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

New Lives and Portable Memories


Every time I leave home, I’m struck by the fact that I have that choice. I’m not being forced out by violence, persecution, or a crooked landlord. 

I choose when to go. I choose how to go.  I choose what to take. 

An article in the NY Times called “In a Refugee’s Bags, Memories of Home”* paints  a poignant picture of things left behind when refugees and displaced people have to leave their homes and possessions. But the picture is juxtaposed with creative ways that refugees bring pieces of their homes and places with them. For one woman it’s a dress that holds the landscape of her beloved city in Iraq. For a musician it’s the melody of a song sung in his native Syriac; for another it’s a wooden string instrument. All of these are reminders of who they are and where they come from. 

More so, they are a picture of their resiliency and willingness to keep on living, to not believe that all is lost. 

… their stories….reveal not only what they have lost, but also the beautiful things they have saved, or remade.

I am far from home today, and I write this while sitting in an airport, surrounded by other travelers. I carry these stories with me, treasuring them for what they teach me about hope, about resiliency, about keeping on living even when it seems all is lost. 

Take a look at the story today by clicking here. You won’t be disappointed! 

*by STEPHANIE SALDAÑA

1500 Olive Trees

Friends, I wrote this back in January, but I know many of us have been hurting over what is going on in Aleppo, so I am reposting.

There comes a time on any trip where you feel overwhelmed, when tiredness and lack of control of your surroundings can creep into the journey. I think it is particularly true of any kind of refugee or humanitarian work.

Yesterday was my day to feel overwhelmed. Overwhelmed and inadequate with the needs I have seen and the stories I have heard.

To summarize, anything you have ever heard or seen about the refugee crusis is true, but worse. The stories of losing everything, people watching relatives killed, babies born to moms who can’t breastfeed because of inadequate diet, losing factories, businesses, and livelihood. All of it is true.

Two days ago, we sat across from a farmer who had 1500 olive trees in a village near Aleppo. ISIS has taken over his land and cut most of the olive trees down for firewood. It is a literal loss of generations of family’s work. It is symbolic of everything else they have lost.

I have met widows and new moms struggling, men who can’t find work and mothers who lost their sons, men who are being pressured to sell their kidneys just to get money to feed their families. The collective loss is unimaginable.

I have learned that ISIS is one kind of evil–and the other evil is the people that would profit from a crisis. Those who would buy children from a desperate parent; scheme to traffic vital organs; and charge thousands of dollars so people can drown in a poorly made boat.

When people are left without hope, we must hope for them. 

It is a privilege to sit with people and hear their stories and I am so grateful for this time. It is a gift to laugh in the midst of pain; to drink strong cups of Arab coffee while sitting in tents; to ask people how we can pray.

But I also have an obligation to pass on what I have seen and learned and to ask you to remember this crisis, remember Syrian and Iraqi refugees. Don’t forget them – and pray for peace to come to these lands.

The following information comes from this site:

Preemptive Love Coalition has been working for over 10 years in the Middle East. They serve families in both Iraq and Syria. You can take a look at their website for information and ways to make a difference for refugees.

Questscope has been giving at-risk people in the Middle East “a second chance” for over three decades. Now they are first-responders, providing critical and long term assistance for thousands of families literally on the run for their lives in Syria. Just this week, Questscope is rescuing 4000 women and children from Homs, Syria. You can give desperately needed funds for those families here.

World Relief works through churches in the US as well as throughout the Middle East and Europe to provide emergency and long-term assistance for refugees. Check out their website to see how your church can get involved.

For Sale Cheap: Kidneys and Children

img_0445-1

“An entire criminal infrastructure has developed over the past 18 months around exploiting the migrant flow.”

Brian Donald, Europol Chief of Staff to Observer

 

It was five in the evening and we had just returned from South Lebanon. We had an hour before our evening appointment and so we collapsed on the bed, drained.

I wanted to punch the walls and scream so that the roof fell in. Anger rose like bile in the back of my throat.

Only a couple of hours before, we had met with a lovely family.  They were refugees from Syria and were living in a small shack in South Lebanon. The family had two little boys, and the mom had just given birth to twins – a boy and a girl. As I sat holding the baby girl, she told me about her husband. A man had been pressuring him to sell one of his kidneys. He had refused, but the man kept on coming back, kept on pressuring. She didn’t want him to sell a kidney, but she was afraid. Afraid that the man would come back, afraid that her husband would break under the pressure. She knew it was dangerous. She knew it wasn’t a good idea. She also knew that her husband was worried. He had no job, no income, and the family needed to eat. She was breastfeeding the baby girl but didn’t have enough milk to breast feed both babies, so was formula feeding her baby boy.

As heavy as all of this sounds, our time with them was joyful and fun. I was so struck by the general sweetness of this family, their spirit of peace and joy evident despite their circumstances. It was a stark contrast to the visit we had just had with a woman across town, whose circumstances had engulfed her with sorrow and despair.

It was afterwards, as we drove back to Beirut that I could not shake my rage.

ISIS is only a part of the evil that is going on in the refugee crisis. There is a whole other side, a “lazy evil” my friend calls it. It’s the evil of exploitation and gain from another’s misery. It’s the criminal underworld of trafficking children and organs; of charging $50,000 for a leaky boat ride where passengers are only fifty percent likely to make it to the safety of shore. The evil of exploitation has found a billion dollar business in the world of refugees.

