Taking back spaces: from eating disorder to empowering others

By Jazmine Bunch

Ariana Greenwood sat at the front of the Anne Queen Lounge in the Campus Y, with a little more than 70 white faces staring back at her.

“These struggles aren’t limited to thin, white women,” Justis Mitchell said, after sharing his journey with the dangers of diet culture and masculinity.

Ari scanned the crowd while listening to the other panelists.

She agreed to share her story at Embody Carolina’s diversity panel on eating disorders, especially because—after surveying the audience and seeing the few brown women scattered among mostly white, sorority women—she knew her story wasn’t one commonly told.

“Don’t think of eating disorders only in terms of the common image; a super skinny white woman,” Martina Ugarte said.

Panelist two of three. The narratives were so similar, yet, their experiences were still so different, Ari thought.

Just a few years ago, she couldn’t imagine being in this space. Just a few years ago, she couldn’t imagine waiting anxiously as she mentally crafted how she’d share her experience with binge eating disorder, because just a few years ago she couldn’t even imagine herself, her black body, experiencing it.

Her time to imagine ran out, because this was her reality and it was her turn. So, she began talking.

 

Haunted by size

Her disorder began with the desire to take up less space. One day, when she was in sixth grade, they weighed all the students in her gym class. She’d been weighed before, but hearing her smaller classmates share their sizes haunted her.

“Oh my gosh, something’s wrong,” she thought. “I just need to be smaller.”

From that day forward, she did so much to focus on her body and lost so much of her life in doing so.

Ari is Jamaican and Costa Rican, and she grew up with her Costa Rican family in Tampa, Florida. In a city full of beach days, it was easy for Ari to skate by her family with intense workouts and restrictive eating. She threw herself into the world of high school sports. Her family never suspected a thing, and she honestly didn’t even realize that what she was doing would be the beginning of a mental battle with her body.

Although her family didn’t know her intentions, she grew up surrounded by what she now recognizes as toxic diet culture. She’d spend hours in the gym attempting to burn off her body as easy as calories, and she’d come home to enabling.

You look great. You look so good. I’m so proud of you.

Those words were lighter fluid. She hid in plain sight and tried to lessen herself—lessen her body—while her family praised her for it.

“It starts off as a lack of control, which is why we try to control everything,” she said. “Controlling everything that I put in my body and trying to form myself into this idea I have. Like, going to the gym every day was something I could control, and if I missed it, my world would fall apart.”

It began with clothing; wearing things to accentuate the parts she liked and looser items to hide the parts she didn’t. Then came extensive cardio at the gym. Then it got to a point where she was restricting severely during the week, and when she was alone and no one was watching, she’d binge on the weekends.

She was trapped in a cycle of restricting and bingeing, saying no through the week and unable to say anything but yes on the weekends.

Her weight has fluctuated throughout the years, and she’s missed memorable moments because of the disorder. Senior prom is supposed to be one of the happiest teenage memories, but all she remembers is how her black prom dress didn’t fall in all the right places and screaming at her mom to stop snapping pictures.

 

Running, then recovery

She wanted to take some parts of her life back. Going into her first year at Carolina, she adjusted her mindset: Smaller, but healthier. The plan failed, and sophomore year she hit a low point. She studied abroad in Costa Rica to run away and get better.

Instead she ran head-on into her problems. She sat on the beautiful resorts of Costa Rica being totally consumed by everyone’s much smaller bodies. When she returned home, she knew that she needed help. Junior year, she began active recovery.

She walked up to the building marked “Still Frames Therapy and Wellness” as it seemingly towered over her. Here, she’d willingly visit a psychologist for the first time.

“It was tough, for sure super tough. Tougher than I thought it was going to be,” she said. “I had just been in denial for so long.”

But the inside was more comfortable. There were nice couches, white noise and her therapist was a black woman.

The office wasn’t quite home but it reminded her of feeling safe. Like when she’s in her white bedroom underneath her purple comforter, sneaking a glance at the reflection in the gigantic mirror she used to dread looking at every morning. Or when she sees Brooke Wheeler, a gym buddy-turned-best friend who’s recovering from anorexia nervosa. They met sophomore year and their friendship has been a journey of facing fear food, tackling gym milestones, and overwhelming support and love.

“We wish we would’ve met each other sooner, but we’re glad that we didn’t,” Brooke said, “because if we would’ve met each other when we were sick, our dynamic would’ve been completely different.”

 

Positivity and empowerment

Ari’s surrounded herself with people who’ve been positive to her recovery. Although her senior year has consisted of finding the parts of herself that she lost in her binge eating disorder, according to close friend, Brijea Daniel, there are still some things that never change.

“She’s definitely the positive friend,” she said. “Ari’s outlook on life is very positive all the time. She’s always there for us. She’s the mom of the group, and always making sure everybody’s good.”

For Halloween, her friend group dressed as the four seasons. It was no question that Ari would be spring because her “springy personality” was reminiscent of growth and new beginnings, Brijea said. Draped in light greenery and pastel blossoms and butterflies, Ari brought springtime to October.

Ari leads a Women in Weights class every Tuesday and Thursday evening in partnership with Campus Recreation. Although her journey to teach other women to lift has been empowering, her most powerful moment was maxing her squat at 225, with no one other than Brooke by her side.

This scale can only give you a numerical reflection of your relationship with gravity, That’s it. It cannot measure beauty, talent, purpose, life force, possibility, strength or love.   

Five months before she was officially diagnosed, Ari glanced at the Pinterest quote before leaving the caption empty and pressing the share button on Instagram for 1,442 followers to see. But the true receiver of that message was herself.

“I’m reminded that my body is a vessel,” she said. “It’s what’s in it that’s the most important thing.”

Her story is no glorified Lifetime movie, with decaying food in the closet or hopeless moments of dry heaving in the bathroom. It’s just a black girl trying to learn to love what her body can do, not what it looks like.

Once she was done talking, now sitting a little taller in front of all those white women who may or may not ever resonate with her story, Ari felt empowered that she shared it for the scattered brown girls in the crowd who may have never heard it otherwise.

 

Edited by Meredith Radford

 

‘Everything just began to click’: Finding a community in film, college and life

By Martha Bennett

Jacob Wishnek paused briefly in front of his computer to take a swig from his cappuccino. Readjusting his chair to get closer to the screen, he studied a scene from his latest short film, “College Kid,” in one of Swain Hall’s editing labs at UNC-Chapel Hill.

“There!” he blurted out, pointing to the screen. “Do you see that? Oh man, I love that.”

In this scene, the main character, Alex, walks through a parking lot while he listens to “Birds Don’t Sing” by the hypnotic-pop band, TV Girl. Syncopated to each cut, the beat of the song dictates every edit, going from shots of Alex’s feet to close-ups of his face.

Snapping his fingers and bobbing his beanie-wearing head, Wishnek smiled.

“This might be one of the things I’m most excited about,” he said. “I just wanna be sure I can get it right.”

He knows, though, as much as his friends do, that he won’t feel like he got it right.

“He’s always on the move, on the go, pushing forward,” cinematographer and friend Michael Sparks said. “He discounts nearly everything he does, which means he doesn’t always take pride or gain confidence from his achievements.”

A dedicated planner and perfectionist, Wishnek’s work ethic has been shaped by crowded sets where he couldn’t hear himself speak, 48-hour deadlines that made him vomit from getting no sleep and pages of rough drafts that would never make it to a read through.

“Perfection is not possible,” actor and friend Calliope George said. “But it is exciting to work alongside someone who shoots for the moon.”

Wishnek’s had a lot of practice shooting for the moon.

At just 22, Wishnek has been involved in over 60 film projects. From sci-fi fantasies to comedies, he’s developed a desire for telling stories and finding different ways to tell them.

But his passion didn’t begin with a typical movie experience. He has Alex Kim, and what might be the worst song of all time, to thank.

The ‘film guy’

Wishnek was 13-years-old when he opened his front door in Charlotte, N.C. to see Kim, his neighbor, knocking.

“Hey, have you seen Rebecca Black’s ‘Friday’?” Kim asked.

A high school student wanting some help, Kim proposed a parody project to Wishnek as an opportunity to get some laughs around school.

