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

Who are the Immigrants in Your Life?

Immigrant meme


The meme above was shared widely on social media a couple of years ago. The other day as I was thinking about immigrants and immigration reform, I remembered it. While the meme is about things, I began to think about all the people in my life who are immigrants. As I made the list, I started to laugh. It’s unlikely I could function without them.

My doctor is from Jamaica, my surgeon is from Greece, my hairdresser is from Albania.

I occasionally get my nails done by a woman from Vietnam; I buy fruit from a man from Albania.

The advisory board members on a project that I am responsible for at work are from Syria, Iran, Algeria, Pakistan, Ethiopia, Iraq, and the Azores. A consultant who also works with the project is from Somalia.

My colleagues are from Portugal, the Azores, Brazil, Haiti, and Malawi – and that’s only a few of them.

Daily I say hello to hotel employees from Guatemala, Haiti, and Egypt. The restaurant next to my work that sells excellent falafel and shwarma is owned by Iraqis.

My friends at church are from Bulgaria, Greece, Romania, Ukraine, Russia, Kazakhstan, and Lebanon.

Other regular friends in my life are from Pakistan, Israel, and Iran.

What’s more, my maternal grandfather who died many years ago is from Poland….

Everyone of these people contribute positively to their communities and to the workforce, a fact that validates what studies have shown – that immigration has a positive effect on both economic growth and productivity.

In 2004, a satirical film was released called A Day Without a Mexican. In the film, the state of California wakes up one day to a thick fog and no ability to communicate beyond its borders. They soon find out that one third of the state’s population is missing. What follows is a comedic look at how the California dream is only made possible by the Mexicans who serve in every capacity – from entertainment to politics to service industry. As California ceases to function effectively, those left have to face some hard questions.

While the film was produced over 13 years ago, its message is just as relevant today, perhaps more so.

Any nation has a right to have laws in place around immigration and resettlement, but border arrests and hardline approaches by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) are not helping. We are desperate for comprehensive immigration reform and these impulsive and poorly thought out actions are keeping us from pushing for a bipartisan approach that is wise and doable.

Worldwide, we are in a time of unprecedented displacement and crisis from war, famine, and political instability. It is more important than ever that our policies and borders reflect this and that our responses lean toward mercy. It is critical that our conversations are reasoned and based on fact. 

“CIR (Comprehensive Immigration Reform) is caught between the politics of justice and the ethics of mercy.”

Dr. Ruth Melkonian Hoover

There is far more to think about and write about when it comes to immigration reform, and I am not the one to write comprehensively about it. But I do want to offer this challenge – think of the immigrants you know and how they contribute to your daily life. Then, write your own meme.

Because sometimes we need to open our eyes to what and who is around us. 


Lenten Journey – “I was a Stranger”

stranger

What is our first reaction, our spontaneous response, when we meet the stranger? 

“Who let’s these people in here anyway?” asked the man. He was agitated, shaking his head in complete dismay. “I mean” he paused “The woman who served me coffee the other day was Moroccan!” His voice was raised in incredulity at the end of this declaration. The man was a casual friend of ours and he was speaking to my husband on a chance meeting at a convenience store nearby.

My husband took a second then responded calmly “Who let your people in here?”

Brilliant.

But our friend didn’t hesitate and was not to be silenced. “My people came on the Boat!” he said with authority and pride. He did not have to specify “which” boat. Depending where you live, this conversation is not uncommon. It is not nearly as rare as I would wish it to be.

The French philosopher Zvetan Tdorov puts this response well when he says that “our first spontaneous reaction in regards to the stranger is to imagine him as inferior, since he is different from us”.  If one could see the unfiltered version when any one of us confronts difference in the form of a stranger, they may see this response.

Daily in our world we encounter the stranger.

Some times the encounters are interesting, intriguing, fun, joyful. Other times encounters are troubling, assaulting us with faces, smells, clothes, and accents that exacerbate the differences we feel and make us uncomfortable. Sometimes those feelings of discomfort spill over into anger or judgment.

And now I speak to the Christian who is reading — the one who believes that the gospel message is for all people. Hear this: the way we confront difference, the way we treat the stranger, reflects what we believe. If we consider the stranger to be inferior because he or she is different then we’d best ask ourselves ‘why’, best examine our motivation and our heart.

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in,naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.”*

The stranger – that one who is foreign, not one of us, the unknown.  From Genesis to Hebrews to James we have clear instruction and wisdom on how to treat the stranger. The words of Jesus call us to feed the hungry, bring drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, visit the sick, come to the prisoner. The writer of Hebrews asks us to show ‘hospitality to strangers for by it some have entertained angels’. Hospitality holds a high premium in Middle Eastern culture, both now and in Old Testament times. The verse below is not ambiguous in its command:

‘When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.’

