I’m only a little ashamed that I was finally spurred into action when I saw that haunting photo of Alan Kurdi. I can’t look at it or think about it without welling up. What really hit home about that photograph is that the little boy, who looks like he is sleeping, was the same size as my Micah. The full enormity of what was happening hit me. Until then, the noise about conflict in the Middle East, or anywhere really, was just that–noise. It was nothing new, it had nothing to do with me. Things would go back to normal soon.
But even if they did, I couldn’t go back to normal after seeing that photograph and imagining my own little boy in that baby’s place.
Then, there was another photo. In this one, a woman, who looks strikingly like my sister–long brown hair, wearing that army green jacket that was ubiquitous this past season, slender legs in blue jeans–sleeping on the floor of the train station in Budapest, with her children asleep around her. It sent me over the edge.
I know now that I needed to begin with my moral imperative as a human, as a Jew, as a mother, as a sister.
I reached deep into my Jewish history and saw that image of masses of refugees on a boat, this one from Europe during World War II. They sought safe harbor and were turned away, sent back to suffer and perish under a threat that no one took seriously until it was too late.
Never forget, we say now.
But what about “Learn”? Did we learn anything? Not soon enough.
My sister and I began to talk about what we could do. We’d heard that the US was taking in refugees. We thought it would be as easy as saying, “I have two spare futons in my basement. Come stay, let me take some of your burden, and lift your spirit and help you feel whole again.” Should be easy, right?
Not quite. Finally, we found a group in a nearby town that was organizing and raising funds to sponsor a family of refugees. We raised a whole bunch of money, then waited. And waited. And waited. We got the call about four weeks ago, and the family arrived two weeks ago. It’s been a whirlwind of activity, starting from securing a place for the family to live, then scrounging up donated furniture and just about everything else you need for a family that is setting up house with nothing. The actual logistics of this process pales in comparison to the enormity of the emotional implications of this whole thing. We can assume that refugees who enter our country have suffered some kind of trauma, though the extent of it may vary and may or may not match up to our imagination. My empathy engine has been kicked into overdrive. Outwardly, refugees may appear to be in a normal state–maybe very tired or nervous, but underneath, surely there is an churning pool of post-traumatic stress and unprocessed emotions. Another person in our area who has helped to settle numerous families told us that refugees are in survival mode. They are survivors and they continue to survive. This is a highly stressful and volatile state of being. I have no idea what life was like for our family before they arrived here; only that it must have been very, very difficult. They left their home country three years ago, and had been living in a capital city in a neighboring country before they were granted refugee status and admitted to the US. My empathy is rooted in my ability to imagine what it would be like to flee a war-torn country with my small children in tow. Just normal, day-to-day living with kids is stressful enough. Take away the stability of home, add in the terror of violence, the insecurity of precarious safety, the threat of an oppressive regime. Whatever you and I can imagine is probably only a fraction of the reality because that’s just the plot. The emotional stuff is intense, and cannot be fully felt through empathy.
I admit, that a lot of this is just as much about and it is about them. There’s some guilt assuaging going on here. How many times have I skipped over the international section of the newspaper? How many times I have scrolled past pleas for donations? Convinced myself it’s enough to know, and to share this post and that post, and donate $10 or $1. Said to myself, and out loud, too, “Oh, that’s too bad. I feel so sad. What a terrible thing. Those poor people,” then moved on. Shallow compassion. No action. So, to take this small action, this tangible act of compassion marks a turning point for me, having gone from talking to doing, something, anything, working this one small piece of the larger puzzle, okay with the knowledge that I can’t help everyone, but I can help these five people. I think that is what causes inertia–this feeling that we can’t help everyone and being overwhelmed by the knowledge of how many people need help, that doing one small thing can’t possibly be useful or valuable. But there are so many of us capable of opening our arms and our homes that we can each take a small piece, step back and see that together, we’ve taken on a whole.
(After I wrote this, I read a great quote from Cory Booker and I just had to add it here.)
I don’t want people to think, “It’s such a huge problem, what can I do about it?” We can’t allow our inability to do everything undermine our determination to do something.
There’s no overstating how overwhelming it all is. The magnitude of what is happening here is overwhelming. Watching this refugee family gain new footing, and eager to get traction, eager to reclaim their independence, and get on with normalcy and knowing that these things take time, their frustration is palpable. Throw in the language barrier and it becomes difficult to fully help them shoulder the work they have cut out for them. It’s overwhelming for them, and overwhelming for us. We want things to happen fast, but they happen slow, subject to red tape and bureaucracy and scheduling, so much out of their control and ours. It’s hard to go with the flow. They’ve come so far, been through so much and now they are here, ready to hit the ground running so they can stop running. And the finish line is not even in sight. Who knows if there is even a finish line or where it is?
It’s easy to imagine the future, to have faith and to know that this is just a season, that someday, in the near future, they will be a family just like any other family. Going to work, going to school, buying groceries, entertaining friends, paying bills, signing report cards, driving to soccer games and school concerts, fighting, laughing, playing, loving. It’s harder to know what emotional fall-out lies ahead, and if they will ever stop surviving and start thriving instead.
For now, we can link our arms through theirs and keep them aloft as they step over the threshold, peering into a hazy future.