“We called it ‘Pi Day’ because March 14, or 3.14159 day,” Wishnek said. “And it kind of became viral.”

Using their parents’ camcorders, Wishnek helped Kim film an off-color music video that generated over 15,000 views on YouTube. The recognition was flattering, but Wishnek noticed something: The video sucked.

Wobbly frames, harsh lighting and odd angles all made Wishnek curious.

“That became my pastime,” he said. “Just researching how to make films. Whether that was with finding new equipment or just learning how to actually shoot things properly to up the production quality.”

There were other learning moments, too. A summer spent at the UNC School of the Arts gave him one of his most important ones.

“Moonrise Kingdom,” a 2012 film by Wes Anderson, was on a laundry list of movies to study for the summer. Known for his stylized form of filmmaking, “Moonrise” checks all the boxes for a typical Anderson film. A consistent color scheme, quirky humor and spanning landscapes paint a charming picture for anyone who sees it.

“I watched it and I was like, ‘Oh, film is art; that’s what this is,’” Wishnek said. “Everything just began to click.”

It wasn’t about cracking jokes — at least most of the time.

It was about finding beauty.

Whether visually on camera or emotionally through script, that’s what made a film engaging. That’s what made them worth making.

So Wishnek began to chase that beauty.

He became the “film guy” at school. Working from project to project, Wishnek always wanted to be busy, whether he was writing, directing or producing. Voted “Most Likely to Win an Oscar” his senior year and accepted into New York University’s prestigious dual business-film degree program, he felt he had paved a road to success.

But New York never happened. It could never happen.

With an annual tuition of over $75,000 and little financial aid, NYU was thrown out of the picture for the son of a network engineer and a business banker. He had to dream smaller, so he looked to the only in-state school he applied to.

“At first I was just trying to put this happy face on about UNC,” Wishnek said. “But deep down I just told myself I knew I would transfer.”

‘It’s okay to need a little more time and exploration, and we should normalize that’

Wishnek had found people with similar interests —even co-founded a student organization for filmmakers — but there was a disconnect. He lacked a community, and Ellie Teller was the person to see he needed one.

A year older and an acquaintance from high school, Teller found Wishnek in one of her classes her sophomore year. She saw a nice kid who always had a nervous smirk on his face, but he seemed lost. He reminded Teller of who she was a year ago.

“When I first came to UNC I had an older brother that was a senior, and spending time with him helped me engage with different communities at UNC,” Teller said. “I wanted to provide similar spaces for him to get out of his comfort zone and start enjoying UNC for all it had to offer.”

She took him to parties, introduced him to the media production major and even gave him his first beer. He may not have been in a big city, or enrolled in a flashy film school, but he began to realize he could belong somewhere. He could belong here.

“Our perceptions of college are that when you get there, everything will fall into place, but I don’t think that’s immediately true for many people,” Teller said. “It’s okay to need a little more time and exploration, and we should normalize that.”

This is what makes “College Kid” so personal for Wishnek to make — it’s about him.

A project four years in the making, the semi-autobiographical film traces Wishnek’s personal growth each year of college. Using musical and color motifs, the film mirrors what UNC-CH and filmmaking have taught him.

“In order to find happiness and fulfillment in your college experience, (in) life in general, you need to find and take part in your community,” Wishnek said.

“And that means putting in the work — doing something — to get there. The film industry is collaborative, not competitive. It’s the community of it all that makes a film thrive, and I think in life you have to find the same thing.”

As he scrolled through the last scene of “College Kid” on his screen, Wishnek spotted an error.

A scene between Alex and his friend Nathan, they’re sitting on a roof, looking at the night sky.

“See there?” Wishnek said, pointing to the screen. “You can see the boom pole’s shadow against the house.”

Embarrassed, he gritted his teeth as he watched the rest of the scene unfold.

“I just feel, in this moment, this sense of meaning,” Alex said to Nathan. “Nothing in particular. No one idea more significant than the other. Just…significance. And it’s a lot.”

Wishnek’s smile began to reappear.

Edited by: Madeleine Fraley 

UNC DiPhi carries on history of debate, one argument at a time

By Chapel Fowler

Sam Gee sat on the top floor of New West on Monday night, typing furiously as he scoured Google for a punchline.

At the podium in front of him, Luke De Mott was halfway down a rabbit hole already. During the formal debate portion of this Dialectic and Philanthropic Societies (DiPhi) meeting, designated senators met to argue in favor of or against that night’s topic at hand: were J.K. Rowling’s recent retroactive changes to her “Harry Potter” series illegitimate?

Once the floor was open, De Mott launched into a sarcastic rant. The senior Phi senator started off with a friendly jab, telling his rival Di senators they “don’t control fiction.” There’s no objective truth to imaginary worlds, he said, and no incorrect interpretations of art. It’s all up to the reader.

Gee’s typing stopped. He’d found his counterpoint. The sophomore Di senator shot his hand up from his third-row desk. Quoting the famous line from “Hamlet,” he said: “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.”

“So,” Gee said, “is it possible that Hamlet is set on Mars?”

“Well,” De Mott said, “Maybe Mars has a Denmark.”

And with that, the chambers of UNC’s oldest student organization erupted in laughter.

History of the society 

For 224 years, DiPhi has offered  students a platform for robust debate with competition and friendship on the side. In 2019, the society is a bit more modern than in decades prior, with a well-designed website, active social media pages and senators reading speeches off laptops. But the rich history, many procedures and the fundamental goals of DiPhi remain the same.

“I think a bunch of students having a bunch of opinions and wanting to share them on their own accord is a really cool thing,” said Katrina Smith, a senior and joint senate president this semester. “I don’t think there are many spaces like that, where students come here for fun to do this.”

DiPhi, established in 1795, has been involved in all kinds of UNC history. Most notably, the societies’ use of diploma ribbons — light blue for Dis, white for Phis — helped inspire UNC’s now-famous school colors. The societies, which merged into a joint senate in 1959, also operated as the student government for over a century. DiPhi helped shape the UNC Honor System and the Yackety Yack yearbook, among other campus institutions.

But if you take a trip to Room 310 in New West, the history of DiPhi and its participating students truly come to life.

The space itself is regal, with cream-colored walls, blue trim and four massive golden chandeliers. All of the furniture is wooden, save for a chair made of literal cow hide and cow horns. Portraits of famous DiPhi alumni and honorary members hang wherever they can fit.

“It’s so cool,” said Peyton Furtado, a junior and Phi’s president. “To just study in some of these chambers and realize that people like Thomas Wolfe, Joseph Caldwell, James K. Polk have all been in these rooms and have been doing basically the same thing we’re doing.”

The debate comes alive

Each meeting begins at 7:30 p.m. On this night, Jack Watson took the podium after a roll call. As the critic, he alerts speakers when their time is up by ringing a silver bell and critiques his fellow senators’ performances after debate ends.

DiPhi debates start with a resolution, or an opinionated statement. Senators then argue in favor of or against it. This particular night’s resolution revolved around Rowling, who recently tried to add extra information to the “Harry Potter” canon to mixed results. Watson smirked as he introduced the topic.

“First, she said Dumbledore was gay, and I said nothing, because sexuality is a spectrum and I can buy that,” he said. “Then, she said, ‘I never said Hermione wasn’t black,’ and I said, ‘That’s kind of a weird way to say that, but OK.’ And then, she said that wizards used to poop on the floor, and I could say nothing, because it was my fault for retweeting her for so long.”

The debate took off from there. Senators against Rowling’s decision offered strong arguments: that art can’t retroactively be changed, that Rowling should create new diverse art instead.

Those arguing for Rowling advocated just as intensely. One interesting point  brought up the question: Whether publication is the true cut-off point for a book, or is it just an artificial boundary placed on the author? All through the debate, senators snapped their fingers when they agreed with something, and they hissed loudly when they didn’t.

Among the structure and carefully curated arguments, though, there’s plenty of humor. Gee created his own obscene revision and joked that Dobby the elf had “a 10-inch rod.” Sophomore Mo Van de Sompel decided to push back on the idea that all interpretations of art are valid with an off-the-wall hypothetical.

