(Based on a sermon preached at First United Methodist Church in Wallingford, CT, 4/17/2016.)
I keep trying to tell my refugee friends “I’m sorry.” Your hometown was burned down again. You don’t know if your brother got out alive. That MRI reminds you of the war. Your only chance to take a GED class is after your 12-hour factory shift. And so many Americans are saying bad things about Muslim refugees. “I’m sorry,” I told my friend Azhar. “No, I’m happy,” she told me. She saw the stars larger than ever last night, after looking through a telescope for the first time. “Sometimes I feel like I’m living in a bottle,” she said. “But I want every day to be better.”
The phones at the non-profit where I work have been ringing off the hook since we started resettling Syrian refugees to New Haven. A Tea-Party patriot wants to know why we’re bringing them here. Girl Scout troops want to bring a thousand pounds of canned goods. Reporters want interviews and photo shoots with the Syrian family that became a hot human-interest story this fall: They were re-routed from Indiana to Connecticut the week 30 U.S. governors said their states would not accept Syrian refugees. It was just days after a Syrian passport was found near the body of one of the men who attacked Paris in November. Now, there’s a bill pending in the House that would put the whole refugee resettlement program in jeopardy. And a recent poll shows that 51% of Americans want to ban non-citizen Muslims from coming to the U.S.
But even in precarious times, some people have a way of drawing out light. Like Azhar, who has eyes to see through a glass, brightly. It is a light you can barely perceive, and it means more light. Enough to sustain us through dark hours, and astonish us sometimes. I am here to tell you about that light.
A picket sign that says “Refugees are Welcome Here!” A coffee mug that says “No More Mr. Nice Guy.” A make-your-own Frida Kahlo shrine kit (beads included.) These are a few of the things people bring to IRIS, the refugee resettlement agency where I work: a scene one visitor described as Goodwill meets National Geographic meets the DMV.
Any given day could see a vanload of donated coats, a drum circle of kids from Africa and the Middle East, and people from all walks of life trying to navigate bureaucracy. A Yale graduate and a glass blower from Damascus are no match for tax forms. But life prevails over paperwork in this place I’m called to be. To borrow a phrase from Fredrick Beuchner’s Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC, “the place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
I knew I was in a place where gladness and hunger meet the day of an African mask-making workshop at IRIS. As usual, the office was bursting at the seams with people who’ve had to leave their homes and wait years to be resettled to the U.S., who are now stressed about paying rent: the group of Iraqis and Eritreans who’d been laid off by a plastics factory; the Sudanese and Congolese whose seasonal jobs had dried up; the Afghani women who are just beginning to learn English; some people who are too sick to work. They gathered in a room with a local artist who taught them how the Nigerian slaves who came to Puerto Rico made masks.
Across the hall, my co-workers and I were sitting in a meeting with the Department of Social Services, a briefing on public benefits for refugees: SNAP, Medicaid, paupers’ burials. And a new program for difficult medical cases: end-stage renal disease, paraplegia, cancer, PTSD.
Just as someone announced the “quarterly torture taskforce collaborative,” the artist charged in. Then, a woman in sneakers, jeans, and an abaya. And something on her head, a figure made of cardboard painted red: A gazelle nose with sickle-shaped holes for eyes. Behind her, a tall blue bull in a button-up shirt. Then, an elephant with wing-tipped shoes. I realized, it was a procession of refugees I see every day at work, people who may have survived torture. But their lives cannot be task-forced into order. Their strides sliced through the bureaucracy in the room. I couldn’t tell who was who. Their faces were covered with the masks they’d made: an antelope, a goat, a lion with kind eyelashes. But I recognized one by the cast on his wrist, the mark of a serious injury.
I didn’t shake his hand until I broke my wrist. As if it gave me the right, as if by some touch of embodied empathy—the pain of turning a doorknob, the way you have to sign your name like a child who’s learning to write—made it ok to greet him by the hand, cast to cast. As if to say, We are not strangers. We are bones and light.