We are told to “love” the stranger. Not just tolerate, not pass by, not ignore – but to love.

International students, immigrants, refugees – they all fall under the category of the ‘stranger’. The journeys that brought them to the United States are as varied as the tapestry of experiences that make up their lives.

Take international students as an example. Figures vary, but the United States has over 800,000 international students that arrive every fall for the academic year. Statistics on international students show that 80% of them never set foot in and American home. Never. Former world leaders who were international students at one time include Benazir Bhutto, Fidel Castro, and King Abdullah of Jordan. The state department maintains a list of current world leaders who at one time participated in American academic programs. The list includes almost 300 former or current leaders.

I have to ask myself – were they ever invited into the home of an American? Was hospitality extended to them during their tenure as students? Or did they come to this country and leave, without so much as a cup of coffee in the home of someone from the United States?

Who is the stranger in our midst? Who is the stranger in your midst? 

And how do we respond to that stranger?

Can we ask ourselves this question and be honest in our responses? What is our first spontaneous reaction in regard to a stranger? What is our response to difference?

Do we consider some worthy of our hospitality and others unworthy? Some superior because they are attractive, or white, or clean, or smart, or beautiful? Do we love only those with whom we agree, because we believe the same things on faith and God? Do we believe those who look like us are somehow more worthy of God’s love and of ours?  Do we love because of obligation or duty which is really no love at all? Do we believe we are more lovable because of who we are and how we live?

Or do we love because first we were loved?

Two weeks ago, I began my Lenten journey. Daily I am reminded of the journey to the cross, made possible by the love of God. If there was ever one to meet the stranger it was Jesus, the God-Man. Leaving all that was rightfully his, he came into our midst and encountered a world that didn’t know what to do with a Messiah. He engaged the stranger and found out their story, he entered into their story, and by entering their story – their lives were never the same. He lived, died, and rose again for the estranged and the stranger. Loving the stranger is not a philosophical idea, it is a spiritual command. 

Reflection Question: During this Lenten season, how will I better love and care for the stranger? 

Purchase Passages to Pakistan and give to refugees! A portion of every purchase goes toward refugee work in the Middle East.

*Matthew 25:35

Caution and Compassion: A False Choice

blank-facebook-cover

On Saturday night, my husband and I sat in the small kitchen of an apartment in a nearby city. This apartment is now ‘home’ to seven refugees – all young men. The apartment is heated solely by electricity, an expensive option in our cold northeast winters. All of the appliances are also electric. The electricity was turned off four days before, so we sat, shivering, around a table. Today, the electricicity is still off and we are doing whatever we can to get it turned on. “Whatever we can” has turned out to be far more complicated than it should be.

This is a short story in a much bigger tale of displacement and resettlement. It is an easy story compared to much of what we have heard and seen, but it is still a difficult one.

Refugees have become pawns and scapegoats in a political game, instead of human beings, desperate for safety and refuge. This should not be a partisan issue, this should be a human issue.

Communicating Across Boundaries is not, and never will be, a political blog. It is a blog about communicating across our comfortable borders and boundaries and being willing to see the other side, to hear another’s point of view.

But I think when it comes to the recent refugee order, we are being played by master players. There is room for common ground on most issues, only it is hard to find that common ground when our emotions run high and we see the issue as black and white. Caution and compassion are not incompatible; instead it is reasonable to assume that they work well together.

“This is the awfulness of what has happened this weekend: Trump has exposed his authoritarian streak, and the left has exposed its inability to oppose such authoritarianism in a real, connecting, positive way. We have the theatre of Trump’s strongman act, and the hysteria of a radical take on the politics of fear. Between theatre and hysteria, there has got to be something else: reason, perhaps, and principle, and a true, fear-free moral case for liberty.” – Brendan O’Neill in Spiked*

In the interest of finding common ground on an issue I care deeply about, I have posed a few areas where I hope we can agree.

  1. We can agree that there is a crisis. The number of refugees has become a humanitarian crisis. This is why the United States increased their capacity last year – because UNHCR and other humanitarian aid organizations begged for countries to help. “An unprecedented 65.3 million people around the world have been forced from home. Among them are nearly 21.3 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18.”
  2. We can agree that governments are tasked with protecting their citizens. Every country has the right to make laws and rules. Every country has a right to vetting policies that take into consideration safety and security.
  3. We can agree that immigration policies have been in crisis for a long time. The immigration policies in the United States have been failing the country for many years. This is not new and it is a travesty that this has not been resolved by law makers. President Obama was known by immigration groups as the “Deporter in Chief.” “Between 2009 and 2015 his administration has removed more than 2.5 million people through immigration orders, which doesn’t include the number of people who “self-deported” or were turned away and/or returned to their home country at the border by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).” [Source: ABC News] Real people suffer under poor policies. As an independent voter, I am disturbed that lawmakers spent time and money on bathroom bills, all the while ignoring immigration reform which laid the ground work for what we are experiencing today.
  4. We can agree that good policy must be a compromise. Good policy rarely comes out of reactionary hyperbole. Good policy comes when people sit down and look at facts: risk versus value. Good policy comes when both sides of an issue are heard and both sides are willing to compromise.
  5. Finally, we can agree that the state is not the master of the church. If you are part of a faith community the recent orders do not prohibit 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 in your midst. It is a lot easier to wear a sign and yell “Let them in!” than it is to make a hot meal and take it to strangers. We must be willing to do more than react emotionally. We must be willing to put our loudly voiced newsfeeds into real action.

