Despite ISIS, Assyrians continue to fight for the right to exist

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As we come up on the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, a similar genocide has erupted.  This time, mass media stepped up and told the story of how ISIS is attempting to wipe out Assyrians, Chaldeans, Syriacs and other minorities from the Middle East.  But I’ve written about the topic so many times, I’ll simply let my latest story speak for itself.  From my story, Daily News, Feb. 26, 2015:

The woman who entered St. Mary’s Assyrian Church of the East on Thursday morning kissed the foot of a cross, then cried out a tearful plea.

“Please, God, please help the innocent,” she said in an ancient language inside the San Fernando Valley church. “Please save them.”

Her prayers reflect an ache that has settled into the hearts and minds of Assyrians far and wide since Monday, when the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, pillaged three dozen Assyrian Christian villages along the Khabur River in northeastern Syria. They burned down homes and churches, kidnapped more than 200 people, mostly women and children, and threatened to execute them if the Kurdish militias in the region do not release several ISIS militant prisoners.

It’s the latest Middle East crisis for Assyrians, who were among the first Christians in the world, said Cor-Bishop Father George Bet Rasho, who heads St. Mary’s Parish in Tarzana.

Bet Rasho said the kidnappings and the displacement of 3,000 people have prompted a worldwide call for Assyrian churches in California and across the nation to hold a special prayer vigil Friday night. His hope is that people of all faiths in the community will join them at 7:30 p.m. at St. Mary’s at 5955 Lindley Ave. in Tarzana to pray for the helpless.

“We’re praying that ISIS will not parade these women and children in cages and burn them,” he said, referring to the Jordanian pilot who was burned alive by ISIS earlier this month. “We’re hoping for a miracle.”

To say the Assyrians’ plight is dire is an understatement, Bet Rasho and others said. Assyrians are the indigenous people of Mesopotamia, presently Iraq, where the last and largest concentration of Aramaic-speaking people in the world have lived for thousands of years.

But after the start of the second Gulf War in 2003, an estimated half-million Assyrians fled to Syria because of a surge of Islamic extremist attacks against them and other Christian minorities. Then the Syrian civil war began, and the ranks of ISIS swelled.

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Since the takeover in June of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, ISIS has targeted the Christian population, whose faith has been present for almost 2,000 years. Assyrians were forced to flee again.

The U.S. State Department this week released a statement condemning the militants’ actions “in the strongest possible terms.”

U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff, of Burbank, is the top Democrat of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. He introduced a bill recently for use of military force against ISIS that would prohibit the use of American ground forces in a combat mission. Schiff said the White House is trying to determine how many people have been kidnapped, where they have been taken and ways to liberate them. There also are ongoing efforts to support the Christian and non-Christian groups fighting to protect the villages, Schiff said.

“People are not only being kidnapped, but women are being forced into slavery, men are murdered and churches are burned in an effort to eradicate their history,” he said Thursday.

“Every effort has to be made to protect these communities, to seek the safe return of those kidnapped, and to stop this evil that goes by the name of Islamic State,” Schiff said.

Schiff, who has sought U.S. recognition for the Armenian Genocide, said he can understand why Christians in the Middle East have drawn parallels to that event that began exactly a century ago this year. An estimated 1.5 million Armenians from the Ottoman Empire died from 1915-23 in what was called the first genocide of the 20th century. Though the Turkish government still denies it, Armenians say the killings involved the systematic cleansing of Christians, which included Assyrians and Pontic Greeks.

“It does harken back for both Armenians and Assyrians to terrible chapters in the past in efforts to exterminate them,” Schiff said. “I’ve been concerned about these communities ever since civil war began in Syria. We’re only seeing that trend continue and accelerate with the execution of the Coptic Christians, with the kidnapping of Assyrians, and the displacement of Armenians in Kessab.”

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Members of A Demand for Action, a group founded last year to raise awareness and create a safe haven in Iraq for indigenous people and minorities, said they will continue to press legislators to make sure some action is taken to avoid the deaths of those kidnapped.

