#WorldRefugeeDay 2018

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“you have to understand, that no one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land” 

“Home,” by Warsan Shire

In the past few years I have had the privilege of meeting and hearing stories from many refugees and displaced people in different parts of the world. From the Sindh region of Pakistan to Northern Iraq, these are people who live out a stubborn resilience and will to not only survive, but thrive.

Brave.Resilient.Fierce.Tenacious.Creative.Strong. These are just a few of the adjectives I would use to describe the people who I’ve met. The stories I have heard include tragedy, humor, and everything in between. It’s a tapestry of the human spirit and a representation of the image of God in each woman, man, and child.

In the midst of the world wide crises another refugee/migrant crisis has been created on the borders of the United States. Children are being separated from their parents due to a ‘zero tolerance’ policy put in place on 4/6/2018. The policy was created by John Kelly and Stephen Miller to serve as a deterrent for undocumented immigration. It was approved by Trump and adopted by Sessions. While previous administrations detained migrant families, they did not have a practice of forcibly separating parents and children unless the adults were deemed unfit and unsuitable to care for their children.

Make no mistake – when voices on the left and the right all agree, then truth has risen above politics. That truth is this: This ‘zero tolerance’ policy that has been implemented at the U.S./Mexico border is immoral and evil. It separates families in unthinkable ways and punishes those who are desperate.

Consider these words released today by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on World Refugee Day: “The United States will continue to be a world leader in providing humanitarian assistance and working to forge political solutions to the underlying conflicts that drive displacement.” 

And yet, recordings of children sobbing at detentions centers go viral while in the background an agent is heard joking with the words: “We have an orchestra here.”

This, my friends, is cognitive dissonance: the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially as relating to behavioral decisions and attitude change.

Most of us have little influence when it comes to big policy decisions, but truth challenges all of us to seek justice and a better way, and what better day to do that than the day set aside for #WorldRefugeeDay?

Can we ask ourselves these questions today:

  • How can we combat the cognitive dissonance that we see in ourselves and many around us?
  • What can we do to overcome apathy or fear?
  • What do you specifically need to do to avoid compassion fatigue and information overload so that you can care about what matters? What prayers need to be a part of our daily life? How do we need to start the day in order to face, with wisdom and grace, our life and the news around us?
  • What specific things in your community could you do to welcome refugees?
    • ESL Classes
    • Boston Area volunteer opportunities to teach English
    • Invite refugees and immigrants into your home or church.
    • Employ refugees – whether it’s for short or long term, if you have the ability to employ someone, do it.
    • Volunteer your skills – Are you a nurse? Social worker? Coach? Artist? Teacher? Use what you do well – don’t try to do something you are not good at!
    • Take this free online course on refugee rights.
  • How can we change some of the common myths and narratives, that are not based on fact, that marginalize refugees?

Lastly, will you take a moment on this day and pray this prayer:

Prayer for refugees from Catholic Relief Services

God of our Wandering Ancestors,
Long have we known
That your heart is with the refugee:
That you were born into time
In a family of refugees
Fleeing violence in their homeland,
Who then gathered up their hungry child
And fled into alien country.

Their cry, your cry, resounds through the ages:
“Will you let me in?”

Give us hearts that break open
When our brothers and sisters turn to us
with that same cry.
Then surely all these things will follow:
Ears will no longer turn deaf to their voices.
Eyes will see a moment for grace instead of a threat.
Tongues will not be silenced but will instead advocate.
And hands will reach out—
working for peace in their homeland,
working for justice in the lands where they seek safe haven.

Lord, protect all refugees in their travels.
May they find a friend in me
And so make me worthy
Of the refuge I have found in you.

Amen.


Friends – I am also incredibly excited to invite you to participate in the GoFundMe to help a country that has faced more than its share of war and displacement. Would you consider helping?


Articles from right to left: 

God of the Displaced and Exiled

Oh God of the displaced and exiled,

Hear the prayers of those in limbo.

Wipe the tears of mothers who parent children without a home.

Feed those who are hungry; keep safe those who are in danger.

Give strength to the helpers and the healers; to those who work tirelessly for justice.

Give us the spirit of courage and not fear that we might welcome the stranger in our midst.

Root out lazy prejudice that would block us from receiving those in need.

Give us ears to hear the voices that cry out in desperation, making impossible choices for their families.

