On Refugees and Safety

 

I was safe.

There in my coastal college town where we worried about the skyrocketing price of housing, but little else. I dreamed of broader experiences for my daughters. For the diversity we sorely lacked. Of course, it's never the way you picture it.

It's messy and awkward and difficult and beautiful. But isn't that just like the Kingdom of God?

These are just a few stories from my experience moving to Nashville and living among refugees. 

***

I went back to school as an "older" adult. I was there with all the emotional and financial support of my husband and family to chase a degree.

They were there to chase a dream, in a city where they had landed by default.  

They did not choose where they were born. 

They did not choose to live in a land torn by war or persecution.

They did not choose to leave.

They did not choose which refugee camp to live in while the arduous vetting process took place.

They did not choose to live in the city I got to choose. 

They did not get to choose their house or apartment by its aesthetic appeal, or the way the light comes in the windows just the right way, or by the fact that it had enough bedrooms for their families. Or didn't. 

They were placed there, and they were in college working harder than most to simply write a sentence in English. 

I read their personal essays. I read their stories. I saw some of their pieces go from disjointed thoughts to published works in our college's journal. 

One Somali girl wrote about going to elementary school and getting lost walking home. 

"All the houses looked the same!" She laughed. 

She had wandered streets I still will not venture in my car after dark. Alone. A third grade girl. 

Finally, a police officer helped her, and she made her way back to the place she was supposed to call home. 

She told me that school had been difficult because she couldn't speak a word of English. 

"How did you do your homework? Did you have a translator? How did you even know what to do?" I asked. 

There was no translator. No one at home to help. Her parents were working all day and night, and they didn't speak English, either.

It was the school guard, a bilingual Somali man, who looked at her assignments every day after school as she left and told her what to do. 

I spent two days a week for a year with these precious new neighbors. 

Somali. Kurdish. Iranian. Sudanese. Burmese. Muslim. Christian. Fearful. Displaced. Hard-working. Dreamers. Loved.

Dangerous?

No.

***

At first I didn't want to be part of the new church plant. I didn't want to leave my friends. I didn't want to feel uncomfortable.

The new church began as a ministry alongside Burmese refugees. We shared meals together--meals they had often prepared. Many times, most of the time, the conversations were hard. 

At one event, a woman told me that she had been exiled to Hong Kong for reporting on women's rights in Thailand. She hadn't seen her family in ten years.

Whatever could I say? I kept chewing my rice noodles and just listened. Stunned. Mind boggled. Grateful that California is the furthest I have to travel to see the people I love. 

My husband helped organize a community garden at our church where the Burmese refugees could plant food. The apartment complex they are assigned to lacks green space, and many (most) refugees leave behind a rich agricultural experience when they are forced to flee their homelands. 

On the morning of the garden planting, my husband said they were all there early. Men, women, and children, ready to plant. 

He was there to help, but he didn't need to. They already knew exactly what to do. How to plant a seed. How to cultivate something rich and beautiful. 

Once during a worship service, we tried to say the Lord's Prayer together using the dialect of our Burmese sisters and brothers. It was displayed phonetically for those of us (all of us) who could not speak their language.

We began all together, but before we knew it, our refugee friends had finished the prayer.

The rest of us were still plodding along.

Struggling with the rhythm of the words.

Stumbling over missteps and mispronunciations. 

Sometimes, a proper Burmese word is rude American slang when spelled out phonetically. We laughed until we cried in what we had hoped to be an act of unity as we tried  to overlook our accidental profanity.

Of all things. The Lord's Prayer

And as I struggled to read and understand the words on the screen, I had a moment--a split hair of a second, in which I could imagine what it would be like to be a foreigner in a foreign land. 

Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done.

On earth as it is in Heaven.

***

My daughter is ten years old. She is a ballerina. At her ballet school, there are dancers of diverse racial, socio-economic, and cultural backgrounds. There are refugees. 

Sometimes, we carpool. They giggle in the backseat as they open their snacks. My daughter tears away the foil at her yogurt. 

The other dancer opens the lid of a container holding a hot, fresh meal prepared by her mother. 

"That smells SO good," my daughter says. 

The dancer beams. 

My car smells like things I don't even know how to describe. Like spicy, buttery goodness. 

On stage, they dance like swans. All of them together. 

I cry when I watch my daughter. 

I cry harder when I see the face of the refugee mother watching her own girl.

***

Last night I went to Target. My newsfeed and my heart were full of the news of the day--refugees being detained at airports and families separated as the "temporary" ban took place. 

Target was busy. The lines were long and the aisles full. As I walked through the store, I noticed that many, many people around me were speaking languages I didn't understand. Many women were wearing head coverings. Ten years ago, this would have startled me. My quiet California college town is not the melting pot that a refugee hub like Nashville is. 

But as I walked the aisles, there was no fear. Not an ounce of anxiety for myself. Only worry and wonder over their families and if they would be affected by the recent legislation. 

And I wished I had some phonetic spelling on a screen that I could recite in every language. I would risk the potential profanity. The awkwardness and embarrassment. The fear. 

I would say:

You overcame. 

You planted beautiful things. 

Your daughters dance like swans, and you make my country--our country--great. 

 And I realized I had never been safe in my cozy town, with my cozy ideas. Not really.

Not in a Kingdom where the least is greatest and the greatest is the least. Where the lowly are lifted up and the rich sent away empty. Where the poor are blessed and the persecuted given eyes to see the topsy-turvy love of God where they are cherished beyond measure.

I would say:

Dear refugee, I have a lot to learn about safety.

Thank you for teaching me.  

 Burmese refugees planting in the community garden at our parish 

Burmese refugees planting in the community garden at our parish