I have so much more to say – but I fear that I will join the echo chamber if I keep on talking. Thank you for listening. 

I end with this quote: “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.”

I have included this quote from an excellent article from Preemptive Love: President Trump’s Refugee Order: 5 Things to Know

Vetting and compassion are not mutually exclusive.

Sometimes we get locked into strident, polarizing positions, as if our only choice is between opening our border completely in the name of love, or locking everyone out in the name of security.  

Let us be clear: this is a false choice.

You can care about refugees and care about securing our borders. This is not a “liberal vs. conservative” issue. It’s not a “Republican vs. Democrat” issue. It’s not all black-and-white. There are shades of gray.

There are entirely legitimate reasons to insist on a careful, thorough screening process for those coming into the United States. Insisting on adequate security does not make you a “cold-hearted conservative.” Nor does insisting on compassion for refugees make someone a “bleeding-heart liberal.”  

More importantly, we need to see beyond the dualistic, mutually exclusive categories of “us vs. them.” Our security versus their well-being.

What if, in reality, our well-being is tied up in theirs? What if our security is connected to theirs?

If that is the case, then we must find ways to pursue our mutual well being. And sometimes, that requires taking risks. See the entire article here

[*Source: Brendan O’Neill]

A Statement on Life

I am pro-life. I love babies and mamas. I love ultrasounds that show us the beauty of that baby, perfectly safe and growing in the womb.

Because I am pro-life, I am pro-healthcare. I am a nurse, and I have witnessed first hand what it is to have a patient walk in to a clinic with late-stage breast cancer, because she didn’t have money for a check up. I am pro birthcontrol, knowing that it decreases teen pregnancy and helps women to be able to plan their families.

Because I am pro-life, I am pro women’s right to have paid sick leave. I am pro life, so I am pro flexible work schedules and better options for those raising children.

I am pro-life, and because I am pro-life, and I know how many people have been killed by guns in this nation we call civilized, I am desperate for better measures to determine who gets guns, and why they get them. I am pro-life, and so I am against the death penalty. The words from Matthew 5, echoed and expanded by Gandhi “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind” have been shown to be true over and over again.

I am pro-life. Because I am pro-life, I am pro justice in the Middle East and long for people to realize the atrocities that Palestinians have gone through since 1948.

I am pro-life. Because I am pro-life, I am for refugees being settled where they no longer have to fear, where they can build new homes and new lives. I am for immigrants, who leave places they love and go through the long and lonely process of moving to a new country, because they want to give their children and grandchildren a better future.

I am pro-life. Because I am pro-life I long for garbage-free green spaces in the cities of the world, and oceans where people can swim and where our beautiful sea-life can flourish. Because I am pro-life, I want children in cities to grow up free of asthma from the mold that grows unchecked in poor housing. Because I am pro-life, I want fresh foods available in food deserts, and safe streets for walking. Because I am pro-life, I long for functional families, where children grow up loved and disciplined.

I am pro-life, and so I am pro caring for the elderly and loving them, making sure they are recognized as important members of our society. I am pro-life, and so I am pro child – every child, not just those who are beautiful, and smart, and athletic. I am pro child who will struggle with learning until the day they die. I am pro child with Downs, who makes the world a better and kinder place. I am pro help for the parent who is loving and caring for a child who doesn’t fit into a normal pattern of development.

I am pro-life, and so I long for the hungry to be fed, the wounded to be healed, the broken-hearted to be mended.

I am pro-life, and so I long for the day when all life will be restored, when tears will be wiped away and God will heal the cracks of our broken world.

But until that day, I will pray for courage and tenacity to live the way I believe. 

The Travelers


“Time was passing like a hand waving from a train I wanted to be on.
I hope you never have to think about anything as much as I think about you.”
― Jonathan Safran Foer

The picture of the sculpture is so remarkable I think that it cannot be real. It must be a photograph, digitally altered by a master.