My bones break pretty easily these days. After two years of cancer treatment I’m prone to fracture—the metatarsals, the pelvis, a wrist. The chemo that kept me alive took a toll on my bone cells. And the immunotherapy that may be working a medical miracle in me comes with inflammation that takes a mega dose of bone-damaging Prednisone to control. Plus, I’m pretty clumsy. It was after I’d slipped and fallen on the ice for the third time one winter, that a friend sent me a prayer I’ve carried with me ever since: Lonely and tired, crushed by the separations and sorrows of earth, we feel the need of calling You…so that we may not be as strangers in the province of joy.
It is a prayer my favorite writer Flannery O’Connor prayed every day for the last years of her life. She was dying of lupus and writing fiercely. The year she was diagnosed, at the age of 25, with the disease that had killed her father, she wrote, in a letter to a friend, “Picture me with ground teeth stalking joy.”
Until I discovered this exhilarating, deranged image, I didn’t have the words for the voracious way I try to live with incurable cancer and fragile bones. I stalk joy, and I can do it because of the refugees in my life.
I kind of liked going to IRIS with a cast. A toddler from Rwanda would tap it, whenever I would pass—his way of saying “hi, I know you,” before he’s learned to speak. And when his mom and other refugee adults were on their break from English class, I asked them to write phrases in their native languages on my cast. I got “God loves Ashley” in Tigrinya; “I’m sorry,” in Farsi; Our Lord is with you in Arabic. One Congolese girl held me by the wrist, as she drew a silver heart on my arm. It was the day her mom was admitted to the hospital. While she was waiting for her aunt to pick her up, she found a way to write Love on my broken wrist.
The African masks are duct-taped to a wall, across the hall from a drawing of the Statue of Liberty. She’s standing in the waves of New York Bay, holding a turquoise torch. And the tablet in her hand is inscribed with a heart and a word: welcome.
But these days, many Muslim refugees are not safe, much less welcome, in the United States. In December, someone threw a Molotov Cocktail at a Somali Café in North Dakota, not long after the refugee owner found a Nazi-style SS and “Go Home” spray-painted on the door. When an Eritrean refugee from the IRIS community showed up for her waitressing shift the Monday after the Paris attacks, a co-worker said, “we welcomed you, and you killed us.” I cannot account for the knee-jerk leaps that would lead someone to associate an African Muslim woman in New Haven with the terrorists who attacked Paris. I cannot understand the accusation “you killed us.” But I am not here to scrutinize hate speech; I am here to magnify the we.
Of course we are afraid in the wake of attacks in Brussels and Lahore, just a few months after Paris, Mali, and San Bernardino. But the we who are afraid includes millions of refugees who’ve been terrorized by ISIS, the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and their own governments. But now, many refugees who have come to the United States face new threats: arson and assault rifles at the mosques where they go to pray.
The night after the Paris attacks, a man fired ten times at the mosque next door to his house in Meriden, Connecticut. Soon after finding the bullet holes, leaders of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community announced that the shooter would be welcomed into their mosque and forgiven. A few weeks ago, he went to a reconciliation dinner there, where he said he felt “overwhelming kindness.”
Refugees have a lot to teach us about waging peace on terror. My friend James’s hometown in South Sudan was massacred three times—assault rifles and fire, by the same militia that captured his sister. In the midst of this terror, the church of South Sudan called for 100 days of prayer, 100 days of saying what Jesus said before he went to his terrifying death: Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you, not as the world gives do I give to you…Love one another as I have loved you. (Jn. 14:27 and 15:12)
The worldly powers that be, the Department of Homeland Security, can allay fear and understandable concern with its already stringent screening process for refugees. But you see, we have the peace that passes understanding, the peace that enables us to speak truth to power, love to terror.
The peace Jesus leaves is not only a mystical gift to his disciples. It’s a hard choice anyone can make, a choice you have to struggle for. Like the Meriden mosque community that responded to a hate crime with kindness; like the Japanese-American survivor of internment camps who is mobilizing the NAACP to help refugees. Like the Muslim community near Houston that is advocating for the man who set fire to their mosque to get the mental-health care he needs.