Consider this:

  • 10,000 refugee children missing in Europe – thought to be kidnapped or sold.
  • In Jordan, 46% of Syrian refugee boys and 14% of girls aged 14 or over are working more than 44 hours a week.
  • Refugees are pressured to sell kidneys to middle men who then sell those kidneys to rich people who need transplants.
  • In July, a diabetic child dies on a migrant transport boat after traffickers throw her insulin overboard.
  • In August, a 27 year old is found asphyxiated in luggage on a ferry.
  • In February, 9 people (including 2 children) drowned, while only 2 people were saved, when a boat sank off the coast of the Turkish provice Izmir.
  • Women and girls are consistently placed in vulnerable positions, harassed, threatened, and pressured for sexual favors in exchange for safe passage.

“After living through the horrors of the war in Iraq and Syria these women have risked everything to find safety for themselves and their children. But from the moment they begin this journey they are again exposed to violence and exploitation, with little support or protection.” Tirana Hassan, Amnesty International’s Crisis Response director

It seems like there is nothing I can do to stop this evil from happening. I have nothing to offer.

And yet, in a way, perhaps I do have something to offer. Any time I make a decision to willfully ignore my fellow man, I am adding to the problem. Any time I choose to ignore my relationship to God, and therein my connection to humans, I too am participating in “lazy evil.” I can argue and deny it all I want. I can say, “I’m nothing like those who exploit the refugees. I would never do anything like that! I’m better than that!” But am I?

Somehow, we are all connected in this journey. Not in a sappy, “We are the world” way – but in a vigorous, mystical way. The decisions that I make do not just affect me, but others around the world. We are integrally connected, and until I take responsibility for that connection, I am only partially human.

This is why the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have Mercy on Me” makes so much sense. Now, suddenly, the me is we. None of us lives in isolation but in a connected mystery that takes a lifetime to figure out. I am connected to these refugees. I am connected to the entire refugee crisis. I am even connected to those who exploit.

I cannot live my life as though they do not exist.

As I write this, I am in the midst of reading a book called The End of Suffering by Scott Cairns. I received it from my son, Jonathan, on my birthday. It’s a small volume, easily carried in a purse. It is an appropriate book for me at this time, as I think about the refugee trips that I have been on and attempt to make sense of what that means in the future.

This book is a precious gem in a sea of cheap, glass baubles. It’s deep and thick reading and the truth is, I am not smart enough to read it quickly. I find myself reading almost every sentence three times before I fully understand it. But it’s worth the time that it is taking.

It’s in this volume that I am learning more of Christ’s decision to enter into our suffering; to enter into the suffering of the refugee; of the exploited one. I’ll end what has felt like the hardest piece I have ever written with words from the book:

The thief being crucified beside Christ was not simply baiting Jesus when he asked of Him, ‘If you are the Christ, save yourself and us’; he was probably thinking that if this bloodied man hanging beside him were truly God’s annointed, then any reasonable, self-respecting Christ would do just that – save Himself….which was why He did not save Himself, but rather gave Himself. 

He did not come simply to rid the Jews of the oppressive Romans any more than He came to trump the other oppressive circumstances that His oddly beloved creatures have continued to construct for themselves and others. On the contrary, He came to suffer the results of those cosmic bad choices with us, and by so doing to both show us how we might survive them and to enable our survival – in Himself.* 

*From The End of Suffering by Scott Cairns pages 108-109

Sources:

Scraps from the Table

seat at the table

“Pity and what it offers are scraps from the table. Justice is a seat at the table.”*

Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan.

Three vastly different countries with different histories and different politics. They don’t even speak the same dialects of Arabic, but they are lumped together in the two-dimensional view that the Western world has of the Middle East.

I have a limited perspective, one that is confined to brief visits, cups of strong tea or Arabic coffee, and conversations of the heart. But in this limited perspective, I am reminded again that refugees are not to be objects of pity, hanging around like dogs to get scraps of charity. They are people of dignity and worth, people who have tenaciously clung to life and hope. Why would I pity someone who is so much stronger and more courageous than I am?

But this is not necessarily the attitude of others or of governments. An excellent article in Foreign Policy speaks to the danger of pity:

The Global North is building fences, deporting children, stymieing the progress to safety of war refugees from Syria, South Sudan, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Europe is paying Turkey to play bouncer and keep asylum-seekers outside its borders. The settled West is telling migrants: We pity you, but we don’t trust you, and we want to keep pitying you on your shores rather than welcoming you to ours.

The author goes on to say:

Rootlessness — the implied weakness of it — is treated as a failure. That is plainly schizophrenic: In a world where one in seven people is displaced, the failure must be of planetary scale. It belongs to all of us. This is a century of dislocation not merely of body and home, but also of empathy, dignity, compassion.

We in the West are tutored well in our attitudes toward refugees and migrants – tutored by a fear-mongering media, tutored by law makers and wanna be law makers who speak without facts and spread misinformation. As the author of the article I cited above says: “The West is telling migrants: We pity you, but we don’t trust you….”

Three years ago, I wrote an article called “You Can’t Empower Those you Pity.” I think about it today as I mull over how I want to portray the people I met and the stories I heard. Because if I create a narrative of pity, then I will have failed.

Pity reduces people to failures who somehow couldn’t hold it together enough to stay rooted. Pity is the enemy of compassion.

Pity insults. Pity humiliates. Pity sees others as ‘less than’ not ‘equal to’ or ‘above’. While compassion is a vital part of love and moves us to action, pity looks on as a superior bystander.

Pity is scraps from the table.

I don’t know a lot, but I do know that refugees need to be given a seat at the table. They need our partnership, our compassion, the best of what we can give. Otherwise we all lose. 

“Unless the world finds compassion for this new communality, learns to make sense of one another’s voices, its humanity will perish.”

“Dispossessed is an identity of disempowerment, but it is a powerful identity. Borders may temporarily hold back the flow of humans adrift, but in a world where we are so tightly and dizzyingly interwoven, physical boundaries are far less obstructive than the lasting confinement of imposed narratives.”

*paraphrased from a tweet by Lindsey Hunt at Harvard Medical School Primary Care Center.