But it is real. The sculpture is just one of several in a display called “Les Voyageurs” by a man named Bruno Catalano. They are sculptures that show men and women travelers. Each has some sort of bag or suitcase with them and it is clear they are on a journey. More significantly, each of them has a prominent piece missing from the center of their bodies. As though they are leaving a part of themselves behind or as though they are leaving to search for the part of their bodies that is incomplete.

They are works of art, sculptures that resonate with the modern-day soul. These sculptures tell the story of the nomad, the pilgrim, the traveler, the refugee, the immigrant.

As I searched to find out a bit more about the artist I discovered Catalano is a third culture kid, a global nomad. He was born in Casablanca but moved to France at 12 years old, settling in Marseille. He went on to become a sailor, and it was both of these things that inspired his sculptures.

“I have traveled a lot and I left Morocco when I was 12 years old. I felt that a part of me was gone and will never come back.

From years of being a sailor, I was always leaving different countries and places each time and it’s a process that we all go through. I feel like this occurs several times during life and of course everyone has missing pieces in his or her life that he won’t find again. So the meaning can be different for everyone, but to me the sculptures represent a world citizen.”*

Our world is full of people who journey with important pieces of their lives missing. The pieces are places, people, and communities.

Many people have a catalogue of pieces missing, and so when they grieve, they are never quite sure exactly what they are grieving for.

Are they grieving for the pieces of their life that disappeared a year ago, or does their grief come from places and people they left long ago in their childhood. These pieces can accumulate and, like the sculptures, leave visible and invisible gaps in our hearts and souls. Cute sayings that abound on social media leave out the hard parts of travel and of moving. These memes rarely mention the gaps that are a part of the journey.

Even those who never travel or move are travelers in a life journey that includes a million small losses and several large ones. The deaths of those we love is part of the human journey and we will all face it sooner or later. We are all like these sculptures:Travelers with pieces missing, somehow glued together.

Often we see these missing pieces as flaws or as wounds that cannot be healed. But as I look at the sculptures, I see them as extraordinary pieces of art. They are beautifully crafted, broken yet whole.

At a deep spiritual level I believe that what Catalano does with these sculptures, God longs to do with us as living, breathing beings. He wants to take us, human travelers with our missing parts, and put them together so that though we have missing pieces, we are still strong, still intact. He wants to take the broken, lost pieces of our souls, and put them together, welded stronger than steel. He wants to make of us not sculptures, but living, breathing beings that are broken but whole. 

Note-this post was adapted from a post originally written in May of 2014.

Grow Up Boston!

It’s been a long time since I’ve had a rant. After an experience yesterday with a woman on the street, in tears because of how she was treated by this ‘city on a hill’ I wrote this. It may sound harsh but I mean every word of it!

Grow Up Boston!

Every day I walk your streets, ride your buses and subways, go to your stores. Every day I am a part of the fabric, a thread in the tapestry that is Boston. Every day I work in your buildings, shop in your stores, interact with your homeless.

I am a part of you and you in turn have become a part of me.

And in so many ways I love you. You have so much potential, so much personality, so much fun.

But Boston — I’m tired. I’m tired of having immigrants come up to me on the street, complete strangers, and cry. I’m tired of the Boston stink-eye, I’m tired of the general meanness. I’m tired of crowded subways where the blind and lame are regularly jostled, pushed, and frowned upon. I’m tired of your arrogance.

Boston — you need to grow up. You need to realize — it’s not all about you.

Did you hear that? It’s not all about you.

Public Gardens and View of Newbury Street through a store window

When the bombs went off at the Boston Marathon the nation wept for you, the world cried. There was support from around the globe, from the young and old, the small town and the big city. When you have a tragedy the world weeps with you, but you don’t weep with the world. Ever. Because, like a toddler, so egocentric in her development, you only think about yourself.

You boast so much: history, beauty, an ocean, a river, world-famous educational institutions, great food, amazing medical facilities, and more grey cells than we could count. You are Boston Strong with sports teams, and stamina, and guts. But you also boast grumpy people, arrogance, intolerance made more galling because it’s by those who consider themselves so tolerant.

You are creating a culture that despises the old, the feeble, the blind, the refugee, the immigrant. A culture that sits back and does nothing when a disabled, man in a wheelchair falls down and is mocked by a group of high school students. You cater so well to the student, to the ‘twenty something’ yet you have made them so all-important that they fail to understand the bigger picture of life and they are mean right along with you. You are creating a culture of ‘me first’ and ‘no one else matters.’ A culture where no one is given the benefit of the doubt. A culture where immigrants cry to total strangers on street corners, so lonely and attacked they feel.

