Social Justice

Unmasked: A platform for cultural expressions for Muslim youth (Video)

By Nikita Mandhani

Amarah Alghaban clutched the mic as she recited a verse from one of her favorite poems by Naomi Shihab Nye, about the plight of Palestinians.

“And these are not two equal sides: occupier and occupied.
And a hundred dead, two hundred dead, and a thousand dead.
And between that, war crime and massacre, I vent out words and smile ‘not exotic,’
‘not terrorist.’”

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Survivors of Human Trafficking Heal Through Art

By Carlos D. Williamson

An art gallery on Chicago’s Northwest Side that typically showcases the work of survivors of sexual abuse and rape is helping support a new cause.

The Awakenings Foundation Center and Gallery is featuring an exhibit that shows the artwork of survivors of human trafficking. While most survivors of trafficking have been the victims of sexual abuse, others have been subjected to slave labor. Through art-therapy sessions and workshops, these survivors channeled their pain into powerful, abstract imagery and expression.
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Suburbs Grapple with Heroin Epidemic

By Jack Adams

PJ Newberg’s daughter, Paula Nixon, tried to refuse the heroin her boyfriend offered her, but eventually she gave in, becoming a heroin addict at 16.

(Heroin) is just a f***ing nightmare, that’s what it is. It steals your soul,” Newberg said. “I don’t recognize my kid.”

Nixon has been in and out of rehab 15 times since then. Now 21 in a rehab facility in Florida recovering from a surgery to remove the infection that developed at her injection site.

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Proposed law aims to take sting out of police spy-tech

By Thomas Vogel

State lawmakers are working to prevent local law enforcement agencies conducting investigations from violating the privacy of Chicagoans. Any resident using a phone to place a call, send a text message or browse the web may be at risk.

“Stingrays,” refer to a broad category of so-called cell site simulator devices, which, when activated, collect electronic communication from phones by imitating an actual cellular tower. Government agencies throughout the United States, including the Chicago Police Department, use the devices.

“We have to put in basic guardrails,” State Senator Daniel Biss (9th) said. “If you let the horse out of the barn, it gets difficult to control very quickly.”

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Choir finds harmony, hope, healing from addiction

By Brendan Hickey

The members of the Harmony, Hope, & Healing choir all have something in common: They struggle with drug addiction and homelessness, they are enrolled or have completed a 12-step recovery program, and they all know Tina Villapando.
Kevin Tamila abused drugs for much of his life. After joining Harmony, Hope & Healing and completing his addiction recovery program 10 months ago, he continues to sing with the group.

“I can show the newcomers that [recovery] is possible,” Tamila said. “Staying with the group shows me and them that healing is a long process and I look forward to it.”

“It’s been a long time since I’ve had someone to love me,” said Debra Taylor, a member who has struggled with addiction, holds back tears. “Now when I sing, I’m singing Christ’s words. There isn’t anybody who can love you as much as He does. And that’s how I started to love myself again.

Harmony, Hope, & Healing is a nonprofit organization with the mission to help Chicagoans experiencing drug addiction and homelessness enter a sober, productive and meaningful life through the power of music. Villapando is one of two full-time employees that assists these Chicagoans in recovery.

The organization is most publicly known as a choir. The strict recovery and sobriety requirements lead to regular fluctuation in the choir’s size. Remarkably, it is not uncommon for failed singers to return for second and third attempts at the program.

“Even though we have all these performances, it’s not about that,” Villapando said. “It’s finding your voice when it’s been silenced in so many ways – whether it be by yourself, whether it be by others, whether it be by your circumstances.”

Villapando calls the choir as “the public face of Harmony, Hope & Healing,” because a large part of the nonprofit’s work happens behind closed doors. She has spent the majority of her tenure with the program helping women rediscover how to interact with their children after experiencing long periods of a drug-addicted lifestyle.

“Seeing parents reunite with their children and learning those parenting skills again sometimes is tough work and is sometimes a challenge,” Villapando said. “But when you get that moment when there’s bonding, it’s beautiful, and it’s through music and it’s through singing and using their voice in a positive way and you see them being with each other— those are beautiful moments.”

The program was founded by Marge Nykaza in 2000 and operated on a small scale until it was incorporated as a nonprofit in 2003. Nykaza was diagnosed with cancer shortly after employing Villapando as an intern, and left the organization largely in her control as she healed.

Nykaza remembers this period as a critical point for Harmony, Hope and Healing. “While I’m having all of these health issues and going forward with surgery, and chemo and radiation, she assisted me so that the work could continue. While personally it was one of my most difficult times, it was a great year for our program. She’s a blessing,” she said.

Villapando has now been with Harmony, Hope & Healing for five years and loves her new promotion and title: program director. She says she feel blessed to be part of the organization and that she learns from the people in the program every day. The choir members recognize how the organization has helped them, too.

“I am Harmony, Hope & Healing, and so are you,” said Amanda Brown Longe Asque, a singer with the program. “We are Harmony, Hope & Healing, and so is Tina Villapando.”

