Get SF Weekly Newsletters
Pin It

A Smuggler's Tale 

A Berkeley woman's efforts to deliver banned medicines and other goods to Iraq arouses federal ire

Wednesday, Dec 11 2002
Barbara Lubin's face possesses a look of almost leonine fierceness; her stare is dark and unblinking. Her eyes resemble those one sees in photos of Third World mothers who have lost loved ones to an act of violence. It is a look that mixes anger with powerlessness, a look that holds a mysterious resolve -- maybe to suffer in silence, maybe to fight back; it's not always clear which.

But Lubin is no Third Worlder; she is a middle-class Jewish grandmother living in Berkeley. She is well-known in the Middle East for her humanitarian projects in Palestine and Iraq. In her own country, though, she is loathed by conservatives and liberals alike because, Lubin says, she loudly criticizes Israel's military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

She is also a vocal critic of American anti-war organizations for failing to protest the 12 years of economic sanctions against Iraq. Lubin has visited Iraq six times, delivering $4 million in powdered baby food, antibiotics, and chemotherapy medicines, sometimes in defiance of U.N.-imposed sanctions. While there are several U.S.-based groups that deliver privately funded humanitarian aid to Iraq, most tread in Lubin's pioneering footsteps.

Last month, the U.S. Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control fined a Chicago-based group that works with Lubin -- Voices in the Wilderness -- $20,000 for delivering medicine to Iraq without first obtaining permission from the government. Federal law provides for up to $1.25 million in fines and 12 years in prison for individuals who violate the sanctions. So far, however, these statutes have not been enforced. Along with about 75 others who deliver illicit aid to Iraq, Lubin signed a letter to the Treasury Department dated Dec. 5, stating their intention to continue their missions of mercy despite the law.

Travel in Iraq is an adventure, to say the least. In October, Lubin flew through the no-fly zone from the Baghdad airport, which had just been bombed by American fighters, to the Basra airport, which was bombed shortly after she landed. "There was no problem with air traffic control," Lubin says with a laugh. "We were the only civilians flying in the no-fly zone."

In more ways than one, Lubin has journeyed a long way from the home of her parents. "I grew up in a right-wing Zionist home in Philadelphia," she recounts. "When someone asked for the salt to be passed at the dinner table, inevitably, someone would say, 'Is it good for Israel?' We gave money to Israel so that we would have a place to go when 'they' came for us."

She arrived in Berkeley in 1973 and found work as a draft counselor. By then she had a young son, Charlie, with Down's syndrome. When she talks about Charlie, who has a union job at Safeway, she shows a fierce pride in his accomplishments. Her struggle to raise him in as normal an environment as possible threw her into politics.

As an adolescent, Charlie liked to eat lunch every day at a College Avenue soda fountain, Ozzie's. "It was a moment of respite for me when he went to Ozzie's. He always ordered the same thing: tuna, chips, and a Coke." In 1981, a developer moved to tear Ozzie's down. Lubin mounted a grass-roots campaign to save Ozzie's, which resulted in passage of one of the nation's only commercial property rent-control ordinances. "It was later thrown out by the state Supreme Court," she says, "but Ozzie's is still there."

She rode her national notoriety -- "The Wall Street Journal screamed at me, said I was un-American" -- to a seat on the Berkeley school board. She was active in the peace, anti-apartheid and anti-nuclear movements, spending time in jail for civil disobedience. In 1987, she organized a delegation of local people to see what was happening in Palestine during the first intifada, or people's uprising. The trip, she says, changed her life. "People were tear-gassed, shot at -- it enraged me. My family had planted thousands of trees. I went to see them. They were planted on a desecrated cemetery, on a demolished village. It made me ill.

"My partner, Howard Levine, and I held a press conference and said we'd been on the wrong side of the Israel-Palestine issue. We were naive. I had no idea what it meant to criticize Israel. People who once loved me now cross the street when they see me coming. We soon realized that there is no balance in U.S. foreign policy toward Israel and Palestine. We give one people aid, the other gets a boot on the neck."

In 1988, Lubin and Levine founded the Middle East Children's Alliance. Its advisory board currently includes novelist Alice Walker, former U.S. Sen. James Abourezk, and several other members and ex-members of Congress. The Children's Alliance raises money from a list of 8,500 donors, here and abroad. It works to "end the occupation and bring hope to Palestinian children." On February 17, the alliance will bring a children's folkloric dance troupe from the Dheishe refugee camp to perform in San Francisco.

The organization has built playgrounds, parks, and community centers inside refugee camps. (Most of the playgrounds it built, she says, were soon rendered unusable by Israeli forces.) To help finance its activities, the Children's Alliance formed Alliance Graphics, a unionized T-shirt factory. Since 1988, the Children's Alliance has distributed $8 million in food, medicine, toys, and books to Palestinian and Iraqi children.