“I’ve lived other places” they say “Nowhere is it so mean!” There’s always an excuse for why they’re mean — it’s morning, it’s cold, it’s rainy, it’s hot. Well it’s rainy and hot in other places too and they aren’t like this.” “I’m so lonely I could weep.” “I’ve lived here 12 years and still I wonder — will I ever belong? Will I ever feel like people are okay with me?” These are real words Boston, spoken by real people who live in your city and walk on your streets.

You have a hard heart Boston and it needs to soften. You are immature and you need to grow up.

You are so proud of your achievements — first in the nation to have health care access, first to have gay marriage. You are so proud, but you forget the basics — like kindness, honor, respect, and compassion.

Will you stay a toddler forever? Proud of your baby steps but never realizing there are other steps to take, a bigger world to learn, or will you grow up to be the adult, the adult who makes a difference in the world?

Will you ever, can you ever really be the proverbial “city on the hill?”

Tomorrow I will again walk your streets and love your beauty. And I will hope again that someday you will see the other side, the side that we who are ‘other’ see.

What Would You Take?

When we first arrived in Egypt years ago, we had a shipment of goods that we were allotted by the university. At the time we didn’t have that many possessions so it was not too difficult to decide what to bring. In fact, we would have packed more, we just didn’t have enough to fill the space, nor did we have money to buy more stuff to fill the space.

As would be expected after we packed the necessities like clothes and baby stuff, we packed things that we love, that represent who we are and what we care about. So there were a lot of books, and a fair number of decorative pieces (think candle holders, table cloths, vases….pretty stuff) and photo albums – always the photo albums. Our downstairs neighbors brought none of that. Instead they filled their shipment with ski equipment.

Ski equipment in the desert.

Yup.

We were surprised as well. They loved skiing and decided that during their breaks from school and work they would head to Switzerland and Austria and take up the slopes. It was their choice to fill their luggage allotment with boots and poles and skis.

We would never in a million years have brought ski equipment. And that’s the point – they brought what they wanted, and we brought what we wanted. We were all uprooting our lives and had limited options for what we would take, we all had to decide.

We brought what was important to us. 

Those of us who have uprooted our lives, whether it be domestically or internationally know the process of weeding out, of sifting through and setting aside that which is the most important. You have to be brutal, you have to guard yourself and go into a “I’m not going to think, I’m not going to feel” mode.

How much more does a refugee experience this as they pack only fragments of a life lost and head out into a world unknown? 

“If you had to quickly flee both your home and country, what one possession would you make sure you take with you?

This is the subject of a photo essay I recently looked through. The pictures are poignant and telling. Unlike our neighbors and us, these are people who don’t have shipments, they have the clothes on their backs and most probably one small bag, a bag that has to be manageable for a long journey.

So what would you take? As the photo essay shows, for many in the world this is not a hypothetical question. It’s real.

The title of the essay is “The Most Important Thing”. So what is your most important thing? What would you take? 

Take a look at Portraits of Refugees Posing With Their Most Valuable Possessions and think about the question for a minute. It’s a sobering exercise. And then think about sharing in the comments – I would love to hear from you. 

Pakistan - Displaced people returning to villages after losing much when their homes flooded.
Pakistan – Displaced people returning to villages with all their earthly possessions.

Fabric and Grace

Fabric and graceIn the bleak, dull grey of winter, refugees from Somalia, Ghana, and Chad stand out like blazing rays of sunshine; sunshine made of fabric and grace.Wearing my customary black pants and sweater, the assumed business wear of the Career Woman in Boston, I feel drab in comparison. The only color is in my cheeks – red from the cold. I look around and wish I had worn my scarf, purchased for a bargain from a vendor in the Khan el Khalili bazaar in Cairo, boasting colors of brilliant fuchsia, orange, purple, and red beautifully blended into a woven pattern.

The fabric and grace of these refugee patients strikes me. The cloth is light cotton, useless against the chill of the season, but so beautiful. So unexpected. So rich and full of stories.

It’s draped artistically but practically over body and shoulders, a piece of their identity that they struggle to keep despite the winter cold. Heavy coats, purchased from women’s clothing aisles at the Salvation Army and Goodwill stores in the city, hang on chair backs as they sit in the waiting room of this busy community health center.

The United Nations can boast nothing over this waiting room. At any point there are over 70 languages being spoken from over 60 countries.

Each face tells a story, each body represents a journey, each soul a trauma, all wrapped up in fabric and grace.

I want to stop and ask them questions, find out their stories, write their stories and make sure all see them. But I have to go, have to leave all this color and go to a black and white meeting void of fabric or grace. So I smile, say hello, soak in the smiles I’m given in return — more sunshine.

I shake my head in amazement at the resilience of the human spirit, Grace indeed.

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Changing our Immigrant Lexicon

“We have to watch who we hire” said the woman. “We can’t have a bunch of illegals hired or else we’ll be liable”

And I saw red. The color I have seen every time I hear someone use the term “illegals” for the past decade.

