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

Refugee Quotes

 

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

I have been a stranger in many places around the world. In those places, I slowly found a place and a home. It hasn’t always been easy, but there are many times and many ways that I have been welcomed as a stranger and given food and comfort.

It is a gift to be welcomed into places where you are different from those who surround you. It is a gift that you never forget; a gift that you want to pass on.

Wherever they go, the refugee arrives as a stranger with a story. These stories encompass all that it means to be human. They speak of fear and courage; of despair and hope. They help us to see beyond our comfortable lives, and give us a heart to help. If we are willing to listen.

Today I am asking you to listen to the voices of refugees and for refugees. As you read through these quotes, remember this: We cannot sit back, comfortable in our security, because someday it will be us.

_______________________

“No one puts their children in a boat, unless the water is safer than the land.” excerpt from “Home” by Warsan Shire

This is a century of dislocation not merely of body and home, but also of empathy, dignity, compassion.”-From Refugees Don’t Need Your Pity

“They have no idea what it is like to lose home at the risk of never finding home again, have your entire life split between two lands and become the bridge between two countries.”
— Rupi Kaur, Milk & Honey

To be called a refugee is the opposite of an insult; it is a badge of strength, courage, and victory.” Tennessee Office for Refugees

“If we lived in a just world, all nations would protect their citizens’ human rights. But that’s not our world. Refugees are just one result of injustice. Crucially, they didn’t cause their plight; rather, they are victims of profound injustice. Because their home nation cannot or will not protect even their basic human rights, they must migrate in search of protection. They are entitled to this protection, as all of us are, simply by virtue of being human.” Patti Tamara Lenard, “Who should pay for the refugees? Here are five possible answers.” Washington Post, February 8, 2016

…If the world measures a refugee according to the worst story, we will always excuse human suffering, saying it is not yet as bad as someone else’s.” Victoria Armour-Hileman

The way a government treats refugees is very instructive because it shows you how they would treat the rest of us if they thought they could get away with it.- Tony Behn “Living Like a Refugee: New York Must Do More to Help Its Homeless”, The Observer, September 9, 2015

So often the world sits idly by, watching ethnic conflicts flare up, as if these were mere entertainment rather than human beings whose lives are being destroyed. Shouldn’t the existence of even one single refugee be a cause for alarm throughout the world?” Urkhan Alakbarov

“While every refugee’s story is different and their anguish personal, they all share a common thread of uncommon courage – the courage not only to survive, but to persevere and rebuild their shattered lives.” Antonio Guterres, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees

*From Refugees Don’t Need Your Pity

Remember! Purchase Passages Through Pakistan and royalties will go to refugees in the Middle East. 

 

The Days We Never Laugh

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I am holding my grandson as my daughter enters the room. I watch as he shrieks and lets out a belly laugh. He loved his mama even before he has words to express it. And there’s something else – he already knows how to laugh. 

A few years ago I was working on a project called “People Profiles” for my job at a busy healthcare organization. The goal of the project was to create informative one-page fact sheets representing some of the ethnically diverse groups in the greater Boston area. These would then be used with healthcare providers to help them better understand how to serve patients who have differing views of health and illness.

It was an interesting and challenging project, mostly because for each people profile I had the privilege of working with someone from that specific country. 

China, Cambodia, Vietnam, Haiti, Puerto Rico and more were my world for a few weeks and the people who I worked with were amazing. The personal and informational things they shared were invaluable, not only to the project but to me. I learned about immigration patterns and warring groups; gender roles and views of the elders in  community; herbs and teas; tiger balm and hot/cold theories; dual causality and fate. The writers worked to educate – initially me, but ultimately future readers of the profiles –  and help us think beyond the surface so that we could learn to give excellent care.

One of the people I worked with was a lovely Sudanese woman named Shahira. With beautiful prose she helped to write the “people profile” on the Sudan. She helped to give personality to a place I knew only from limited interactions with people in Cairo, where Sudanese, as a marginalized group of refugees, have struggled. They live without a country and at the lowest levels of society.

Shahira began the people profile with a proverb that I will never forget.

“Our wasted days are the days we never laugh.”

I was struck by this for a couple of reasons. One was my appreciation for laughter and humor to get me through the difficult times, what Madeleine L’engle calls the Holy Gift of Laughter”. The other was the contrast between what I knew and read on the fact sheet, and the proverb. It made no sense. How can people laugh when they have faced war, rape, starvation, and other untold horrors? What can possibly be the foundation for the resilience of their human spirit through such times, allowing them to see this proverb as representative of their spirit? It makes my difficult times look like a hot day at Disney world when the lines are long. Uncomfortable and not pleasant, but when compared, embarrassing.

These are the times when I am utterly confident that we are created in the image of God. There is no other explanation for the resilience that many refugees show in the worst of circumstances.

To be able to face tragedy and continue to laugh is a gift that our world needs. It is something we can learn from those who have faced far worse situations than many of us, yet continue to laugh and find joy and meaning in life. 

I think about this proverb today. It is grey outside and heavy rain splatters the pavement. People hurry to get to dry spaces and buses and subways are more crowded. Our wasted days are the days we never laugh – in my mind the rhythm of the phrase goes with the sound of raindrops. And in the middle of the grey and the rain, I remember my grandson’s laughter. 

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

Lenten Journey – “I was a Stranger”

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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

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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.