only 155 intensive care beds and 15 ventilators.

It is rice planting season in Dang, an area where rice is the main source of income for many families. These women violated lockdown so as not to lose their crop. (c)Hari Neupane

        Health Foundation Nepal’s doctors monitor calls in 35 districts across Nepal. With government help, they advertise with local media and newspapers. “This is totally new to Nepal,” Devkota said. “Before COVID it was difficult for people to accept it. But now it will be groundbreaking as we move forward.”

       Across Nepal, people are sick on a massive scale. Telehealth cannot take blood tests but has been able to reach hundreds and soon thousands of patients who do not live in urban areas.  As long as Neupani’s cell phone stays charged, he is on duty.  

When so much is expected – Focus on the butterflies

Argos taking a break from his daily training (c) Donatella Lorch

Argos has proved he can outsmart me. I’ve been trying to teach my five-month-old, 60lbs Rhodesian Ridgeback ‘recall.’ That’s when you call your dog and he happily stops what he is doing – chasing a cat or running after a car or jumping up on the Amazon delivery man, and enthusiastically runs back to you. Just like in the movies.  Argos however has a tendency for selective response. On a recent morning, walking off lede, he took off at a zooming gallup and, oblivious of my call, he jumped into a nearby pond’s reeds and disappeared. He then re-emerged violently shaking his head, his teeth clamped on the neck of a very dead duck. He not only did not come when summoned, but he spent the next half hour evading my efforts at capture.

There must be another duck out there (c) Donatella Lorch

Dog trainers agree ‘recall’ is the hardest order to teach and the most critical. Most advise to hook the collar to a long lede then call him and gently tug him rewarding him with treats when he returns. Resilient ‘recall’ can take months of training. I started working in a meadow with Argos on a 30-foot lede. We saw geese, a rabbit, and all sorts of flying insects. Twice Argos took off but returned with a call, a gentle tug and a small piece of cheese. But then, whenever I hooked him to the lede, he just sat by my side. He had in his own way taught me my most important lesson: training a dog goes beyond a list of repeated techniques.

There isn’t a day that I don’t question my ability to successfully train Argos. He can be a devoted angel, with a pro ‘heel’ on our morning walk only to metamorphose into a snipping, whirling, leaping brown blur. Some days, he lets me jump over him as he lies down immobile. Other times, he digs in his heels and refuses to follow me on leash or nips my calves. It is exhausting. For me and probably also for Argos.

I know I have a narrow window for basic training. Around his sixth month – thats next week – he becomes a teenager, a metamorphose that lasts for another year or more. That’s when ignoring commands becomes a skill. Ridgebacks lose the desire to listen and cooperate. Ridgeback males can hit 100lbs as adults. They are stubborn and strong. A lunge on leash can pull you to the ground. For several weeks now, I’ve been feeling that I am trying too hard, wanting too much, stuck in a rut of my creation. The COVID puppy boom has booked in-person dog trainers for the next year.  Facebook floods my feed with smiling, energetic and magical trainers that promise to teach behavior techniques that – at a price – will  deliver a perfect pet. Even The Wall Street Journal has become a financially-focused canine expert.

Puppies are apparently not trained in utero to appreciate the wonders of the loose leash. Argos took to the leash with the speed and strength of a lede horse at a chariot race. Argos is quick to show his frustration. He jumps on my chest only to dash behind and jump on my back. I’ve sourced the extensive dog internet, called friends, re-read a few of my dog books and spent a considerable amount of time lying on the floor, eyes closed, analyzing my failures.  I felt stuck, frustrated, unsure. I had expected the final product – a trained puppy – could be created with specific ingredients.