“By becoming judge, jury and executioner, you dehumanize the individual and generate animosity toward them.” Charles Garcia

It doesn’t take a reader much time in Communicating Across Boundaries to recognize that I work and identify with many immigrants. I live in an immigrant neighborhood, I have conversations daily with immigrants, and I am most at home when in a group of immigrants. I look similar to those of the majority population but my worldview has a different shape to it – I am an invisible immigrant.

And with this comes a desire for fairness and a strong sense of advocacy for immigrant communities.

I am convinced that fairness and advocacy includes examining our lexicon when it comes to immigrants and immigration. We all know the power of words; they shape us daily. And we have used the word “illegals” referring to people long enough. They are not illegals. They are undocumented people; people without the proper papers and documents required by a government. They may have committed illegal acts but a person cannot be illegal.

The word illegal alien holds even more offense. While I understand the word ‘alien’ to have been in wide use since Biblical times, in combining the two words we paint a picture of an unlawful creature from Mars.

I am not arguing the importance and merits of a solid immigration policy; what I am arguing is the terms and words that go into that policy. Because words make all the difference in our attitudes and decisions to treat people as human beings or as “other”.

In an excellent piece posted on CNN Opinion Charles Garcia goes as far as to call the words “illegal alien” or “illegal immigrant” racial slurs.

“When you label someone an “illegal alien” or “illegal immigrant” or just plain “illegal,” you are effectively saying the individual, as opposed to the actions the person has taken, is unlawful. The terms imply the very existence of an unauthorized migrant in America is criminal.” (Why ‘Illegal Immigrant’ is a Slur, CNN Opinion, July 6)

His points are well made. Significant he says is that the Supreme Court, in handing down their decision on immigration, did not use this biased language except in quoting other sources.

Dehumanizing those men, women and children who are in this country without proper documentation does nothing to help promote good policy and everything to create an angry “us” vs. “them” dialogue.

It’s time to change the lexicon and take out words that make creating fair policy even harder. So next time someone uses the word ‘illegals’ I challenge you to say to them “You mean people without proper documentation of their right to be here?”

And through changing our lexicon, may we be changed and pray for wisdom and humanity to be at the heart of the discussion.

http://www.cnn.com/2012/07/05/opinion/garcia-illegal-immigrants/index.html

Garbage Day

In the city of Cambridge garbage day is on Friday. On this day large plastic containers line the streets; the plain grey one and the blue one – distinguished by its familiar triangle and bold white letters that say Recycling“. Sidewalks crowded with these bins, make a normally “walkable” town uncomfortable and difficult.

Depending on the time of year the items thrown into the garbage, destined to fill landfills forever, can make your eyes pop.

A gentleman who is a refugee, recently resettled to the United States, commented to me that he was amazed at garbage day.“Garbage day” he said “is the hardest day for me” He went on to speak of plastic containers and couches, bookshelves and desks all on the street to be picked up by enormous trucks that would crush them into small pieces and then pack those pieces into other refuse previously picked up – the real garbage.

The man was from Somalia. Since the early nineties Somalia has seen an increase in poverty, a decrease in availability of health care resources, conflict within and chaos in the government – in short, overall instability. And it doesn’t seem to be getting better or easier. The shock of going from poverty to plenty hits him the hardest on garbage day.

He’s right – it’s a huge shock to look at what we throw out. I know people who have furnished their entire house through “shopping” on garbage day. We have several pieces of furniture that are from someone’s garbage, retooled to look beautiful in our living and other rooms.

We’re told that one man’s garbage is another man’s treasure, but it seems that there is a glaring lack of understanding of what is and what isn’t garbage. Chairs, tables, couches – garbage or just discards? Are they instantly recyclable, needing only a fresh coat of paint or stain, a lace cloth and flowers, or a couch cover? In other words – is it really garbage? Or can we rethink this garbage thing? Rethink it in terms of those with plenty being aware of those without plenty.

International students are always in need of furniture and other items. Often here for only a short time, they live simply and sparsely. Refugees and new immigrants often have the need for furniture, dishes, and containers – things that people may have grown tired of and so discarded on garbage day unaware of the need around the corner. Our neighbors may be in need of something that we are throwing out and if we knew them we could meet the need.

The words of this refugee from Somalia  have stayed with me. I am looking at my “garbage” with a more critical eye, ultimately wanting garbage day to be about real garbage. And along with that being more aware of the needs of people around me so that my discards can potentially become their treasure.