“I choose to believe that The Very Hungry Caterpillar is not a white supremacist,” Van de Sompel said. “But if the author, Eric Carle, comes out tomorrow and says the caterpillar is a neo-Nazi, do I have to accept that?”

The fun continued into DiPhi’s other main staple — PPMAs, or papers, petitions, memorials and addresses. During this “signature free speech forum,” anyone can rant on whatever they want for up to five minutes. On this night, many chose comedy.

Senior Kristen Roehrig recounted the panic attack she had in a Washington, D.C., bathroom (“This will be a good story for an interview someday”). Watson, the critic, talked about how he discovered his inverted nipple (“Lefty goes in; righty goes out”). One senator told the story of a piece of cheese thrown so perfectly it landed inside someone’s pocket; another broke down the phenomenon of orange plastic Garfield telephones washing up on France’s beaches.

“We have lightheartedness in the serious,” sophomore Christina Barta said. “We also have seriousness in the lighthearted.”

The Rowling debate wasn’t exactly political. But political debates are frequent. Last month, six senators presented their argument for the best 2020 presidential candidate. In February, DiPhi hosted the second UNC student body president debate. Other topics that were tackled this semester included the two-child policy, how familiar Americans should be with the Bible and if wars have been beneficial to mankind.

There’s usually a quota — one science debate, one policy debate, one literary debate and so on — but Smith said DiPhi’s been more flexible this semester. Thanks to a wide array of majors and interests in the society, the balance between serious debates and more lighthearted ones “just ends up happening.”

Monday night’s meeting didn’t adjourn until past midnight, but, to no surprise, another DiPhi tradition held true. Senators made the short walk from campus to Linda’s Bar & Grill on Franklin Street for baskets of cheese fries.

They’ll be back at it again next week with a fresh topic: whether or not homeschooling should be abolished. They’ll be debating, like they have been for 225 years.

In the words of the DiPhi Facebook page: “The conversations don’t ever have to stop.”

Edited by Caroline Metzler and Nick Thompson

UNC-Chapel Hill students stand out as color-coordinated twins

By Chapel Fowler

Under Armour Havocs, with high tops and white laces. Golf caps, bought five years ago when the 2014 U.S Open came to their hometown of Pinehurst, N.C. Google Pixel 2 XL smartphones, with identical plastic cases.

Matthew and Luke Wheeler have fallen into this habit for years. As identical twins, it’s easy for them to buy and wear the same thing. And it makes gift buying a breeze.

But, when it comes to the Wheelers’ accessories, there’s one blatant difference: the color. Everything of Matthew’s is green. Everything of Luke’s is red.

For the past two years, this has turned the Wheelers into campus celebrities of sorts at UNC, where they’re both sophomore computer science majors.

They call it “color coding.” You can call it whatever you want. Just know it’s not for you, or professors, or attention, or anyone or anything else.

“We don’t necessarily do it to help other people,” Matthew said. “I do it because I like green.”

“And I like red,” Luke said.

The contrast is most evident when they’re together, which they almost always are. Matthew in green shoes and his green hat; Luke in red shoes and his red hat.

Color-Coded Beginnings

Their color preferences go back to elementary school, when the Wheelers had a brief and unsuccessful run in a rec basketball league. But ahead of the season, their parents let them pick out shoes. Matthew chose green, and Luke chose red.

They’ve been wearing color-coordinated basketball shoes ever since. The Wheelers were longtime Nike customers, but when they outgrew their last pair, they couldn’t find new ones of their preferred size and color. Thus, the switch to Under Armour.

“In middle school, people started mentioning, ‘Oh, just remember them by their shoes,’” Matthew said. “So it kind of gave us an excuse to say, ‘Hey, I want green shoes.’”

“It was a self-fulfilling system,” Luke said.

At West Pine Middle School, Matthew and Luke took an extracurricular class called Future City. In the program, students work on designing and creating their own miniature city dioramas. Their teacher, Ms. Hippenmeyer, had trouble telling them apart — even with the shoes.

So she came up with nicknames: Mint Matthew and Lava Luke.

The Wheelers still use them to this day. They even have them printed on clothing — thanks to a longtime tradition of their high school speech and debate team.

Every year, juniors at Pinecrest High School are tasked with getting gifts for departing seniors. When Matthew and Luke were seniors in 2017, a junior named Caleb printed their nicknames onto red and green T-shirts for them.

The words are in a collegiate font, white and bold and in the center of the shirts. Matthew and Luke keep them in their closets on the fourth floor of Cobb Residence Hall, where they room together. The shirts have very specific washing instructions, so they don’t get much use — except for special occasions, like the first day of classes.

“It usually spikes during the start of the school year,” Luke said. “People say, ‘Are you doing Mario and Luigi?’ Those kind of things. And then people just get kind of used to it.”

As Matthew is quick to point out, that Mario and Luigi nickname doesn’t even hold up well. Both sets of brothers have the same initials — M and L — but their colors are swapped. Mint Matthew doesn’t line up with the red Mario, and Lava Luke conflicts with the green Luigi. (The Wheelers are also identical twins; Mario and Luigi are just fraternal).

“For people who aren’t going to know us well, it’s fine,” Luke said. “But if you’re going to know us, it probably helps to not think that. If you remember us as ‘Mario and Luigi — but not,’ I guess that works.”

Campus Celebrities

Save for a few recitations, the Wheelers have had near-identical class schedules. Matthew and Luke’s colors usually don’t matter in large, impersonal lecture classes. But they have helped people differentiate between the two in smaller ones — except for a Spanish class last semester, where they think their professor was colorblind.

The coordination extends to basically everything the Wheelers do. Sophomore Casey Quam remembers the twins introducing themselves as Mint Matthew and Lava Luke on the first day of LFIT 110, a beginning swimming course. They wore red and green swim trunks and goggles the entire semester.

“It was definitely something neat to tell friends about, and we never forgot who was who,” Quam said. “It’s been fun to see them walking around campus since then and see that they’ve kept it up.”

Matthew and Luke’s commitment to green and red isn’t hard and fast, though. They only own a few T-shirts in each color and one pair of gym shorts. No pants or socks. Matthew’s been trying to find a green jacket. Luke can’t track down a red Yankees hat for the life of him.

Their usual coordination — just hats and shoes — pales in comparison to sophomore Benjamin Davis, who has dressed head to toe in yellow since the first day of his freshman year.

Ironically, Matthew and Luke lived just one floor under Davis last year at Graham Residence Hall. They’ve never met, but Davis(known as the Yellow Guy) said the Wheelers’ color choice is “amazing.”

“I think it’s beautiful,” he said. “I love that we have this culture where everyone can just have their own individual thing and somehow get recognized for it.”

Colors aside, the Wheelers are huge fans of video games. Luke plays “Overwatch” on UNC’s official team within Tespa, a college esports organization. Matthew is a bit more casual, sticking to some “Super Smash Bros” or “Dungeons & Dragons” on the side.

Looking (and Color-Coordinating) Ahead

Ideally, they’d work within North Carolina and in the same area after graduation. Both aspire for a job in programming, like their older brother John, or even better, in video game design.

If their offices have a formal dress code, Matthew and Luke have a solution: green and red ties, just like they wore in speech and debate tournaments. Even if they don’t live or work near each other, they still think the coordination can live on.

“It’s just our favorite color,” Luke said. “So it’s technically independent of the other one.”

Until then, they plan on rooming together and wearing their respective colors for the rest of college. They’ll keep walking around campus, almost step for step, and eating similar food in Lenoir Dining Hall: burgers, chicken nuggets and especially fries.

Matthew and Luke haven’t heard any negative comments yet. More frequently, a student will approach them and admit: “Hey, I’ve got to at least talk to you once.” Some will swear they’ve seen the Wheelers, who are sophomores, around campus for the last three years.

Matthew and Luke both find that claim hilarious. As they laugh and smile, they reveal the braces they wear. When those braces were put on about two years ago, each twin was offered a selection of rubber band colors.

You’ll never guess what Mint Matthew and Lava Luke chose.