Note: Would you consider donating to schools for Syrian refugee children in Lebanon? Read more here! 

It’s a Baby!

 

Om Ali 5

I have several friends who have had babies in the past year. These babies are beautiful — a couple of them boys, a couple of them girls. I watch in amazement as they grow week by week – one week soft, sweet-smelling lumps that look around at the world they came into in wonder; the next week smiling, laughing, interactive personalities. It is a miracle, this human growth and development.

All of these babies have something in common – they were born into families that had homes and jobs, friends and family. They were born into place. None of the couples are migrants or refugees, they are not displaced.

But babies don’t choose when and where they come into the world. Babies are born into the best of circumstances and into the most difficult of circumstances.

This is what I think about as I hold Om Ali’s tenth child, a little girl named Salaam. A little girl she has named Peace. Traditionally, women are called by the name of their oldest son, so Om Ali literally means “Mother of Ali.” It was easy to guess the name of her oldest son.

We pulled up to the set of tents around noon time. “They won’t want early visitors,” said our Jordanian friend. I smiled – I’m the same way. Don’t come early. I won’t be ready.

Om Ali came out to greet us, a bright purple turban around her head. In any language or culture, this woman would be a strong, vibrant force.

The group of five or six tents could hardly be called a camp. They stood, haphazard, some of them with large UNHCR emblems, others with billboards providing shelter. Like many of the Syrian refugees we met in Lebanon, this group were also Syrian farmers. They had come from Syria and settled outside of Amman with hundreds of others. At some point, the government made the decision to move all the refugees to a camp in the middle of the desert, a camp called Azraq. Om Ali said it was terrible. A camp in the middle of the desert, the sun beating down all day, no running water, no electricity. So this group took it into their own hands and moved back to Amman. They set up near a factory where the men could occasionally work for one Jordanian Dinar an hour. That’s the equivalent of one dollar and forty cents. Other men found work in a market near by.

Om Ali had delivered baby Salaam just a month before. As I rocked the baby, she told us the story of coming from Syria. “The Jordanian government has been very good to us. We have not gone hungry and we have been safe. The Syrians at Azraq Camp are not happy. But we are happy.” We asked her about the tent –when the rains and snow come, does it keep dry? “Mostly. There is a thick cloth, then plastic, then another thick cloth. It mostly leaks in the corners.” Her tent was like so many others. Clean and simple, thick carpet on the floor and cushions around the sides. Blankets were piled in a corner, pulled out every night to keep the family warm. An old television sat on the one shelf in the room, it’s antenna reaching up toward the ceilin. A lone light bulb hung down from the middle of the tent. “Mostly we have electricity in the winter. It goes off in the summer.” Like the refugees in Bekaa Valley, they too pay for the land that their tent sits on. They pay for the electricity and water that they use as well. Because this group of tents is not an official camp, Om Ali says they get no refugee benefits. “We lost our papers because we moved back to Amman.” But what to do? There is no work in the desert. There is no future in the desert. In the city, at least there is hope for the future.

Baby Salaam woke up in my arms and looked at me in horror as if to say “You’re not my mother!” Om Ali expertly lifted her up and began to breast feed, immediately quieting her wails. Om Ali’s oldest son, Ali, lived in the tent next door with her daughter-in-law. A baby had been born early that morning and her daughter-in-law was already back in the tent. When they have to, they seek care at a hospital near by but it costs and so the sooner the new mom could get back to her tent, the better. The new baby had joined a one and a half year old girl – Maryam. Maryam came to my lap, sitting contentedly, blissfully unaware of the new-born bundle of competition next door.

Babies were born at Azraq camp too, Om Ali told us. And they don’t always live. It’s hot and sometimes the mothers can’t nurse so the babies die of malnutrition and dehydration.

I thought back to my own experiences of giving birth, in beautiful birthing rooms with rocking chairs and wall paper; in a clean, well run hospital in Pakistan; in a hospital on the Nile River in Egypt — all so different from what I knew of this new mom’s situation. I longed to go next door and check on her, make sure she was okay, that her uterus was going down appropriately and that she was safe. But if there is one thing I know, you respect the privacy of those you don’t know. I was a stranger to this extended family.

Our Jordanian friend indicated it was time to go and so we asked how we could pray. How could we remember them? How could we pray for them?

Pray for safety. Pray for peace. Pray that we can return to Syria. Don’t forget us. 

The same prayer request outside of Amman that we heard in the Bekaa Valley. A prayer that echoed from Syria to Iraq to Lebanon to Jordan and back to Syria.

We had brought baby kits, blankets, and hygiene kits so as we left we asked them to come out to the car. There we loaded their arms with the little we had brought. I hugged and kissed Om Ali – first one cheek, then the other. And then again. As though we couldn’t get enough of each other.

Pressing my cheek against hers, I repeated over and over “Allah ma’ak. Allah ma’ak.” 

God be with you Om Ali.

Note: If you are just coming by, this week I am writing stories from our time in Lebanon and Jordan. If you would like to give to refugees in Jordan, we are working with Conscience International to send funds.

“Days of the Week”

Like most things, the refugee crisis is complex and three-dimensional. And one of the things that goes along with this work are the moments and times of extraordinary joy. This is one of those times.

The children in the video are Syrian refugees living in Lebanon. They go to a school that is run by Heart for Lebanon. This was the youngest class, and I couldn’t stop smiling while they were singing.

Take a minute this Friday and enjoy the video!

Syrian refugee children from Marilyn Gardner on Vimeo.

And We’re Back…

Last night we arrived back to Terminal E at Logan International Airport. The trip began early morning in Lebanon and by the time we arrived we had been up for 24 hours.

A wet snow was falling as we made our way out of the terminal, a contrast to our 60 degrees and sunny in both Jordan and Lebanon.