Blogger’s Note: Last week after writing my guest post at Tamara Out Loud, I received a comment from a reader in South Africa. She found my blog during the 4am feeding of her baby. As I read it I was amazed at the grace of connection. It turned out we knew each other – both having worked at the state, her in the refugee health program, and me in women’s health. I didn’t know that we shared the same faith – turns out we do and I can’t stop thinking about this.  I followed her over to her blog and am amazed and challenged by what I see on a commitment to simple living. I bring this up during this post because Jo blogs at The Concrete Gardener and she began her blog  for these reasons:

  • Enjoy what we have.
  • Not take more than we need.
  • Use what we have really well.

I urge you to take a look at her blog and get a glimpse of her commitment to the three things listed above.

Adjusting to a New World Through Stories of the Old

Last year I got involved with a project to raise awareness of breast cancer in the Asian American community in the greater Boston area. It was a project that taught me many lessons, one of them being how much I have to learn about communicating across cultural boundaries. I am not the queen that I once thought I was! One of the arms of the project was designed to have breast cancer survivors from the Asian community share their stories – their stories of diagnosis, treatment, and ultimately survival. It was a powerful and compelling piece. Through bearing witness and sharing their stories, these women not only helped others, but healed themselves.

This same approach can be a powerful tool to cross-cultural adjustment – something I have worked through, talked about, lectured on and cried about. Cross-cultural adaptation and adjustment are critical to transitioning between worlds.

I am more and more certain that part of adjusting to a new country, a new world, is being able to tell stories of the old world.  I believe that the more we are able to share our stories, the quicker we come to see our new surroundings as places that we can make work. Just as the women who are living as breast cancer survivors become empowered through their stories, I passionately believe the same can happen with immigrants, refugees and third culture kids.

When we moved to the United States after three years in Pakistan and seven years in Egypt, we came with a lot of stories. We had birthed and raised five kids on three continents. We had swum in the Red Sea and picnicked by the Pyramids; we had traveled to Istanbul, and lunched in the Plaka in Greece; we had cocktails with ambassadors and shared bread with refugees. All of those stories were consolidated into our 26 suitcases as we moved to a house with the address 2 Main Street. It doesn’t get more quintessentially American.

But behind the Victorian house on Main Street was a family whose stories didn’t go away, they were still there, but the listeners were few – it felt too much to ask of a provincial place where most had known each other for generations. We were the outsiders.

Into that world came friends who understood our need and listened to our stories. They ate curry with us and challenged my view that no one raised in the west could make a good curry by showing up with one of the best Thai curries I have yet to eat; they loved us and brought us gently into their world. And as we were brought into their world, we began relaxing and realizing that we were accepted with all our stories and all our idiosyncratic quirks picked up from years of living in different cultural contexts.

Cultural brokers they were. They bridged the gaps of understanding and made us welcome. I began to learn that you don’t have to experience everything to be able to empathize and listen. And as I grew in comfort I no longer had to announce to the world before they had asked “I’m not from here you know!”

The more I hear from immigrants, refugees and third culture kids, the more convinced I become that communicating their stories is a critical piece of learning to live effectively in their passport countries. They have a lifetime of experiences that, when boxed up for fear of misunderstanding, will result in depression and deep pain.  For a third culture kid to tell a group of friends that they came down with chicken pox on the plane from Greece to Turkey is not boasting – it’s life. (True.Story)

So what about your world? What role has the telling of stories played? Where have you served as a cultural broker and been willing to both listen and re-tell the stories of those who live between worlds? Or where have you had a cultural broker – someone who entered into your world, allowed you to tell your stories, and helped you move a fraction closer to being able to live in a world that felt foreign?

Would love to hear what role both stories and cultural brokers played so please share in the comment section!

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Immigrants and the Meaning of Resilience – Reblog of “Meet Margot”

The resilience it takes for an immigrant to start a new life on arrival to the United States, or any country, is something I often think about. We got a bit of a taste of this when moving from Cairo to the United States. Starting with no furniture, 26 suitcases and a cat, we began a new life. We had no jobs, no friends, no community.

But we knew English and we knew at least a bit about what it takes to get around in this country. When immigrants arrive they not only leave behind family and homes, but also professions. The doctor comes to the United States and can no longer practice, taking instead a job as a nursing assistant. The lawyer comes and finds themselves searching for a job in human services. The teacher, unlicensed here, finds themselves taking on the job of baby sitting, or house cleaning, or driving, or working in a factory. Their’s is no expectation of dream jobs.

That is why I love this story called “Meet Margot” at the blog Los Afro-Latinos. It  reminded me once again of the resiliency immigrants show as they forge a new life in a new country. Originally a nurse from the Dominican Republic, Margot has a successful business running a restaurant serving delicious food from where else but the Dominican Republic! Read on….

Finding authentic, delectable Dominican food is as simple as taking the 1 train. Sure, everyone boasts they’re the best. But only Margot Restaurant has been hailed time and time again — in magazines and on Yelp comment boards — as the best Dominican food in the greater New York area.

