One city: two tales


On December 5, while driving down the Embassy Row in NW Washington, D.C.,on the car radio,I was listening to Nancy Pelosi saying the House is drafting articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump. Pelosi leaning toward impeachment didn’t really come as a surprise. Even though for months Pelosi has been resisting calls for impeachment saying, “Trump isn’t worth it.” However, it is a constant surprise to me how significant and game changingdecisions are taken in this tiny beautiful city on the Potomac River. It is astounding how lives across the globe, in Liberia to Kandahar to Tokyo, in Beijing to Iranto Mexico- are transformed by these decisions.

Having lived in this city for five years in the late Nineties, and the D.C., Metro area for almost two decades, I simultaneously have come to appreciate and dislike the roles played by Washington, D.C., folks. The list of such people is quite long –from the president of the United States to all the way down to the bureaucrats toiling in the city, and across the river at the Pentagon.

Unless you live in Washington, D.C., it is hard to believe what treasures are hidden away in the nooks and crannies of this city. Tourists from all over the world, and the USA, are pouring in throughout the year, to explore the city and its hidden treasures. To the city people – this city is a place to work, to live, or go to school. Several prominent US universities and top notch hospitals are located within this city.

In NW Washington, D. C.,with late night buzz there is a cosmopolitan feeling because of the presence of multinational, multi-lingual residents. The diversity undoubtedly gives NW D.C., a distinct international feel. People find commonality in their mixture.Sitting in a restaurant in the city – I could hear people speaking in five different languages. One cannot help but feela unique sense of affinity as if we indeed are living in “one world,” as members of one single community.

The nation’s history breathes constantly in the buildings, monuments, museums, parks and the environment of Washington, D.C. At lunchtime, if you take a walk down the Embassy Row where most of the foreign embassies are located – you see people from across the globe coming in and out. This sense of identifying as one with all of humanity is a feeling only exclusive to Washington, D.C. Here, the world comes together to represent their respective nations. The goal is to put forward the nations’ point of view to the politicians and policy makers here. Looking at the flags of each nation, there is a certain sense of unity and hope that the world can unite to solve its problemsinstead of dividing.

A few miles south of the Embassy Row, the historic Georgetown is a place of wonder and amazement, and is full of history. President John F Kennedy came up with his election strategy in a beautiful mansion in Georgetown. Some of the mansions here still harbor the moneyed elites, and famous diplomats, and politicians. Lavish parties are thrown here where the powerful and the wealthy socialites mingle under well-lit hand cut crystal chandeliers -over champagne and caviar.

In contrast, if you drive down a few miles Southeast or Southwest, you see a different face of this same city. You discover it’s not all rainbows and sunshine in Washington D.C. The poorest parts of the capital can be a shock to anyone’s system. People from the affluent parts of the town tend to avoid these parts because they don’t want to face or admit that such disparity remains hidden in the heart of the US capital.

You find homeless people, drug dealers, prostitutes,and addictslooming in every street corner in the evening – trying to make a quick deal. Here the roads with innumerable potholes are not well paved.The street lights are often broken. In the pitch dark alleys you will hear hush voices as the shadows of the night get prepared to take control of the streets. You will see the rundownshadowyhouses with peeled off paints where perhaps a third generation is living.In such low-income householdspower companies often cut off utility services, and water supply for nonpayment.

The night scene in this part of the nation’s capital carries a sad testimony of poverty and despair. One can almost touch the hopelessness that makes the air heavy with sighs of anguish, and utter misery.Will these people ever know what it feels like to be full citizens? What have they done wrong to deserve such a fate while living in the capital of the richest country in theworld?

For starters, they did not get a chance to educate themselves in order to change their lives around. For generations, they have been trapped in a social system that is very harsh, and do not know how to break the cycle and start over. They hardly venture out of their own neighborhoods to see if there are better opportunities available for them, or for their children.

A lot of the mothers insingle family households with multiplechildren depend on the government’s Welfare check every month.That amount is nearly not enough to feed a family a well-balanced meal. Many children suffer from diseases and malnourishment. Some families also heavily rely on the weekly food stamps that are allocated for them. With those stamps one can only get basic supplies of staple food items.Poor pregnant women without health insurance do not get proper prenatal care. Though Medicaid for the poor is available through Obama Care, many are not literate enough to fill out the complicated health insurance forms. Many do not own computers to fill out the forms online either. About one in three D.C., residents is covered by Medicaid because of the new guidelines.

A lot of the area schools feed the poorest children three meals a day, because of a policy introduced when Obama became President. The poor families do not go to the shopping malls to buy new clothes for themselves or for their children. They buy used clothes from thrift shops, or at the church yard sale, when they can afford it. Mostly they depend on hand me downs from other relatives, neighbours, and on the kindness of the strangers.