There is a lot to reflect on and think about as we readjust to our day jobs and seek to live faithfully in a place that we don’t find easy.

We are richer in spirit and are humbled by what we have seen and heard.

These are some first thoughts on return. More stories will be coming, stories that are important to hear, but for now these are the things most on my heart.

  1. “Refugees all want to come here”..this is a myth perpetuated by a faux media. They want safety and to go home. It is arrogant of the West to think that all want to come to this part of the world. It is wrong of the Church to base decisions on fear instead of prayer and wisdom.
  2. The churches in Jordan and Lebanon are deeply involved in helping in the crisis. They are tireless in their efforts to feed, clothe, educate, and provide health care for refugees. No penny you give will be wasted. I have provided links to two organizations that I guarantee give money to projects directly helping refugees in their daily lives.
  3. The problem is so huge there is no room for competition or territorialism. There is only room for collaboration and hard work. No one organization or group of people can possibly handle the scope of refugee work that exists. Competition hurts the very people that the organization wants to serve.
  4. In every crisis, there are opportunists. This is the hardest thing for me to come to terms with. Exploiting the marginalized, the refugee, the hurting is nothing new – but there are infinitely creative ways to do this. My heart hurts deeply for this. Da’esh (ISIS) is one evil, opportunists are another. The way to intervene is to offer appropriate help.
  5. Babies are born in the worst of circumstances. They are a picture of grace in the midst of difficulty. I’ll write more later on the importance of offering good forms of birth control. I would gently challenge anyone against birth control to visit a refugee camp and not reconsider their position.
  6. I have been challenged more than ever to pray and believe that the Church has a significant role to play. It is a role of service, prayer, and help. It is a place for the Church to show what it is made of and to live out the Gospel message.
  7. There is only one who is the Saviour, and I am not that Saviour. Yes, I hope I have a role to play, but I have to see my role through the eyes of humility and grace. There is no place for arrogance.

It was a gift to be with my husband on this journey and hear stories together. Thank you to those who have followed us on this trip.

On this Martin Luther King Day, I am reminded to pray that voices and lives rise up for peace and justice around the world. In the words of Amos the prophet: “Take away from Me the noise of your songs; I will not even listen to the sound of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream”

  • Conscience International – If you are interested in small projects like food distribution, helping to fund a mobile medical clinic, or helping support Syrian children go to school. CI does small projects that directly support refugees with almost no overhead.
  • Heart for Lebanon – This is an amazing organization that works with refugees around Lebanon focusing on food distribution and education. The organization is based on developing relationships with refugees. I can’t speak highly enough about this organization.

Note: We received permission to take and share all pictures that you see on this blog. 

  

  

The More I Learn, the Less I Know

I have the extraordinary privilege of being in Lebanon and just returned from a trip to Bekaa Valley.   There are thousands of refugees in the valley and we are with a group called Heart for Lebanon. Heart for Lebanon is working with 1300 families in 13 different camps. We visited the largest camp today. 

I so wish I could come away from these trips with more answers to a crisis, but the more I learn, the more I feel there are no easy answers. And sometimes I feel that there are no human answers at all. 

Human answers may provide an important packet of food, some medication, occasionally schools, but they can’t guarantee safety.  They can’t guarantee a hope or a future. They can’t guarantee a return home. 

We left early morning and returned well after sundown. As we drove back, a thick fog covered the mountain. Even with the head lights on bright, it was difficult to see more than a couple of feet ahead. And I thought how much this fog is like this refugee crisis. You can only see what’s right in front of you, everything else is the fog of the unknown.

But God knows. It’s what I cling to for those who I meet. God knows. He is the “God who Knows.” 

God sees. God hears. God remembers. God knows. I cling to this as I see the small offerings of help in response to massive human need. 

I said goodbye with the Arabic phrase “Allah maak” – “God be with you.” 

And I meant it with every fiber of my being. 

   

    
    
 

His Mercy Echoes

generations quote

 

Yesterday my mom wrote a comment on my post that is worthy of a space of its own. Here it is: 

From my mom – Pauline Brown

I recently read the story told by a Vietnamese American woman. Her grandparents, her mother and two aunts escaped as Saigon was falling. The woman had worked for the American Embassy, but in the end was abandoned. They had to get out because of the American connection.

The three girls were separated from their parents, neither daughters nor parents knowing if the others had gotten out alive as they all saw one of the last helicopters shot down in flames. They miraculously found each other on Guam amongst the thousands of other refugees. As a child she and her cousins loved to hear the story of what she called their “Exodus from Vietnam.”

But the other part of the story is that there was a little Baptist Church in Lafayette, Indiana whose people had decided that they should sponsor a Vietnamese refugee family.

Far away, at a small Baptist church in Indiana, some Christians were convinced that God’s heart was for those whom nobody wanted.

They were praying for that family long before they ever saw them. They met them with a furnished apartment, doctor’s appointments, clothes, all the practical help they needed, and such love as they had never experienced. At the end of the article she says this:

“This is also my story. I grew up knowing that I existed because somewhere in the world, a group of people believed that God was asking them to show mercy to those who needed it. I grew up knowing that this sort of a God is a God worth trusting. His mercy echoes down through the generations.

And I thought to myself, “What if every church in the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and all the countries of western Europe each sponsored a refugee family? I wonder how much of a difference that would make for the millions fleeing.” 

It might be a small dent in the total, but how much it would mean to each of those families! And His mercy would continue to echo down through the generations.

May God help each of us to do what little we can to show His love and compassion to these desperate people He loves.

Story and quote credits to Juliet Liu Waite, Christianity Today December 2015, titled “The Waters of My Family’s Exodus.”