Consume the conscience of lawmakers and policy enforcers with the holy fire of compassion, that they may open their hearts and their borders to those desperate for shelter.

Remind us that your prophets spoke words many years ago that are still true today; remind us that you have always cared for the oppressed, have always urged your people to care for the displaced and exiled.

Oh God hear my prayer for the displaced and the exile.

“Lord, listen! Lord, forgive! Lord, hear and act! For your sake, my God, do not delay, because your city and your people bear your Name.”*


All week my heart has been aching for those displaced. This morning my brother Dan sent me an article that the United States is on track to admit less refugees than it has since the beginning of the refugee program in 1980. There is simply no excuse. With the resources we have and the crisis being what it is, there is no excuse.

*Daniel 9:19

International Women’s Day 2018

Every year I write about International Women’s Day – the day set aside to honor women, to highlight the critical role they play in all of life. From nurturing life at its earliest stages to nurturing families, communities, and countries, women are critical to human survival. Not only do women change the world within homes and communities, but they also change the world in their workplaces. But there are still huge changes that need to happen so that women can not only survive, but thrive.

The very first International Women’s Day took place in New York City in 1909 on February 28th. In 1917, the Soviet Union declared March 8th a national holiday. It is interesting that the first countries to embrace International Women’s Day were socialist and communist countries. (That, my friends, is an observation, not an opinion.)

Though I believe implicitly in the importance of this day at every level, this year I find it more difficult to write about. I feel curiously uninspired and not a little discouraged. It seems that we can’t even agree on Women’s Day, let alone anything else. Sometimes we women are our own worst enemies.

As I was thinking about this, I decided that today I would highlight a project that I have been involved in this past year and introduce some of the unique women who have participated in the project.

Let me give you a little history: I began my job working for a state department of public health nine years ago. I began in a consultant role, and three months later I was hired as a full-time employee. The program I work for is a federally funded women’s health program that focuses on breast and cervical cancer screening in underserved communities. Two years after I started I began asking aloud if we might think about doing a project with the Muslim community in Massachusetts. It’s a big, diverse community and I believed we had a lot to learn about the community. Every year I brought it up. Like a record that is scratched and broken repeating the same thing over and over I would say “What about the foreign-born Muslim community? What can we learn in this community?

A year and a half ago, we received funding to do an assessment on attitudes toward breast and cervical cancer screening in the foreign-born Muslim community. I was over the moon.

We finished the assessment this fall, and our next steps are working side by side with the community and taking what we have learned to develop community and health provider trainings.

This project has been a gift. In an era where Muslims are seen as ‘other’ and therefore suspect, I have had the privilege of meeting with Muslim women from many parts of the world. All of them were born elsewhere and most came here as refugees. I have met doctors from Syria, Algeria, and Iran. I have met public health professionals. I have met housewives and many in the service industry. Every one of them has experienced untold loss, and many can never go back to their countries of origin; many cannot go home.

There’s Heba, a brilliant doctor from Syria. She has embraced this project and opened her heart. She is a gifted teacher and watching her speak to her community is amazing. Besides this, she has a new baby boy and a four-year old daughter.

There’s Afsaneh. Afsaneh is from Iran and she is also a doctor. She too has welcomed the project, leading dynamic focus groups so that we can learn from her community.

There’s Houria from Algeria; Saida and Naima from Somalia; and Annam from Pakistan. All of them have offered their unique perspective and stamp on the project. They are diverse in age, culture, and views of Islam, but all of them care deeply about their communities and their faith.

Those of us who are working on the project have been received into the broader Muslim community with uncommon generosity and grace, sharing meals and conversation, brainstorming sessions and ideas. Although we could easily have been viewed suspiciously, we weren’t. Instead we were welcomed with arms and hearts wide open.

And we have learned so much. Women shared honestly and openly about their views towards women’s health in particular, and the health care system in general.

I’ve learned a lot in this project, but one of the biggest things I keep coming back to is that change takes time. For me, being bold for change meant being persistent in my request for time and funds to do this project. Being bold for change means humbly going to a community and saying “I don’t know enough. Please help me understand more.” Being bold for change means going out of your comfort zone and hearing another point of view, another side of an issue. Being bold for change means building bridges that connect, not walls that divide. All of this takes time.

