Desert Crossings by Monika McGreal Viola

My education began at John F. Kennedy International Airport. There I waited, a curious 8-year-old, outside the double doors of US Customs and Arrivals, scanning the crowd for the handful of aid workers who comprised Medicine for Peace, a relief organization founded by my father. Those Customs doors. The barrier between travelers and non-travelers, between an active and a passive existence.

The gutsy band of MFP warriors fed my notion of the exotic, returning home laden with treasures discovered en route to Amman, cross the Iraqi desert to Baghdad. Sometimes Bedouin rugs were their fancy, intricate textiles rolled tight in the middle and willowing down on both ends, complacent to wandering. On other trips, there would be Turkish delight, which I’d eat in my bedroom on Long Island while reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and appreciating Edmund’s dilemma – the crimson jellies, dusted white, enticed both the stomach and the imagination.

The most anticipated of these travelers, though, were the children, literally carried through Border Control by jetlagged MFP doctors and nurses. Ahlan wa Sahlan. Welcome. The first Arabic phrase I would learn. On my maiden voyage to International Arrivals, I observed the little girl in my dad’s arms – the blue shade of her lips and how she huddled into his jacket as if trying to ration body heat after a mid-winter plunge into the Sound. The other children also nestled close to their minders, I realized, as introductions went round to smiling host families, hands full with balloons.

Donya’s fingernails were round, and I compared them to my own, plain, square ones. This, too, I learned, she owed to the hole in her heart. She was but three when her parents trusted her fate to American doctors, doctors from the same country that had bombed electrical plants and water sanitation facilities, rendering open-heart surgery impossible. Well-educated, dressed in dated western clothing, they understood, even then, that their daughter could not outlive the American-imposed sanctions. I thought back to my C.S. Lewis novel, the four refugee children sent from London during the Blitz, and looked to see if a card with our address was pinned to her sweater.

Brimming with personality, Donya acclimated deftly to American life – in fact, it suited her. She spoke no English and I no Arabic, but we shared my room and fell into an easy routine of cohabitation. Each afternoon, Donya would be lounging on my bed when I arrived in from school. She’d flash a cheeky grin and greet me with Ahlan wa Sahlan. Welcome. Most frequent was our game of doctor, with Donya ceremoniously producing the gel stickers from her echocardiograms – given to her for keeps – that we’d fasten to our arms, legs, and stomachs, pretending to connect cables and determine prognoses. We only switched games after her operation, when the blue pallor of her skin and lips was replaced with a pink flush and a long meaty scar down her chest.

When my mother boarded the Royal Jordanian plane with Donya in tow, another child awaited her in Baghdad – where Donya returned to her family, to life under Saddam, to life under the sanctions. These were the cruelest of the airport trips, attempting an unnatural goodbye to our Iraqi siblings before driving back down the Belt Parkway.

Unlike the recent phenomenon of worried citizens flooding airports, not many people protested at Customs during the first Gulf War. New York in the early 1990s was swathed in yellow ribbons and, when a classmate accused my family of lacking one around our tree, or mailbox, or forehead, I felt ashamed. While I sensed that my parents stood on the right side of whatever this was, I was too young to grasp why that put us at odds with most of our neighbors. “Iraq” would seem a dirty word for years to follow, one that I felt compelled to defend and protect until, finally, I resolved to keep it for myself.  

What kind of homecoming, then, to wait at International Arrivals once more? The anticipation is familiar, and I tally one point for Donya with every person let through those gates. I stand with my sign scrawled right in English and left in Arabic – remnants of my collegiate studies during the second Gulf War – shoulder-to-shoulder with other Americans who yell “Refugees Welcome!” while my friend tweets a video of an Iraqi mother detained for wanting to visit her son, a soldier in the American army. The woman rubs the face of her grown child, and the gesture reminds me of a Medicine for Peace documentary where a mother, clad similarly in black, rubs the face of her daughter lying quiet in a Baghdadi hospital bed. That was 25 years ago.

A Bedouin man told my father that every time you cross the desert, life begins anew. Perhaps the recent string of protests is an American desert crossing, and we, as a country, are ready to begin anew – to open the Customs doors at JFK, to see the Tigris and the Euphrates for ourselves. And Donya will greet us saying, Ahlan wa Sahlan. Welcome. 

Socialist Bird Seeks Epistolary Inspiration from Judy Garland by Monika McGreal Viola

Dear Senator Sanders,

I am writing this to you,

and I hope that you will read it so you'll know.

My heart beats like a hammer

(used by a person without health insurance),

and my wing’s flutter and they flammer,

every time I see you at a rigged mass media show.