#FighttheFear

Fight the Fear Quote

Today it struck me that we haven’t even been able to grieve the attacks in the world because the rhetoric so quickly changed from grief for Paris to finding a scapegoat. So today I pause to remember, love, and fight fear.

You are more than welcome to use the picture but you must give credit.

*Note: I purposely used Paris as opposed to Lebanon and Baghdad because it is the response to the Paris attacks that is causing fear of refugees. Please don’t think that the other places are of any less value.

I also thought this infographic may be helpful in fighting the fear.

wh_blog_refugee_workflow_1120b

Refugee Facts & Resources

Office of resettlement

I thought it would be helpful to compile resources here for those of you who are looking to know more about resettlement and how the refugee process works. The resources are a mixture of those found in the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Australia, and New Zealand.

Refugee Information:

How to Help: 

  • Make Refugee Kits! Family and Infant Refugee Kits I cannot stress enough how useful these kits are. We have taken over 100 to Iraq and Turkey and sent even more. It’s an excellent Christmas project. I reached out to the folks at Medical Teams and here is what they said:“Thank you so much for your email – and your support for our mission. We will gladly accept shipments at our Tigard Oregon Distribution Center – 14150 SW Milton Court, Tigard OR 97224. Again, thank you for your interest in our project – We are so touched by the kindness and compassion from people around the US!”
  • Conscience International
  • International Orthodox Christian Charities
  • Heart for Lebanon

Note: I purposely did not put in the typical large organizations, namely because I think it’s easier to know where your money goes with the smaller organizations. I can absolutely vouch for the low overhead of these organizations as well as seeing in person the work that is being done with refugees.

Helpful Articles: 

Why You Should Care: 

In closing, I want to say this: there’s an acronym in social media “smdh.” It stands for “shaking my damn head.” As I see the reaction to refugees by fellow Christians as evidenced by statements by Christian leaders, I am literally shaking my damn head. I don’t get it.  We have made refugees the scapegoats for egregious, condemnable acts of violenceSo I issue three challenges:

A Call to Pray: “In the midst of tragedy, I am called to pray. Called to pray to a God who hears and loves, a God who is present in tragedy and accepts our “why’s”, a God who knows no national boundaries or citizenship, a God who took on our human pain and suffering when he ‘willingly endured the cross’.” [from In the Midst of Tragedy, A Call to Pray.]

A Call to Walk Away from Fear: I’m going to repeat what I have said publicly three times this week. Don’t make safety an idol. Choose to walk away from fear. Choose to love as you are loved; choose to offer your heart and your resources to those in need.

A Call to Love: Governments may do their thing, they may close their doors; as a Christian, I don’t have that option.  Period.

 “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.29 If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. 30 Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back.31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Luke 6: 26-31

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Purchase Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging and all proceeds will go toward Syrian and Iraqi refugees and displaced people! 

no to refugees
Photograph courtesy of Ed Brown

Welcoming the Refugee – Choosing to Walk Away from Fear

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The road may be long and full of our blood but we will go back waving olive branches. Love is stronger than hate

There is little that I feel more passionately about than refugees. The refugee problem has my heart and my mind all the time, and my body when possible. I write about refugees, my husband and I speak about refugees whenever we can, and I work with refugees whenever possible.

I have found a glaring disconnect between reality and rhetoric when it comes to the refugee crisis. Politicians and non politicians use current events to back their arguments against receiving refugees in the Western world. And much of what they say has no basis in truth. Here are a few things that I want to say about current events and the refugee crisis:

  • I am not naïve. I start with this purposely. I am fully aware that among the millions of refugees pouring across borders there are those who would be prone toward violent extremism. But if we think that the Islamic State’s reach and activities are carried out primarily by refugees than we are seriously misled. ISIS has been recruiting online for a long time. “Even though the Islamic State’s ideology is explicitly at odds with the West, the group is making a relentless effort to recruit Westerners into its ranks, eager to exploit them for their outsize propaganda value. Through January this year, at least 100 Americans were thought to have traveled to join jihadists in Syria and Iraq, among nearly 4,000 Westerners who had done so.”* Recruiting online from within the borders of the United States is a bigger threat than any refugee threats. I stand by that. ISIS is a threat; Refugees are not. 

 

  • The main message of the Islamic State is that they are creating a Caliphate, a refuge for Muslims. In a video titled “Would You Exchange What Is Better For What Is Less? – Wilāyat Ṣalāḥ al-Dīn,” the speaker explains that Muslims should not leave Muslim countries for the West, but rather seek to live in countries where shari’ah law is enforced. “Speakers warn that the ‘Jews and Christians’ do not have their interests at heart, and will force them to convert in order to remain in their countries. They cite issues such as the restrictions against hijab and niqab in European countries such as France. They assert that the Islamic State will remain strong despite those leaving. They will find happiness only in the land of the caliphate.”

 

  • A reaction to the recent violence that promotes Islamophobia helps ISIS.  Most of the millions of people fleeing Syria and Iraq are doing so to flee ISIS. We must not forget that. The attacks were thought to have originated in Syria and those who allegedly carried out the Paris attacks were French nationals, Belgian nationals, and only one who possibly entered through Greece. “Most acts of terrorism are performances of power by groups that often have very little power. As with all performances, the critical question is who is the intended audience? In the case of the Paris attacks it appears to be ISIS’ own demoralized supporters and the French public who could easily be whipped up into enthusiasm for a military attack on ISIS, which is what ISIS wants.”

