This I Know is True…

408740_508745325815607_1601003776_nA year ago, I answered the phone and spoke for the first time to Sarah Hekmati. Sarah was looking for someone to help with the campaign to free her brother for Iran’s Evin prison and a friend referred me to her. I remember seeing a few brief news stories on Amir Hekmati’s plight in Iran, but I didn’t know a lot of the details surrounding her brother’s imprisonment. I Googled his name and found every article I could and spent the rest of the night learning as much as I possibly could.

I wasn’t surprised at his story. A dual-citizen being picked up by Iranian intelligence agents, accused of working for the CIA, coerced into making a false confession, and held indefinitely. There have been many high profile cases following the same protocol: Roxana Saberi, Maziar Bahari, and, of course, the three American hikers. What make Amir’s story different, however, is that at one point, he had been sentenced to death — the first death sentence issued on an American (though Iran doesn’t recognize dual-citizenship) in over 3 decades, since the Revolution rocked Iran’s streets and changed their world. His death sentence was overturned on appeal by the Iranian Supreme Court, them citing insufficient evidence for the sentence. A new trial was ordered, but it has yet to take place. This was in March of 2012.

Since that time, Amir was kept isolated in solitary confinement for 16 months. His only company were the four walls of his tiny cell. He had three blankets. No books. Alone only with his thoughts. His attorney was not allowed to visit him, the Swiss Ambassador who acts on behalf of the United States was denied access, and his Iranian relatives were turned away from the prison. Books and letters did not reach him. He was truly alone. His solitary confinement ended only when guards  found him unconscious on the floor of his cell after a 30 day hunger strike.

During this time, his father, Ali, was diagnosed with brain cancer. His treatment has included both radiation and chemotherapy. He holds onto hope. I think the best medicine will be when he finally gets hold his son in his arms again.

When I first started working for the campaign, I would tell my friends and would be shocked that they hadn’t heard of Amir, his imprisonment, or his death sentence. Then I remember that day I spoke to Sarah, Googling Amir that night.

Media on Amir’s case has come in burst: his forced confession, his death sentence, his sentence being overturned, the year anniversary of his imprisonment, his father health, the anniversary of his death sentence being overturned, a letter he smuggled out of prison to John Kerry.

This week, things changed. Congressman Dan Kildee is leading a bipartisan effort to show support for Amir, with members of congress on both sides of the party divide taking up Amir’s case and posing for pictures with a sign that says Free Amir. This past week, he also spoke about Amir on the House floor.  Iranian president Rouhani visited the United States this week for the UN General Assembly.  In media interviews, he was asked specifically about Amir. People took to twitter, using the hashtag #freeamir. Some tweeted directly to the Iranian president calling for Amir’s release.  Senators started posting on their own social media accounts photos of them holding a Free Amir sign, including Senator Ted Cruz and Senator Debbie Stabenow.  And, in the historic call between President Obama and President Rouhani – the first direct communication between the leaders of these two countries since 1979 – President Obama discussed his concern over the imprisonment of Amir. 

I ended each night in tears. Finally, people were hearing about Amir.

My tears, though, were not only for Amir.  They were for Amir’s family, too. Since that first conversation with Sarah, she’s become like family, so whenever a friend would call me to tell me that they heard about Amir on NPR or saw a piece about Amir on Fox News, I felt joy for them, knowing exactly how heavy Amir’s imprisonment weighs on them.  With every article, with every mention in the media, and with every letter of support, I hoped that the weight they have been carrying by themselves might be lifted just a little bit now that so many other people now knew Amir, too, and  wanted to see this former Marine released and sent back home to his family in Michigan.

My tears came from seeing people, ordinarily separated by their political beliefs, come together for Amir and his family and call for his release.

My tears came from seeing strangers show love, compassion, kindness, and empathy to a family going through so much.

My tears came from seeing all of these things together and, on some level, change things for Amir.

The tears came from knowing that all of these beautiful, good things in life really can change the world.

Our world is littered with quotes by great men and women about changing the world:

“Be the change you want to see in the world.”  – Gandhi

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

“If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.” Dalai Lama

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead

Sometimes the world seems so big and the problems so large that the real meaning behind these quotes are easily lost by how overwhelming it all is. Or by how selfish we are. Or by our politics. Or our religions.  Or our nationalism. Today,  however, I get it. I GET it. I witnessed it. I felt it. I saw it.  Now, I know the real power of those words and the truth they hold.