On the walls of Lubin's spacious office, next door to the T-shirt plant, are colorful paintings made by Palestinian children that portray Israeli soldiers shooting children. There are blown-up photos of a tank in front of the Dheishe camp and of a blasted school in Nablus -- both shot by Lubin. She says she is horrified by the tragedies wrought by Palestinian suicide bombers, but adds, "You cannot take away a people's land, culture, and food, and expect them to live as neighbors."

Lubin first visited Iraq right before the 1991 Gulf War. She returned there after American troops withdrew. The trip was harrowing. All of her group's water was carried in bottles bought in Jordan, since there was little or no potable water in Iraq. The people were infuriated at Americans. The Republican Guard stole much of their clothing. Everywhere Lubin went, dead and dying children were being pulled out of the rubble of the country's once-modern infrastructure. U.N. and humanitarian organizations in Iraq calculate that 1 million Iraqis have died -- including 500,000 children under age five -- as a result of the bombing of Iraq's water and electric utility systems, and the subsequent sanctions on pharmaceuticals and other goods.

If American troops invade Iraq again, Lubin fears, they will fatally disrupt the country's food-rationing program, upon which millions of Iraqis rely. She does not believe Iraq is capable of fighting back, and asserts that Saddam Hussein's army will fold even quicker than it did in the first war.

Lubin has taken dozens of people to Iraq, mostly to mule in sanctioned goods. It is not illegal for American citizens to travel to Iraq, but it is forbidden for them to spend money there or to deliver commodities without permission from the U.S. government and the U.N.

The Children's Alliance does obtain permission to ship tons of food, vitamins, and medicines to the Iraqi Red Crescent, which is equivalent to the Red Cross. But Lubin and other activists also smuggle banned supplies such as chemotherapy medicines containing radioactive isotopes and pencils made of graphite. U.N. and Washington officials fear Saddam Hussein will use these kinds of materials to make nuclear weapons. (Graphite is used in control rods in nuclear reactors.)

Lubin concedes that she doesn't know if such items actually can be turned into weapons of mass destruction. She says, however, that she insists on personally delivering the radioactive medicines to doctors at Iraq's pediatric hospitals, and the pencils to teachers at what is left of Iraq's elementary school system.

Lubin's friend, David Smith-Ferri, has traveled to Iraq twice. In October, Smith-Ferri flew to Jordan, where he bought medicines for less than their cost in the U.S. (Jordan trades freely with Iraq, ignoring the sanctions.) He ferried them across the desert in an SUV. In Baghdad and Basra, he walked around freely, but was shadowed by government agents.

"I do not go there to find out what people think about Saddam Hussein," Smith-Ferri says. "That is too dangerous. I talked to people about how they feel about the threat of war.

"An unemployed car salesman would not let go of my hand. 'Tell the American people we love them,' he said. 'We are not their enemies, but we must have our lives back.' The man was begging.

"I am not a radical," Smith-Ferri emphasizes, right before he shows his Iraq slides to an audience of 50 at a senior center in Healdsburg. "The strongest feeling I had there was a sense of powerlessness; it was so surreal to be there, with the people living their lives, preparing for war. We are as powerless as they are to stop it."

As America's military mobilizes to invade Iraq, Smith-Ferri and Lubin are focusing on anti-war activities. "I am angry when peace forces in America refuse to include the issue of Palestine and Israel as part of the call," Lubin says, grimacing. "But I will work with anybody [who] is for peace."

You can't avoid her haunting eyes. This energetic, very angry, very brave woman seems to be fighting a variety of demons, perhaps feelings of cynicism or despair, perhaps the familial complications of rejecting Zionism, maybe the pain of witnessing acts of violence and hate.

"When the World Trade Center attack occurred," she says, "my first thought was, 'What took them so long?' It looked like Baghdad after the U.S. bombing.

"We need to point the finger inward, at U.S. policies. The thought of invading Iraq is unbearable. What it means for our children: Nobody will be safe."

She tries to sum up what motivates her to work for causes that many people consider hopeless. "Allen Ginsberg was on our board. Right before he died [a few] years ago we went to dinner with him and people from City Lights Bookstore at Enrico's. We talked about Rwanda, Palestine, the horrors of the world. I said 'Where is the hope?'

"Al jumped up, food flying, 'Fuck hope,' he said. 'Fuck hope. It's not about hope. Hope is a luxury. It's about getting up in the morning and doing the right thing.'"

About The Author

Peter Byrne


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Popular Stories

  1. Most Popular Stories
  2. Stories You Missed
  1. Most Popular


  • clipping at Brava Theater Sept. 11
    Sub Pop recording artists 'clipping.' brought their brand of noise-driven experimental hip hop to the closing night of 2016's San Francisco Electronic Music Fest this past Sunday. The packed Brava Theater hosted an initially seated crowd that ended the night jumping and dancing against the front of the stage. The trio performed a set focused on their recently released Sci-Fi Horror concept album, 'Splendor & Misery', then delved into their dancier and more aggressive back catalogue, and recent single 'Wriggle'. Opening performances included local experimental electronic duo 'Tujurikkuja' and computer music artist 'Madalyn Merkey.'"