  Perhaps, part of this is due to decades of being a reporter, digging and pushing for information and for access.  As a TV correspondent, my producer nicknamed me ‘bulldozer.’ It’s taken me a while to admit that my strengths as a journalist are not techniques appreciated by a puppy.  A few years ago, I hit a similar wall when my family and I lived in Nepal. The capital Kathmandu was home to more than 20,000 stray dogs. Thirty of these lived on my street. I feared and avoided them. With time many became my walking companions. I learned their habits. Absorbed their wisdom. Fed them. Mutual respect meant I even began to appreciate their nighttime howling.  I let them guide me. Recently, a friend suggested I watch ‘Stray’ a love letter of a documentary filmed in Istanbul that follows the lives of several stray dogs. The camera trails them at dog level but never interferes. Dignified and quiet, gentle but street savvy, the dogs are oblivious to humans’ problems.  It was the balm I needed.

There is no meanness in Argos. No anger. No dislike.  He greets with exuberance every dog and every human and chases every squirrel. He responds to recall most of the time though at times at a slow walk. Argos likes to sit on my feet. Crawl between my legs.  Steal my slippers. He follows me everywhere. Even into the shower. When I take him shopping at Rural King, or Lowe’s, he is a people-magnet. His loose leash has good moments. Yes, he caught the duck and also dug up and ate a goose egg. But it’s also the miniature white butterfly bivouacs that mesmerize him. I love watching him zig zag, leaping, left and right, up and down trying to catch one. So far, they’ve out matched him.

He’s home! Now what?

Elephant-eared Argos on his first morning walk. (c)Donatella Lorch

I’ve remodeled our kitchen. It used to fluidly connect with the dining and living room. Now a medieval 14’-long black plastic wood rampart blocks access. There are three routes to the dining area: a slightly wobbly gate that opens inward; a scissor-jump if you are athletic and taller than my 5’5’’ or a leaping full-body slam if you are Argos, our Rhodesian Ridgeback who joined the family pack when he was eight weeks old. Argos has by far the most practice. As a three-month-old, he had already mastered returning to the furthest and weakest panel with an obsession worthy of a climber attempting to summit K2, the world’s most difficult mountain. He never loses sight of that peak no matter how many times I return him to the kitchen and to his crate. Though in between our four daily walks, our  agility games in the basement, our cuddling and highly supervised house explorations, Argos has multiple loud snoring naps in his blanket covered crate, or just hangs out half in and half out, entertained by the peanut butter basted Kong or his vast number of wooden sticks he’s found in the woods.

    I found Argos late last year, an intricate and complex search stretching from Vermont to Florida. It was as if there was a puppy blight. COVID pets, I learned, are a booming business. There is a country-wide run on dogs. Some animal shelters have seen double the number of requests for dogs since the pandemic hit the U.S. in the early Spring of 2020. Puppies in general, regardless of the breed, were difficult to find. By serendipity, a friend suggested a breeder she knew in Florida. A buyer had just dropped out. If I was interested, the puppy was mine. Welcome Argos.*

Argos Kisses (c)Donatella Lorch

Raising a puppy can be a full-time job. Raising a Ridgeback is trying to harness the wind. My days are guided by the schedule of an exuberant, guillotine-toothed, silky brown four-legged infant velociraptor. At Christmas, at nine weeks, Argos weighed 12 pounds. I easily and frequently scooped him up under one arm. The first week of February, he hit 35lbs. At nine months, he should hover around 90lbs. But mentally he will remain a teenager until his second year. Recently he took to tugging on his six-foot lede, keeping it taut enough for a high acrobatic act. He nipped hands and feet as I walked, chewed shoes, slippers, pulled coats off hangers and grabbed anything possible within reach.

Argos expressing his disapproval (c) Donatella Lorch

             As an 11-year Ridgeback veteran, I thought the second lap would be easier. I had raised Biko from puppyhood onwards across four continents and as an adult he was mellow and obedient. Admittedly my Biko puppyhood memories are rather fuzzy. But I concluded I must have at some level succeeded when a friend nicknamed him “Zen Boy.”  