Jewish communities near New Haven formed an alliance to resettle refugees in their neighborhoods this fall. But reactions to the Paris attacks in November threatened to derail their efforts. Days after a New York Post headline read “Refugee Terrorist!,” Rabbi Herb Brockman sent a letter to his congregation, urging them to continue their resettlement work. “[W]e as Jews cannot forget how American and other Western nations turned their backs on Jews fleeing Hitler,” he wrote. “Under the guise that some may be enemy infiltrators, they were turned away only to return to countries where the Nazis carried out the final solution.”
Rabbi Brockman also connected the history of the Jews as unwelcome strangers to the stories of today’s refugees in a sermon. He reminded his congregation of an iconic Holocaust photo: a child of the Warsaw ghetto, his hands raised on the way to his execution. “I’ve seen it so many times,” Rabbi Brockman said. “And then I saw it again: another child’s face. It was on the front page of the Times.”
This child was already gone. A three-year-old Syrian boy named Aylon, whose body washed up on a Turkish beach. He was trying to get to Greece in a raft with his family.
Rabbi Brockman closed his sermon with an exhortation. “Let us be acting in tribute and in memory of all the little children who didn’t make it to a safe shore,” he said. “Let us be that shore.”
This call to action defies our history. The worst part about a dead refugee child making front-page news: It’s not new. In 1939, a ship carrying 900 Jewish refugees got so close to American shores they could see the lights of Miami, only to be turned back to Europe. A third of the passengers were killed by Nazis. After the Vietnam War, over a million refugees crowded into rickety boats. A third of them died at sea; all of them faced hunger, thirst, and disease. In 1980, the U.S. welcomed 205,000 Vietnamese refugees. But our government was not so hospitable to the Haitians who tried to flee the Duvalier regime, in small boats heading for the coast of Florida: 37,000 Haitians were forcibly repatriated, or incarcerated, because our government defined them as economic migrants rather than refugees. And now the raids on Central Americans who seek asylum in the United States. And thousands of Middle Eastern and African refugees stranded in Greece, since the EU closed its borders last month. And two children a day drowning in the Mediterranean.
On a visit to the Irish Hunger Museum at Quinnipiac University, a refugee from Iraq stood in front of a replica of a ship that carried immigrants escaping the great famine of Ireland. “This is very sad,” he said. “These people, all they wanted was food. And they got coffin boats.”
Almost 4,000 refugees have died at sea in the past year—so many that Pope Francis called the Mediterranean a cemetery. Even those who make it to shore face razor-wire fences and detention centers. “But prison is safer than a city of fire,” writes Somali poet Warsan Shire. “[N]o one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land.”
It’s hard for me to imagine us becoming that shore. But I try, in light of an old Jewish prayer: [W]e, a people acquainted with miracle and disaster encountered You again and again, says the New Union Prayer Book. [W]e are free: free to love, free to build the kingdom; free to hate, free to tear it down. And yet the dream is not forgotten, the vision does not fail…This is our God for whom we wait, whose deliverance we await in hope.
There’s a Hebrew word qavah that means to wait and to hope. It’s related to the Arabic word qawy: to be strong, to tie or bind fast, as in a rope.
I know how strong hope-waiting can be because of the refugees I know, people who do the hard work of choosing to wait in hope, even and especially when the world seems to keep choosing suffering for you.
My Sudanese friend James has been waiting 24 years to go back to his hometown Bor. To see his dad again and do a memorial service for his mom, whom they were unable to bury during the civil war he fled as a child. This Christmas he sent me a text saying “You always have a special heart in my family.”
Some refugee kids bring the kind of light that makes grieving bright.
This August, I drove a group of IRIS summer school students to a field trip at the Eli Whitney Museum. On the way back, one of the kids was chattering away—“Did you see the swan? Did you row the boat? Wonder what we’ll have for lunch?”
Her new friend from Sudan, Azhar’s daughter Lames, didn’t understand much English at the time.
But when her friend started talking dessert—“Wonder what we’ll have—cookies or ice cream…” Lames chimed in: “I love you, ice cream!”
“I love you, too, ice cream!” I yelled from the drivers’ seat.
