Sunday, September 6, 2015


Like many of you, refugees have been on my mind this week.  Stories and pictures of families seeking refuge from Syria flood my computer screen, my radio and my mind's eye.  This week also marks one year since we shared our home and lives with a Syrian Refugee family - a Muslim mother and her three wonderful daughters.  

As irony would have it, they moved in on September 11th as we celebrated our daughter's 5th birthday. They came with everything they owned in black garbage bags that filled and overflowed our car.  We shared meals, customs, laughs, parenting woes, homework, frustration and a good dose of misunderstanding. The woman taught me how to cook Syrian food (yum!) and I showed her how to use my sewing machine so she could sew a second hijab (prayer veil) so that she and her daughter could say their prayers at the same time.  I listened in horror as she spent hours on the phone with her family back in Aleppo who were in the middle of the fighting.  Cousins wounded, hospitals demolished, bombings and missing loved ones. It put my own worries into serious perspective.

Their time with us was full of highs and lows, joy and conversation, and so much frustration.  To leave out the frustration would be dishonest. Our customs, our language, our food, our habits are all so different, and compounded by language barriers. They had so much to overcome before their lives could ever be "normal" again - they had been an upper class family in Syria, so along with everything else that was new, they were new to being poor. It made me wonder how well I would do if I were plunked into a foreign country with nothing but my children and my faith, and I suspect that the answer is: not well.  

This family was so unique and interesting.  Each girl had a personality and a spark of her own.  The mother, like me, had a weak spot for dessert, facebook, People magazine, and she had a killer pair of blue high heels.  She helped me realize that every Muslim woman is an individual under the veil she wears...each with unique wants, interests, struggles and desires. This should be obvious I suppose, but I don't know that I had ever thought about it.  How easy (and convenient) it is to assign one identity to a whole group of people - but how much we miss when we do, and how much harm we do.

A friend posted a haunting poem called "Home" by Warsan Shire this week, and one verse in particular struck me:

you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
no one burns their palms
under trains
beneath carriages
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled 
means something more than journey.
no one crawls under fences
no one wants to be beaten

The refugee situation scares me. It scares me because I know firsthand how hard it is to take in refugees and live together peacefully.  It scares me because I have seen just a tiny sliver of the pain, fear and heartache that they carry.  It scares me because I understand that they come with years, decades, lifetimes of need. Need for food and shelter yes, but need for healing and peace and education and safety and connection. Hard things.

But also common things. Healing. Peace. Education. Safety. Connection.  

Things that so many people need.  People from Syria. People from Chicago. People in our towns. People in our backyards are seeking refuge, too. Refuge from addiction. Refuge from domestic violence. Refuge from homelessness. Refuge from being lonely. Refuge from too much, or too little. Refuge from hunger, poverty, pain, isolation, persecution, hopelessness.

I am afraid that we might be more concerned about the Syrian Refugees than the refugees in our backyard because it feels safer. They are really far away. 

Don't get me wrong - send prayers, send money, educate yourself and by all means, if you can open your home to them, do - it will change you forever.  But if you can't, I hope and pray that you will take those feelings of horror and injustice and shock and that intense desire to help and do more than click a thumbs-up button on a friend's post.

Find your own refugees and give them a refuge. 

I hope that when you and I look back one year from now, we will each have a new face, a new friend who comes to mind. Someone we have given refuge to. Because the secret of it all is that while we are busy giving, it is us who receive. They are the ones who have what we need. They will enrich our lives far beyond what we could ever give to them.