When 8-week-old Argos was placed in my arms in the frigid dawn of the Food Lion parking lot in Warrenton Va., I thought I had it all under control. Biko had been my best friend since he was 8-weeks old. Before Biko, I had never owned a dog. But I had always ached for one. I grew up in Manhattan and my father went so far as to agree to having parakeets – more than 15 though not all at once. Biko was serendipity. It was 2009, my husband John and I had just moved to Kenya. For some reason I cannot explain, I insisted that the only dog I wanted was a Rhodesian Ridgeback. No one informed me that RRs – big, stubborn, strong – can be a tough road for first time dog owners. At a neighbor’s house, John had watched aghast as the hosts allowed their two RRs to fly unchallenged over guests from couch to couch. “I will not have THAT!” became John’s opening mantra in all our puppy discussions. The puppy, he said, had to be trained.

            In Africa, Ridgebacks were originally identified as a mostly white -owned breed. We named him Biko, after Stephen Biko, a legendary Black South African anti-Apartheid activist and nationalist who was arrested and died from injuries sustained in police custody. Biko’s breeder was a US former Marine and Special Forces soldier. He had served in Afghanistan then turned dog whisperer and trainer of Belgian Malinois and Dutch Shepherds, both highly intelligent and high energy working dogs. He let Biko join in basic training. My main memory is of climbing a staircase with a squirming 40lbs dog on my shoulders, part of a you-trust-me and I-trust-you exercise. It helped glue our hierarchical friendship. Another mantra? Dog treats were banned.

With Argos, I have relied on a US-based, decade older and more widely sophisticated dog training scene. The COVID era had decimated the intimate group training classes while multiplied YouTube videos covering topics that include biting, pulling, chronic barking, jumping, spazzing, nail clipping, tooth cleaning, what to eat, which commands to use, where to sleep. If the Ancient Greeks had Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, the Epicureans, the Skeptics – the dog whisperers are the new philosophers, intent on teaching you how and why dogs think, act and react. It is a booming business. But the training methods can vary widely. I’ve read and annotated five books, watched scores of videos. Ultimately, I created my own set of rules and regulations blending approaches.

Essential books (c) Donatella Lorch

Stubborn, dominant and a puppy, Argos has taught me that we both need a disciplined daily structure with a respective sanity based on exercise. That translates into walks, games, training, focused mealtime, followed by more walks. At times, I feel I am heading the Olympics for infant canine athletes. The pee schedule is a training backbone. Every time Argos exits his crate, after every meal, it’s a dash for his leash and straight out the kitchen door to a designated lawn area.

  When he was a tiny pup, I woke up twice every night to escort Argos outdoors. One 20F pre-dawn, alone in the house, I exited carrying Argos. Unaware of black ice on the porch, I crashed back-first on the steps. Calling for help was irrelevant. My cell was indoors. The closest neighbor ¾ of a mile away. I stopped shaking. Biko peed. I crated him and then nurtured my back with hot and cold compresses and ibuprofen. My suggestion? Check the weather forecast. Wear warm clothes. Pocket your phone.

           Lessons learned? If he heels and sits magically one day, he may still express his demonic side the next day. I am in an intensive patience class. Especially when Argos tries to prove he is superior, jumping at me, nipping, zooming around me, tugging and leaping forward on the leash, then alternating his plan and digging his back feet and haunches into the ground behind me.

            Essential to my support mechanisms: the five books on dog training I’ve read, noted and underlined; the scores of internet training tips from all the different type of schools; the magically calming no-treat trainer who has taught me how and when to interface with Argos as he pushes back like a canine tsunami and the wisdom and the humor of Facebook’s Rhodesian Ridgebacks Rule group that shares with its members on the spot knowledge, personal experience, advice, compassion and hilarity.

Thunder Duo – Argos has a knack for looking innocent

My gloves are shredded, my hands are dotted red from teeth punctures. I focus on the Tibetan Buddhist monks I met when we lived in Nepal. They emanated calm and kindness and mirth. And I notice Argos’ other side. He is sweetly heart-melting, funny, smart and affectionate. He has no anger, no envy, no hate. He just has to cock his head sideways, wrinkle his velvety forehead and look at me innocently with those brown-green eyes and the battle exhaustion lifts.