After talking to a friend about all of this last night, she sent me an e-mail this morning. The only words inside were this:

“There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.” – Nelson Mandela

As I sit on my stoop writing, something I do every morning, with my coffee to the right and my two cats at my feet, no truer words could have been said to me today.

World Autism Awareness Day

“It’s ridiculous. And it doesn’t help me and it doesn’t help him!” my friend shouted into the phone, tears breaking in her voice.

“What did they say? Are they saying this to you?” I asked.

“That he is perfectly fine! That he just need to catch up! That this is all in my head! That I want something to be wrong with him!”

The battle to keep her composure had been lost and she surrendered to the hurt and anger that had been sitting inside of her since her son’s teachers uttered their concern about the a-word — autism.

Melissa’s son, Brandon, is five-years-old. At the start of Kindergarten, his teachers voiced concern over Brandon’s behavior. When they first suspected an autism spectrum disorder, she was in denial. She called her mother looking for support. She didn’t receive it. In fact, not only had her family denied that Brandon could be on the autism spectrum, they chastised her for believing anything could be wrong with  her son, even telling her that things were all in her head.

“How do they explain the services Brandon gets through school?”

“I don’t think they even think about it. They don’t bother asking me about it. One time, my mom said that all teachers want to do is diagnose kids and put them all on pills to make their jobs easier.”

“Um, Brandon isn’t even on medication!”

“See how much she knows about my son!”

“What about the physical therapy he gets? Or the time in the special education classroom? What about the fact that his school psychologist wrote a letter so your landlord would be required let you have a therapy dog?”

“I don’t think they even care about the facts, Amy. They just think they know, and they don’t! It’s like they can’t accept him if he isn’t what they think is normal.”

I understood Melissa’s frustration. Like my daughter, Brandon was high-functioning. And just like Melissa, I dealt with denial in the early days of my daughter’s diagnosis, too, though mine wasn’t my family so when that relationship ended, dealing with the inability  of others to accept what teachers, psychologists, and therapists all agreed upon came to a halt.

Unfortunately, it is too common in families where an autism spectrum disorder is diagnosed.

I asked my other friends with children on the spectrum if they had dealt with denial from family members and they all said yes.

“I deal with it all the time from my husband. Some days, he gets it, but other days, not so much.”

“I dealt with the denial with my ex-husband. He tries to say that there is nothing wrong with our son. It didn’t matter that a psychologist had diagnosed him or that he was sitting right there next to me the first time autism was ever brought up with our son. He hasn’t seen him for eight years, but his new girlfriend suddenly knows what is and is not going on with my child and what we went through with him when we were still together. Oh, and by the way? She doesn’t even know my child.”

“For me, it was my in-laws. In their eyes, the only thing wrong was my parenting skills.”

“My pediatrician was the one actually denying it. He said my son was too smart to be autistic. MY. PEDIATRICIAN.”

“My friends denied it was going on and were so unsupportive. It was like they were afraid their kids would catch it or maybe they saw the way my son was behaving, noticed similar behavior, and were afraid of what that meant for their kids.”

“I didn’t deal with much denial, but it existed. Later, as more people understood what was going on I often heard things like, ‘I thought you were exaggerating or making it up but now I understand.’ So it became apparent to me that some of my family didn’t believe me but were polite enough about it to keep it to themselves, or more likely talk behind my back… mostly in-laws on that one.”

Last week, the CDC released new autism statistics, showing that now 1 in 88 children deal with the autism spectrum. By gender, 1 in 54 boys are diagnosed and 1 in 252 girls are diagnosed. These children and their families live in your community, attend your churches, go to your kids’ schools, are your co-workers, and your neighbors.

Some people ask why days like today, World Autism Awareness Day, are important. A few might even roll their eyes and snicker at yet another awareness cause, wondering what good awareness is really going to do anyway. The experiences of the men and women above, just trying to do the best they can each day, demonstrate just exactly how important days like today are. It is my hope that as awareness is raised, understanding will come next, and the experiences above will no longer be all too common, so families can face these issues together, so primary caretakers stop getting blamed, and communities can come together. We’ve all seen the power of community here in New Orleans, it’s my hope that kids and their families everywhere will get to experience that kind of acceptance, kindness, and support.

