Keynote: Stories by Jane Olson

About Jane

Jane Olson has worked as a volunteer for many decades to promote peace and justice through international human rights and humanitarian organizations. She chaired the International Board of Trustees of Human Rights Watch from 2004 to 2010 and served as co-chair of the Women’s Refugee Commission. As founding board chair of Landmine Survivors Network/Survivor Corps, she gave leadership to LSN for 12 years. Extensive travels with those and other humanitarian organizations took Jane to Nicaragua and El Salvador during the Contra Wars and to the former Soviet Union beginning with trips to Ukraine in 1989 and 1990, a time of revolution.

As the former USSR fell apart and wars broke out, she participated in investigative trips to the former Yugoslavia during “ethnic cleansing” of Bosnia, and to the Caucasus countries of Azerbaijan and Armenia. Mission to many countries in Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and Latin America focused on human rights abuse and refugee conditions, HIV/AIDS, landmines, and other calamities caused by conflict and extreme poverty.

Jane is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a board member of both the National World War II Museum in New Orleans and Direct Relief, based in Santa Barbara, CA. She is a board member of The Trusteeship, the Southern California chapter of the International Women’s Forum, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and the Pacific Council on International Policy.

Jane grew up in rural western Iowa and graduated from the University of Nebraska. She lives with her husband, attorney Ronald L. Olson, in Pasadena, California. They have three children and eight grandsons.

Excerpt From World Citizen, Journeys of a Humanitarian

“While Jane and Beth went off to examine sanitation facilities, I walked across a field toward a big wagon piled high with household goods. It had intrigued me from a distance because its profile resembled that of covered wagons during pioneer days in the American Midwest­—except that here a tractor replaced the 19th Century oxen. A tent had been erected next to the wagon, and people sat near it on rocks and logs. On the other side of the wagon stood an old woman leaning on a cane. A gray canvas tarp covered a mound of possessions that the wagon carried. As I watched, a young man came from behind the wagon, opened his arms wide, and embraced the old woman, nearly picking her up.

Intrigued, Yereda and I approached them. The soldier proudly answered our question, “This is my grandmother. Today is her one hundredth birthday, and I wanted to surprise her.” The old woman’s deeply creased face broke into a broad grin, exposing her missing front teeth. The soldier told me he was thirty-six years old and had just come from the front line. Tall and thin, he wore a gray shirt and dirty black jeans, not an army uniform. His grandmother wore many layers of clothing, with a plaid blanket wrapped around her shoulders. I thought she must be suffocating, because I felt hot wearing a thin cotton shirt. When I took out my camera, the happy twosome posed for photographs beside their over-loaded wagon.

The matriarch took my hand and led me around the wagon, then pointed to a tree stump, where I should sit. Then, like a sheep dog, she herded all her family members to sit down on logs nearby. We all watched her place a silver samovar (can you imagine? A silver samovar in the middle of this turmoil? I wondered what else she had brought in that big covered wagon!) over a small fire and then dip water from a pail to fill it for tea. While the water heated, the centenarian said she had survived three previous wars, and she hoped this fourth war would be the last time she ever had to watch young men go off to fight.

“I wanted to produce a birthday cake with one hundred candles, so that she could repeat that wish and make it come true, but instead, I found some granola bars in my backpack. I broke all the bars apart and gave pieces to four generations of family members. After tasting my humble offering, the amazing matriarch walked over to the wagon and returned with a small wooden box, which she set on the ground beside the samovar. Then, with lines of concentration across her face, the birthday girl lifted a delicate pink china cup from the box and brushed off straw that had cushioned its journey. She filled that precious cup with tea and offered it to me. I understood the honor, because whenever we visited my great-grandmother Wubbels, she served tea in special blue cups that her family had brought when they emigrated from the Netherlands.

Taking the fragile cup with both hands, I returned her smile. Then she reached into the pocket of her apron and handed me a sugar cube, demonstrating how I should place it under my top lip in front of my teeth and sip the hot tea through the sugar. I suspected this was her last sugar cube, because no one else received one, not even her grandson. She may have been saving it for her own special birthday treat.

“Now imagine this—I felt certain that the samovar had not yet boiled the water and suspected I was holding a cup full of bacteria—but I drank every drop of that tea. And I did not get sick. Sometimes our guardian angels do take over.

Jane Olson, Author
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