Still Harping on Refugees

On the first day of class this term, I had my Advanced English as a Second Language class watch Martin Luther King Jr’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Even though they couldn’t understand a large part of it, especially his many poetic and scriptural references, they still responded to the cadences and emotion of his speech. Later, they read a transcript.

The next day, I went for coffee with 3 Syrian women. Recent arrivals, they came 6 months ago through another Middle Eastern country, where they left their husbands to earn money while they came on alone to seek asylum.* They are struggling with a new culture, a new language (although all 3 speak decent English), with getting kids adjusted to new schools, all while adjusting to being single mothers. It’s a lot to deal with, and they are very grateful for overtures of friendship.

turkish-coffee

picture from prefectdailygrind.com  Credit: LWYang, Flikr.

One wanted to talk about the speech. “Syrian people had the same wishes,” she told me. “And instead we all died. Why?” She was talking of the protests of the Arab Spring, and how their president’s reaction in gunning down those who spoke out against him was what sparked this bloody, brutal war that has been going 5 years with no end in sight. I could not answer her question. Why indeed? The Syrian situation is a quagmire, and while speedy involvement may have made sense, that moment is long past, swept into a maelstrom of ISIS and Assad and Aleppo and the Turks and the Kurds and the Iranians and the Russians.

I thought about our own history as Americans. Ironic, isn’t it? We love freedom fighters when they’re us, our own illustrious ancestors, but not when they’re anybody else. History as past and decided, with lines drawn sharp and definite, is one thing, but history as its being written is another, messy and blurry with sides that are sometimes indistinguishable. I believe, though, that we can make the right choice, figure out where we want to be whether or not history sides with us. And that is on the side of the civil rights marchers and the refugees, the ones marginalized and powerless.

“Syrian people had the same wishes,” she told me.

“And instead we all died. Why?”

The news is not all bleak. In the span of 3 days, I heard of 2 different incidents involving different women in different stores, both of whom wear the hijab. Both were approached by strangers, who assured them of their welcome and hugged them. One, a sensitive soul, cried great gulping tears of gratitude. She is still crying days later when she tells me about the 2 women who told her, “Just because one person says they don’t want you doesn’t mean we all feel this way” and then hugged her. “They had to find kleenex for me because I couldn’t stop crying,” she says. She joyfully recounts the tale to her family back in Iraq, along with stories of protest marches and stinging editorials and even my Facebook posts, proof that not all Americans are anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant, proof that compassion can be found in unexpected places.

Tomorrow in class we’re having a Valentine’s Day party, 3 days after the fact. This is partly because Fridays are just good party days. I have told them not to bring heavy foods, as experience has taught me that these parties at 10 a.m. tend to include enormous platters of rice and chicken dishes, fried meat pastries, and much more. “Just finger food,” I urge. “Small things. Cookies. Or nothing. You don’t have to bring anything.” On Wednesday I already came home with a dozen red roses wrapped in tulle and 3 plates of food, all gifts from students.

We will put our chairs in a circle and talk, awkwardly balance pink paper plates and heart-covered napkins, bought 50% off after the day itself. We will discuss, with small corrections of grammar, the various things that have brought us to this place–a mix of professors and housewives and teachers and electrical engineers and scuba divers and people who list “cleaning” as a hobby.  Not all of us are refugees according to our passports, but we are all looking for friendship and a sense of community. So we will struggle forward, learning acceptance, offering friendship.

*Asylum seekers can’t work until their cases get to a certain point in the process. It typically takes about 6 months to get a work permit. Imagine having to survive 6 months without an income!

It Actually is Black & White

So I’ve gone from being mostly silent on social media to speaking out against the president’s recent executive order on immigration, and this morning I got called on the carpet, so to speak, at my church. One of the pastors, very gently, wanted to have a conversation with us about how strongly we were expressing ourselves. His problem wasn’t exactly with our opinions, but with how he perceived us being critical of the church.

A boy without a bed.  A girl afraid to close her eyes.  A child who dreams of when bedtime didn’t bring terror.  More than two million children have been forced from their homes by the war in Syria. Refugee children in neighbouring countries or making journeys through Europe show us where they sleep while they await an uncertain future.  Magnus Wennman, winner of two World Press Photo Awards, has partnered with UNHCR to raise awareness about refugee children. ––– Ahmed, 6 Horgos, Serbia It is after midnight when Ahmed falls asleep in the grass. The adults are still awake, formulating plans for how they will continue their journey through Hungary. Ahmed is six years old, and he carries his own bag over the long stretches that his family walks by foot. “He is brave and only cries sometimes in the evenings,” says his uncle, who has taken care of Ahmed since his father was killed in their hometown of Deir ez-Zor in northern Syria.


Magnus Wennman, winner of two World Press Photo Awards, has partnered with UNHCR to raise awareness about refugee children.
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Ahmed, 6
Horgos, Serbia
It is after midnight when Ahmed falls asleep in the grass. The adults are still awake, formulating plans for how they will continue their journey through Hungary. Ahmed is six years old, and he carries his own bag over the long stretches that his family walks by foot. “He is brave and only cries sometimes in the evenings,” says his uncle, who has taken care of Ahmed since his father was killed in their hometown of Deir ez-Zor in northern Syria.