“We are devastated, frightened and horrified,” said Nuri Kino, founder of the group. Kino said families of the abducted who call relatives’ cellphones in Syria hear the phrase “Allahu akbar,” or “God is Great. This is the Islamic State.”

“We will not rest before we have the help of the world leaders,” Kino said. “If ISIS increases its power it, will be the worst threat to the world since the Nazis. The president of the United States needs to speak out and save our victims. Our militias need more support. We and the Kurds together are the only ones who can save those areas. U.S. has to send airstrikes to give us assistance and boots on the ground.”

Meanwhile religious leaders such as Bet Rasho say they are often confronted by questions of faith, and by those who express anger and frustration in a world that seems to have forgotten them.

“Sometimes we don’t know the reasons for things,” Bet Rasho said. “But we do know there is a God who provides us with the air we breathe, that there is more good in the world than evil and that we can’t give up. When we give up hope, that is when we lose.”

Brain cancer takes, but also gives

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One of my darkest journalism moments at the Daily News came after the massive layoffs of 2007 and 2008.  That’s when editors were scrambling to fill various sections of the paper. One of their “ideas” included shoving my health stories into a feature section which ran very fluffy health stories (like yoga positions,  diet fads, and the horoscope) once a week.  I wasn’t asked if my stories could appear there. It was just done automatically.  So I fought it. And fought. And fought. And won. That feature section was rightfully killed. Here’s one of those stories that ran in that section that sparked my anger.  I mention it, because the same story about the same organization ran front page in the Los Angeles Times recently.  From my story (February 9, 2009):

NORTHRIDGE – The poet and the painter reunited one recent afternoon to share what brain cancer has given, and what it has taken away.

Judi Kaufman said words began to flow from her mind and onto paper after a tumor stole parts of her brain. She lost her inhibitions, too, allowing her inner poet to emerge.

Mario del Valle discovered paints and brushes after cancer crept into the left side of his brain more than 10 years ago, taking away some vision and mobility on the right side of his body.

But he covers canvases with seascapes and skies in brilliant blues, posies and pansies in yellows and magentas, and bamboo stalks in bright greens, as if his left hand once belonged to Cezanne, to Monet, to van Gogh.

The disease gives and takes.

It took away their former lifestyles: running businesses and presiding over boardrooms, walking and speaking with ease, and driving. But it gave Kaufman and del Valle creativity. And, more important, friendship.

“If it wasn’t for brain cancer, I wouldn’t have known the difference between life and death, and anyone who doesn’t know the difference between life and death doesn’t know anything,” said Kaufman, who was diagnosed with brain cancer in 1997. “And I wouldn’t have met Mario.”

Kaufman met del Valle through the volunteer group Art of the Brain. Thankful for the attention and treatment she received at UCLA, Kaufman founded Art of the Brain (www.artofthebrain.org), which works to increase public awareness about brain cancer, raises money for the UCLA neuro-oncology program to continue its research, and celebrates the art produced by those who have been affected by the disease.

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The group also works as an intricate network of 50 “illness mentors” – or Brain Buddies – volunteers who help those with cancer with everyday activities.Since 2000, the organization has raised more than $1.8 million through its annual galas.Researchers are uncertain whether there is a link between brain cancer and artistic creativity.

But they do see that art becomes a positive outlet, especially because the physical changes brought on by brain cancer can be psychologically difficult to accept. And the illness can be challenging for relatives, spouses and other loved ones.

“Our brain is kind of who we are,” said Dr. Timothy Cloughesy, director ofthe neuro-oncology program at UCLA and researcher for the Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center at the university.

“I have always been blown away by our patients, the struggles they go through and the courage they have,” Cloughesy said. “Mario always comes to mind. Here’s a guy who was a successful businessman. But after brain cancer, he can’t speak, can’t see in his right visual field. He picked up painting with his left hand and gave me these rudimentary paintings. A year later, he had these beautifully detailed paintings, and it affected me.”

While advances in treatments continue, malignant brain tumors remain themost aggressive and lethal form of cancer, Cloughesy said. They occur in 10 to 17 per 100,000 persons. There also is some evidence that the incidence ofbrain tumors in the elderly has increased.