Edited by Johnny Sobczak

UNC-CH’s Persian Cultural Society celebrates the rebirth of spring

By Mitra Norowzi

The year is 1397. Hundreds gather in the Great Hall to feast and be merry. Lively music reverberates throughout the vast room, ringing out into the hallways.

Guests embrace one another, celebrating spring’s long-anticipated arrival. Just days before, they had chanted before fires, coaxing it out of winter’s darkness.

As they stop to admire the decorations, they reach for their smartphones to snap a few quick photos.

While 1397 has just begun in Iran and Afghanistan because they follow a solar calendar, the majority of the world following the Gregorian calendar is already well into 2018.

The new year was marked by the spring vernal equinox on March 20, and was celebrated by about 300 million people around the world, including the Triangle’s Persian community at the UNC-Chapel Hill’s Persian New Year party hosted by UNC-CH’s Persian Cultural Society.

The Persian New Year, or Nowruz, is the biggest holiday of the year for Iranians. Translating to “new day” in Farsi, the Persian language, Nowruz is a celebration of the rebirth of spring and the new possibilities it brings.

Reflecting on Nowruz

Fatemeh Sadeghifar, a student at North Carolina State University, moved to North Carolina from Tehran, Iran, about eight years ago. As a child in Iran, the anticipation of Nowruz buzzed weeks before the actual day as families prepared for the holiday, much like the frenzy felt here in America the entire month of December before Christmas.

She remembers the excitement she felt waiting for the exact moment of the equinox. It changes every year, and the different timings were fun for her, especially the years where the equinox was in the night, and she’d be allowed to stay up late.

In Iran, she recalls, this moment would erupt in outpourings of joy and celebration felt and heard by everyone, whether they were at home, out in the street or at school or work.

“The first day of Nowruz [here], I just went to school,” Sadeghifar said. “No one else knew what it was.”

As a kid, she would receive eidi, which are gifts and often money. And her family would set the Haft-Seen table, which is central to the celebration of Nowruz.

The Haft-Seen setting includes seven objects beginning with “seen,” the Persian character for “S,” with each representing a hope or aspiration for the coming year. Many Haft-Seen tables, like the one attendees of UNC’s Nowruz celebration were greeted with, also include books of Persian poetry, live or fake goldfish and a mirror.

Guests flood into the Great Hall

Entering guests were welcomed by tables serving hot, black tea and baklava, a sweet and flaky Mediterranean pastry. The baklava line remained unclogged and in motion, but the line for tea quickly grew until it snaked along two adjacent walls of the Student Union’s massive Great Hall. For people from a tea-obsessed culture, this line might have represented the only axis of evil that Iranian-Americans will recognize.

While the rest of the night’s guests arrived, those already seated at their tables enjoyed conversation with friends new and old over Persian sweets served family-style such as tiny rice flour cookies topped with small, black poppy seeds, sweet and chunky walnut cookies and delicate paisley-shaped coconut cookies.

Iranian guests, particularly the adults, served their seatmates by passing around the platter of treats, practicing the tradition of ta’arof, a practice of courtesy that involves excessive offering and deference. To non-Iranians, this looks a lot like arguing, but ta’arof is considered the proper conduct to demonstrate respect.

Tables also had fresh fruit and dried nuts, typical pre-meal refreshments at Iranian events or dinner parties for snacking before the performances and dinner.

Students were present, but the majority of seated guests appeared to be local families. UNC-CH junior Rose Jackson, a member of the school’s Persian Cultural Society and an organizer of the night’s festivities, said although the annual celebration is a student-led event, the larger Iranian community is active and is eager to be involved.

“So what was initially a student event had a lot of community support, so it became this kind of intergenerational setup,” Jackson said.

Throughout the night, Jackson and her peers scuttled about like worker ants to make sure everything ran smoothly. Jackson served double-duty as a master of ceremonies and a food runner. She even had to step in last minute as a backup DJ. But the hard work had a high payoff, she said.

“I’m Iranian, so it’s important for me to celebrate my culture myself, but also it’s important for me to create a place where other people can celebrate my culture whether it’s other Iranians or people who aren’t familiar with the culture but want to be,” Jackson said.

The celebration begins

The night’s program began with an introduction by Jackson and her fellow UNC-CH students explaining the history of Nowruz for those unfamiliar with the holiday.

The performances honored Iran’s past traditions, but also honored the contemporary culture of Iran’s present, where youth outnumber the old.

A haunting rendition of the contemporary Persian love song, “Soltane Ghalbha,” was performed on piano, violin and guitar. The music began softly at first, but soon became sweeping as the vocals entered the mix.

But those looking for a more authentic musical performance were not disappointed with the lively tanbur solo of the traditional song, “Ey Sareban,” performed by Mohsen Bahrami. The traditional long-necked string instrument crooned and trilled, thumping at the heart of the audience. Many of the audience’s older members waved their arms slowly, quietly singing along.

Jackson said many older Iranians were either expelled from the country or made the difficult choice to leave due to unrest.

“It’s an important event when you aren’t allowed to go back to your own country to be allowed to celebrate this still,” she said.

Fostering understanding

Sara Hosseini, a student at Campbell University, traveled all the way from Buies Creek, North Carolina, to Chapel Hill to perform a traditional poetry reading alongside Duke University professor Amir Rezvani.

The pair demonstrated Iran’s rich history of poetry and literature with their recitation of “Spring is Here,” a classical poem by 13th-century poet Rumi. Each verse was read first in Farsi by Rezvani, and then in English by Hosseini.

“The Persian Cultural Society president asked me if I could do it, and I gladly said yes because Dr. Rezvani is a wonderful man, and the poem was very beautiful, too, about two flowers speaking,” Hosseini said. “I jumped at the moment to do anything to help. Every year, I always come. UNC’s Persian Cultural Society does an excellent job — by far the best in North Carolina — and I wouldn’t miss it ever.”

Hosseini, who is half-Persian and half-Polish, said Nowruz is the time she feels most connected to her Persian roots. Celebrating the holiday and contributing to it by performing was also important to Hosseini to foster more understanding among Americans.

“There’s so many stereotypes and misconceptions about Persian culture and Iran,” Hosseini said. “And if people could just take a second to try and connect and understand and learn about the culture, they’d be pleasantly surprised, and I think they’d really enjoy Persian culture as well.”

The welcoming dance floor

Following the performances was a dinner of aromatic parsley and eggplant stews, searing lamb kabobs and fragrant rice flavored with saffron catered by Flame Kabob, a Persian restaurant in Raleigh.

Then, the lights were turned off in favor of a disco ball, and Persian pop music boomed out from speakers. Everyone took off for the dance floor.

Non-Iranian student Joshua Pontillo came to the celebration with some Iranian friends to learn more about their culture. He felt awkward being dragged out onto the floor and dancing to unfamiliar music in an unfamiliar style, but he found the dance floor full of Iranians to be welcoming.

“One older gentlemen told me I was a natural,” he said.

For Pontillo, observing the Persian New Year as an American was a rewarding experience, and he hopes other Americans will engage with Persian cultural traditions, too.

“I think people can come out and learn a lot, especially when modern politics is so critical of Iran,” he said.

His one disappointment?

“I was upset that I couldn’t try the Persian baklava, which I’ve heard is better — apparently they served more Greek-style baklava,” Pontillo said.

Edited by Adam Phan

Changing sisterhood: sorority allows bids to transgender women

 

By Sophie Whisnant

The carpet leading into the Gaylord Texan Resort in the Dallas suburb of Grapevine was obnoxiously, unapologetically Texas; woven into the fabric was a pattern of cowboy boots, horseshoes and Texas flags.

Three young women from UNC-Chapel Hill followed the custom carpet runner to a conference room for the final dinner of the three-day national meeting of Tri Delta leadership. They expected yet another three-course meal shared with hundreds of their sorority sisters from across the United States and Canada.

Exhausted from a full day of meetings and leadership training workshops, they instinctively headed for a table in the back, content to finally be alone with a delicious raspberry cheesecake. The plan? Eat the Gaylord’s cheesecake, zone out during the dinner speech, and check their Snapchats instead.

But when National Tri Delta President Kimberlee Sullivan started talking, the UNC-CH delegation — and everyone else — forgot all about cheesecake and Snapchat.