He’s right. We are critical of the church, by which I mean American evangelicalism in general. The church, as he rightly pointed out, is made up of broken people who have been redeemed and are all in process of being sanctified. I know that, and I also know that I fall far short myself. I tend to love my Muslim refugee neighbor to such an extent that I sometimes have a harder time loving my white suburban neighbor too, but of course both need it.

In case you can’t tell, I go to a conservative church. It’s actually a great church in many ways, filled with generous people who love Scripture. Our church loves the Bible. But it has some blind spots, and they coincidentally seem to coincide with many of the shortcomings of the Republican party. The people at my church who are most vocal are very politically conservative. So they are reacting in a loving but conservative way to the refugee ban. They say things like, “government’s main job is to keep us safe” and “a sensible cap on numbers so we can properly care for them” and “it’s good to take a break from letting in refugees so we can really work on the vetting program and then we’ll let some of them in.” They say “those commands are for individuals and we should do that but governments have different commands.” And it’s snowing in Greece, in Jordan, in Lebanon’s Bekkah Valley, and families are sleeping on frozen ground in unheated tents, and dying of exposure, all so we can feel safer. Refugee families who have lost everything already are losing whatever shreds of hope they had, and people who love their Bibles think God is okay with that because government’s main job is to keep us safe. Caring is optional. It’s great that I care, I’ve been told, but they don’t have to. They can care about something else. I don’t have the right to tell them what God’s heart is.

A boy without a bed.  A girl afraid to close her eyes.  A child who dreams of when bedtime didn’t bring terror.  More than two million children have been forced from their homes by the war in Syria. Refugee children in neighbouring countries or making journeys through Europe show us where they sleep while they await an uncertain future.  Magnus Wennman, winner of two World Press Photo Awards, has partnered with UNHCR to raise awareness about refugee children. ––– Walaa, 5 Mar Elias informal settlement, Lebanon Walaa wants to go home. She had her own room in Aleppo, Syria, she tells us. There, she never used to cry at bedtime. Here, in the informal settlement, she cries every night. Resting her head on the pillow is horrible, she says, because nighttime is horrible. That was when the attacks happened. By day, Walaa’s mother often builds a little house out of pillows, to teach her that they are nothing to be afraid of.


Magnus Wennman, winner of two World Press Photo Awards, has partnered with UNHCR to raise awareness about refugee children.
–––
Walaa, 5
Mar Elias informal settlement, Lebanon
Walaa wants to go home. She had her own room in Aleppo, Syria, she tells us. There, she never used to cry at bedtime. Here, in the informal settlement, she cries every night. Resting her head on the pillow is horrible, she says, because nighttime is horrible. That was when the attacks happened. By day, Walaa’s mother often builds a little house out of pillows, to teach her that they are nothing to be afraid of.

If I was fiery about abortion, these good people would applaud me–not because they see it as a Republican issue, but because they see it as morally black and white. Murder, plain and simple. They start with it being wrong and work their way on to it being partisan. But refugee care is like that. It doesn’t matter that Trump is a Republican. I couldn’t care less who created this chaos. Caring for desperate, needy people is the very heart of God, and it should be the least controversial topic at church.

My pastor talked to me about “calling.” It’s my calling to care, and that’s good, but everyone else can choose. Hear me out: I’m not saying that you as a Christian have to be involved in refugee care. You may or may not be called to go minister in refugee camps or spend your daylight hours driving recent arrivals to doctor’s appointments or grocery stores. You don’t need to march in protests if you don’t want to. BUT. You do need to care. You do need to let it inform your vote. You do need to not support practices that break families even further. It’s not controversial. It’s not partisan. It’s right and wrong.

A boy without a bed.  A girl afraid to close her eyes.  A child who dreams of when bedtime didn’t bring terror.  More than two million children have been forced from their homes by the war in Syria. Refugee children in neighbouring countries or making journeys through Europe show us where they sleep while they await an uncertain future.  Magnus Wennman, winner of two World Press Photo Awards, has partnered with UNHCR to raise awareness about refugee children. ––– Ralia, 7, and Rahaf, 13 Beirut, Lebanon Ralia and Rahaf live on the streets of Beirut. They are from Damascus, where a grenade killed their mother and brother. The girls and their father have been sleeping on the street for a year. They huddle close together on their cardboard boxes. Rahaf says she is scared of “bad boys,” at which Ralia starts crying.


Magnus Wennman, winner of two World Press Photo Awards, has partnered with UNHCR to raise awareness about refugee children.
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Ralia, 7, and Rahaf, 13
Beirut, Lebanon
Ralia and Rahaf live on the streets of Beirut. They are from Damascus, where a grenade killed their mother and brother. The girls and their father have been sleeping on the street for a year. They huddle close together on their cardboard boxes. Rahaf says she is scared of “bad boys,” at which Ralia starts crying.