CDC Releases New Autism Statistics

Just a quick posting to point out the new numbers from the CDC on the prevalence of autism spectrum disorder among our children. Today, it was released that  1 in 88 children have an autism spectrum disorder. Think about that number for a minute – 1 in 88 children.

Hopefully this means that much needed research money will now be granted to further study autism,  red tape regarding insurance coverage for treatment relating to autism will be resolved, and schools will be better able to aid in the education and  therapeutic interventions of the autism spectrum as it relates to the classroom.

Final Four and FanFest Raffle Benefits SPCA

Hey guys, the Louisiana SPCA had an incredible donor give us a Final Four Ticket Package to raffle off this week. The package includes Two Final Four & FanFest Tickets for the 2012 NCAA Division I Men’s Final Four:

Two Tickets to Semifinals: Saturday, March 31st at the Mercedes Benz Superdome

Two Tickets to Championship: Monday, April 2nd at the Mercedes Benz Superdome

Ultimate Final Four FanFest: One time admission during (March 30-April 2) at the Morial Convention Center

A $380.00 value!


Anyone can donate to  $5 or more to be entered in a chance to win this package. All the proceeds benefit the LA/SPCA heartworm fund, the benefits of which you can see below. If you can mention this in any way any where we would truly appreciate it, and so would the 100 dogs we’re able to save through this fund.

Please let me know if you need any more information, we’ll be picking a winner on Friday at 10am so donate now!

Katherine LeBlanc

Communications Director

Louisiana SPCA

“Paws on Parade”



Lit Up Like a Parade

Thursday marked the end of a countdown my daughter started on January 6: Muses.

Each night, after she listed her daily gratitudes and wrote in her diary, she would find the countdown calender drawn on pink paper and dressed in white, silver, purple, and red glitter. With her very special pen, she would carefully cross off one more day, informing me of  the new countdown as she called out wishes of sweet dreams. As the countdown slimmed from a month, to a week, and then to days, her excitement grew.

“I don’t know if I should wear a costume this year or not, Mama,” she contemplated in the middle of a lesson on polygons for her sixth grade math class.

“Mama. do you think I will get a shoe?”

“What do you think the floats will look like?”

“Which book should I bring with me to read while we wait?”

“Should I take pictures with my cell phone?”

“I am so excited for beads, Mama!”

She was preoccupied with the parade, the Krewe of Muses, and our Mardi Gras holiday.

Since our first parades as New Orleanians a few years ago, our Mardi Gras holiday has consisted of Muses on Thursday and d’Etat on Friday. Having a spouse working in the restaurant business, Lundi Gras and Mardi Gras were never spent together – he is busy insuring everyone else has their spirits high on these two special days. And because my daughter is a high-functioning autistic child, we stayed away from the crowds of the super krewes. Just in case.

We have always watched the parades along the extended route, sometimes called the family zone, and it has been an enjoyable experience. We have reconnected with old friends, exchanging Mardi Gras wishes while catching up with the latest changes in our lives, and have met many new friends. My daughter has played along strangers, created art while patiently waiting for the show to start, and read her first Nancy Drew book along the parade route. Through the challenges that we sometimes face throughout the year, issues dealing with social and sensory issues, Mardi Gras and Muses was the moment of the year where it all faded away, where we were a normal family embracing the culture in our new city, creating memories of our new life.

As we sat on the sidewalk along the parade route and patiently waited for start time, we talked about what we thought we would see, which bands we loved listening to best, and whether Elvis would make an appearance on his moped. We watched Pussyfooters pass by on foot, 610 Stompers in full uniform, and a few Bearded Oysters with high hair weaving through the crowd.  As parade time approached, as cliche as it sounds, there was a sparkle in my daughter’s eye and a smile so big, it made me wish that she could spend her life this happy – always.

And then they came. Despite sitting on the ground, our feet on the street, they came in front of us, a gaggle of college kids holding to-go cups full of booze, cigarettes in hand, f-bombs flying out of their mouths with no care who was around them.  Once the parade started, we stood, them still in the street. Then the first marching band hit the road, forcing us all to back up, my daughter getting lost in a sea of twenty-somethings drinking a little too much. Some were local, others were not. She looked at me, her eyes tense.