  As Biko was for 11 years, Argos is also a teacher. Not the type that is struggling to teach a dog to walk on and off lede, to heel, to lie down, to stay and perhaps the hardest command ever for a human and a dog: to recall. Yet Argos connects with me in other ways. His is kinetic energy, lightning aliveness, instantaneous joy. Through him I learn that training is not just a set of rules and regulations and endless treats. You can’t just baste them all together for a few months and – voila – your dog is perfect. It’s about discipline and repetition. It’s about exploring each other’s emotional worlds.   All those conversations I have with him? Yes, to him they are gibberish. But we both know when its’ time for another walk.

*My Argos is named after Odysseus’ dog. He is the symbol of loyalty, recognizing his master 20 years after he had left for Troy.

The Education of Argos

How to train a pup (during COVID)

Van Morrison “These are the Days.

Biko surveying his world and getting it ready for Argos
Biko in Kathmandu – always wanting to be part of the conversation – socializing with our neighbors. Biko was born in Kenya and lived with us also in Nepal, Turkey and the U.S. He died October 22, 2020 in Rappahannock Va

My puppy is coming home. I’ve been counting the days since Argos’ birth in mid-October. That’s when serendipity and long hours of searching connected me with week-old new-born Rhodesian Ridgeback puppies 800 miles from where I live. But even before Argos’ eyes were open, his education was a main concern. Without a good school system, disaster loomed.

     I’d been through the early years once before but that was in Kenya and over 11 years ago with Biko our Rhodesian Ridgeback. The bar was high. Biko, who died this October, was remarkably well behaved and socialized. He was, as my husband John reminded me many times, a charming and intuitive dog who had perfected the art of communication.

      RRs – as they are known among afficionados – are a highly intelligent breed recognized for their stubbornness, strength, strong-willed independence, quirkiness, self-centeredness and last but far from least athletic handsomeness. Well trained, they are a dream companion, a funny, deeply loyal, sensitive, adored, gentle family member. Have I mentioned that they are handsome? Untrained, their large size, uncontrolled independence, tireless energy and strength can wreak havoc. Puppies can quickly become an exhausting domineering nuisance. Adolescent RRs are powerful velociraptors. Ingrained in my memory is watching a friend’s young RR flying across her living room from couch to couch, over chairs and children.

       Having trained Biko all those years ago, in Nairobi (Kenya), I knew that aside from puppy-proofing the house, our new RR addition needed consistent training and positive motivation. But I was not prepared for the plethora of training options, the dozens of books, internet pages, and deeply divided opinions on training methods. The philosophies on how to train dogs are mind boggling.

  I am of course armed. Pages of instructions, based on a Pavlovian school of positive enforcement, have been sent to me via email. I have dutifully read them and taken notes. I’ve  followed the detailed directions of Dr. Ian Dunbar’s: “Before and After Getting Your Puppy. The Positive Approach to Raising a Happy, Healthy & Well-behaved Dog.”  That’s definitely the type of obedient dog I want to create.

      I contemplated my future living with an un-trained young RR, a title that translates into unstable nitroglycerin. It left me anxious and terrified. To train my puppy I had to arm myself with pounds of treats: bulging my safari jacket pockets, in my closets, in my purse, in the car, in each room of the house, in Argos’ bowl, in his crate, and definitely in his Kong. Treats to sit, treats to come, treats to lie, treats to heel, treats to let me lift him up, a treat to get into the car, treats to play games, treats to stop barking. Even treats to bark. There is a whole treat-based technique to make a dog happy when you grab his collar. Then there more treats to deal with the omnivorous eating and chewing, peeing indoors, and the guaranteed pulling on the leash.

   Some of these phases last two years! How will we all survive? I’d forgotten that in addition to everything mentioned above, Argos will have very sharp teeth. What if he developed habits such as eating dirt and rocks and furniture? Could treats cure that?

    I am not saying that the Dunbar technique is wrong. I just can’t bring myself to solely having a food-based relationship with my puppy. There was so much to remember that I needed reems of notes to keep me from forgetting. Aside from feeling as if I was training a laboratory rat, would I have the energy and the patience to do this for longer than a few days?