Starting immediately, Tri Delta was officially changing its policy to allow chapters to grant bids to potential new members who identify as female, not just those who were assigned female at birth.

Cheesecake hung on forks suspended in the air.

It was about time, said Amy Queen, UNC-CH Tri Delta vice president of chapter development.

“The room just kind of burst into claps,” Queen said. “Everybody seemed really excited that an organization founded so long ago could keep up with current changes in our society.”

Making changes to tradition.

Mirroring change isn’t something always associated with sorority life, particularly in the South. Tri Delta was founded in 1888 at Boston University, but its headquarters have always been located in Texas. It was the first sorority to create a non-discrimination policy, which has protected people of any race, sexual orientation, religion or ability. But an update of this magnitude, coming from the Bible Belt, signifies a greater step toward inclusivity for Tri Delta chapters across the country.

“It made me happier to be a member,” said Abby Mueller, UNC-CH Tri Delta vice president of finance.

Returning to their rooms in the sprawling Gaylord Texan resort, which, oddly had a jungle theme, the Tri Delta reps were energized.

“Everybody was pretty proud of an organization that could take change like that,” said Queen. “I think it was progressive that Tri Delt [is doing this before] some other sororities.”

Mueller said she expects the change to sit well with her sorority sisters at UNC-CH.

“Our chapter is more open and diverse, a lot more so than other chapters,” she said.

But UNC-CH business and political science major Meredith Freeland wouldn’t say the sorority is diverse. Freeland, who dropped out of Tri Delta at UNC-CH last year after three and a half years, doesn’t see the change having any impact on the way Greek life operates on campus.

“I don’t think it means much at all,” she said. “A policy can say anything without doing much. It’s like with racial diversity. Obviously Tri Delta’s policies allow for members of all colors but the reason we don’t see much diversity in many chapters is because allowing for diversity is different from encouraging it.”

Freeland said sororities are still viewed as places of homogeneity—“people who look, feel and think differently are made uncomfortable.”

“This is exactly what drew me to Tri Delta in my recruitment: I was told ‘all the girls here are so different and unique, nothing is the same about everyone. Some sororities have a stereotype but I can’t think of ours. Well, maybe we all own a pair of Converses.’ That really spoke to me,” Freeland said. “Disrupting the pattern is hard. Who wants to be the gender non-conforming person to join a sorority grounded in historic womanhood?”

Bringing the changes home.

As they returned to campus, Queen and Mueller discussed how the change was great, but might not be relevant to the Chapel Hill recruitment process.

UNC-CH photojournalism major Alice Hudson considered rushing as a freshman but wasn’t impressed by the diversity of sorority membership.

“A lot of top tier sororities don’t have a lot of racial inclusivity,” she said. “A trans person might get a bid but I’d be surprised if they went through with it.”

“I just think it would be really hard for them to be among the only trans people within a cisgender group that has such a deep rooted history and traditional set of values,” Hudson said.

But Freeland is somewhat hopeful.

“I think this is really a good step…language is powerful,” she said. “The way we talk about things matters.”

From talking comes policy change, she said, “it opens the door for the conversation and forbids outright discrimination.”

Although she dropped out of Tri Delta in her senior year, Freeland said the experience was beneficial.

“I got a lot out of my time in a sorority but …my world became so small, so white, so wealthy,” she said. “All of my friends looked like me.”

The Greek culture hasn’t been historically receptive to the LGBT community. Freeland remembers a male friend who was gay but adamant that anyone who knew about his sexuality keep it a secret because he was afraid he wouldn’t get any bids.

“This is obviously troubling for a million reasons,” she said.

Resistance to change.

Back in Grapevine the morning after the news, chapter presidents met to start their final training session. The leader of the sessions had been calm and serene, until this morning when her complexion was flushed and there was panic in her voice.

After the bomb had dropped the night before, her inbox was flooded with emails from Tri Delta adult volunteers, outraged at the updated policy. She asked the group to talk amongst themselves so she could get some work done.

The presidents weren’t nearly as frazzled as their adult leader. Some discussed their indifference with the change. But most expressed their excitement for it, saying they couldn’t wait to go home and tell their chapters.

As Queen packed up and headed home to Chapel Hill she thought about what the new policy would mean for her chapter.

“I feel like people in our sorority would say they are in full support of this change,” she said. “But if we ever had a trans person rush, they would 10/10 drop them.”

 

Edited by David Fee

A scorpion, bearded dragon and Byrd: One UNC-CH student’s journey to vet-hood

Courtney Byrd poses for a portrait in front of a collage of animals. Byrd dreams of being a vet one day and has found outlets at UNC-Chapel Hill to fulfill her love of animals. Photo by Mimi Tomei.

By Mimi Tomei

Orion skirts across the palms of Courtney Byrd’s hands.

Byrd has held snakes around her neck and seen an octopus feeding off the shadowy coastline of St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands at twilight. But still, Orion, a black forest scorpion, makes Byrd’s hands gently tremble.

Byrd delicately avoids Orion’s two large pincers, which resemble pointy oven mitts, and the venomous stinger at the end of his tail. Orion’s sting is only about as harmful as that of a bee or hornet, but he still doesn’t seem like a cute and cuddly animal used to teach children about wildlife.

Byrd doesn’t treat him much differently than she would any other animal. She approaches him with respect.

“It felt just like holding a hermit crab, (but) the legs were a little bit spikier and sharper,” Byrd said.

A WISE place for peace

Orion is one of the animals 19-year-old Byrd works with in Carolina Wildlife Information and Science Education, or WISE, a group that creates wildlife education programs to bring to local schools and community organizations.

When all her activities and classes stress her out, Byrd finds solace in WISE and its animals. WISE’s home — a small, dark room in Wilson Hall — contains shelves and tables holding various animal enclosures and a mini fridge filled with fruits and vegetables – and mice and worms.

“Yesterday, I was sitting in the library doing chemistry. I actually like (organic chemistry) so far, but I was like, ‘this kind of sucks. I don’t want to do this,’” Byrd said. “So I just went to the WISE lab and sat on the floor, and it was kind of peaceful, just being around the animals.”

She was surrounded by Ruth the box turtle and Murphy the bearded dragon, who live in large enclosures on the floor. Other residents of the lab include snakes, toads and even a tarantula named Scout.

Finding her place

Byrd is a sophomore at UNC-Chapel Hill studying biology. She has loved animals her entire life and hopes to turn this passion into a career as a vet.

Her road to vet-hood isn’t an easy one. Getting into vet school after college is difficult, since there are only around 40 doctorate vet programs nationwide. UNC-CH lacks both an undergraduate vet program and dedicated pre-vet advisers. The biology major at UNC-CH is intense and involves many chemistry classes, which Byrd finds challenging.

But Byrd has found her niche at UNC-CH.

In addition to Byrd and her roommate Emily, two yet-unnamed hermit crabs reside in Teague Residence Hall. The creatures inhabit a large glass aquarium, where they live comfortably, alongside a small, plastic palm tree and with various places for them to hide and dig in several layers of pebbles and sand.

The crabs have access to fresh and salt water. Situated inside their home are sponges, strategically placed so the crabs can get a drink without drowning in their water bowls. They have special hermit crab food, which Byrd supplements with bits of produce she sometimes brings them from the dining hall salad bar.

“Last night, we had a fire drill at like 11 p.m., and one of my first thoughts was, ‘get the hermit crabs,’” Byrd said. “I think if there really was a fire, I’d get them first, as opposed to my laptop and everything.”

‘It’s not just cute animals’

Byrd participates in the UNC-CH Pre-Veterinary Club, which brings veterinary guest speakers to campus and helps students navigate the vet school application process by sharing resources and opportunities. The club is a small but supportive community, according to Vice President Simone McCluney.

While home for winter break, Byrd found a drawing she made as a child of her wearing a lab coat and treating a dog, surrounded by bottles of medicine and syringes.

As a college student, Byrd has found herself in this environment often as she has shadowed vets in both Chapel Hill and Wilmington. Although she hopes to become an exotic animal vet, Byrd draws inspiration from the companion animal vets she worked with, particularly Dr. Charles Miller at Triangle Veterinary Medicine in Chapel Hill. She’s observed many procedures with Miller.