In the United States, an estimated 13,300 people will die annually from primary nervous system tumors, and 17,200 will be diagnosed.

“One of the things that we always talk about with cancer is the benefit ofearly detection,” Cloughesy said. “But we don’t have an equivalent of a Pap smear for brain cancer. We haven’t identified any behaviors such as smoking or dietary habits, so we have no ability to prevent it.”

Cloughesy said his team’s goal is to pursue a more individualized form ofcare to treat brain cancer, because what causes the cancer and the way it spreads differs in each person.

“The more we’re able to identify what drives it, the better we’re able to best control it,” Cloughesy said.

The drug Avastin, used in many types of other cancers, also is proving to help shrink brain tumors, Cloughesy said.

Kaufman began Art of the Brain because she found no organization that helped patients with lifestyle changes as a result of cancer. While Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy’s diagnosis last year helped increase awareness about brain cancer treatments and survival, sometimes those withthe illness undergo several changes, such as difficulty speaking.

And so art speaks for some.

All around the Northridge home del Valle shares with his mother, vibrant paintings hang, proof that while he cannot tell visitors what he finds pretty, he is able to show them. Del Valle continues to struggle with the changes. As owner of his own tire business, he once drove sports cars and loved fast boats.

“I try to remind him to take it all one day at a time,” said Adriana Sullivan, del Valle’s sister.”With brain cancer comes some gifts.”

Sullivan said del Valle never painted before, though their mother, Pillar del Valle, was drawn to art when her children were older. One of Pillar del Valle’s works was reprinted on a book jacket for Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude.”

On a recent day, Kaufman and del Valle visited in his studio. He pulled out albums filled with photo stills of his paintings. And there are photos, too, of who he used to be. He also shows Kaufman a book she wrote on brain cancer, which includes some of her poetry.

Kaufman said before the illness, she was nicknamed “Jude the prude.”But the illness loosened up her mind – and her pen, she said. Charles Bukowski, one of her new favorite writers, would blush at her work, she joked.

“My poor husband. People always say to me, ‘What kind of woman would do that to her husband by writing poems about sex?”‘

Al Martinez, the Bard of L.A., remembered

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For a man who lived for words, Al Martinez was nearly speechless when he visited the Huntington Library three years ago. He was there to see an exhibit that featured decades of his work as a reporter and columnist.  “This is really nice,” he could only tell me.  I had spoken to Al while I worked as an editor for the Daily News on Sundays, when he had written a column for us. Among those, was a series of stories about his daughter’s death from cancer.   Then I met him in person for the first time at the Huntington for the opening of an exhibit about him. Standing in front of all those glass cases where his work had been displayed, he was quiet and humble and genuinely touched that so many people had been touched by his stories.  Martinez was dubbed the Bard of L.A. because of his lyrical style of writing about the complexities of life in Los Angeles, one person, one place and one event at a time, said Sue Hodson, curator of literary manuscripts at The Huntington. Martinez died on Jan. 12, 2015.  He was 85. From my story (Daily News,  March 14, 2012): 

Al Martinez came face to face with himself one recent afternoon inside the West Hall of the Huntington Library, and he was overcome by what he saw.

Surrounded by more than 50 years of his work – from Pulitzer Prize-winning columns and news features, to screenplays and books – Martinez struggled to find the right words to describe what it was like to have so much of his writing life on public display.

“This is really nice,” the Daily News columnist said Wednesday, when he visited the “Al Martinez: Bard of L.A.” exhibit for the first time.

“I’ve written so much for so many years that sometimes the old work is all new to me.”

The new exhibition at the Huntington Library opens to the public on Saturday.

Some of the items include unpublished personal work, such as the neatly typed letters sent by Martinez to his beloved wife Joanne when he was a Marine on the front lines of the Korean War.

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The letters, yellowed by time, display tender moments between the couple as they talk of children and safety. “A foxhole isn’t very deep,” he wrote in one letter. “It’s inadequate actually. But in it, you feel the strength of your own protection and the power of your defense.”

