the resilience of love

I met Vishnu on the morning of his wedding, one month after the earthquake in Nepal . He sat drinking tea, smiling and waiting for his bride to arrive. He showed me his new tattoo. It read “Anju”. The “J” was dotted with a heart. Both Vishnu and Anju’s homes were destroyed in the quake. Anju was living with her family in a tent. Vishnu’s friend urged him not to get married, it was a painful and dark time in the country. But Vishnu says his heart told him something else.

Anju’s parents had promised her to another man, but she chose Vishnu. Anju arrived at Bhadrakali Temple in Kathmandu the morning of May 20. While Vishnu finished his tea, she slipped on her rented red wedding gown in the back of the teahouse with the help of a friend. The priest prepared the temple for the ceremony, sprinkling bright yellow flower petals on the floor.

Then, without their families knowing, seated under the roof of the temple Vishnu and Anju became husband and wife.

Three days after the wedding, an aftershock struck.

“Everyone ran out of house screaming,” Vishnu says. “Anju was holding my hand tightly. I kissed her on the forehead, then she fell asleep again. It gave me the thought that nothing can harm you if someone is there loving you, caring for you.”

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

tirana for the new york times

Back in August I spent a few days in Tirana, Albania, photographing a travel story for the New York Times. Here are a few of the pictures that didn’t make it into the print edition. During the trip I met some of the most down-to-earth and inspiring people I’ve met in a while – cafe owners, winemakers and cooks. Thanks for making my visit so enjoyable.

 

People pass by the Pyramid in Tirana, Albania. The Pyramid was opened as a museum to commemorate the late ruler Hoxha. After the collapse of communism it served as a conference center and even became a NATO office during the conflict with Kosovo. 

The Komiteti Cafe and Museum in Tirana, Albania, was started by Arber Cepani and features relics from Albania's past, like these wall hangings that Cepani says are found in every home in Albania. Cepani, the son of an Albanian diplomat who spent about 20 years living abroad, says he believes it is important to know the history of your country and learn from it. For the younger generation, the cafe is a place to learn about the communist past. For the older generation Cepani says it is pure nostalgia.

Flori Uka is a winemaker that runs Uka Farm, his family's farm that produces fruits and vegetables for use in their restaurant just outside of Tirana, Albania. 

Radio Bar in Tirana, Albania, is known for its cocktails and good music. The bar often hosts live musicians and DJs.

Arios Banushi, 10, (left) and his younger brother Albi Banushi, 5, ride the Dajti Express in Tirana, Albania, up the side of Mount Dajti. The Banushis are from Tirana and were visiting the cable car with their grandparents. The journey takes 15 minutes and is the longest cableway in the Balkans. 

View of Tirana, Albania, looking toward Rinia Park and Skanderberg Square from Sky Tower.

Barista Iris Ibro works at Komiteti Cafe and Museum in Tirana, Albania. The cafe was started by Arber Cepani and features relics from Albania's past. 

Hyrie Hoxha plants green beans at Uka Farm in Tirana, Albania. The farm produces vegetables and fruits that are used in the farm's restaurant. Flori Uka, who runs the family farm, also makes biodynamic wines that are served at the restaurant. 

The mosaic on the front of the National Historical Museum in Tirana, Albania, depicts a tribute to Albanian history from the Illyrians to World War II partisans. 

Uka Farm in Tirana, Albania

Customers pick a spot to eat dinner while looking out at the vineyard at Uka Farm in Tirana, Albania. 

Many apartment buildings throughout Tirana, Albania, are painted in bright colors after Edi Rama (former mayor of Tirana and now primer minister of Albania) led an initiative to brighten post-communist Albania. This building is in the Xhamlliku neighborhood. 

Alma Verushi (left) and Laureta Verushi run Taverna e Kasap Beut in Tirana, Albania. One of their specialities is burek, a flaky pastry that can be filled with cheese, vegetables or meat. 

Many government ministry buildings along Skanderbeg Square were designed by fascist-era Italian architects in the 1920s in Tirana, Albania.

