Watch Night 2017

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Tis the season when people and organizations seek funding to support their causes.

I know. We sent out our annual newsletter earlier this month. On the cusp of 2018, Watch Night 2017 in Liberia, I am writing to share the stories of success of the young women whose college educations we have supported in 2017 and will continue to fund in 2018. And yes, ask you for your support.

As a photojournalist, I spent Watch Night 2014 in Liberia while covering the humanitarian response to the Ebola epidemic. Among the stories we documented, my colleague, Brian Castner, and I covered the news of the impending reopening of schools. I photographed hundreds of high school students and their parents as they queued to register for classes. Our story, Progess in Liberia: Schools Shuttered by Ebola Set to Reopen, published on Jan. 18, 2015.

During our coverage, Brian met and interviewed Sister Barbara Brilliant, the dean of the Mother Patern College of Health Sciences. Brilliant and her team helped facilitate many of the Ebola Treatment Units throughout Liberia.

“These private little places, all over the country, they did the hero work by simply staying open,” she said. “They triaged, directed people away from the ETUs that didn’t need to be there. People were scared, they had no equipment, but they stayed open anyway.”

When I left Liberia, I asked Brian to help me connect with Sister Barbara. We now sponsor a young woman, Davidetta Forkpah, who is studying social work at the Mother Patern College. Davidetta is doing well in school and she’ll begin her second semester of sophomore year in 2018.

If you’d like to learn more, you may read and download our newsletter here: 2017_newsletter

I write to let those of you who reads this post, who read our newsletter, who read of the efforts of the Liberian people in the face of Ebola epidemic, that each one of you matters. Each one of you can make a difference.

On the cusp of the new year in 2014, Liberia was reeling from the onslaught of the Ebola epidemic. Days ago, Liberians elected a new president to succeed President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, in the country’s first democratic transition of power in more than 70 years.

Our work with our nonprofit has reinforced my strong belief that each one of us can make a difference. One person, one idea, one act of kindness can spark change.

As I learned in Liberia, Watch Night can be a time for reflection, remembrance, gratitude. And giving.

If you’d like to support our work, you may use PayPal to donate funds.

Thank you for your interest, support and love these past 10 years. Here’s to a blessed, healthy, prosperous 2018.

 

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Nationwide sexual assaults a call to action

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Outside the Box

a weekly column by Cheryl Hatch

copyright 2014

MEADVILLE — When I arrived in Meadville, I was thirsty for nature and finding a sense of place in my new town. My landlord suggested Ernst Trail.

On a sunny summer afternoon in August 2012, I took off on my bike to discover what the trail had to offer. As I rode along with the creek sliding beside me, I felt a subtle then sharper prick of anxiety. I’m alone. Water on one side, no exit on the other. I have no idea how long the trail goes or what terrain lies ahead.

It wasn’t a traditional flashback; more like a visit from a ghost of trails past.

As a college student in France years ago, I was training for the Paris Marathon. In those days, you wouldn’t see many people running for fun. My friends warned me not to go alone. It’s dangerous, they’d say.

It’s ridiculous, I thought. I’ve been running alone for years in all kinds of weather, on sunny days and moonlit nights, on forest trails and country roads.

One day, I switched my routine, opted for an afternoon run rather than a morning one and chose a path I didn’t know. A high wall bordered one side and a river rolled along the other.

As I stretched, a man asked me if I were going jogging. Odd. The French don’t normally spontaneously address strangers. I ignored him. He annoyed me, gave me the creeps. When I looked up again, he was gone. I surveyed the trail. Weird. No sign of him.

I dismissed the tiny voice that told me to pick another place to run. Another voice rationalized that I was being paranoid, that I’d let all my friends’ fears get inside my head.

Well into my run, I noticed the man standing in the middle to the trail, arms stretched wide to block my path. This guy is really annoying, I thought. I knocked his arms down as I ran past him.

He ran after me. What a jerk, I thought. When he grabbed me from behind, putting his hands around my neck, I still considered him a nuisance not a threat. I broke his hold and decided to break into a sprint.

He followed. As he chased me, he shouted all the things he planned to do to me in the most vulgar French terms. I scanned the trail ahead. I didn’t see an exit and I realized I couldn’t outrun him.

I stopped, turned to face him and stood my ground. C’est quoi ton problème, I asked.

He answered by lunging at me and wrapping his hands around my neck a second time. It finally occurred to me that he wasn’t kidding. He meant me harm.

I grabbed him and started to fight back. He released his grip and looked me dead in the eyes. On se verra, he said in a soft voice. We will see each other again. He turned and walked away. I ran and called for help.

The police were no help whatsoever. As I filed my report at the station, the officers gathered around the desk, leaned in, insisted I repeat all the foul things the man had said to me. They insisted that I was mistaken. Silly American woman. A French man wouldn’t do such a thing. They implied he was a foreigner. They implied they knew what young American women were really like.

They took me out in their police car hours after the assault to help me look for the man. They made sure I understood I’d wasted their time.