Also displayed are stories from his early days as a reporter at the Richmond (Calif.) Independent beginning in 1952, clips from his time at the Oakland Tribune beginning in 1955, and excerpts of columns from his 25 years at the Los Angeles Times. The exhibit also includes corrected typescripts, first editions of his books, scripts and call sheets from his television writing days, as well as current work from the Daily News and the Topanga Messenger.

Martinez was dubbed the Bard of L.A. because of his lyrical style of writing about the complexities of life in Los Angeles, one person, one place and one event at a time, said Sue Hodson, curator of literary manuscripts at The Huntington, which began receiving the writer’s work in 2006.

“He has a way of finding those human stories that bind us all,” Hodson said. “His work can make us laugh. It can make us cry. And sometimes, it can make us angry at the world and the injustices.”

Born in Oakland, Martinez attended San Francisco State College for three years before joining the Marine Corps during the Korean War. When he returned, he studied at UC Berkeley then became a reporter at the Richmond Independent. At the Oakland Tribune, he wrote six columns a week.

Joanne, his wife of 62 years said she was amazed by how well the curators at The Huntington organized and displayed her husband’s work.

“I’ve always encouraged him to write,” she said. “I always believed he had a gift.”

“I write all the time,” Martinez, 82, said. “I even write when I’m supposed to be sleeping,”

Martinez said he views the exhibit as the end of a certain time period, but it doesn’t mark the end of his life as a writer. He continues to lead the Topanga Writers Workshop, which he created in 2009. And he still writes about his wife, his children and grandchildren, those marvelous martinis he shares with friends and other observations about living in Los Angeles.

“If I didn’t write,” Martinez said, “there wouldn’t be a me.”

Nevada brothels to set example for adult film industry

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Oh dear. Oh boy. Oh my.  My first story of the year was about how the largely Los Angeles County based adult film industry is trying to move to Nevada to avoid the condom law that says all actors should wear protection while engaging in a sex act on set on a California production studio.  Because of Nevada’s Sin City rep, I think many adult film producers figure that their  industry is a natural fit. Nope, say Nevada officials.  Just because we have legal brothels doesn’t mean we don’t have rules, they say.  The photo above is from Getty Images. Those below are from Marc McAndrews’ book Nevada Rose. He spent two years photographing Nevada’s brothels.  Here’s my story (Daily News, Jan. 2, 2015): 

Nevada health officials said this week they are considering enforcing the same regulations required of sex workers in brothels on the adult film industry, which has steadily migrated to the state.

The statement was made after California health officials issued an alert on Monday because an adult film performer in September tested positive for HIV after having unprotected sex with other male actors during two separate film shoots in Nevada. He had tested negative before the shoot but developed symptoms later.

“This alert publicizes the first well-documented case of occupational HIV transmission among actors in the adult film industry, and makes recommendations for preventing HIV transmission during the production of adult films,” according to a statement by the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services. “The public health investigation and the laboratory results provide very strong evidence that one actor transmitted HIV to another actor as a result of unprotected sex during a film shoot.”

Nevada officials said that since California enacted stricter laws related to worker safety and communicable disease prevention in the adult film industry, there has been an increase in production of such filming in Nevada.

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In 2012, the AIDS Healthcare Foundation supported and saw passage of Measure B, a Los Angeles County law that makes condoms mandatory on all adult film shoots, saying that performers deserve to be protected while working. The group is hoping to pass a similar law statewide to strengthen mandates under the state’s Occupational and Safety Health Administration.

But the Free Speech Coalition, a Canoga Park-based organization that represents the adult film industry, has said the testing protocols for sexually transmitted diseases are effective. On most sites, performers are tested every 14 days and are not supposed to work until they receive a clean bill of health. The industry also has said that condoms are impractical because they break and they ruin the aesthetics of sexual fantasy.

The shoot in Nevada occurred in September and is not an immediate threat, according to the Free Speech Coalition.

The group said when it had become aware that the actor might be infected, it called for a halt in production in September. The moratorium is voluntary, but the Free Speech Coalition said most production companies honor it.