Margot Restaurant was featured……READ MORE HERE!

Accent Angst

“Is she dumb, or does she just sound that way because she’s from Alabama?” This question came from someone we interact with at a business level about someone we know on a personal level. Thankfully my husband was wise enough to not tell me about the interaction – if he had, I would possibly have ended up in police custody. The friend she was talking about is a lovely woman with a Master’s Degree who is unfortunate enough to have a southern accent while living in the Northeast.

What is it about accents? They raise fury and assumptions in people. Just recently I spoke to a woman on the phone about breast cancer. She was irate that “someone with an accent had the audacity to ask ME if I was an American citizen, obviously she isn’t one, otherwise she wouldn’t have an accent”. Wow. While I understand that people, particularly those whose relatives came on the Mayflower, don’t like to be asked about their citizenship, it’s a standard question in my line of work, and if there is one thing we should understand about a nation of immigrants, it’s not about the accent. I can take you to the North End of Boston tomorrow and introduce you to 50 Italian grandmothers who have lived here for years but speak English like they just stepped off the plane from Sicily.

Accents cause angst. In Arizona accent angst has led to a ‘policing’ of accents in the public school system. While defenders of the activity claim it is critical that teachers know English so they can model this for their students, those who filed the complaint with the Federal Department of Education argue that knowing English well, and speaking accent free are two different issues. Checking the English level of a potential employee for a school system that operates in English is valid and can be justified; judging the accent alone cannot. The argument is that an accent is only one variable of many measures that can assess language skill and fluency.

Let’s look at the accent in Massachusetts, and the inability to pronounce the ‘r’ sound. Here, my last name is not Gardner, it’s Gahdnah. Yet, to my knowledge, no accent police are forcing teachers from the area to change the way they speak. Or how about the mayor of the city of Boston – a born and bred native. His accent, thick with years of living in Massachusetts, makes it difficult to understand what he’s saying, yet no one accuses him of not speaking English well (except maybe our family)

At dinner a couple of nights ago we got into a discussion on this topic. My husband, whose relatives are from the south, was raised with the view that those with Massachusetts accents were educated, elitist snobs and didn’t understand the rest of the country. By contrast, many of my husbands’ colleagues hold fast to the view that if you have a southern accent, you don’t have a brain. You are the idiot that is missing from the Texas town. An acquaintance of Cliff’s, a former chaplain from Harvard University, in talking about accents stated “And what’s up with South Carolina? It’s too small to be a country, but too large to be an insane asylum”. True story.

As humans we have an amazing capacity to find differences and exploit them. When we’re little it may be the color of eyes or their body size. As we get older, the measures change to accents or skin color. We become more sophisticated (or not) at hiding our exploitation, but continue with the childish trait of considering “difference to equal inferior”.

Arizona’s law is under examination. A civil rights lawyer has brought the accent policing policy into the courts and it is being scrutinized as various civil rights abuses are uncovered. But the former Harvard chaplain, right here in Cambridge? He just gets to go on making stupid remarks with no court date in sight.

Making Peace with Changing Communities

What happens when a bitter racist is transformed?

In the movie Gran Torino, Walt Kowalski (played by Clint Eastwood) is a bitter old man living out his years in a neighborhood that has changed from working-class white to Hmong and Chinese.  He does not like it and makes no pretense of civility and no apology for being an open racist. No one is safe from this behavior, particularly the Hmong mother who lives next door and victim to Kowalski’s growling and racial slurs every time they happen to be on the porch at the same time.

In the course of the movie his character changes and he gradually makes peace with the neighborhood, befriending the teenagers who live next door becoming both friend and protector. A scene showing him at a Hmong feast eating food he has never seen before and still makes no pretense of liking is a great picture of the grudging respect he is gaining for these neighbors.

As I have watched areas in Massachusetts change, I have seen a lot of Walt Kowalskis and a lot of ‘Wanda’ Kowalskis who are at odds with neighborhoods they have deep ties to.  They grieve for a neighborhood that was and struggle with the neighborhood that is.  The words ‘us and them’ are present in their speech and often they are fearful.  Some of them move through a slow process of change, for others it’s too difficult.   The movie initially portrays the tension and hatred of a man at odds with his changing neighborhood, moves on to the slow process of change and ultimately brings the audience to an act of deep love and sacrifice as Walt serves as a human shield to protect his neighbors.  He gradually accepts, and dare I say loves the community that surrounds him.

Communities in the United States are, and will continue to change.  A community health center that I work with saw three thousand patients from 40 different countries and 60 different language groups in just a 6-month time period and that is just one of many examples. As the world continues to move closer, and our interactions become more diverse, the transformation process that Walt Kowalski undergoes in the two-hour film is worth watching and, if needed, modeling.