“What if God wants America to take a 120-day break from letting refugees in?” our pastor asked. I’m still grappling with how to respond to that, but my husband was ready. “I am not taking a break from caring for them or advocating for them,” he said. “And I don’t believe God is taking a break from them either.”

I left the meeting at the church running late for a coffee downtown with a Syrian asylum seeker. We’re friends on Facebook, so she’s seen my posts. She thanked me for, as she put it, “fighting for the Arab people.” She’s broken-hearted at the response in her church to the crisis, and she loves that I’m fiery about it. I have gotten this over and over from my refugee friends. They love that I am showing my love for them by fighting for them. They take comfort in the fact that I care so deeply about them that I’m being emotional, and that I’m taking on other people on their behalf.

And tomorrow, I will visit a woman whose mother is dying and who desperately longs to go visit, but she’s afraid to leave her house, husband and children, in case she can’t come back. My husband will continue to help a man who is trying to bring his wife and toddler here. The wife was approved a year ago but they are still waiting for the 2 year old to get through the vetting process. They all have stories for us to listen to, and they all ask us to pray for them.

But I need prayer too; that my righteous anger would be like Jesus’ and heal, not scorch.

*I’m assuming you already know that we have a very strict vetting process in place. For more information, this is a helpful article. 

 

 

Random Thoughts on the day of the Feast of the Innocents

At the end of a year in which our world seems even crazier than normal, our hearts are heavy. We stagger under it the weight of it–deaths of innocents in Aleppo, in Mosul, in the Mediterranean Sea fleeing death on land, in all countries on earth as Herod’s spirit lives on in despots clinging to power by whatever means necessary. Deaths caused because the victim is the wrong color, in the wrong place, the wrong kind of religion, the wrong side of the fence.

A voice is heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted
because they are no more.

Ever since I had children, these words have struck a chill in my soul. What could be worse? How could those mothers in Bethlehem have carried on? I know an Iraqi woman who was kidnapped and held for ransom by a militia practicing a different kind of Islam than hers; she was tortured and her youngest son was killed in front of her. She is a difficult woman to love; she’s secretive, she steals small things from the church where she comes for free English classes and day-old bread from a small food bank. She doesn’t tell her story. I knew her 3 years before her daughter, recently  arrived, told me. “We had to get mamma out,” she tells me. “That’s why she came by herself.” In that moment, I forgave her everything. She may have carried on, but she’s damaged, deep within her psyche. And I am in awe of her, and of all these mothers and fathers and grandmothers and wives and husbands, who have suffered unimaginable loss.

We have a friend here, a man on his own who fled when his life was targeted and whose wife and children said, “Go now; we will finish up here and join you.” And then ISIS swept into Mosul, and there they still are. The other day, my husband was visiting him and he showed him a news video from Mosul. A house blew up; there was gunfire; then a group of civilians emerged cautiously and ran to safety. He paused the video: “That’s my daughter,” he said, pointing; “And that’s my grandson. There’s her father-in-law…” This man is an artist and is selling prints of his paintings to raise money to send to his daughter and her family, now living in a tent, hungry and shivering in the cold desert nights of Northern Iraq. His wife and youngest two children are still in ISIS-controlled territory. He has no news, and doesn’t like to talk about it.

fleeing-mosul

Image from The Times 

The other day I was feeling sorry for myself, thinking on damaged relationships and distant children (is it really true that they can rebel and it’s not your fault, at least partly? What could you have done differently? There are things you could have and should have done differently, that you know). And I caught sight of that painting, and all my sorrow fell into perspective, and I fell to my knees (metaphorically) and dried my tears and prayed instead for this family and others caught up in war and separation and starvation and desperation.

We are only 3 days after celebrating the Incarnation, the “good news of great joy to all people,” and we are already remembering sorrows that pierce the very soul. How can this be? How can the promises we cling to, that God will wipe every tear, that the lion shall lie down with the lamb and they shall not hurt or destroy, even be possible? What joy can erase seeing your beloved son killed by those who hate him and who disregard all lives but their very own?

I don’t know. I know Jesus, God With Us, who sees all things past and future and knows all things seen and unseen, saw such joy ahead of him that he went to the cross and despised its shame. I know that eternal perspective gives us a weight of glory that makes current troubles light and insignificant, and I believe this even though I don’t understand it. I think C.S. Lewis described it so helpfully at the end of The Great Divorce;

“Son,’he said,’ ye cannot in your present state understand eternity…That is what mortals misunderstand. They say of some temporal suffering, “No future bliss can make up for it,” not knowing that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory.”

As Lewis so often does, he makes reality sound both magical and logical, possible.

I don’t know what to do with all the suffering in the world, but I know what I need to do with those in front of me. Weep with them, dry their tears, carry their burdens as much as I can. What this looks like means visiting them, spending time listening to them, taking them out of their lonely apartments for a bit, helping them for a minute even see something beyond sorrow, even if it’s just pretty lights and decorated trees. Telling them that one day, even death will be no more, and there waits for us an eternal weight of glory.