Today on International Women’s Day, I celebrate this project even as I remember the bigger picture that shows me so much more needs to be done. Happy International Women’s Day 2018 – All is not lost. 

Building bridges means moving beyond my enclave of cultural comfort to a place of cultural humility and willingness to learn.”*

____________________

*from Between Worlds, Essays on Culture and Belonging

Immigrant Families – A New Report

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Photo Credit: http://www.fhcw.org/en/Home

In the last two years, the immigration debate has become louder and arguably less civil. Political platforms and decisions based on fear have dominated the conversation, but behind the conversation are approximately 23 million people. The number includes those lawfully present as well as those who are undocumented. It includes around 12 million children who are legal citizens born in the United States, but whose parents are non-citizens.

How does the current climate affect the health and daily lives of these millions of people?

Kaiser Family Foundation wanted to find out more, and so began work with a research company to interview families in 8 cities in 4 states. They also interviewed pediatricians who work closely with immigrant families in these cities.

Their findings are significant and troubling. Among those findings are these:

  • Fears of deportation and overall uncertainty have increased in the last year. These fears extend to those who are here lawfully.

“I feel unsettled. Even though we already have the green card, if we do not apply for citizenship, I don’t think we can be at ease.” –Korean Parent, Chicago, Illinois

“Uncomfortable and unstable; we feel that in any moment a new rule could be issued leading to expelling us and sending us back.” –Arabic-speaking Parent, Anaheim, California

“There’s no stability. [The President] could write a tweet on Twitter tomorrow and turn things upside down.” –Arabic-speaking Parent, Anaheim, California

  • Children are facing increased fear that their parents will be deported and/or that they will end up having to uproot their lives and go to their parent’s countries.

“My children would come home from school and say that at school they were saying that all parents would be deported…” –Portuguese-speaking Parent, Chicago, Illinois

“All the children, even if they were born here, are fearful. They fear that anytime they’ll come back from school and won’t find their parents there.” –Latino Parent, Chicago, Illinois

“In Brownsville we have about 1,700 homeless children in the schools. Many of those children are homeless because of a parent that was deported or placed in detention.” –Pediatrician, Texas

  • Pediatricians and participants said that bullying and discrimination at work and at school has increased in the past year.

“They get bullied…told things like, ‘now you and your family will have to leave.’….And so, even though those kids don’t actually have to worry about their immigration status, I think obviously a child, they don’t know the details of how the system works.” –Pediatrician, Pennsylvania

“I work in landscaping, and we’re working and they see you working…and they just start yelling stuff at you…” –Latino Parent, Fresno, California

  • Families are making changes in their daily lives and routines base on fear.

 

“I am also concerned because if anything happens to us on the street, if we get assaulted or something, we won’t even be able to call the police because they will see we are immigrants.”      –Latino Parent, Boston, Massachusetts

“…but now around six or seven in the evening you won’t find anyone in [the neighborhood]… due to the fear we all feel about what is going to happen.” –Latino Parent, Chicago, Illinois

  • Increased fear in kids is resulting in behavioral issues, mental health problems, and psychosomatic symptoms.

“The kids who come in with concerns that you can kind of trace back to anxiety are usually the upper elementary age students, like the 3rd, 4th graders, to middle school students… 7th and 8th grade, who have nonspecific complaints like abnormal pain or headaches or decreased appetites… And then, in kids that are in the junior high to high school age range, it’s a little more overt: sadness, decreased appetite, not wanting to engage in usual activities, decreased in-school performance, those sorts of things.” –Pediatrician, Arkansas

  • Across the board, pediatricians are concerned with the long-term consequences of this environment.

“I think that we are going to have a generation of kids, who, especially in our immigrant homes, who are going to have more adverse childhood experiences than they would have. So, I think that we’re just setting up this generation of kids to have higher incidence of chronic disease, higher incidence of poor mental health, higher incidence of addiction…” –Pediatrician, California

“I think a huge worry is that children who have problems that are minor and fixable now… that, if those children go untreated, those could end up being bigger problems in the future that are going to be harder to treat and are really going to impact the child’s quality of life.” –Pediatrician, Pennsylvania


The health and well-being of immigrant and refugee communities is something I care deeply about. Yes, it is my daily work as a public health nurse, but it is more than that. It is something that is deeply embedded into who I am as a person. I have only benefitted from the many in my life who are immigrants and refugees, and it is troubling to me that there is documented fear and anxiety that is affecting the daily lives of those I care about.