One of the things I love about working with refugees is hearing the beautiful ways they speak English as they’re learning—turns of phrase that may contain small mistakes—but are often more poignant than the standard ways of saying things. That you in “I love you, ice cream,” makes all the difference—especially to me, the daughter of an Egyptian immigrant who made a new home in Alabama.
My dad loved to try out new phrases on me and my brother before saying them in front of his American friends. Though his English was quite good, his idioms were always just a little off: “It takes two to dance in the tango,” he would say. “Don’t be so half-hazard.”
My dad was by no stretch a refugee: He chose to leave Egypt, in the brain drain of the Nasser days, to become a cardiologist in the United States. But like the Middle Eastern and African refugees I know who are now having to learn what “light n’ sweet” means to work at Dunkin’ Donuts in Connecticut, my dad found himself in an unlikely place, with a language all its own: He started out doing locum tenens work in the coal mining country my mom came from. He must have heard some Alabama church ladies say, before a meal: “Bless this food to the nourishment of our bodies.” My dad’s way of saying grace sounded like this: “Bless this food to the nursery of our bodies.”
There’s a part of my heart that’s hollow since my dad died, and it’s that hollow part that fills with light when I make friends with refugees, knowing how much they’ve lost to be here.
Lames has never been to her homeland—the Nuba Mountains of Sudan, where there is a genocide happening as I speak. Like thousands of Sudanese refugees, Lames’s parents fled first to Egypt, where they faced harassment and hate crimes on the street.
When the Sudanese community did a sit-in at a public park in Cairo, they were brutally dispersed by Egyptian police. It was like a scene from Birmingham, 1963: water cannons, baton beatings, German Shepherds unleashed. Over 20 people died. Hundreds were arrested. Lames’s parents spent three days in jail.
After the Cairo police raid, thousands of Sudanese refugees risked their lives to get out of Egypt. Many died in the Sinai trying to get to Israel. Others went to the North Coast of Alexandria to load up in faulty boats.
“These people lost hope,” Lames’s mom Azhar told me.
But she believed—“one percent of one million,” she said—that every day would get better. When her husband asked if she wanted to go to Israel, she said no. “We do not know the place, and the way is dangerous. Let’s wait,” she told him. If we stay in Egypt, at least we can get an education. And maybe one day the world will change.
Azhar is teaching me what it is to be a people acquainted with miracle and disaster. A people whose hope won’t let despair take hold. That 1% of one million she believes is all it takes—a will to work and wait, for the world to change.
Although Lames’s parents got out of Egypt with degrees in law and accounting, they are not living a miracle of liberation like the Jews in the Passover story. The Sudanese people are all too acquainted with disasters that keep happening: another Janjaweed attack in Darfur, another massacre in Bor; Israel deports most African refugees who flee across the Sinai back to Egypt. The week Americans were up in arms about the Paris attacks, Sudanese people were tortured in a Cairo jail. Three Sudanese Muslims were shot dead in Indiana.
The war in the Nuba Mountains started again in March. The day Azhar told me the bad news, she taught me a phrase in Arabic: “As long as the night is here, morning will come.” Maybe that day will bring a better place. “I don’t know where,” she told me. “I don’t know how, but I can wait—two months, two years—I can wait.” Now she’s waiting to hear if she’ll get financial aid for Gateway College. And for the day she’ll earn enough to send money to the Sudanese community she had to leave in Cairo.
Not long after they arrived to the U.S., Lames’s dad told an IRIS case manager how they got through their time in Egypt: “You have to do picnics,” he said. “Otherwise, you will get depressed.”
For his birthday this year, they went to New York City.
“What did you see?” I asked Lames when they got back.
“So many cars and people,” she said. “And the lady in the water.”
“What lady?” I asked.
“The lady in the water holding light.”
Ashley Makar works with refugees in Connecticut. She does community outreach for IRIS--Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services, in New Haven. She has an e-book of essays, You Were Strangers: Dispatches from Exile. Ashley has published essays in Tablet, The Birmingham News, The Struggle Continues (the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute weblog), Religion Dispatches, and The New Haven Register.