   I started exploring the internet. I liked Nate Schoemer and watched at least 10 of his videos. But I was overwhelmed when he suggested buying and wearing at all times a special vest with pockets on both sides and on your back for holding treats. They were apparently necessary for confidence building exercises. Puppy training is a complex ballet and focuses on engagement exercises that include primary and conditioning reinforcements, marker sounds, free shaping, luring and leash pressure. And yes, I am not sure what half of those entail.  There is a well-ordered sequence: start by stating your order followed by the hand signal, then the food and finally the clicker. Precision, Nate warned, is critical. So is holding the treat in the nook of your palm and regularly alternating hands.

      On the opposite end of the spectrum are The Monks of New Skete, a Christian monastic community in Cambridge New York that has well known dog trainers and authors. They do not use treats as training methods but rather techniques focused on building human to dog relationships relying on patience, repetition, discipline and praise.  They are also controversial. Critics say they use outdated punishment and some techniques are harsher as in relatively longer crate stays.

            Biko’s breeder, Jeff Greene, the founder and owner of RidgeBack Africa, a dog training business then based in Nairobi, is a dog whisperer. Greene, a former Special Forces soldier, as well as his wife are professional trainers of protection, therapy and companion dogs such as Dutch Shepherds and Belgian Malinois. At the time, they bred RRs as a small sidebar to their business. His dogs were not trained via treats. Yet they were well-behaved and attached to their trainers. RRs don’t have the same work drive as those breeds but Biko and I still joined basic training sessions. We never made it to the professional training circuit but we learned enough for Biko to live in harmony with the family while obeying all basic orders. Though he never climbed on couches or beds or ate furniture, he insisted on occasionally sitting on one particular folding metal chair which remained with us across three continents. At dinnertime, he didn’t beg but he would stealthily crawl under the table and slowly and gently remove paper napkins from people’s laps then tear them to shreds before disappearing behind a sofa. In those treacherous adolescent first two years, Biko ate one flip flop, chewed one Birkenstock, counter surfed once on the dining room table by eating ¼ of a round of Gouda. He clipped one of our friends while zooming at top speed on our lawn, pushing her to the ground (luckily unhurt and to this day an ardent Biko fan). His weak point was a love of chasing bicycles. Music calmed him. Biko sat immobile close to my son during years of daily violin practice. In Nepal, he was mesmerized by cymbal chanting Tibetan monks and wandering cows and goats. In Turkey  he patiently let himself be petted and often kissed during his daily walks.  Even 11 years later, he still obeyed all basic commands. And after he returned the US, he barked only when he saw the UPS man.

    Still in this COVID-19 world of isolation and distancing, I don’t think I can replicate on my own either of these essential training techniques. I am not a dog whisperer. I’ve been reading, studying, analyzing and Amazon ordering while pondering puppy destructiveness. According to Dunbar, Argos will need as part of his early critical socializing to meet a minimum of two new adults every day. I must throw a “meet the puppy” party where each adult and each child must pick up Argos and play and hug him. I don’t think Dunbar would approve of a Zoom party as a substitute. I live in Rural Virginia.  My mail box is a 15-minute walk from the house. Most neighbors are even further. All puppy play classes are closed down.

 Biko lived interacting mostly just with us and our visiting humans. In Kenya no one socialized their dogs with the neighbors. In Nepal, we were surrounded by unvaccinated stray dogs but Biko preferred the neighborhood goats and cows that followed him on his walks. Now I have to ponder what had never occurred to me as a first-time dog owner. If I won’t train Argos through buckets of treats and don’t have the know-how and ability to mold a service animal, should I be Buddhist and choose the middle path? 

Biko and my son Lucas – inseparable

Untangling the journey: one box at a time

This July, on my annual summer pilgrimage home, back to Upstate New York, to the house buried in a forest where I spent every weekend and every summer growing up, and which has always been my haven in my 20 or so years overseas, my sister asked me to sort and clean out stacks of my cardboard boxes.