What might we do to change this? What might we do to help those whose anxiety is affecting their health and the health of their families? The answer is bigger than any one of us, but some of the things that can help are these:

  • Know the law* and be able to point people to the law. Some of the fear is based on rumor. It is important to squash rumors and to point people to laws.
  • Sensitive locations. Both ICE (Immigration and customs enforcement) and CBP (Customs and Border Patrol) consider hospitals and other health care facilities to be “sensitive locations.” Both agencies have issued memoranda that say that immigration enforcement actions are to be avoided at sensitive locations, including at hospitals and other health care facilities, unless urgent circumstances exist or the officers conducting the actions have prior approval from certain officials within the enforcement agencies.
  • Right to remain silent. While immigration enforcement at health care facilities is limited by the “sensitive locations” guidance, immigration agents may enter a public area of a health care facility without a warrant or the facility’s consent and may question any person present, but those people have the right to remain silent.
  • Reassure your patients. Educate and reassure patients that their health care information is protected by federal and state laws.

An appeal to those of us who are Christians:

Caution and compassion are not incompatible; instead it is reasonable to assume that they work well together.  The state is not the master of the church. If you are part of a faith community, none of this prohibits you and your faith community from reaching out to those who may be affected. They do not prohibit you from reaching out, in love, to refugees and immigrants in your midst. It is a lot easier to wear a sign and yell than it is to make a hot meal and take it to strangers, to check in with sick neighbors, to pray for those who are anxious and fearful. We must be willing to do more than react emotionally. We must be willing to put our loudly voiced news feeds into real action.

“The ability to love refugees well doesn’t require a certain party affiliation. It doesn’t require you to vote a certain way. But it does require us to show up, to step across “enemy” lines, and to choose love over fear.” from Preemptive Love


*See this document for more information.

Note: Communicating Across Boundaries has never been, and never will be, a political blog, but I see this not as a political issue, but as a human health care issue. The brief is much longer and more detailed than this blog post. This post is simply to raise awareness of the issues that result from an environment of fear and anxiety.

Lewiston, Maine – It’s a Good Story

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“The way they play together, the way they get along, that’s the future of our cultures together…” – Coach Mike McGgraw

The story of Lewiston, Maine is a good story. It’s a story of integration and resilience and how a group of refugees and immigrants can revitalize a dying community.

It all began in the late 1990s when Lewiston was a dying city. Historically a mill town, Lewiston had long seen an economic downturn and jobs had vanished like the leaves off a tree in late fall. In 2001 that changed.

An extended family of Somali refugees found Lewiston. They decided it was cheap to live and may be a good place to begin their lives anew, far from the refugee camps that had been their homes for many years. It was a secondary migration from where they had originally been settled. They told other Somalis about the city, stating it was a place with low crime, cheap housing, and decent education. Soon more refugees and immigrants began to arrive from Somalia, Congo, Kenya and more.

It wasn’t all easy. At one point soon after the arrival of the initial group, the mayor wrote a letter to community leaders asking that they discourage others from coming. There was a public outcry to the letter, with community members and supporters rallying around the community and pointing out the gift that they were and could continue to be to a city that badly needed a new face and spirit.

That was around 16 years ago. Today, Lewiston is a picture of what can happen in a community when refugees and immigrants are welcomed and invited to flourish.

By all accounts, most credit the influx of Somalis, Sudanese, Congolese and other immigrants to Lewiston’s successful comeback. Businesses have sprung up, adult education classes are booming, but nothing represents this community more than their champion soccer team.

The change to the team began when a group of teenagers from the community approached the coach and asked about the soccer team. They assured him that they could play, and that they would play and make the team good. In 2015 the soccer team won the state championship and were ranked as high as 17th in the entire nation.

The story of the soccer team has been filmed and is a poignant picture of a group of kids coming together, playing above the fray of national politics and national and local prejudice. It is a good story to remember during a year when good stories are difficult to find.

Changing demographics and communities makes for hard work. It is hard on the newcomers, and it is hard on the old timers. It requires far more than mere tolerance; instead it requires first identifying, and then challenging our own cultural assumptions. It asks that we look at our own values and beliefs, and commit to communicating across those boundaries. It has taken a lot of time, but Lewiston, Maine can teach us much about what this change looks like, and how to continue the hard work of communicating across boundaries in order to make our communities stronger.