While those on the Nevada shoot used HIV testing, it fell below the already established testing protocols, according to the Free Speech Coalition.

“Non-compliant shoots are one of the chief dangers of pushing the adult industry out of state, and outside the established testing protocol,” according to a Free Speech Coalition statement released this week. “Not only did this leave those who participated at risk, it made it much harder to track scene partners once the possible infection was discovered.”

Nevada’s workplace laws are similar to federal standards, which call for personal protective equipment, health officials there said.

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In August, the AIDS Healthcare Foundation filed its first complaint in Nevada against a San Francisco production company that made an adult film in Las Vegas in June.

The film, made for a website run by Kink.com studios, allegedly shows images of performers engaging in activities that “are highly likely to spread blood-borne pathogens and other potentially infectious materials,” according to AHF.

An investigation is underway, Nevada health officials said.

Nevada’s health regulations on licensed brothels require “each patron to wear and use a latex prophylactic while engaging in sexual intercourse, oral-genital contact or any touching of the sexual organs or other intimate parts of a person.”

In addition, “the person in charge of a licensed house of prostitution shall post a health notice. … The cost and mounting of the notice is the responsibility of the house of prostitution.”

Those in charge of the brothel have to report the presence of communicable diseases.

There are about two dozen legal brothels in Nevada.

“Agencies in Nevada and California have been working corroboratively to address this issue,” according to the statement by health officials from Nevada. “Nevada’s strict regulations of sex workers in brothels has resulted in no HIV transmissions in that setting. Nevada is determining if similar law is appropriate for the (adult film industry).”

Rabbi Harold Schulweis, a voice of humanity, dies

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I’m dedicating my last post of 2014 to Rabbi Harold Schulweis who I’ve interviewed several times and who was the voice of wisdom and humanity to so many at Valley Beth Shalom and to the community at large, Jewish or not.  The rabbi died this year in December. He was 89. His life and work reminded me of how much we need voices such as his.  In 2014, when there were so many examples of inhumanity, from civil wars to epidemics, mass shootings to heinous crimes, I also was reminded of a saying by George Bernard Shaw:  The worst sin toward our fellow creatures is not to hate them, but to be indifferent to them; that’s the essence of inhumanity.   Here’s a story I wrote (Daily News, Oct. 20, 2007, )  about why Rabbi Schulweis founded Jewish World Watch and the work the organization was doing. The photo above is by Hans Gutknecht.  May 2015 be a year when we find our humanity.

Thousands of miles from the San Fernando Valley, three local women are bearing witness to the power of giving in a place where so much has been taken away.

As part of a mission through Encino-based Jewish World Watch, Tzivia Schwartz-Getzug, Janice Kamenir-Reznik and Rachel Andres have traveled to Africa in a two-week journey taking them deep into the refugee camps of Chad.

Thousands have settled in the area to escape the violence within the Darfur region of Sudan, and the women are seeing for themselves how the refugees are learning to feed themselves by using solar-powered cookers – devices made of tinfoil and cardboard that operate on sunshine.

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And they have found that the simple device is saving thousands of lives.

“We have tremendous feedback on the effectiveness of the solar cooker,” Schwartz-Getzug wrote in an e-mail on behalf of the three women.

“Because of the way this project was organized, it has helped to empower the women in the camp in many important ways.”

The solar-cooker project is one of many created by Jewish World Watch. Through the nonprofit organization, synagogues, temples, churches and other community organizations from dozens of states have helped to raise $1million.

In addition, the organization has assisted in building water wells and two health clinics in refugee camps.

Made by KoZon, a charitable organization based in the Netherlands, the cookers seem simple in design but are proving invaluable.

They reduce the need for women and girls to venture miles outside of the camps to forage for firewood. Beyond the parameters of the refugee camps, women and girls are exposed to brutality by roaming militias.

So far, 4,500 women in the Iridimi refugee camp are using a total of 10,000 cookers. The goal of Jewish World Watch is to introduce more of the cookers to families in the Iridimi and Touloum refugee camps.

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The conflict between rebel groups and government-backed militias in the Darfur region of western Sudan has been called a humanitarian crisis by the United States and other nations.