With gauze in her medical glove-clad hands, Byrd has held a stomach in place during a gastropexy, a type of surgery that involves stitching the stomach inside an animal’s abdomen. Byrd even got to cut the stitches at the end of a spaying procedure.

“I felt like a surgeon,” Byrd said.

The experience of shadowing, in addition to cleaning animal habitats at the Duke Lemur Center and working with lab mice and toads at the UNC School of Medicine, has taught Byrd that being a vet is more than just playing with animals.

“I liked it when I was little because of cute animals, but now I’m realizing that it’s not just cute animals,” Byrd said.  “It’s also medicine and a lot of science and chemistry involved, and surgery, which is bloody and gross.

“Obviously, it’s a lot of time commitment, since it takes up so much of your life, which I’m definitely starting to realize,but I’m definitely still interested — even after all that.”

Nothing new

Molly Sprecher, a photojournalism major at UNC-CH and one of Byrd’s suitemates, created a photo story on Byrd. Sprecher witnessed the relationships Byrd created with many of her animals as she followed Byrd around to all of her activities.

“There were a lot of moments where I had a hard time getting a good photo because she wanted to play with the animals and was constantly telling me all the things she knew about them,” Sprecher said.

Byrd’s ability to emotionally connect to animals isn’t new though.

When she was in third grade at Parsley Elementary School in Wilmington, Byrd bought a stuffed polar bear. She got the stuffed animal­ as a memento, hoping to preserve in her memory what her favorite animal looked like in case it went extinct in her lifetime.

“I wanted to have something to remember them by, to show my kids, ‘This is what bears used to look like that lived when I lived.’”

Edited by Ana Irizarry

Women make their mark: tattooing industry no longer a man’s game

By Leah Asmelash

Tattoos have increased in popularity over the last few years, as stigmas against body art have decreased in both social environments and the workplace. Although the artistic tradition has a long history in many indigenous cultures, the art form is most known in western culture as a symbol of the counter-movement, particularly in the ‘90s. They were sported by a crowd most parents didn’t necessarily want their kids to be around: punk skaters, gang members and convicts, usually all men.

Tattooing, in general, was a boy’s club. A woman with a tattoo was rare; a woman tattooing was unheard of. Now, people with tattoos come from all walks of life and from all genders, as do tattoo artists. So, what has changed in the last few decades, and why are people increasingly drawn to tattoos?

Boy’s Club

Heather Harlow, owner of Divine Moment Tattoo in Burlington, N.C., has been tattooing for 11 years. When she started, she said the industry lived up to its status as a boy’s club and was sexist towards women, but it has changed over the course of her career.

“I was maybe the first or second lady that actually did conventions on the East Coast,” Harlow said, while recalling her earlier days. “So a lot of people were just really rude to me, but I stayed strong and I knew they were going to make fun of me. I just knew that I didn’t care if I was a female or not. I loved art and I loved tattooing and I loved people.”

Now Harlow only hires women artists, in part because she felt mortified by how women tattoo artists were treated in the past. They were called curtain-hangers, a term signifying someone who should only go into the shop to hang curtains to make the space look pretty, rather than tattooing. Still, Harlow said it has gotten easier for women to enter the tattoo industry, and they have helped change and evolve the industry as a result.

“In the long run it probably has more to do with there’s not much competition,” she said. “Everyone has found a niche. There’s so many different types of tattooing now that anybody can do anything now. A lot of females are good for watercolors and stuff like that, more color. Guys hate doing that.”

Evolving Industry

Meghan Thayer owns Ascension Tattoo in Chapel Hill, N.C. Her shop, which is located on West Franklin Street between a smoke shop and a CD/record store, is more spacious than it seems upon first inspection. The front door opens into a tall staircase — the entire shop is on the second floor. The space is organized, with one room for piercing and one room for tattooing. The rooms are blocked off from the front desk area with a black curtain. The sun peering through the window casts shadows over the space, but Thayer doesn’t seem to mind. She leaves the lights off.

Thayer has only been tattooing for six years, but she’s always loved the art form, getting her first tattoo as soon as she turned 18. Although she never set out to be a tattoo artist, she has always been a creative person.

She said the tattoo industry is still dominated by men, but, like Harlow, she believes it’s evolving as more women begin tattooing.

“I think there’s been enough women who have been in the industry for a while now that there’s sort of this big enough group of women tattoo artists who new women tattooers can look up to,” Thayer said. “They’re becoming leaders in the industry, and it is starting to kind of balance out.”

Thayer also said women are going back to the older roots of tattooing, beyond the traditional style of the 20th century that has more masculine characteristics.

“People are getting back to more of like the healing aspect of things and the spiritual aspect of it,” Thayer said. “And while I see both male and female artists doing that, there’s definitely a feminine quality in that.”

A Growing Art Form

Sarah Peacock, owner of Artfuel Tattoo Shop and Art Gallery in Wilmington, N.C., has been tattooing for 22 years. Having working in the industry for so long, she’s  part of an older generation of tattoo artists, and she disagrees with both Harlow and Thayer on the role of women in the tattoo industry.

“I don’t think you can look at a particular style and say women definitely prefer to do that,” Peacock said, referencing differences in style between men and women tattoo artists.

Instead, Peacock said the new styles rising in popularity now are due to the influx of artists taking an interest in tattooing, not more women tattooing.

“Tattooing has gone into the hands of these people that have pushed the envelope, and they’ve brought so many different styles in, from graphic novels to fine art to computer art,” Peacock said.

All of the women, however, agree that the industry has changed drastically in the past few years, with more and more people getting tattoos. They no longer symbolize a rebel status like they used to. Instead, they have become a part of mainstream popular culture.

“Different types of people have been a little bit more okay with getting tattooed lately, in the past four to five years,” Harlow said. “I think what changed it was the media. If it’s on TV, it’s okay.”

Shifting Trends

Peacock first began to notice the change when her clientele shifted. She began to get to know people in the medical field or in law enforcement who were interested in tattooing, the types of people who did not express an interest before.

“What I suddenly realized is that I was being viewed as a successful business owner, aside from being a tattooer,” Peacock said. “So suddenly, I’m validated. I’m okay for someone to talk to me and take me into their group that aren’t necessarily into tattooing. And that was kind of weird.”

Peacock called the shift a turning point in her career. After only associating with fellow tattoo artists, she wasn’t used to attention from individuals outside of the industry.

Thayer agreed that tattoo culture has become more popular recently due to the influence of media, but she said the political climate may have something to do with the recent increase as well.

“Throughout history, there’s been surges of an increase of tattooing, and they tend to follow really politically turbulent times,” Thayer said. “I think we’re definitely in another one of this cycles, like we were in the ‘20s and ‘30s, and again in the ‘60s and ‘70s. We’re here again. It’s a way for people to take control of themselves. So I think that’s what’s really going on at the core of it.”

Express Yourself

Harlow said that people are drawn towards tattoos as a way to express themselves, not necessarily an expression of rebellion anymore.

“We have so many different types of people, and there’s so many humans on this planet that we’re trying to find a way to express ourselves and stand out,” Harlow said. “I think it’s a change of consciousness. People want to be able to be different and express themselves.”

Breast cancer patients have also become a large clientele for tattoo artists. Nipple tattoos help women feel better after mastectomies, when the breast and the nipple are removed, Harlow said.

“I can tattoo them and make them look 3-D, and they feel better with that,” she said. “As long as society is okay with it, it’s okay for people to get it.”

Peacock, who has also tattooed women after mastectomies, said tattooing breast cancer patients changed how people viewed her. She was no longer just a tattoo artist, but someone who was helping women by doing something surgeons couldn’t do.

For women especially, Thayer said tattoos help with self-esteem, even outside of mastectomies.

“(Women) have been told we’re not enough of something,” she said. “You’re too tall, you’re too short, you’re too thin, you’re too fat, you’re too whatever. You’re something.

“I see as people get tattoos, they start to accept themselves for who they are,” Thayer said. “And to stand up in front of the mirror and just love yourself, love the way you look, is such a powerful thing.”

