A report by Karen Roberts for LoHud.com
For Janina Rubinowitz, receiving a gold medal from the United Nations for her humanitarian work with the Suriname Maroons, who live in the Amazon rainforest, is as much a recognition of this fascinating culture as it is of her personal efforts.
“It was unexpected and an honor,” said Rubinowitz, who lives in Mohegan Lake. “I am honored by the affirmation of the government of my activities in the interior of Suriname with the Maroon culture.”
The U.N. ceremony recognizing the government of Suriname will honor Rubinowitz with a medal as commander in the Honorary Order of the Palm, along with three Suriname men in a ceremony on Wednesday.
The story began 50 years ago when a friend told Rubinowitz, a school teacher in Westchester County, about Africans, known as Maroons, who had run away and found freedom in the interior of the South American Amazon rain forest. She traveled there, initially interested in the civil rights angle, before becoming enamored by the culture and the people.
“A very exciting story especially in the early days of civil rights activism,” she said.
Maroon communities are found throughout the Caribbean, North America, Central America, South Asia and South America. The Maroons led revolutions and settled independent communities to flee European enslavement in the Americas and Caribbean islands dating to the 16th century.
“The first time I went, at 28-29 years old, they were kind of suspicious,” Rubinowitz said.
By her second trip, the art teacher received a warmer welcome from the community.
“After I got home, I decided to go back,” she said. “I felt I needed to learn much more and there was very little written about these people in English.”
Those trips turned into multiple visits spanning 50 years.
“I returned, and returned and returned ….,” she said. “And a few years into it, I got my own house there and made deep friendships as I slowly learned the language. I sat for hours in the tropical heat … listening, learning and being patient.”
Rubinowitz experienced no-frills accommodations but gained a wealth for education in culture, collecting artifacts she eventually donated to the Anacostia division of the Smithsonian Institution.
“About fifteen years ago I started a humanitarian aid organization, bringing medications and medical equipment, and also providing a breakfast program for the elderly in my neighboring village, for a total of eleven years until I became ill and had to stop,” she said. “I did deliver the stuff myself, collected money and gathered lots of equipment here in northern Westchester. Jacobson’s (surgical pharmacy) in Mount Kisco was a very kind donation source of some of the equipment “
Her association with the Maroon tribes of Suriname touches on current themes of racism and environmentalism, including climate change and flooding in the Amazon rain forest, something she has seen first hand.
“It has been affecting them terribly,” she said. “They have been experiencing flooding in the last 10 years so badly that some villages have had to move to other villages for shelter. Not even in their oral history have they experienced this.”
The recent white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the prevalence of “Unite the Right” racial hate in this country serve as a contrast to the acceptance that Rubinowitz experienced as a white woman in black culture during her years in Suriname.
“I recognize that their sophistication in race relations is greater than the people in my own culture,” she said. “It is very difficult for me to understand that we did not fix this yet. I was an educator — what I experienced in the school district where I worked was they took it seriously, and it’s an education issue after all. You have to unlearn the myth.”
Rubinowitz isn’t able to travel to South America any longer but has hosted Suriname Maroons in her home. She will receive her medal from the ambassador of Suriname.
“I feel I got much more than I gave,” she said. “It was a life-changing experience; it taught me the oneness of humanity.”