Since 2003, an estimated 200,000 people have been killed or have died of starvation or disease, though that figure is disputed in published reports, with some saying up to 400,000 people may have died.

Militias, known as the Janjaweed, have reportedly burned and looted villages and carried out mass killings, torture and rape.

The violence has forced more than 2.5 million people to flee their homes into refugee camps in Chad. Peace talks are expected to take place later this month in Libya.

But the atrocities ring familiar to Jews, said Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom Synagogue in Encino.

“The Jewish people have experienced genocide,” he said. “We know this by the marks on the arms of those in Holocaust.”

But knowing something and doing something are two different things, Schulweis said, which is why he founded Jewish World Watch three years ago.

“During the Holocaust, people asked, `Where are the priests? Where are the churches?”‘ Schulweis said.

And he doesn’t want history to repeat itself.

“We don’t want people to ask: `Where were the rabbis? Where were the synagogues and where were the temples?”‘

So far, Schwartz-Getzug, Kamenir-Reznik and Andres say their two-week journey has become an emotional one because of the unbelievable conditions they are witnessing.

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“First, just seeing the poverty in N’Djamena was overwhelming,” wrote Schwartz-Getzug, executive director of Jewish World Watch and a former attorney who served with the Anti-Defamation League.

“Now in Abeche, seeing the very rudimentary standard of living, coupled with the many trucks full of armed soldiers, has been unnerving.”

Reaching the camps also has proved difficult because of transportation and document checks.

“One major challenge is the bureaucracy and the waiting for all of the permission to travel,” she wrote. “The other is the sheer amount of time logistically it takes to get from the capital city to the refugee camp.

“It is also very, very hot … sort of like the San Fernando Valley on its warmest day ever.”

But the women say they admire relief workers already in the field distributing food, teaching the women to use the solar cookers and providing medical care.

“The relief workers and the United Nations personnel are amazing,” Schwartz-Getzug wrote. “They are not frightened, despite the very real possibility of violence. We admire them greatly for the sacrifices they make.”

Besides observing how the cookers are working out, the women’s goal is to bring home firsthand accounts of the plight of the people of Darfur.

Schwartz-Getzug says the trio wants to “bear witness to the genocide and to let the people who have lost their loved ones and who have been unsettled and dislocated by this genocide know that they are not alone.”

On Skid Row, manicures and pedicures make homeless women feel like queens

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Skid Row is a man’s world. But the Downtown Women’s Center is a sort of safe haven for the women who get caught up in homelessness and just need a hand to get them to a stable place.  What’s great about the Center are the volunteers. I met two incredible volunteers-twins,  who give manicures and pedicures to formerly homeless women. Above is a photo of one of the twins by John McCoy. Below are photos from AP Photographer Jae C. Hong. Here is their story (Daily News, Nov. 28, 2006):

Once – before their nails glimmered under shades of wine red, before their skin felt like velvet – the hands and feet of the residents of the Downtown Women’s Center bore their history of homelessness.

Theirs were fingers stiffened by cold, toes tender from too-small shoes, heels and ankles rough with neglect.

But thanks to the hands and hearts of the “Salon Girls” – twin sisters from the San Fernando Valley who swoop into downtown once a week – the women’s pasts are buffed, massaged and polished away.

“It makes you feel better about yourself,” resident Angela Boughton said of the free manicures and pedicures she receives from the Salon Girls. “It makes me feel good because I’m a little bit of a prima donna.”

The Salon Girls are Anne Walker and Alice Chapman, 47-year-old twins who grew up in Northridge, two of 11 children in a family raised with a sense of giving.

“We were 11 children living on a teacher’s salary,” said Chapman, now a teacher herself. “I remember thinking we were poor because my father was always working, sometimes three jobs. But my parents still set the example of volunteering.”

One night a week for the last three years, the sisters have donned “Salon Girls” T-shirts, loaded the car with snacks, nail files, buffers and dozens of bottles of nail polish with names like Cool Blue Blast and Cappuccino Creme, and headed to the Downtown Women’s Center.