They were piled against a wall in the garage next to our World War II weapons carrier, a still functional grey metal box of a monster, and the vehicle where my father had painstakingly taught me to drive by double clutching. Out of sight, out of mind, I’d avoided this task for years, reluctant to sort through my years from college into journalism then motherhood and all punctuated with permanent wandering. But this time, I knew any lack of action would not sit well with my sister, as the trove of stored family belongings was overflowing.

I am a fan of instant Facebook gratification, not only because of that flattering belief that I have more than a 1,000 friends but also because it is a tool to reconnect with those I have known in all my incarnations whether it be a friend from elementary school, my translator in Mogadishu, My neighbor in Nepal or a collection of friends whose careers and lives I follow. I Instagram because both my 25 and 12-year-old have instructed me that “everyone” does. I am not convinced that being “everyone” is meaningful in any way that might transform my life but like with Facebook, I see the work and communication benefits of instant contact. Still much of my life has been lived before the smart phone.

If I graphed my life as an arc of communication tools, it would begin with the party line we shared with our neighbors in the Catskills. In the lazy no-TV summer days, my sister and I, not yet teenagers, entertained ourselves by listening in to their conversations. I covered crime in New York City, calling my story in to my editor on a pay phone. I filed my first overseas stories about the war in Afghanistan only after I had returned overland to Pakistan and typed them on a telex machine. By 1990, during the first Gulf War, The New York Times provided me with a satellite phone the size of a hip-high refrigerator. In Somalia, I had a four-pound satellite telex that I mounted high above my toilet, tiptoeing on the seat to reach the only window in my room that faced the Indian Ocean satellite. By the time my youngest was born in 2005, the satellite phone fit in my back pocket.

I piled the boxes on the lawn in front of the house, armed with plastic garbage bags and tugged on surgical gloves to battle the mice nests and their detritus. The boxes had not been packed in any particular order. There were stacks of narrow, tan “New York Times” reporter’s notebooks, filled with shorthand notes from my days covering crime in New York City and trekking through the mountains of Afghanistan with the Mujadeddin during the Soviet occupation.  I’d picked up police shorthand: ‘F/B/13 DOA. Brother arrested’ (female, black, 13, dead on arrival). In another notebook, I’d scribbled notes next to quotes from a Mujahed commander meeting: “No idea where we are. On my 7th cup of sugared green tea today. Not a soul speaks English. When am I going to get out of here? ”

The notebooks dredged up long buried images. My sloppy, loopy handwriting that skipped lines and sometimes meandered up and down, triggered smell, taste, touch. It was a cold February day in the Bronx. On the street, men warmed their hands stoking wood fires in old oil drums. For weeks, the leather jacket I had worn that day smelled of rancid alcohol and stale cigarettes. Sobbing, the mother hugged me as we walked through the tiny bare apartment. The daughter’s blood still stained the floor near a piece of her half eaten birthday cake.Tangible hopelessness.

The Afghanistan notes had been written a year before the Bronx when my world did not go beyond the arid Hindu Kush mountains. Afghanistan was my first war, warped by sharply defined feelings of love, hate, boredom, fear and adventure.  I kept taped to my laptop a quote from Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried.” “War is nasty; War is fun. War is thrilling; War is drudgery. War makes you a man; War makes you dead.” Afghanistan — The ever-present dust, that fine layer of earth, a mixture of grit and silk. The person I used to be but am no longer.

But the notebooks were only part of the boxes’ contents. Stuffed in large manila envelopes were hundreds of letters. I remember writing letters home. But I had forgotten about the return flow from my family and friends, a large quilt of my life stitched together by different people at different times.  They came typed, single spaced; hand written, one collection of 15 letters on onion paper with delicate artist script; on aerograms with mysterious GPO return addresses from Singapore, Hong Kong, Addis Ababa, Windhoek; filling all the hardback sides of cards and in postcards. There were letters from lovers. I read through a decade-worth where I seem to have spent way too much time trying to create some fantasy I thought was love. There were deep friendships with journalists that still endure today. I also complained a huge amount. I was lonely, alone, lovesick, frustrated, exhausted and despondent. My father (whose writing to me was often limited to postcards) once suggested I write a book entitled: “Letters From a Despondent Correspondent.”