The children in these communities go to public schools where they learn very little. The schools often run on a very tight budget. Highly qualified fresh college graduates do not want to teach the challenged kids of Washington, D.C. They simply refuse to work in the schoolsin such areas becauseof lack of facilities. In addition to that thedread of lack of adequate safety in these crime ridden areas discourages them to take a job in suchschools. The students’ test scores are way behind the average national score. High school dropout rate is high, and those who remain in school, struggle through to maintain a minimum score in their achievement tests.Some of the schools do not have the right gymnasium equipment for the students to play sports. Frustrated high school kids join gangs because often they have no role models at home in the absence of a father figure. Some of their fathers are serving hard time in a federal penitentiary for crimes they perhaps had committed out of desperation. There is no one to teach these kids the ways of the world.

In some families a mother often fall prey to horrible drug habits, and cannot take care of her children.It is a very common sight in the Projects where mothers living in a one room have with them four or five children. A lot of the dwellings in poor parts of the city are unfit for human habitation. Unable to cope with the responsibilities that come with parenthood; usually thedrug addict parents abandon the children. Then the department of Social Service placessome of them with foster parents where they are often neglected and abused. Some of the abandoned kids obtain illegal guns from the black market and become trigger happy. They turn to violence, and guns become their best friend.

On the weekends, instead of going to a movie with friends, or play sports, the lost kidsof Washington, D.C.,roam the dark backstreetsto look for a target to rob at gun point. Sometimes they use violence for hijacking another kid’s $250 pair of Reebok x Pyer Moss sneakers, or the latest $229 trendy classic Patagonia retro winter jacket in a new color.

The people living in Southeast Washington under horrible conditions are Blacks, Latinos and from other minority communities. They are without much education or means to support them.Some are first generation immigrants from all over the world. Their parents are not educated, and do not speak English, who are usually working multiple jobs to make ends meet. Since Washington, D.C., is not a state; US Congress does not authorize funds for the city as it does for the other 50 states. House delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton and other advocates of D.C., statehood have been fighting for years to have recognition of D.C., as a state. But all to no avail because of the obstinacy and guile of some Congressmen.

In the poorest parts of Washington, D.C., drug dealers often engage in shootouts even in broad daylight. Some high school kids at times bring guns to the school — somehow bypassing the metal detectors, or by bribing the guards. At the end of the day, such guns are sometimes used on a fellow student belonging to a different clique, or gang,or just to score a point.

Though the situation seems bleak – all hope is not lost. Some of the city churches play a significant role in the lives of these families. There are many youth programmes, like Boys & Girls Club of America -who offers an outlet to these confused and lost kids. After school they can come to such facilities, and use computers, or get private tutoring that are offered by the good Samaritans and volunteers.

More often than not the area churches also play the role of a surrogate parentin terms of feeding, clothing, and providing shelter for some of the very poor families of Washington, D.C. They make sure that during Christmas – Santa Claus brings each child a new toy. Volunteers and community organizers try to raise money to help the needy families. Fromprivate donation money they buy food, clothing and other basic necessities for the poorest people of Washington, D.C.When I lived in D.C., my family and I went to the city soup kitchen onevery other Saturdays, to make sandwiches to be distributed to the homeless shelters in the dismal parts of D.C.Every year on Thanksgivingand Christmas Day, we had volunteered in homeless shelters. We saw poverty, and hunger up close as the homeless peoplehad lined up to get a free warm meal.Some of the homeless people might have gone without food for days at a time.There are flurries of Vietnam veterans who roam the streets of the city who are too weak, and sick to go and get assistance from the VA hospital which is not far away. Without food and shelter they walk around like zombies.

This December, on cold nights when mercury will drop below freezing, hundreds of homeless people will freeze to stupor. Some will be found dead the next day on a roadside. The homeless sleep in cardboard boxes, under the overpass of a bridge, or in some cases, in the woods. It is unfathomable that such misery exists side by side with so much wealth, and extravagant lifestyle in gated communities of Georgetown, Kalorama, and Foxhall.

In spite of human suffering in many of the Projects of the National Capital, there are sometimes hopeful stories. It is also important how we react when witnessing or hearing about suffering of others. Last night, I read what one incarcerated mother wrote to her children from prison, saying: “The time is so long and I have been so worried; but when I come home God helping me, I intend to do as you all hope I will.”I just wanted to give her a hug. With misery, pomp and poverty side by side — Washington, D.C., remains an attraction to millions every year. Visitors are happy with the guided tours of monuments, national museums, and just sight-seeing. The double-decker tour buses only take them to the good parts of the city — andthe guides highlight its rich history and tradition. The tourists pause to snap a picture under the busts of an FDR, or a Lincoln. Near the Jefferson Memorial, they stop and plan how to wrap up this historic visit. The only horror the tourists may encounter is at the National Holocaust Museum on the 14th street. All the while, they remain totally oblivious of the fact that hundreds and thousands are living in utter hopelessnessonly four miles south.

Zeenat Khan is a freelance writer and a newspaper columnist. She lives in Maryland, USA




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