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To the dozens of women who live at the center, the sisters are their own personal fairy godmothers.

“I thank God for Anne and Alice,” said resident Melzina Smith, her toenails twinkling with silver polish.

Chapman and Walker said what they receive in return is a connection to women they otherwise never would have met.

“These are wonderful women,” said Walker, a bookkeeper for a construction company. “I can have the most stressful day at work, and then I come here and all that goes.”

The front door of the Downtown Women Center’s opens directly onto Skid Row. It is the only building where the lights shine from windows at night, not far from the lopsided pup tents and dented cardboard boxes that sprout on sidewalks like mushrooms.

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Founder Jill Halverson established the center in 1978, after noticing that Skid Row was very much a man’s world. Facilities where homeless women could bathe, eat and sleep were nonexistent after the closure of mental hospitals in the 1970s, forcing women with emotional problems to turn to shabby hotels or the streets.

Halverson’s storefront has since evolved to a facility that houses 45 women who pay $190 a month for a personal bedroom, as well as a day center, where up to 2,000 homeless women a year stop in for meals, showers, and a place to rest and socialize.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s recent commitment to clean up Skid Row has benefited the agency, with politicians recognizing that women have special needs, officials said. There are even plans to move and expand the center.

“The mayor has put a lot of good focus on homelessness in the community,” said Anisa Mendizabal, the center’s planning director. “Councilwoman Jan Perry has helped us locate a building which will be very accessible.”

Still, women who live on Skid Row remain vulnerable, Mendizabal said. A survey conducted in 2004 found that 70 percent of the women living in on Skid Row have been victims of violence.

“Another thing that is very disturbing to us is that about 20 percent of the women exchange a sexual favor for protection, for food,” she said.

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As a result, many of the women are mistrustful – a reticence the Salon Girls help overcome.

“Anne and Alice help break the social isolation of these women,” said Brooke Lykins, volunteer coordinator for the center. “By giving these women a simple manicure or a pedicure, by talking to them, they spot health issues such as diabetes and bring it to our attention.”

For Chapman and Walker, the few hours they spend at the center is less about volunteering and more about visiting with friends.

They liked the experience so much, they began to bring their daughters along, to instill in them a sense of giving.

“I wanted them to have an experience outside themselves,” said Chapman, whose daughters Jackie, 18, Caitlin, 14, and Margaret, 13, along with Walker’s daughter, 10-year-old Alyssa, all help paint nails.

“I’m really thankful that I had this opportunity,” said Jackie Chapman, who wrote a paper about one of the center’s women that helped her get into California State University, Northridge.

“I think it’s helped me grow … It’s taught me everything is not always about me.”

Chapman and Walker said businesses in San Fernando Valley have been generous in donating supplies, but the sisters hope to encourage more women from the Valley to volunteer. The center hosts several volunteering opportunities-from cooking clubs to serving meals.

“Being here with these women demystifies Skid Row,” Walker said. “It takes out some of the fear of what it’s like down here. I realized after meeting them, it could be any one of us.”

Detectives search for ID’s among unclaimed dead

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There have been many stories lately regarding the John and Jane Doe’s at the Los Angeles County Morgue. That’s because not only are there more than 6,000 unclaimed bodies, but among them, there are nearly 600 unidentified human beings. Back when I wrote about it in 2005, there were actual photographs of the dead on the Los Angeles County Coroner’s office website. Here is my story about the unidentified, unclaimed bodies (Daily News, Nov. 9, 2005):

Inside the Los Angeles County morgue, John Doe No. 132 plays a silent game of Who Am I? with the forensic investigators trying to identify him.

A ragged, heart-shaped tattoo around the word “Hi” marks his left calf. Stud earrings shine from his lobes. Scars run up his right leg to his hip. His white T-shirt reads: “Simply for Sports.”

“He could have been a labor worker,” said Gilda Tolbert, an investigator who works with her husband, Doyle Tolbert, and a partner, Daniel Machian, for the Los Angeles County Department of Coroner.

“He could have wanted to be in a gang. Those tattoos, they seem homemade, not done in prison.”

