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A Mother’s Lesson on Peace

As a writer on human rights issues I don’t lack reasons for concern. In many countries nowadays human rights continue in some form are not abused, where violence does not strike in one of its multiple forms. At such moments, I visit one of the many neighborhoods outside Manhattan, where I live, and where the change of locale can do wonders for my mood.

One of my favorite places is Brighton Beach, a community in Coney Island in the borough of Brooklyn, a subway ride away from Manhattan. In summer, I go to the boardwalk, sit in front of the sea and the salt breeze energizes me. When it gets colder, I visit one of the many ethnic stores and delight in their variety. When my appetite is in full force I go to one of the many restaurants in the area to savor food unlike what I eat at home every day.

The area is  now populated mainly by Jewish immigrants that left the former Soviet Union starting in the 1970’s and whose influx continues today. Years ago, the area was dubbed “Little Odessa”, since many of its residents came from Odessa, a city in the Ukraine. I remember the welcome surprise of a friend – with whom I was having dinner at one of the local Ukrainian restaurants – when he realized how many patrons came from his parents’ hometown.

More recently, new waves of immigrants have joined the Russians and Ukrainians: Chinese, Vietnamese, Armenian, Turkish, Mexican and Pakistanis make of this an even more cosmopolitan neighborhood. During the summer, people from other neighborhoods come in throngs to enjoy the beach.

Reading the news today has been particularly disheartening: the unrelenting conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, with no hint of an effective rapprochement between them; the sustained violence in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq, countries whose sores never heal; the bellicose stand between the United States and North Korea. In many countries, life has become a cheap commodity.

I want to forget about these events. I take the subway and after almost an hour I am in another world. I am sitting by the sea in Brighton Beach. Today is a relatively cold day so there are few people around. A young woman comes with her child and sits next to me. She sends her child to play on the sand. By the occasional remarks the woman makes to him I take her to be of Russian origin.

The child is happily playing with a ball. Suddenly he leaves the ball. Seeing a line of giant ants moving along the sand, he takes several of them and crushes them with one hand. On seeing this, the mother putts her knitting aside, beckons him, puts her hand on his shoulder and in heavily accented English, quietly but firmly says: “Don’t ever do that again. You don’t hurt nobody – do you hear me? – you don’t hurt nobody.”

The child looks at her with a mixture of fear and surprise. Then, slowly, he drops the dead ants, one by one, on the sand. Looking at the sudden smile on his mother face he also smiles and embraces her tightly. “I love you, mom,” he says. The incident taught me, quite unexpectedly, that some of life’s most simple and yet most profound lessons can be learned at a very young age. And it gave me reason for hope.

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Dr. Cesar Chelala is a co-winner of the 1979 Overseas Press Club of America award for the article “Missing or Disappeared in Argentina: The Desperate Search for Thousands of Abducted Victims.”

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