For someone who sometimes cannot remember details from the day before, this flood caught me off guard. It was as if parts of me had somehow been unearthed in an archeological memory dig and I was encountering a self that I recognized in waves of emotions: joy, curiosity, embarrassment, acknowledgment, discomfort and a great deal of surprise.

I unearthed reams of my mother’s weekly, sometimes daily letters. She and I have always had an electric and combustible relationship. As a child, she was my storyteller who taught my imagination to soar but also my relentless and strict teacher who forcefully tutored me in Latin, Greek, German and Dante. We had a history of bruising arguments well into my 30s.

The scores of letters in the boxes reconnected me to a time and place where we shared ideas and dreams, in a medium that freed us of dictates and combativeness. I needed that nudge to remember. Whether responding to my excited or somber moods, she was a writing machine, supportive, insightful, funny, and deeply understanding. Writing for my mother is a permanent state of mind. Even now at 97, if she could forego oxygen, she would trade it in for pen and paper.

When airmail was too slow or the phone failed, my mother faxed, sometimes daily, as during the Rwandan Genocide when I was stranded in Kigali at the Hotel Milles Collines.  Those faxes, faded, some only barely legible more than two decades later, were also in the boxes.  As was my reply: “Please type! Your handwriting illegible.” But she also spent many pages through the years trying to console me over my hopeless dead-end amorous encounters while emphasizing how they distracted me from reporting and writing.

Every year, as with all her children and grandchildren, her birthday gift was a letter. She typed this letter in 1997 after my return from some war zone, grasping more clearly and more poetically than I ever could, that link between crossing swords and love and respect.  I should have listened to her more often.

“I see Dony who taught me not in words but in actions, at times against my will(…) to break through barriers enjoying the noise of the crash, to live like a pilgrim of the earth which means to be a foreigner in every country because the country you long for is not the one you are in. To be happy in my unhappiness, to be satisfied in my dissatisfaction, cheerful in my solitude. I learned by watching her, by blaming her, by cursing her at times. (…) It is the Dony that gives me the most useless advice and then overwhelms me with the most useful embrace. …Please walk on Donatella, Just as you are. Do not change. Your strength is in being yourself.”

I’d forgotten about the beauty and pleasure of receiving letters, of keeping them in my pocket so I could pull them out to read and re-read, to know that they were my companions no matter where I lived. They were a concrete proof that I existed. As for the contents of all those boxes: they make me who I am.





“Some days I Just have to listen”: A family therapist works with Syrian refugees

As a family therapist, Zeynep Kapisiz works with Syrian refugees in the Turkish city of Izmir. Her patients, mostly children traumatized by war’s violence and suffering ,are more likely to develop psychological disorders, become victims of violence, be forced into child marriages and recruited into armed groups. Here’s my profile of a young woman who faces at times seemingly unsurmountable challenges and tries to find a way to guide and help.

During the cold winter months, debit cards bring warmth to the most vulnerable Syrian children

Ranya, a Syrian refugee who lives in Kilis, a town on the Syrian border, is homeless and her children are forced to beg for a living. But this winter, a UNICEF debit card is making it possible for her to buy clothes and shoes for her children. My piece for #UNICEF

Syrian teenager flees guns and wins chance to study in Turkey

Photo caption: Chemical engineering student Rawan, 19, from Syria, has qualified for one of UNHCR’s DAFI scholarships and will complete her tertiary education in Turkey.  © UNHCR/Ali Unal

My piece for UNHCR

Mother’s dedication inspires 20-year-old to academic success in Turkey


My story for UNHCR

Photo:Fatima (left) and and fellow student Rawan take a moment to relax in the park. Fatima is hoping to study for a masters and a PhD, and plans to returns to Syria when the war is over.  © UNHCR/Ali Unal