“Mama, I can’t see. And that guy keeps touching me with his beer.”

Despite her 5′ 6′ frame, she was surrounded by young adults too involved in gossiping about who was going to be screwing who, which picture they had on their phones that were “too epic’ to not post on Facebook, and preoccupied by the booze pouring out of their red SOLO cups.

One boy, over 6 foot, came dangerously close to starting my daughter’s hair on fire. Only one float had passed by.

“Excuse me, Sir,” I said, ” do you think you could move over a bit. My daughter cannot see, you’ve spilled some beer on her, and you almost got her with your cigarette.”

He looked at me blankly, then looked at her. He looked at my daughter from head to toe, staring at the patch on her coat that would indicate she was autistic to medical personal should an emergency arise. He sneered at me before laughing in my face.

I put my arms around my daughter, warming her up, protecting her, whispering in her ear.

The tall man with the bear hat on his head paid no mind to us. He didn’t move, either.

“Hey, man! I need to move. This woman is bitching at me because her retard daughter can’t see the parade!” he shouted to a kid a few feet away.

He turned back to us, looked my daughter in the eye, and shouted to no one in particular. “This retard is making watching the parade a challenge.”

My daughter looked at me, knowing he was talking about her, and tears formed in her eyes. I wrapped my arms around her a bit tighter and whispered in her ear that the man was drunk, didn’t know what he was saying, and sometimes the best thing to do is to know the truth about yourself and ignore what other people say.

My words didn’t matter, though. By then, she had heard what he had said, knew what he was implying about her, and she wanted to go home. Had she not been with, I may have had a few choice words of my own, but I knew it wasn’t the time and certainly not the place.

A night she had been looking forward to, planning and anticipating for a few months, had just been marred by that bad behavior of a grown person.

“Mama. please, can we go home? He told everyone I’m a retard. I’m not a retard, am I, Mama?” she asked. The grin was gone, replaced by a quivering lip. The sparkle in her eyes had dispersed, and they were now filled with a flow of tears falling down her full, pink cheeks.

“Are you sure, honey? We could walk somewhere else and watch the parade. We could move.”

“No, Mama. I don’t think that would be a good idea. People there will probably think I’m a retard, too. People don’t want people like me at parades. They won’t let us in to watch the parade. I just know it.”

I tried to comfort her with my words, encourage her, but the more I pushed, the more this man’s words hurt.

We packed up the bag holding the the goods that had entertained us for the  two hours  we sat on the sidewalk, waiting for our special night. The bag that held my daughter’s snacks, sketch pad, books, and blanket. I took her hand, and led her to the car to go home.

She cried in the car on the way home, having seen exactly two floats from Muses and having exactly zero throws to show for the verbal attack that she endured just trying to watch her favorite parade.

“Honey, I am really sorry about what happened. Maybe we can try tomorrow night. Maybe we can go to a different spot, ” I said, trying to encourage her and save the rest of our Mardi Gras.

“No, Mama. I don’t think I want to do Mardi Gras anymore. Not ever again.”

A year ago, I asked my daughter what she most loved about Mardi Gras, expecting her to say the throws, the beads, and the pretty costumes. Her answer surprised me: “I don’t feel like I am different than everyone else during Mardi Gras, Mama. During Mardi Gras, everyone is a little weird like me.”

That night, she didn’t want to share her daily gratitudes, shrugging her shoulders and telling me she didn’t really feel grateful for much. She didn’t write in her journal, only wanting to forget the night had even happened. Her countdown calendar peppered the floor in tear-soaked pieces. A night that he had probably already forgotten by the next morning; a night that her broken heart will never let her forget.


Administrator’s Note: The response to Amy’s story has been heart-warming and overwhelming. We are so proud and happy to read the wonderful comments you’re leaving. I’m attempting to monitor all comments so negative and mean ones will be deleted. Please help by not responding to those mean comments. We thank you!

Healing Center Grand Opening August 28

I wrote a bit about The Healing Center in a previous post. It sounds like a great concept but will reality match the vision? I’ve heard rumblings that some residents in the ‘hood aren’t too happy with some aspects of the center such as the apparent confusion as to the hours that Cafe Istanbul will keep and when liquor will be served. For a little inside info, read the comments on my previous post which includes a report  by Lord David of a recent neighborhood meeting in the center.