Sunday, September 18, 2016

Speaking Up

Last year, one of the refugee families we work with was featured in one of our state's major newspapers.  I knew it was coming.  The kids had been late to school the previous day and had excitedly told us all about being interviewed and photographed for a news story.

That weekend I found the article on the front page.  It was really well-written and moving.  It outlined their comfortable middle-class life before their country went to war.  Then the reporter went on to describe the terror of their city and home being bombed and the family's brave but only possible decision to flee.  They left with almost nothing and walked a long way to get to safety, careful to walk only at night so they wouldn't be shot.

After a few years of limbo in another country, they were lucky enough to be able to come here to the U.S.  Their life here has been hard.  The dad walked miles to interview for a job.  It's been disorienting to get used to a new language and a new culture.  They have to be strong for their kids who were traumatized by their experiences. But, they are adapting and they are so grateful for this new life.

My heart swelled with admiration and love as I finished the article.  I looked at the lovely photos of the humble family and I felt satisfied that so many others would know their story as I knew it.  So, my senses momentarily left me as I scrolled down to the comments.

I forgot about the Internet trolls and the haters and the mean people.  I thought a story like this would be a breakthrough in how people viewed this group of refugees.   I felt so moved that I expected to see lovely supportive comments.

There were a few, but the majority were extremely ugly.  One even said that they looked like a bunch of terrorists.

I looked back at the photos of the family of seven huddled on a beat-up sofa in a run-down apartment. I looked at the adorable little children.  I burst into laughter at the notion that these people could be terrorists.

And, then I started to cry.  Hot, angry tears first.  How dare they!!  They didn't know this family like I did.

And, then the tears turned to tears of real sadness and hurt.  How could you not be moved by this story?  Where is the humanity?  Where is the kinship with our fellow human beings?

I thought briefly about answering every one of those mean-spirited trolls.  I would eviscerate them, humiliate them.  Or, I would appeal to heir humanity, their innate human goodness.

Suddenly I felt exhausted.  So exhausted by this battle that has always been a part of my work.  I closed the computer and went and got a hug from Mr. Husband.


I didn't answer those comments in the newspaper that Sunday, but I have made Speaking Up on behalf of refugees and immigrants an integral part of my life's work.  

It's often awkward and uncomfortable, but I can't NOT do it anymore. 

Refugees, immigrants and Muslims are major issues of political contention these days in our country and in our world.  I am still shocked at the casual insults thrown around... about people.  Our fellow human beings.

I think part of the reason so many people are able to talk like this is that they are nameless and faceless to them.  Every time I hear a cruel comment about a Mexican or a Syrian or a Muslim, I want to ask the simple question, "Do you know any Mexicans or Syrians or Muslims?  Because  I do.  And, do you have a minute for me to tell you about these people?"

"It's hard to demonize people you know."  says, Father Greg Boyle.  Father Greg is one of my living heroes.  He works with the poor and the marginalized in the most challenged parts of Los Angeles.    He helps gang members find their way to a different kind of living.

So, now when I hear comments, I confront them.  I talk about my experience with refugees and immigrants.  I try to educate.  And, even though it's tempting, I try really hard not to be cruel or demeaning.  I try to follow Michelle Obama's advice when she says, "When they go low, we go high."

Sometimes the comments have a special hurt because they come in situations or from places or from people that I don't think have any business holding these hostilities

Like the people whose own ancestors were refugees and immigrants once in the U.S.  Hello, most everyone!!!

Like the weekly church goers who show up every Sunday yet say the meanest, most unkind things about their fellow human beings.

Or educators and school staff.  Yes, this happens.

I've heard things like this said about my students over the years:

-They are all so lazy.

-Why are they even in my class?

-I always get stuck with your kids.

It's not easy, but here is what I try to do.

I speak up.  I am trying so hard to be kind and calm these days in the face of these challenges.

 I speak up.  I try to have the most generous view I can of the person in front of me.  I think about how maybe they are just really uncomfortable or fearful.

I speak up.  Sometimes I ask gentle questions or give suggestions for working with newcomers to the country, ignoring the nastiness of the comment.

I speak up.  I talk about how amazing and strong the kids are.  I say they need time and patience to adjust.

I speak up.  One of the main reasons I write this blog is to tell the real stories of the refugees and immigrants I work with every day.

I speak up.

I think Father Greg has it so right when he talks about the notion of kinship.  When we think we are separate from other humans- this is when the problems begin. This is where humanity breaks down.

Father Greg explains the true meaning of  kinship here:

"No daylight to separate us.  Only kinship. Inching ourselves closer to creating a community of kinship such that God might recognize it. Soon we imagine, with God, this circle of compassion. Then we imagine no one standing outside of that circle, moving ourselves closer to the margins so that the margins themselves will be erased. We stand there with those whose dignity has been denied. We locate ourselves with the poor and the powerless and the voiceless. At the edges, we join the easily despised and the readily left out. We stand with the demonized so that the demonizing will stop. We situate ourselves right next to the disposable so that the day will come when we stop throwing people away.”

I brought the newspaper article about our refugee family to class the next day.  We read parts of it to the class.

My teaching partner, a refugee once herself, told the kids how she understood their journey.  She started to cry.  I started to cry.  A lot of the kids started to cry.  There were hugs among the tears and pats on the back.

And, my outrage and depression from the previous day dissipated.  I looked at our beautiful children crying together and comforting each other, and my heart filled.

Kinship- We were living it in that moment.

Let's all speak up and remember the fundamental human truth that Mother Teresa reminded us of.

"We belong to each other."

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