Mom’s lesson in the sand offers hope for peace

by Cesar Chelala

As a writer on human rights issues I don’t lack reasons for concern. There are not too many countries nowadays where human rights in some form are not abused, where violence does not strike in one of its multiple forms.

At such moments of discouragement, I visit one of the many neighborhoods outside Manhattan, where the change of locale can do wonders for my mood.

One of my favorite places is Brighton Beach, a community on Coney Island in the borough of Brooklyn, a subway ride away from Manhattan. In summer, I go to the boardwalk, sit in front of the sea, and the salt breeze energizes me.

When it gets colder, I visit one of the plentiful ethnic stores and delight in their variety. When my appetite is in full force. I go to one of the many restaurants in the area to savor food unlike what I eat at home every day.

The area is populated mainly by Jewish immigrants that left the former Soviet Union starting in the 1970s and whose influx continues today. Years ago, the area was dubbed “Little Odessa,” since many of its residents came from Odessa, a city in the Ukraine. I remember the welcome surprise of a friend — with whom I was having dinner at one of the local Russian restaurants — when he realized how many patrons came from his parents’ hometown.

More recently, new waves of immigrants have joined the Russians — Chinese, Vietnamese, Armenian, Turkish, Mexican and Pakistanis — making it an even more cosmopolitan neighborhood. During the summer, they come in throngs to the beach.

Reading the news of late has been particularly disheartening: The continuous conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, with no hint of an effective rapprochement between them; and the sustained violence in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq, countries whose sores never heal. In many countries, life has become a cheap commodity.

I want to forget about these events. I take the subway and, after almost an hour, I am in another world. I am sitting by the sea in Brighton Beach. Today is a relatively cold day so there are few people around.

A young woman comes with her child and sits next to me. She sends her child to play on the sand. By the occasional remarks the woman makes to him, I take her to be of Russian origin. The child is happily playing with a ball. Suddenly he leaves the ball. He has seen a line of giant ants moving along the sand, so he takes several of them and crushes them with one hand.

On seeing this, his mother, who until then had been quietly knitting, puts her knitting aside, beckons him, puts her hand on his shoulder and, quietly but in heavily accented English, says: “Don’t do that ever again. You don’t hurt nobody — do you hear me? — you don’t hurt nobody.”

The child looks at his mother with a mixture of fear and surprise. Then, slowly, he drops the dead ants on the sand, one by one. When he finishes doing that, the woman lifts her son and embraces and kisses him. There is a smile in the child’s face now.

The incident taught me, quite unexpectedly, that some of life’s most simple and yet most profound lessons can be learned at a very young age. And it gave me reason for hope.

Cesar Chelala, M.D. and Ph.D., is an award-winning writer on human rights and foreign policy issues.