Looking Forward

Women have gone through a long journey in the tattoo industry. Some are like Peacock, they’ve been in the industry forever with few problems, but others are Harlow and have been discriminated against based on their gender. In the end, there are more women now than ever before, women like Thayer who began tattooing just in the last few years, making their mark on the tattooing world.

The industry — whether it is because of the media, the political climate, the desire for self-expression or breast cancer — continues to grow in popularity among both men and women. And despite whether they are giving a tattoo or receiving it, women are, and have always been, a huge part of the tattoo industry.

Edited by Sarah Muzzillo

Raging Grannies bring decades of activism to HKonJ march

By Molly Weybright

Fayetteville Street brimmed with people on Feb. 11, 2017 as the crowd for the Moral March on Raleigh seeped into the adjoining streets like water into cracked concrete. It was nearly impossible to move without bumping into another person.

But the agitation that often develops in overcrowded spaces was missing. In its place was an incredibly powerful feeling of togetherness. As people of all ages, races, sexualities and ethnicities gathered in the streets of Raleigh, cries of “forward together, not one step back” echoed off the towering buildings.

Over the sea of people floated homemade signs promoting everything from transgender rights to an end to racial gerrymandering. One sign read: “I’m not LGBTQ, black, Muslim, poor, disabled or a woman. I’m a privileged white male who believes in liberty and justice for all.” That idea of standing up for one another pervaded the morning.

Hope, empowerment, positivity, power, opportunity, progress, unity, justice, inspiration, equality and moral resistance. Those are the words that crowd members said best described the idea of the 11th annual Historic Thousands on Jones Street – known as HKonJ – People’s Assembly Coalition.

The first HKonJ was held in 2007 under the leadership of North Carolina NAACP President, the Rev. William J. Barber II. At the beginning, the coalition consisted of just 16 organizations. During the next 11 years, the coalition grew to include over 125 NAACP branches and over 200 organizations.

There were around 3,500 attendees at the first march in 2007. That number grew considerably to about 80,000 attendees in 2014, and according to the organizers, February 2017 saw HKonJ’s largest crowd yet.

Within that massive crowd was a group of grannies – Raging Grannies to be exact.

Picture3
Protesters show off homemade signs at the march in Raleigh.

The Grannies

Young and old alike gathered in Raleigh to make a difference; at one end of that spectrum was Vicki Ryder.

Vicki is part of a group known as the Raging Grannies. The Grannies began in Canada, and today there are around 100 “gaggles” of Grannies around the world that attend marches and protests to stand up for everything from environmental protection to voting rights.

At 74 it’s safe to say that Vicki has seen her fair share of strife and struggle in the United States. She marched for the first time at 12 years old in the Youth March for Integrated Schools and again in 1963 at the March on Washington where she heard Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

She has marched in HKonJ every year since she moved to Durham in 2012 and finds that every year there are more and more reasons to march.

“All of these struggles are connected,” she said. “They’re all part of a systemic ‘dis-ease’ in our country, and we can either run around putting out every little brushfire, or we can look at the bigger picture.”

Jade Dell, a 71-year-old Raging Granny from Raleigh, said that since losing her husband – her “social activist partner” – the Grannies have helped filled his role.

She said that she loved how the march was “a real fusion movement.” Barber, she said, always makes sure to include every group fighting for justice, which makes the march more powerful.

“Many groups I have been with in the past leave somebody out,” she said. “[HKonJ] is crucial, as together we are stronger and more vocal.”

Gann Herman, 67, from Durham echoed Jade’s thoughts on the importance of unity. Gann joined the Triangle’s Granny gaggle in 2013 and has attended HKonJ since. She said she is always impressed with the resonating sense of community.

However, she said that it felt like this year’s march had a more diverse and populous turnout.

“This one was especially electric because of the election of Trump,” she said. “There were many people who turned up who hadn’t come to earlier ones.”

Part of the Grannies’ staple is that they sing songs to express their ideas and promote activism. Vicki writes most of those songs, including the song they sang at HKonJ.

To the tune of “Oh, Susannah” the song’s chorus says:

“People power! Together we will stand!

And reclaim our rights with all our might

Across this troubled land!”

Vicki said that the songs help her focus on what is important. She noted that the HKonJ song didn’t include any mention of President Trump because she feels that even though he is part of the issues, attacking him will get people nowhere.

Picture1
Marchers stand on Fayetteville Street facing the Capitol while listening to the speakers of the day, including the Rev. William J. Barber II.

A national climate

In previous years, the march has largely focused on state issues, such as the anti-LGBT House Bill 2 – commonly known as the bathroom bill – in 2016. But this year, in response to the Trump administration and its many controversial policies and promises, the march’s focus took a national turn.

Enactments by the Trump administration such as the refugee ban, which restricts access to the United States from seven predominantly Muslim countries including Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Libya, Yemen and Somalia, and his promises to end federal funding for Planned Parenthood, are what sparked many to march on Saturday.

Barber was the backbone of the march. With his speeches, he heartened and encouraged the crowd, telling them not to give up.

Every individual in the crowd, he said, will play a role in bringing the country back to the moral high ground it once rested on; though the issues may seem divisive and singular, they are more encompassing and overarching than one may think.

“The decisions are bigger than left vs. right, conservative vs. liberal, democrat vs. republican,” he said. “Some things are about right vs. wrong.”

Barber said that HKonJ is more than just a once-a-year gathering of people; it is a place where people can stand up for the ideas of freedom and equality that they fight for every day under an oppressive administration.

Gloria Chamblee, a marcher from from Virginia, said that she was encouraged to march for the first time at HKonJ because of both the national climate, and the international climate as well.

“[People] have been protesting all over the world,” she said. “If they can, and they don’t even live in the country, I can.”

That unity – statewide, national and international – created an atmosphere of togetherness in Raleigh.

The Raging Grannies’ song reflected that idea of unity when they sang, “We have come together, black and white, and tan, and red and brown, to say that we’re not gonna let the fascists beat us down.”

Vicki Ryder said that she saw more signs of resistance from a greater number of people at this year’s march.

“The results of the last election have mobilized people who ordinarily would be perhaps more complacent,” she said. “There was a lot more attention being paid to the big picture.”

That bigger picture is not a new one. The crowd was reminded that over the last century, the nation has seen countless violations to human rights and people have fought and overcome them, just as the marchers seek to do now.

Moving forward

HKonJ showed the degree to which people are in unrest about the current state of the nation. People are not pleased with an administration that Gann Herman described as “stingy” and “wrongheaded.”

But, what can be done to move forward in the face of these national issues?

According to Vicki Ryder, people have to keep fighting.

“We fight them in the streets, we fight them in the courts, we fight them in Congress,” she said. “On all fronts, we have to be vigilant and we have to be vocal and we have to be strong.”

Vicki was echoing Barber’s sentiment that now more than ever is the time to stand up and fight; now is not the time to stand down.

If Martin Luther King Jr. had ceded when he was faced with adversity, how much longer would the country have been segregated?

If Gloria Steinem had decided not to fight for women’s rights, how many fewer female faces would young girls today see in positions of power?

In the moment, many activists’ views are seen as extreme and unnecessary, Barber said, but more often than not, those views are what help move the nation forward into a new class of equal rights.

“The radical ideas of one generation often become common sense of the next,” Barber said.

Historically, that has held true; and for all intents and purposes it will hold true in the future.

But, it’s not just the young people who are making a difference – it’s the Vicki Ryders and the Gann Hermans and the Jade Dells.

It’s the people who have seen true strife and struggle in person rather than just having read about it in books. It’s the people who can reassure upcoming activists that while their efforts may feel futile, perseverance makes all the difference. It’s the people with a lifetime of experience that can take themselves out of the issues and see that unity and persistence will prevail.

Jade Dell has witnessed 71 years of people overcoming perceivably impossible odds.

“Over the years, I have noticed that while a cause is ‘sexy’ people participate, then they go back to their normal lives,” she said. “But now, there is no ‘normal life.’ Everything has changed.”

She said that for the sake of her grandchildren, her grandchildren’s children and their children after that, the country and the world will have to change.