 

  • The refugee crisis is more important than the terrorist threat. I believe this with all my heart. Of the 11 million displaced people, the United States has pledged to take in 10,000. That is .09% of the total of the number of displaced people from Syria and Iraq. There are millions that need help, millions that are fleeing terrorism, war, and all that goes along with that. “But one fact is simple: millions of Syrians need our help. And the more aware people are of the situation, the more we can build a global response to reach them. Our lifesaving work — to connect people to the resources they need to survive and help their communities thrive — is only possible with your knowledge and support.” If you live in the United States, then the chance of you being struck by lightning is far more than you being killed by a terrorist attack. The March, 2011, Harper‘s Index notedNumber of American civilians who died worldwide in terrorist attacks last year: 8 — Minimum number who died after being struck by lightning:29. “Indeed, the leading cause of deaths for Americans traveling abroad is not terrorism, or murder … or even crime of any type. It’s car crashesIn fact: With the exception of the Philippines, more Americans died from road crashes in all of the 160 countries surveyed than from homicides.” 

 

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  • And now I speak to fellow Christians. As a Christian, I am called to trust, not fear. When my husband and I were in Iraq this August, we were struck by the lack of fear in those most affected by ISIS. The testimony of faith, trust, and courage by those who have had to flee their homes and lives was powerful. Indeed, there is much to fear. But they have chosen to walk away from fear. Think about that for a minute. They choose to walk away from fear. Every day, I must choose to live in faith not fear.  “When fear is our currency, we cannot live effectively. Whether this be around parenting, around work, or around where we are called to live, this is truth. When fear is our currency, we forget that safety is not about where we live, or work, or play. Safety is about knowing where our security lies, what we’re called to do, and who we’re called to be.”

 

  • We have a deep need for safety and security, but we have an illusion of what that is, what that means. Rachel Pieh Jones in a beautiful piece called “The Proper Weight of Fear” says this about her move to Somalia: “Safety is a Western illusion crafted into an idol and we refused to bow.”  So badly did Achilles mother, Thetis, want to protect him, that she took him by the heel and immersed his body into a river to make him invulnerable to injury. Achilles becomes a famous warrior, but as fate would have it, an arrow finds the one place where he is vulnerable and he is killed. Thus the famous story of Achilles heel

As I think about this and the fear I hear, read, and see all around me, a memory comes to mind of my son Joel. We had been in Cairo only 2 weeks when he slipped on the sharp edge of a bed and cut open an area right above his eye. He was two years old, screaming and bleeding profusely. Somehow we made our way to the emergency room in a hospital on the banks of the Nile, and a kind doctor took care of the wound, with tiny, precise stitches. And as I looked at those beautiful blue eyes of my son, his fear and pain so evident, I just kept on whispering “I’m here Joel. Mommy’s here.”I couldn’t protect him, but I could be present. Maybe my presence was enough.

And so I ask you, those of you who are Christians, is God’s presence enough? Does God’s presence lead us to open our hearts and walk in faith?  It’s not about comfort, it’s not about safety, it’s not about freedom from suffering – it’s about faith. 

To better understand the refugee resettlement process click here. 

Want to help in a tangible way? Make refugee kits. Click here to learn more. 

The Refugee Situation

“Over 200,000 Syrians have died in their 4.5 year conflict. That is roughly the equivalent of the Paris death toll every day since the start of their stuggle. Approximately 25% of those killed have been women and children, and over 80,000 of those killed have been civilians. This has led to a mass exodus where over half the population of Syria, 12 million people, have now had to flee their home looking for safety.”

Sources: 

  1. ISIS and the Lonely Young American
  2. The Islamic State on Refugees Leaving Syria
  3. Why ISIS attacked Paris
  4. Quick Facts: What You Need to Know about the Syrian Crisis and The Terrorism Statistics Every American Needs to Hear. 
  5. When Fear is Your Currency – AKA “But is it Safe?” 
  6. The Proper Weight of Fear
  7. Picture from our trip to Iraq and quote from a play that was performed on the one year anniversary of the exile from Qaraqosh, Iraq.

A Short Video Explains a Crisis

Tonight my husband and I will be at our church, sharing some stories and pictures from our trips this past year to Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq. In the spirit of that talk, I offer you this short and challenging video. It will take six minutes of your time and it is the clearest explanation I have yet seen on the refugee crisis.

“We are writing history right now. Do we want to be remembered as xenophobic, rich cowards behind fences?….There is only something to be lost if we ignore this crisis.” 

Self-Sufficiency in 8 Months – How to Settle a Refugee

we can build walls

It came to my mind yesterday that most of us have limited knowledge of the refugee situation in the United States alone, much less the world. The purpose of this post is to give a few important facts about refugees and resettlement. Because I am in the United States, I have focused on the process here. In order to better understand the worldwide problem, I think it’s important to know what your countries rules and laws are.

Legal Definition: “A refugee, as defined by Section 101(a)42 of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), is a person who is unable or unwilling to return to his or her home country because of a “well-founded fear of persecution” due to race, membership in a particular social group, political opinion, religion, or national origin.

Brief History: The definition of the word comes from the United Nations 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocols. The definition was crafted because of the need for international protection of displaced peoples after World War II. Policies around refugee resettlement in the United States go back to 1980, when Congress passed the Refugee Act and huge numbers of Souteast Asians came to the United States under refugee status.  It was then that the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) was created.

Key Point: Our refugee policies have not been truly updated since that time! 

Process: The process is long and difficult, and the number of refugees who end up with legal citizenship in a country where they resettle is small compared to the overall number of refugees. Each year, the president submits a report to Congress called the “Proposed Refugee Admissions Report.” The overall number of refugees that the U.S will accept is proposed by the president and agreed on (or not) by congress. It’s important to note that the number of refugees actually settled is generally far fewer than the number agreed on. This is because of the cumbersome and ridiculously large amount of paperwork that goes into each person’s application. In 2014, that number was 70,000 but the actual number was around 45,000.

There are three choices for a refugee once they escape: repatriation (once safe), local integration, resettlement in a third country.