I guess I'm just another fan of your anti-corruption platform,

but I thought I'd send 27 dollars and tell you so.

You made me love you,

I didn't wanna do it, I didn't wanna do it.

Your no fracking policy made me love you,

and all the time you opposed Wall Street you knew it,

I guess you always knew it.

You made me happy when you said no to war in Iraq,

Yes, that made me glad,

But there were times, sir,

when your true-story campaign ads made me feel so sad.

You made me sigh 'cause

I didn't wanna tell you, I didn't wanna tell you

I think you're YUGE, that's true

Yes, I do, 'deed I do, you know we all do.

I had to tell you that I can’t tone down these feelings,

The very mention of your #feelthebern hashtag

sends my feathers reeling,

You know you made me love you...

Aw, gee, Senator Sanders, I don't wanna bother you, not with all the people you still have to bring into the democratic process by November. I guess you get a lot of letters from grateful constituents like me. But I just had to tell you about the time I saw you on Univision’s Democratic Debate. That was the first time I ever laid eyes on you, like so many other American voters – you know, the one’s judging your hair and your Frank Capra suits – and I knew right then you were the nicest fella in politics! I guess it was 'cause you acted so, well, so natural-like – not like a current politician at all, but just like any fella you'd meet at Ben & Jerry’s or at a sit-in in Chicago. Someone who'd tell you the truth, even when it wasn’t popular.

Then one time I saw you in a town hall with Chris Matthews, and I had to cry a little 'cause he was with her and wouldn’t let you speak – not 'til the end, anyway, when you waved your finger and held your own on that darn 1%. And then, finally, I saw you in person. You were speaking about student debt at a free rally in Portland, and I was just there twittering when you got up on the podium, and you almost didn’t see me! Oh – but it wasn't your fault! No, I was hard to see until I flew up to read your sign: “A Future to Believe In.” But you looked at me, and you smiled. Yeah, you smiled right at me as if you meant it, and I cried all the way home just 'cause you smiled at me for being on your sign! Aw, I'll never forget it, Senator Sanders. Honest.

...Although I fear what happens in November, let the whole world stop.

As far as I'm concerned, you'll always be the top (but not the 1%),

'cause you know you made me love you – not you, but us.

Yours Truly,


Inspired by "You Made Me Love You" and #birdiesanders

Name of the Game by Monika McGreal Viola

(Previously Blogged, Summer 2015)

 What’s in a name? Or a symbol, or a flag, for that matter. Just about everything these days. With so much tension in the world surrounding race, nationality, and personal identity, ardent supporters of the name Washington Redskins will probably find fewer sympathizers than they did at this stage in the game last year. The recent ruling to revoke the Redskins trademark signals that it’s only a matter of time before another naming debacle in the District (cough — Wizards — cough). While everyone in the sports world has been arguing whether to change or not to change, why doesn’t anyone take a page from the daily headlines and, instead, look for a compromise? 

    As a longtime Washingtonian — however, not a Redskins fan — I claim to be an unbiased observer of the will they/won’t they controversy surrounding the Washington football moniker. I humbly cast my vote for this solution: Pigskins

    Renaming the Washington Redskins — and, let’s be honest, it’s going to happen, folks — to the Washington Pigskins would be an actual attempt to meet in the middle. Believe me, I understand those who don’t think it necessary to do even that. Still, for all those boys and girls out there who grew up cherishing the burgundy and gold, I throw Pigskins on the table. For the population rightly offended by Redskins, the name is dead and gone. For those diehard Skins fans… well, they still can be diehard Skins fans. Plus, the name Pigskins keeps it all in the family with a gentle nod to the legendary offensive line, the Hogs, which led the team to three Super Bowl Championships under Joe Gibbs. If you believe in football juju, Pigskins comes about as close as you can get. Added bonus, all those crazy pig snouts worn by the Hoggettes still would be totally relevant. And, the name stays on topic with a solid gold football reference… who doesn’t love the ol’ pigskin? 

    Now, in terms of the logo. Obviously, the side profile must go. But, let’s think, what about the R? Maybe, just maybe, the franchise could drop the final curly cue and transform it into a P, paying homage to the throwback helmet. This would at least buy management time to focus on what football is supposed to be about. No, I don’t mean the NFL scamming a load of people out of their hard-earned money. I mean running the ball, playing good defensive, winning one for the fans. Let’s bring a name to Washington that everyone can get behind because, if there’s one thing Washington football needs right now, it’s unity. So, come on, Skins fans, can I get an oink, oink?