When asked about the team, one of the coaches said that though his own background is far from the refugee camps of East Africa, it doesn’t matter. The players bring something to the field that transcends geography.


On Thursday night, I will have the privilege of speaking at a conference in Lewiston and I am honored. I’ll be writing more about this, but for right now take a look at this short film.

World Refugee Day – #withrefugees

Every year, June 20th is a day set aside to remember the millions of refugees and displaced people in our world. But it’s not just a day to remember – it’s also a day to think about what we can collectively and individually do about the refugee crisis. 

So in today’s post I want to pose a couple of questions: 

  1. What can we do to overcome apathy or fear? 
  2. What specific things in your community could you do to welcome refugees. 
  3. How can we change some of the common narratives, that are not based on fact, that marginalize refugees? 

Today will you #standwithrefugees? 

For more information on refugees, click here

Source: UNHCR World Refugee Day

When Learning to Swim is a Privilege 


It was mostly toddlers who drowned off the coast of Libya.* Toddlers who had never paddled chubby legs in YMCA pools; who had never learned to hold their breath under water; whose last, terrible moments have to be given into the arms of God – because if not, life could not go on. 


I only took swimming lessons for one year while growing up. It was a year when we lived in the United States and every Wednesday Carin Waaramaa, me, and our two little brothers would go to the YMCA on a high hill in Fitchburg, Massachusetts. After an hour of breast stroke and back stroke, of treading water and learning to hold our breath, we would change back into street clothes and watch the ending of Dark Shadows in a television perched high on the wall of a waiting room. Dark Shadows was a no-no at both of our homes, so despite water logged ears, and chlorine-shot eyes we would watch until one of our mothers came to pick us up. 

I am still not a good swimmer, because one year is hardly enough to make you water safe, let alone proficient. My lack of comfort with swimming repeated itself in the next generation. Raising my children in Pakistan and the Middle East, we had limited access to pools, and though they all learned to swim, they are hardly proficient. 

The opposite is true for my husband. Indeed, he is a strong swimmer. He began as a toddler in Florida and only got better through the years. 


Why don’t they just swim to safety?” says someone when I mention the number of refugees who have drowned while trying to reach the safety of land and a new life. I am incredulous and bite back a scathing reply. 

Learning to swim is a privilege. In fact, more than half of the world’s population cannot swim.** Considering poverty levels and the large populace that live in massive cities around the world, this does not surprise me, nor should it surprise anybody. Knowing how to swim is not a guarantee for all the children and adults of the world. Many will never have the opportunity to learn. 

Yet crossing bodies of water is a primary way of escape for refugees caught in untenable situations and circumstances, no longer safe in the places they call home. 

The International Organization for Migration approximates that more than 5,000 died last year in attempting to cross bodies of water. Boats, overcrowded because of greedy owners, pile far more people than they should, charging too much for those desperate for safety and willing to pay any price. Even when the boats are not overcrowded, if a large ocean wave pummels refugees overboard, it is unlikely that any can swim to safety. 

I know all this, yet still this latest headline has me weeping. Toddlers who should be doing nothing more than learning to play and develop normally are drowned at sea. The atrocity of this sickens me. 


Two years ago my friend Farhan reached out to me. I met Farhan at a Yezidi refugee camp in Turkey. Farhan is married with two little boys. He is a gifted linguist and translator, trained and used by the U.S. Army. There was no future where he was, and he was desperate to leave Turkey. Through a United Nations connection in Ankara, we were able to help him get registered. When the date came for his first interview, we gasped in dismay. The date was for 2022 – 7 years from the date at the time. So Farhan took matters into his own hands. He found a boat that would take him and his family to Europe. He arrived safely and is now settled in Germany. Farhan’ family did not end up a headline, but many are not so lucky. 


There are many things in our world that are privileges, not rights. When we read the headlines through eyes and lives of privilege, we forget this and we grow blind to the suffering of others. So as I pray for those moms who lost their toddlers at sea, I voice another prayer. 

May God heal the eye sight of those of us who live in privilege and safety, and may we see the world with clearer vision. Only then can we pray with more wisdom and greater passion. 

*Source – NBC News 

**Source – MySwimPro