I wish I could say that was the only time I’ve been assaulted; it’s not. I wish I could say that the police were kinder, more understanding. They weren’t. I wish I could say they believed me and wanted to help me. They didn’t.

Each week when I write this column, I wrestle with how much of my personal life and experiences I want to share. I wobble and waver as I walk the fine, tight line between revealing enough to make a story authentic and relatable and protecting my privacy — and myself. This week, I decided to share this story when I read that President Barack Obama had launched an initiative to combat sexual assault on college campuses.

A story by the Associated Press noted that “Obama signed a presidential memorandum creating a task force to protect students from sexual assault, with a new White House report declaring that no one in America is more at risk of being raped or assaulted than college women.”

Last semester, the student newspaper, The Campus, published a story that Allegheny College had formally reported three sexual assaults in three months.

Cited in the AP story, the White House report, “Rape and Sexual Assault: A Renewed Call to Action,” stated that “one in five women have been sexually assaulted at college but that only 12 percent of student victims report it. The report was compiled by the White House Council on Women and Girls.”

As a woman, college professor and journalist, I want these statistics to be heard as a call to action, just as the president heard them.

As a young woman and college student years ago, I got a friend to walk the trail with me the day after the assault. In the struggle, the man had stripped the chain with my grandmother’s gold cross from my neck. I wanted to recover it.

What do you think he wanted? As we walked the trail. I asked my friend for his thoughts on the attacker’s intentions.

I think that guy wanted to kill you, he said.

That stranger didn’t take my life though he did take something precious from me. I don’t go for moonlit runs anymore. And occasionally, when I’m alone I’ll get spooked by a visit from a ghost of trails past.

I didn’t find my grandmother’s cross on the trail and it would be many more years before I learned to trust the tiny voice that warns me when things are off — the gut feeling, some call it. I monitor my surroundings and I pay attention to that voice.

Soldiers call it situational awareness.

We’ve got a situation on college campuses.

Note: Consider the actions at one campus: Project Unspoken was created as a summer intern project at Emory University’s Office of Health Promotion’s Respect Program. Watch this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eCCaKuWQLp8.

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.

Lifting the veil

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Yesterday I went for a long walk along the corniche in Kuwait City.

The day marked one week since I’d left Afghanistan. I’d spent much of that time inside, behind a desk as I finished my fourth story for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.

I wanted to move. I wanted to feel grounded. I wanted to feel the sun on my face and the wind move through me. I walked and I kept on walking.

I walked past the iconic Kuwait Towers. I passed an amusement park behind the towers.  At first all I saw was the two big guns…not much amusing about that. Then I realized that it was a Paintball Park.

I walked past coffee shops and restaurants encased in glass, like big aquariums, where I could gaze inside at the men gathered at different tables, eating lunch. Not a woman in sight.

I have spent a chunk of my life in the Arab world, in the Middle East. I’ve had some of the best times of my life with my friends in Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon and Kuwait. And yet, it’s tough for me to feel at ease. I feel the eyes, the judgments on me…imagined or real. I feel my foreignness, my white, exposed skin.

I walk to embrace who I am and find a way to be comfortable. My body moves.  My mind floats. I liberate myself a bit more with each step.

I passed people. If they were men, I lowered my eyes. It’s an old, old habit born of tough years in Saudi Arabia. I passed a group of teenagers: two boys, two girls. The girls covered their hair with black hijabs with sparkles and sequins, though they wore snug blue jeans and laughed and joked with the boys. I passed a family….a man in traditional robe and headdress, swinging his amber prayer beads as he walked. His wife, I assume, in a full black abaya, and his children followed behind him. The young boy had a Flip video camera and he was filming. He swung around to film me.

The sun and the smell of the salt water filled me. As I returned, I passed two women on a wall at the edge of the water. Such an image. The bright blue water and these two dark silhouettes. They were covered in their black abayas. The one on the left was standing. She was younger, perhaps the daughter or daughter-in-law of the older woman seated at right. They were both gazing out at the water.

A voice in me said: Say hello Cheryl. I tried to deny it for half a heartbeat. Don’t talk to the women, Cheryl. Don’t disturb them. It’s not done here. This is the fearful voice I have to banish when she chirps in with her negative commentary. It was a sunny day. My story was finished. I had walked a long way and I was happy.

I looked at the women and I said Assalamu Aleikum, raised my right hand and waved.

The women turned and looked at me. Not a second of hesitation. The older woman  raised her left arm and held it high, palm toward me.

Her abaya fell away and I could see the orange-brown henna patterns on her hand and arm and the gold bracelets that clinked on her wrist.

Salaam, she said, in a strong voice, a voice I liked instantly. The young woman echoed her greeting.

Their rapid, enthusiastic response touched me deeply.

I realized in that moment that I judge, too. I harbor resentment toward that dark veil and what it means to me. The abaya did not confine or define the woman who raised her hand to greet me.

I realized I wear a veil, too, layers of veils. Just not one that’s visible.

As I walked away from the two women, I had one thought pass through my mind.

Lift your veil.