Often with even fewer clues to guide them, the investigating trio embarks on an arduous search for the names – and then the survivors – of about 30 corpses each year whose identities stump authorities.

Now, the Internet is making their job a little easier. Inspired by a similar Web site run by Mexican authorities in Tijuana, the county coroner last year set up a virtual morgue, complete with photos of the deceased and a description of when, where and how they were found.

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So far, the macabre site has been credited with identifying two bodies and leading family and friends to claim the remains of 10 others.

That may not sound like a huge accomplishment, if you consider the county – home to one of the nation’s busiest morgues – has had some 3,000 unclaimed remains since the early 1990s.

But the three investigators are confident it will lead to more identifications and claims.

“We’re going back a lot more, putting in older cases,” Machian said. “We’ve had a couple of hits on it. We expect to get more hits as people become more aware of it.”

Carrying a warning that the contents could be disturbing to viewers, the site includes a collection of photographs and sketches of thousands of unidentified corpses. Their expressions vary from peaceful to tormented, depending on their manner of death.

Descriptions of race, approximate age, scars, tattoos, clothing and other remains are also noted.

“They all leave behind a tale,” Machian said, referring to the scars, the tattoos, the moles and the gold or silver dental fillings. “You just have to know how to uncover it. You have to determine what they are trying to tell you.”

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Thousands of people flock to Los Angeles each year in search of fame or fortune or simply to start a new life.

Many, such as migrant workers, die in anonymity, far from loved ones in Central America and Mexico. In recent years, the number of Latino corpses has increased, making the job tougher for Machian and the Tolberts.

“I think a lot of the difficulties (in identifying) in the last years are those that are coming over the border and are here illegally,” Gilda Tolbert said. “There are times they could be here under a different name.

“Some of the difficulties we have is loved ones are not coming forward. A lot of them don’t even know where to start looking for someone.”

But even if a body is identified, the job is not finished. In fact, that is when Doyle Tolbert begins searching for the deceased’s next of kin.

He searches the Internet, credit reports and criminal records. He may have to contact former neighbors of the dead in Oklahoma or find a translator to help him call Iran.

But some identified bodies are never claimed or families members never found.

“They could have lost touch with the family,” Machian said. “Family members get into disagreements. Sometimes people leave because of a lifestyle they lead, and they don’t want their family to know. There are a lot of reasons.”

Sometimes, a family member will emerge 20 years later.

“I just had one mom in here who hadn’t seen her son since 1982,” Doyle Tolbert said. “It can be like a kick in the stomach to have to tell a loved one the final news.

“But a lot of people fear the worst. They imagine their son or daughter out on the streets, exposed, exploited, but for some reason, even though the death is hard, it is easier to take.”

Over the last year, the coroner’s office has worked to get its Web site linked to more databases across the nation and around the world, which has cut down on some of the legwork in getting clues. And any help is welcome.

Each year, about 400 nameless dead come through the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office.

Most cases are relatively easy to solve: They’re listed as a missing person, have fingerprints with a police department or have children or a spouse searching for them.

But about 30 arrive without wallets or driver’s licenses or even a piece of paper with a friend’s telephone number.

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John Doe No. 132, who had the poorly drawn tattoo on his calf, was found Aug. 15 on a sidewalk in the 100 block of West 45th Street in Los Angeles.

A Latino believed to be in his 20s, who was known around the neighborhood of Chakali, he was killed in a gang-related shooting. Based on police interviews, he is believed to have come from Van Nuys.

After three months, Machian said, there are no missing person’s reports on a man fitting No. 132’s description, and his prints do not match with those in the police database. If Machian believes a lead is coming, John Doe No. 132 will stay in the morgue a bit longer, maybe up to a year.

But if no one comes forward to help identify him, No. 132 will be X-rayed and photographed from head to toe, then cremated. His possessions will be placed in a box and his remains will be held for three years.

After that, his ashes will be deposited into a common grave at the Los Angeles County Cemetery.

“The last thing we want to do is have (the Does) cremated by the county,” Machian said. “You feel bad, because you kind of failed.”