Priority for resettlement is based on three things: 

  • Priority 1: Individual cases primarily based on persecution
  • Priority 2: Key designated groups – these are selected in consultation with other groups like UNHCR.
  • Priority 3: Relatives of refugees who are already settled in the U.S. (spouses, parents, children under 21)

The process begins in camps or at borders by UNHCR. UNHCR registers refugees and determines their status. They then refer to the US Resettlement Program (USRP). Prescreening is done by Resettlement Support Center staff, followed by an onsite interview by United States Citizenship and Immigration Service and Department of Homeland Security. It is safe to say that with the increased threats and fear of terrorism, this part is grueling. Once the person is approved, they are finger printed and have security checks. The average time for processing refugees is 18 months but applications from Syrians take much longer because of security and the difficulty of verifying information. 

Key Point: The average time in a refugee camp has risen to 17 years. 

Final steps before arrival are medical screening and determining where in the United States the person will be resettled. Travel arrangements are then made by the International Organization on Migration.

Key Point: Cost of travel must be repaid within 6 months of arrival in the United States. It is not free. There is no free lunch in this process. I promise. 

On Arrival: A VOLAG (Volunatry Agency) meets the refugee on arrival and takes them to predesignated, furnished housing. During the first 90 days, VOLAGS arrange for housing, food, transportation, medical care, and employment counseling services. Each state has a state coordinator and the VOLAGS work closely with the state coordinators. Both ultimately answer to the Office of Refugee Resettlement.

Key Point: The goal of the United States Refugee Program is “Self-sufficiency after 8 months.” 

Think about that for a minute. You’ve lost everything. You hear a car backfire and you think it’s a bomb. Anyone in authority fills you with fear, because you know your life journey is literally in their hands. You grieve for the family you left behind, even as you are relieved that you are finally safe. But in eight months, you need to be a fully functioning member of society. That is an enormous task.

Difference between Immigrants, Refugees, and Asylees: An immigrant comes to the country of their own accord. Some would argue that often circumstances in their countries are so difficult that they have to look at other options, but they are not forced from their homes. Refugees and asylees must have a “well-founded fear of persecution due to race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.”* The difference is that refugees get permission to come to a country before they arrive, whereas asylees receive permission after they arrive.

Important things to remember: Research has shown there to be four main categories of stress experienced by refugees. These are Traumatic Stress, Resettlement Stress, Acculturation Stress, and Isolation Stress.  A key part of working through this is strengthening areas that contribute to resilience in people. Among other things, family and community support for the refugee contributes to resilience and ability to move forward. Community matters. Family matters.

As I think about the current crisis, I think the photograph at the top says it all, so in closing, I will repeat it: “….But imagine for a second if it were you; your child in your arms; the world you knew torn apart around you. There is no price you would not pay; There is no wall you would not climb.”**

I highly recommend the film The Good Lie. The movie came out last year, but was not widely shown. It tells the story of the Lost Boys and Girls of Sudan, orphans who walked thousands of miles to get to refugee camps in Kenya. It is a poignant look at the refugee journey and the tenacity it takes to resettle.  I’ve included the trailer for the movie here.

Resources:

*[Source] http://www.brycs.org/aboutRefugees/refugee101.cfm

**Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission

Trauma-Informed Care

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In recent years, trauma-informed care has been a front and center topic in healthcare. Trauma-informed care “is an approach that aims to engage people with histories of trauma, recognize the presence of trauma symptoms, and acknowledge the role that trauma has played in their lives.” 

At heart, this means that I, as a nurse, need to recognize that some of the symptoms I see in a patient are a result of their story. As I tell health and human service workers all the time: “The symptoms are in the story.”

I think all Christians need to attend a workshop on trauma-informed care. Because as we interact with people, whether they believe our truth claims or not, we need to get a better understanding of what lies beyond the surface.

We need to better understand the story behind the cynicism. We need to have greater empathy for the narrative behind the fear, the resentment, the inability to get involved, the anger toward authority of any kind.

We need to practice trauma-informed care. Specifically, as more and more attention is finally being drawn toward the refugee crisis, and sites like We Welcome Refugees pop up like daisies, (or sometimes dandelions) in a summer lawn, we cannot go into this work blindly, unaware of the trauma sustained by refugees and displaced people. 

One way to be ready is to learn how to give trauma-informed care. So how do we practice trauma-informed care? 

On the surface, it’s simple. Get to know the person behind the symptoms. Find out their story. Everyone has a story. If we practice active listening, we can better get to the heart of the story.

But beyond knowing the story, what do we do? It is completely unrealistic to think we can know everyone’s story. It is beyond our ability to be able to spend the kind of time it takes to get to the heart of why a person reacts the way they do.

SAMHSA – The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration offers these characteristics of organizations that have a “trauma-informed” approach. These organizations: 

  1. Realize the widespread impact of trauma and understand potential paths for recovery;
  2. Recognize the signs and symptoms of trauma in clients, families, staff, and others involved with the system;
  3. Respond by fully integrating knowledge about trauma into policies, procedures, and practices; and
  4. Seek to actively resist re-traumatization.*

These six principles guide the approach: 

  1. Safety
  2. Trustworthiness and Transparency
  3. Peer support
  4. Collaboration and mutuality
  5. Empowerment, voice and choice
  6. Cultural, Historical, and Gender Issues

On a practical level, what does this mean?

For starters, using these principles, a church or refugee organization can develop their own models of care for refugees and others who they long to reach. A church or faith organization needs to recognize signs of post traumatic stress disorder, and know how to direct the person and family for counseling. A church needs to see this as a mutual work, not a hierarchy. The refugee family is NOT below the other families in the church. The refugee family is NOT to be an object of pity. Rather, they should be seen as full partners in the settlement process.  Organizations must understand the need for cultural competency and, within trauma-informed care, seek to care for the person in culturally responsive ways.