Edited by Bridget Dye

Pain and resilience: A refugee’s journey to North Carolina

By Luke Bollinger

Zubair Rushk is not the typical student at UNC-Chapel Hill. He’s not a typical U.S. citizen. Zubair is from Syria, but he fled the country to escape persecution from the Bashar al-Assad regime. His body is a representation of the experiences of his early life. He walks with a limp from a childhood disease. His glasses sit crooked on his nose, a result of it having been broken multiple times. At times he flashes back to traumatic events, something no amount of therapy can fully mitigate.

Zubair was resettled in Durham in 2010. Since then, he has built a good life for himself. Zubair considers himself lucky to have landed in Durham, as the Triangle has proven to be a welcoming and accommodating place for refugees with numerous organizations devoted to easing the transition and creating fulfilling lives for them. Despite all the good Zubair has found while living in Durham, the events that led to his resettlement are something he carries with him every day. It is part of who he is. Those traumatic times are what make him unique. His journey to Durham holds parallels to the journeys of many refugees. It’s a journey of pain and resilience.

Pain

As a child and young adult, Zubair was a troublemaker, but not in the way one might think of a typical rebellious child growing up in the U.S. He was a troublemaker because he refused to let his pride in his culture be suppressed. Zubair is a Kurd, a minority within the Syrian population. The laws of Syria prohibit students from speaking Kurdish in school, on the streets and even in their own homes.

Zubair never understood why he must disassociate himself from his cultural identity, so he decided he would speak Kurdish in school. He described this act of defiance as if it were kids passing notes to each other or shooting spitballs across the classroom, hoping the teacher didn’t notice and getting a sense of glee when they weren’t caught. But he did get caught. The teacher heard him and called the police. Zubair went to prison.

It was only two days, and he wasn’t harmed. It was only meant to scare him. It would be nine years until Zubair found out what prison was really like.

At the age of 23, Zubair was operating a Kurdish school in a spare room of his home. He taught around 40 students, mostly children and teenagers. He used Kurdish books on history, language and culture to teach them. Just owning these books was a crime in itself.

In his eagerness to share his knowledge, he allowed two men he did not know to enter his home. The men claimed they lived in the neighborhood and wanted their children to attend his school. Zubair showed them the room where he held class and the books he used to teach. He realized his blunder before it was too late. And when he did, he tried to leave his home, hoping escaping the house could save him. But a car was already waiting outside. He was put in the car and escorted to prison for questioning.

For the next 72 hours, Zubair was beaten and tortured, and not a single question was asked. He was then asked to sign a document stating that he had been found with a gun in his home and was participating in the Kurdish rebellion, which had sprung the day before he was taken to prison. He refused. His captors then continued to beat the resolution out of him. They succeeded after three hours. Zubair said he later felt shame for giving in and signing the document after three days when he heard that one of his friends withstood the same treatment for eleven days.

He received a seven-month sentence for his crimes, and they would be the worst seven months of his life. It was during these months that Zubair would come to fully understand the meaning of pain. There seemed to be no end to the torture and beatings.

Zubair was not silent during his time in prison. He defied authority in the only ways he could. He screamed. He cursed the guards. He cursed the government that restricted his freedom and suppressed his identity. And he did not go unnoticed.

Two weeks before he was released, Zubair’s resolution would undergo its greatest test. The prison administration knew he would be a problem once he was released. His defiance had been all too evident. They sent him to the ‘Dark Room,’ which consisted of a single chair. Zubair was strapped to the chair, and his head was placed in a brace. He couldn’t move an inch in any direction.

The guards left, and he was alone. He had been in solitary confinement before. He was optimistic – scared, but optimistic. He had been in this type of situation before. Then he felt a drop of water hit his head, then another and another.

Zubair remained hopeful. He thought he would get a shower. The water dripped through his hair, down his unwashed body and to his toes. However, after 30 minutes, each drop of water seemed to weigh 10 pounds heavier.

Drip. Drip. Drip.

His body began to shake and go numb. He lost his vision, hearing and ability to speak. More tragically, Zubair lost his memory, as if the small drops of water had hammered out all the most important functions of his brain.

Once Zubair was released from prison, it would take him three months to learn to speak without a stutter. It would take him years to recover his full memory.

After his release, Zubair received a notice in the mail of pending legal charges for his defiance. The family lawyer told Zubair his best option was to leave the country. So he was smuggled to Lebanon.

The money paid to the smugglers was guaranteed to provide Zubair a donkey at the border, a more desirable mode of travel compared with walking, as he had been diagnosed with polio at the age of two and has always felt the effects when he walks. Once his family paid the smugglers at the border and drove away, the smugglers removed Zubair from the donkey and pointed him toward a mountain. A mountain he would need to climb in order to cross the border. So he climbed, on his hands and feet, until he conquered the mountain.

Zubair would remain in Lebanon for five years. During that time, he worked as a self-employed electronic engineer to help his brother pay the bills. Zubair went to physical and psychological rehabilitation for the first three years of his stay, a service provided by the U.N., which Zubair had applied to for refugee status. After five years of escaping Syria, Zubair found out he would be resettled in Durham, North Carolina.

Resilience

Arriving in Durham was the greatest blessing of Zubair’s life. The resettlement agency found him a small apartment consisting of three pieces of furniture. The agency gave him enough money for groceries and a month’s rent and told him they would help him find a job. Instead of waiting for the agency to finish the job search, he took the initiative to find a job himself.

He traveled to The Streets at Southpoint mall every day and visited as many restaurants as possible, asking if they were hiring. He spoke very little English, but he knew enough to inquire about jobs. On the twelfth day of his search, the manager at The Cheesecake Factory agreed to hire him. He did not know how to fill out the job application, so the manager, Jeff, helped him fill it out.

Zubair is grateful for Jeff to this day. Grateful that someone would hire him despite the fact that he spoke little to no English and couldn’t even fill out the job application on his own. Zubair said because of the welcoming and accommodating Triangle community, the area quickly began to feel like home.

Community

Zubair is not an anomaly. The Triangle has proven to be a sanctuary for many refugees.

Scott Phillips, director of the North Carolina branch of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, said his organization is the first point of contact for many refugees who come to the Raleigh area. Phillips said the organization finds affordable housing for refugees, provides them with three months’ rent and helps about 90 percent of refugee families become financially self-sufficient within the first 120 days.

“In the area, we’ve really seen, and our clients have seen, really friendly people here who are willing to take the extra step to work with refugees,” he said.

Phillips recalled a phone call he received during the holidays. The call came from an employer who had hired a refugee who had been resettled through Phillips’ agency. He told Phillips he was hosting a holiday party for his employees and he was not sure of the religion of the one refugee worker. He was wondering if there was anything he could do to make the employee feel more included in the festivities.

“That is amazing,” Phillips said. “That’s so great. He didn’t have to do that. That’s the guy who stocks the shelves. They didn’t have to take that extra step, but they did.”

Still, refugees in the community consume media like everyone else. Despite the warm welcome most refugees receive in the Triangle, many are still fearful of their place in the country. Phillips said he has heard the concerns of many refugees regarding the rhetoric toward them in the past presidential election and recent executive orders.

“There’s a lot of fear after the initial executive order on refugees,” he said. “Then you turn around and see 1,500 people at RDU and people at the rally the next week. That was a concrete example of North Carolina spirit and American values. That resonated with our clients a lot.”

Zubair has also noticed the contrast between what is said in the media and how people actually treat him and other refugees. He said despite the country being deeply divided on views towards refugees, false perceptions can’t diminish what he calls “this heaven I’m living in.”

And for Zubair, it is heaven indeed. He became a U.S. citizen in 2015, he works hard at multiple jobs and he’s on his way to completing his degree in peace, war and defense.

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Zubair and his wife, Etena, were married in October 2016 after she completed the vetting and resettlement process and joined him in the U.S.

Perhaps one of the biggest moments of Zubair’s time in Durham was when his wife joined him. With the help of U.S. Rep. David Price, his wife wasable to complete the vetting and resettlement process in two years, a short timespan compared to the lengthy process many refugees must go through. Zubair and Etena, his wife, were married in October 2016 and are hoping to start a family soon.

Edited by Matt Wotus