Recently, fellow Adventurers were introduced to Tracey Buckenmeyer in her initial guest post here, Tough Neighborhood.
Tracey has made a career of helping refugees and displaced persons, working for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. She’s worked in many different countries, and currently is posted to Ethiopia.
She’s returned to tell us a little more about life working among refugees in this lovely tale about a traveling Gingerbread Man that helped bridge the gap between children on two continents.
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Geographical Gingerbread Man
by Tracey Buckenmeyer
My nephew Braydon’s kindergarten class, back in my hometown in Ohio, had been learning about geography.
It was a simple project: the kids make a paper cut out of a gingerbread man, put their names on it and then mail it to someone they know (e.g., grandparents, neighbors, friends).
The recipients are supposed to take a photo of themselves holding the paper doll, tape it to the back of a postcard and send it back to the class. Apparently the kids examine the postage stamps and discuss where those places are.
Most of the children probably sent their gingerbread man cut outs to relatives in another town, maybe another state. But my niece, Braydon’s mom, naturally thought farther afield. The kids in my family have a distinct advantage when it comes to geography.
I’ve been doing international humanitarian work for more than 25 years with two generations of nieces and nephews watching me spin the globe to show them where I was living at any given time. So Braydon’s Gingerbread Man was soon winging its way from a small town in Ohio to Pristina, Kosovo where I was working earlier this year.
I dutifully took the photo of myself and the G-Man, taped it to a postcard and sent it off. Unfortunately, Kosovo’s mail system is somewhat less than reliable. I swear mail gets routed through Siberia or somewhere…or maybe it just gets stuck in Belgrade out of pure spite. You see, Serbia and Kosovo do not get along at all.
Anyway, it had not reached Ohio by the time I finished my assignment in Kosovo and moved on to Africa. Thus, the paper doll came with me to Ethiopia.
I was afraid the Kosovo postcard would never reach its destination so I wanted to give it another try. I had the dual objective of not disappointing Braydon as I wanted him to get his post card, but also to make him the coolest kid in his class: his Gingerbread Man went from southeastern Europe to Africa!
Most kids probably imagine elephants and lions when they think of Africa; unfortunately Ethiopia never had elephants and killed of its lions a long time ago, so no pictures of the G-Man in the jaws of a wild animal.
But Ethiopia does have kids, lots of them and from all over Africa because, sadly, the country is host to so many refugees. I could give those Ohio kindergarteners a good idea of geography – African geography including Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan and Eritrea – via its young displaced population.
So ‘Mr G’ accompanied me on my trips to the refugee camps lining the borders of Ethiopia. He was held by rowdy Somali boys in the camps in the south; it’s hard to imagine their lives in Somalia had been threatened by a drought-induced famine just last year.
Little girls from Eritrea living in northern Ethiopia, also in kindergarten themselves, shyly held the cut out for my camera. They were more appreciative of the doll, even a paper one, than the boys.
Lastly, in western Ethiopia, a gang of very solemn Sudanese refugee kids held him as I took aim with my camera. They were new arrivals to refugee life, coming into the camps from the recent insecurity taking place in Sudan.
The kids did, however, love getting their photos taken, especially when they could see themselves instantly on my digital camera.
If some weird foreigner wants them to hold a silly doll, well, they seemed to have no problem with that.
Or being unwitting helpers for a faraway geography lesson.
And the postal system works well in Ethiopia so the photos and postcards successfully reached their destination in Ohio.
Braydon has moved on to first grade now, his geography project complete. He knows I live in Africa, in a place called Ethiopia, but he still has no idea where that is or why I am there so I doubt his classmates do either, despite my efforts.
Time for the G-Man to retire. I hope the next photos I take of him will be with when those refugee kids are on their way home.