STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — March 16, 2013. Snow fell gently, more like ashes than flakes, on the column of Buddhist “Peace Walkers” as they made their way through Oakwood Beach, New Dorp Beach, and on to Midland Beach, where Midland Avenue Relief Organization organizer Aiman Youssef told the group that, “God runs this place.”
The group of nine “Peace Walkers” arrived in Staten Island’s battered Oakwood Beach section on Saturday morning. The Buddhist contingent was in the middle of a long walk — part of their annual “Walk For A New Spring” — making their way from Leverett, Massachusetts to Washington, D.C. Their mission: to underscore the need to prevent any future Fukushimas by ending reliance on nuclear power, to prevent any future Hiroshimas by eliminating nuclear weapons, and to bring about world peace by public acts affirming nonviolence. The group was met in Staten Island by members of Peace Action, themselves veteran marchers in the cause of peace.
From the website (www.newenglandpeacepagoda.org):
The Peace Walks are a direct form of non-violent action. Each walk has its own theme but the overarching goal remains the same — a world free of nuclear weapons, a world with more sustainability and less violence.
The walks are anywhere from a week to a year long going through communities affected by the nuclear industry and war and working to bring them together through potlucks and educational meetings. Each night the walk stops at their stay place; it could be a community center, a church, or a personal home. The walk holds discussion circles to share the work they have done and to learn more about the local community.
The New England Peace Pagoda and affiliates have walked all around the world attempting to create spaces for dialogue and non-violent action.
The Peace Walkers and Peace Action activists started their Staten Island tour with a walk down Oakwood’s devastated Fox Beach Avenue. The group stopped to talk with relief workers from Guyon Rescue, a volunteer group working out of a trailer. The converted moving van fronted the marshland that separates the two forks of Oakwood Beach. The twin forks were home to many Islanders who now want to be bought out by the government so that the battered homes can be levelled and the land returned to its natural state, providing a barrier between the sea and the community.
Finishing the first loop of their journey, the marchers turned north and made their way to Cedar Grove, the hardest hit section of New Dorp Beach. As the column chanted and drummed along the shattered street a lone police van followed at a distance. The marchers stopped for lunch at the Cedar Grove Community Hub, overseen by Donna Graziano. Volunteers from the Hub, surrounded by stacks of donated supplies, chatted with the marchers, posed for pictures, and served a hot lunch. Unphased by the visitors, locals wandered in and out of the tent, grabbing some food before returning to work on their homes. To the east, on the beach itself, a number of fallen trees were visible. This is a source of controversy — the Parks Department insists they are clearing only “dead trees” but one Islander videotaped contractors felling what appear to be intact trees.
“It’s stupid,” one resident said. “The trees are all we have to stop the water.”
After lunch the column made its way to Midland Beach, stopping at various points along the way to pray outside shattered homes — and honor the dead.
Near the end of the tour, as a light snow began to fall, the column stopped at the Midland Avenue Neighborhood Relief tent, run by 42-year-old Syrian-American Aiman Youssef. Youssef and the marchers read the names of those who perished in the storm — the “official” list. Youssef insists there are many more victims who were never identified. As the group chatted, a truck unloaded pallets of Gerolsteiner mineral water, a donation from a beverage distributor in New Jersey.
As the marchers prepared to leave Youssef played a recording of the Our Father, sung in Aramaic, the language of Christ. The Buddhists bowed their heads reverently as neighborhood residents looked on. The song over, the group departed. Youssef hugged some of the marchers and said, “God runs this place…this is all we have.”
In late November of 2012, Mayor Bloomberg tried to shutter Youssef’s relief operation — seeking to evict the refugee. Youssef, whose home was destroyed by Sandy — red-tagged by the Buildings Department, and demolished by the City — persevered and continues to offer aid to his community.
Late in the afternoon, the column wound its way across the Island, towards the Buddhist Temple in Port Richmond. Along the way one of the Buddhists said he knew that Staten Island had been badly damaged by the hurricane. “But I didn’t know how bad it really was,” he said.
Another man, a resident of Osaka, Japan, who had volunteered at Fukushima, said, “This damage, is just like the Tsunami in Japan.”
As the marchers made their way north the snow flakes fell, small and light, they drifted down upon the column, ashes falling and disintegrating as they landed.