There is so much more to say on these topics, and I will write more in the coming days, but let us not enter blindly. Let us enter with humility and determination. We are not Saviours, we are partners in this process. 

It may sound easy on the surface to open your heart and home to refugees, but ask anyone, anyone who has worked in the field for a long time and they will tell you about burnout. They will tell you about how you can’t meet the needs of everybody. They will tell you about their clinic, how after you give out 30 numbers to 30 patients, you have to turn people away. They will tell you about waking every day, begging “Lord Have Mercy.”

Because the problem is so big. Because that is the reality.

Blogger’s Note: Would that these principles of trauma-informed care be used on everybody that enters the doors of our churches. Just as packages that contain breakable items declare in bold letters: “Fragile! Handle with Care!” so do many people wear invisible signs: “Fragile! Handle me carefully.”

Here is an excellent article The Resilient Refugee, written by an ATCK and expat writing friend. Anoter great article What the Migrant Crisis Says About Us is written by a thoughtful writer and researcher who I was privileged to meet in February at the Families in Global Transition Conference.

*These principles are taken directly from SAMHSA

Will a Dead Toddler Wake a Sleeping World?

toddler-2 shoesHe’s in a red shirt and blue shorts, his little body still chubby with the best kind of toddler fat. He has his shoes on, their brown soles pointed toward the camera. This strikes me as odd — because he’s at the edge of the water on a beach. The waves care not that he is there, they come and go at nature’s will.

The light goes on in the back of my brain, and I slowly shake my head, willing the reality of the image away. I suddenly get it. This little boy, who looks to be barely three, is dead. He died and his body is there on the beach. There are no parents to rescue him. They too are dead.

The story comes out in bits and pieces: Twelve refugees, thought to be Syrian, drown when their boat sinks off the coast of a Greek Island. Their bodies wash ashore in a Turkish resort town. That’s when this toddler is found. Too late.

Turkish media identified the toddler – he has a name. His name is Aylan Kurdi, from a Kurdish region of Syria. It is thought that his five year old brother died on the boat as well.

Of the 11 million that have died or fled their homes from Syria, some stories stand out. Just as Christina became the iconic story of the tragedy of Qaraqosh, so will this baby boy become the image and story of the refugee crisis.

The Associated Press gives us a pictorial look into the crisis as they show a 24-hour migration across Europe. 

What can we do? How can we urge governments and policy makers to act? How can we sit back, while a little child lays, dead on the beach?

We are a world asleep, a world that is short sighted, a world that honestly believes someone else will fill in the gap.

Will a dead toddler wake a sleeping world? 

What if we just showed up? What if, when we see people who are desperate, we put aside all our reservations and took the risk of giving, caring, loving?

In truth, my faith demands that I respond! Throughout the Holy Scriptures, I read commands to care, to help, to offer refuge.

The stranger did not lodge in the street: but I opened my doors to the traveler*

Truth is – I have no answers except one. And that is prayer that the warm fire of the Holy Spirit will wake us, sustain us, and give us grace and desire to act. 

FOR A PRACTICAL RESPONSE TO THE CRISIS, CLICK HERE!

Donate now to the Refugee Crisis by clicking here. Also, if you purchase Between Worlds, every penny of the royalties will go toward refugees. 

*Job 31 v 32 KJV

To Iraq

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The text came on an Ecclesiastical day – a day when I was despairing that there was nothing new under the sun. Especially nothing new in my immediate vicinity.

And then came the text: “How would you like to go to Iraq? Call me!”

It was from my husband. I called – immediately. The organization that he volunteers for was putting together a small team to go work with internally displaced people in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq. The president hoped to take a doctor, but after two doctors said yes and then had to back out for personal reasons, he decided to ask me. Timing was critical as he was purchasing the tickets that night.

I took a look at my schedule, rearranged one thing, and breathed a deep sigh. I was going to Iraq. As many who read CAB know, my heart has been across the world with refugees and displaced people from Syria and Iraq for a long time. In November, I was able to go to Turkey and since that time I’ve longed to go again. In fact, my husband and I have prayed long and sought hard to work with refugees full time, so the trip is a gift from God. To make it even better, my husband will be joining me a day later so we will be able to ask questions, find out what needs are, and do what we can during the short time we are there.

It will be a quick trip and include working at a clinic and visiting camps for internally displaced people. Last June, ISIS captured the city of Mosul – the site of the ancient city of Nineveh, best know from the Biblical story of Jonah. Chaldeans, Assyrians, Syrian Orthodox and more all lived and worshiped in this city. That changed when they were forced out of homes and communities, fleeing to nearby cities and towns. Erbil, as the largest city in the area, received many refugees. The churches in Erbil made room for thousands of displaced people, housing them wherever they could find room.

It’s a year later, but the crisis continues despite the world moving on. The figures are staggering in their magnitude. UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees) estimates over 3.5 million internally displaced people. Added to that are Syrian refugees who have made their way into Iraq. I can’t get my head around the figures. Take a look here to see more: UNHCR – Iraq

So we are going and it feels like even less than five loaves and two fishes – but then, that’s all most of us have. It’s barely a band-aid. But my friend Rachel says this, and I’ve quoted it before but it’s worth repeating:

It is small. And you are just one person. But a mustard seed is small. That’s the way of the Kingdom. May we always delight in being part of small things.” 

For those who pray, I would ask for prayers for this trip, but more so – for the internally displaced people and refugees in the area. I go for a week – they live there all the time. Also, if you would like to give to the clinic or to the camps in Erbil, click here. You can designate the funds specifically for Iraq. The trip is paid for, every bit of money goes toward the clinic and camps. Your gift is tax-deductible.