Radio Bar in Tirana, Albania, is known for its cocktails and good music.

rural albania for der spiegel

Poverty and high unemployment rates have driven thousands of Albanians to leave the country, seeking a better life in the European Union. In villages in northern Albania like Shishtavec and Novosej more than half the population has left. Most that seek asylum in the European Union are rejected. In Germany the government is working to declare Albania, Kosovo and Montenegro as “safe” countries as a way to speed up deportations. I traveled to Shishtavec and Novosej for Der Spiegel back in August to show what these thousands of Albanians have left behind.

See more pictures here.

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salesian center offers haven for iraqi, syrian children in Istanbul

 

Conflict in places like Syria and Iraq has disrupted the education of millions of children. This story looks at one school in Istanbul trying to make a small difference by offering free education in Arabic for about 300 students. 

By Elie Gardner
Catholic News Service

ISTANBUL (CNS) — Basima Toma teaches English to about 40 children at the Don Bosco youth center.

A young Iraqi boy stands at the chalkboard with a plastic ruler in his hand and spells out the words W-I-N-T-E-R, S-P-R-I-N-G, S-U-M-M-E-R, A-U-T-U-M-N.

Toma and her family have been in Istanbul long enough to see each of these seasons come and go, more than once. In 2012 Toma, her husband and four children left their home in Baghdad.

Toma and her family are Chaldean Catholics. In Baghdad, as Christian-owned businesses were targeted and destroyed, Toma worried more and more for her children’s safety. One of her daughters was the only Christian in her classroom.

“Now I don’t fear for my children,” Toma says. “I put my head on my pillow and am not afraid when they are not with me.”

“Here we don’t ask anyone what religion they are or what political party they belong to,” said Salesian Father Andres Calleja Ruiz, head of the Don Bosco youth center. “We just want to help them.”

The Istanbul center was started 20 years ago as a temporary response to the wave of refugees coming from Iraq. Conflict in the region continues, and new refugees and asylum seekers arrive every day. Today, 300 children, mostly from Iraq and Syria, are enrolled at the center.

The center is primarily funded by donations to the Salesian Mission in Bonn, Germany, and students attend at no cost.

Like Toma, most of the teachers at the center are refugees or asylum seekers. Father Calleja says this helps the youth because the teachers have lived the same situation and understand what the students have suffered. They also speak Arabic.

While the young people study English, math and computing, Father Calleja said, the center is also “a center of joy, where children can play and sing.”

Sarah Mohammed, 14, left her home in Aleppo, Syria, about one year ago. After an explosion near her school, the students were told not to come to class anymore: It was not safe.

“Many of them have never been in school, or they have been very irregular going to school because of the wars,” Father Calleja said. “We try to give them some regularity so that after one, two or three years when they reach some other country, they haven’t lost the continuity of school.”

Sarah said she loves to study. She speaks English and has also learned Turkish. She dreams of being an engineer and attending college.

While Sarah and her younger sister are enrolled at Don Bosco, their 17-year-old brother works 12 hours a day in a bakery to help support the family.

The U.N. Human Rights Council reports that the number of refugees and asylum-seekers in Turkey is expected to hit 1.9 million in 2015.

For most refugees and asylum seekers, Turkey is only a stopping point, a purgatory they pass on the way to new lives in Australia, Canada, the United States and Europe.

While Toma worries less for her family’s safety, she said she worries more about paying the bills. Compared to Iraq and Syria, Istanbul is an expensive city, with limited work opportunities for refugees and asylum seekers.

After more than two years in Istanbul, she is still not sure where her family will be resettled or when they will go. She said she prays they will be granted asylum in Canada, where most of her relatives are already living.

“I believe God sees us, and that he’s knows what’s best for my family,” Toma said.

She added that her dream is simple: She wants a small house with nice furniture and for her children to attend college.

Father Calleja said he hopes and prays that the wars finish and people can live in peace. Until then, he believes the center serves a critical need.

“The group environment and the environment of joy, freedom and tolerance is already healing many wounds,” Father Calleja said.