Photo at top: Harmony, Hope and Healing Choir rehearses before Sunday Mass at St. Josaphat Catholic Church in Lincoln Park.  (Brendan Hickey/MEDILL)

Chicagoland nonprofit saves dogs, helps veterans

By Brendan Hickey

Jonathan Cooper returned to his home in Chicago after two military tours in the Middle East alive but injured. His back was broken and his mobility severely limited. With the help of a cane he was able to walk but fell constantly, injuring himself further. His disability ruled his life until he met Mira.

Mira needed help, too. A pit bull, she had been abandoned and was living in an animal shelter. She is big and strong, even by pit bull standards. Noticing her remarkable size and calm temperament, Pits for Patriots, rescued her, putting her to work.

Pits for Patriots, a Chicago-based veteran-assistance program, matches veterans and first-responders with physical and mental limitations with pit bulls in shelters. Each dog is trained with a specific a specific veteran’s disabilities in mind.

The time-intensive training process has paid off for Cooper and Mira, as well as dozens of other veterans and dogs. Mira was specifically trained for Cooper because of her size and ability to support him because of his stabilization issues.

“Mira is there for basically anything that I need,” Cooper said.

Joe Malikowski, a trainer for Pits for Patriots, said: “With Jon’s bad back he can’t move very well. Mira can retrieve stuff if he drops it, open doors and cabinets, zip zippers, really anything.”

The nonprofit organized a special showing of “Project 22,” released in April, at Muvico Cinema in Rosemont where Cooper and Mira attended. The film follows two combat-wounded veterans on a 6,500-mile, cross-country motorcycle trip to raise awareness of a shocking reality: An average of 22 American veterans lose their lives to suicide each day.

“I see PTSD and TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) related mental health issues every day, but the movie opened my eyes to so much more than I even knew. As soon as we seen it, we were like, ‘Absolutely. Yes. We got to get the word out about this,’” Malikowski said.

While Pits for Patriots trains dogs to assist with physical limitations, many also help veterans with mental health issues like the ones discussed in the film.

“A lot of times it’s just about having that comforting touch,” said Jan Petrella, a volunteer. “Like a paw on your leg, or his head in your lap, or a little nudge or something. Just enough for the person with PTSD to think ‘Oh wait, I’m here with my dog, everything is OK.’ ”

Malikowski added, “I’ve seen guys who come back from [from military service] and they can’t even leave their house to buy groceries. Then I’ll see this same guy get one of the dogs and he’s out and about again because he knows someone’s watching his back.”

“With this, it’s not even about raising money,” he said. “We’ve got the same goal as the movie –  trying to stop the 22 veterans a day from killing themselves in any way possible. Our way is just a little bit more specific.”

Screenings of the film are being organized around the country. To find one near you, check out the “Project 22” Facebook page.  Learn more about Pits for Patriots at their website.

Photo at Top: Veterans and Pits for Patriots volunteers after the showing of “Project 22.” (Brendan Hickey/MEDILL)

Empowered Fe Fes gives young women sense of disability pride and community

By Rebekah Frumkin

At 21, Alexis Smith already has the résumé of someone twice her age. She’s a poet, memoirist and activist working on a short film about inclusivity for people with disabilities. She also has spastic quadriplegia cerebral palsy, for which she uses crutches 90 percent of the time and a power wheelchair the remaining 10 percent.

“Every time we talk about ourselves as being disabled, we’re not looking for sympathy,” Smith says. “There’s nothing to be sympathetic about.”
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Politicians and donors support women’s rights at Planned Parenthood fundraiser

By Enrica Nicoli Aldini

It’s been a rough year for Planned Parenthood. Not only have Republicans in Congress repeatedly tried to pass bills to suspend federal funding to the reproductive health services organization, but a Planned Parenthood clinic was also the object of a gunman attack in Colorado Springs, Colo. last November.

However, the mood was far from somber among the reproductive rights advocates who filled the dining rooms at City Winery on the Near West Side Thursday night. An estimated 600 donors, supporters and elected officials came together to raise funds for Planned Parenthood Illinois Action, the health organization’s political arm in the state, and celebrate the 43rd anniversary of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion.

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Prominent Chicago resident runs for President of Sierra Leone and is charged with bigamy

By Bian Elkhatib and Meggie Morris

Almost 5,000 miles away from his home in Chicago, Sierra Leonean Alie Kabba awaits trial in Freetown.

He is charged with bigamy, but his supporters say the contrived charge is because he is running for President of his homeland.

Since arriving in the U.S. from Sierra Leone in 1991, Kabba has become a prominent community leader in the Chicago area. He is executive director of the United African Organization (UAO) and was the first African board president of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR).

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Republican takeover proposal frustrates school officials

By Morgan Gilbard

The financial future of Chicago Public Schools already looked dire to those on the inside before Republican officials proposed a state takeover of the district last week. Now, many opponents see it as a vibrant political circus.

“Suggesting the state manage the affairs of Chicago Public Schools is like recommending a cocaine addict handle the affairs of an alcoholic,” said Troy LaRaviere, principal of Blaine Elementary and an outspoken critic of Illinois legislative leadership.

The Republican bill would disband the Chicago Board of Education, transfer district control to an independent party and possibly allow the district to file for bankruptcy in an attempt to close a $480 million deficit. Continue reading