Social & Political Issues

Jesus stands with the refugees

Now when they had gone, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up! Take the Child and His mother and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is going to search for the Child to destroy Him.” So Joseph got up and took the Child and His mother while it was still night, and left for Egypt.…Matthew 2:13-14

My daughter’s best friend is a Syrian refugee. She is not a terrorist or the daughter of a terrorist or some other horrible caricature the Trump supporters might reduce her to. She is, simply, a child. She lives in our town with her parents who are improving their English and an ornery older brother, but worries about her grandmother and the cousins they left behind. My daughter thinks she has the striking look of Anne of Green Gables combined with the good-hearted nature of Pollyanna. They eat lunch together every day, share secrets, and navigate each other through the perils of the first year of middle school.

Unlike many their age, sometimes they speak of war for it is no stranger to either of them. Her best friend speaks of bombs too-close-to-home, of fleeing across borders, of lives lost, and of hopes of returning home one day. My daughter does not know the impact of war intimately like her best friend does; but being half-Sri Lankan, she has never been entirely protected from the realities of war either. As a young child, we would quietly slip her into the war-wracked country to share giggles with grandparents, play with cousins, and sing hymns for peace from the midst of great tragedy. The lasting impact of a 25-year civil war does not fade quickly into silence.

“She’s just like me, mama,” my daughter tells me. “I’ve never had a friend my heart feels so close to.”

Her words send me back in time to my first kindred spirit, an enthusiastic Swedish immigrant who welcomed the new-kid in fifth grade. “Hi!” she bounced toward me in the lunch line, “Can I sit by you today?” A newcomer to the US herself, she instinctively knew the value of extending a kind hand to lonely souls. Our bond sealed over the simplicity of childhood fun like dressing up as twin punk-rockers for trick-or-treat and sharing secrets at recess. Though our paths diverged long ago, we share a profound affection for one another to this day.

Hers is not the only such story of being welcomed to ‘my own country’ in my life. I think of the kind refugees and immigrants in my ESL classes who welcomed me to California. Many were Egyptian, Syrian, or Chinese Christians in search of a place to lay their head where following Jesus didn’t risk death. Their heads often hung low for the angst of separated families, the sorrow of what-could-have-been, and the loss of successful professional careers and social statuses. Even so, there were moments when I saw their eyes lift as they shared food from home, raised their arms in dance, or expressed their deep gratefulness with a consistent “thank you, teacher.” Their resilience sustained me at a time when I needed healing and welcome myself.

My husband’s parents tell stories of their early days in America – tales of how his father ate only yogurt for months and his mother taught herself the rules of American football. There are stories of falling on ice for the first time, of navigating new systems alone, and of deep longing for home. My great-grandparents were immigrants themselves, and their stories trickle down through the cracks in our family story. While not always pretty, it still comes through loud and clear with a decent amount of perseverance, grit, and hope.

Stories like these ring deep as I mourn the headlines of rejecting refugees and holding immigrants at bay. While the fight to welcome strangers is nothing new, it is still one I regard with deep sorrow because of the great goodness I have learned from them. From a refugee family himself, Jesus surely must grieve this disconnect as well. I am grateful to the artist who puts an image to Jesus’ sorrow over our world’s struggle to care for the refugees in our midst:

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RefuJesus by NakedPastor. Print available for purchase on Etsy.

In these days of increasingly polarized and politicized debate, may his followers silence the naysayers by living out his words:

 For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me.’

Matthew 25:35-36

Further Reading:

Education, Social & Political Issues

Life’s unexpected gifts

To the casual observer, it would be easy to assume that they are the ones who need me.  They’re new here – foreigners from every corner of the globe learning the ways and words of a new land.

Me? I’m the ‘native’, able to translate the words and explain the customs.  I’ve spent years studying how to teach English as a second language and even get paid to pass along my knowledge. I know the nooks and crannies of this crazy language and play the role of a seasoned tour guide helping my students navigate the complex streets of grammar and spelling and pronunciation.

But don’t let that fool you.

Their resilience, fortitude, humor, and kindness are teaching me just as much as I’m teaching them – probably more.

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Click here to read the rest of my guestpost today about the gifts of working with adult immigrants on Rachel Pieh Jones’ site, Djbouti Jones.

Liked this post? Don’t miss this post on immigration:

Dear ‘Merica: A Lament

Books, Families, Children & Marriage

The gift of seeing themselves: Strengthening children’s identities through multicultural literature

It’s quite likely that I can attribute roughly 30-50% of my faith to writers, and I must also credit the same to the growth of my understanding of culture. As a result, I have a special love for the beautifully told stories in children’s picture books, so multicultural literature has naturally played a huge role in our family’s life.  (Check out some of our favorites here.)  It’s been my way of helping our children to see both stories of themselves and others reflected in their lives.

One of my very-favorite essays on the value of children reading stories in which they see themselves reflected in the stories is written by Mitali Perkins, an author of quite a few young adult fiction books on children living between worlds.  I used to read it to classes of teachers-in-training that I taught and would swallow my tears every-single-time I read it as I felt the intense emotion in her words.  It’s one of those pieces that just never leaves you, and I’m quite pleased that she’s given me permission to share it here.

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The Magic Carpet

by Mitali Perkins

I had a magic carpet once.  It used to soar to a world of monsoon storms, princesses with black braids, ferocious dragons, and talking birds.

“Ek deen chilo akta choto rajkumar,” my father would begin, and the rich, round sounds of the Bangla language took me from our cramped New York City apartment to a marble palace in ancient India.

Americans made fun of my father’s lilting accent and the strange grammatical twists his sentences took in English.  What do they know? I thought, perching happily beside him.

In Bangla, he added his own creative flourishes to classic tales by Rabindranath Tagore or Sukumar Roy. He embellished folktales told by generations of ancestors, making me chuckle or catch my breath.  “Tell another story, Dad,” I’d beg.

But then I learned to read.  Greedy for stories, I devoured books in the children’s section of the library. In those days, it was easy to conclude that any tale worth publishing originated in the so-called West, was written in English, and featured North American or European characters.

Slowly, insidiously, I began to judge my heritage by colonial eyes.  I asked my mother not to wear a sari, her traditional dress, when she visited me at school.

I avoided the sun so that the chocolate hue of my skin wouldn’t darken.  The nuances and the cadences of my father’s Bangla began to grate on my ears.  “Not THAT story again, Dad,” I’d say.  “I’m reading right now.”

My father didn’t give up easily.  He tried teaching me to read Bangla, but I wasn’t interested. Soon, I no longer came to sit beside him, and he stopped telling stories all together.

As an adult, I’ve learned to read Bangla.  I repudiate any definition of beauty linked to a certain skin color. I’ve even lived in Bangladesh to immerse myself in the culture.

These efforts help, but they can’t restore what I’ve lost. Once a child relinquishes her magic carpet, she and her descendants lose it forever.

My children, for example, speak only a word or two in Bangla.  Their grandfather half-heartedly attempts to spin a tale for them in English, and they listen politely.

“Is it ok to go play?” they ask, as soon as he’s done. I sigh and nod, and they escape, their American accents sounding foreign inside my father’s house.

“Tell another story, Dad,” I ask, pen in hand, and he obliges. My father’s tales still have the power to carry me to a faraway world. The Bangla words weave the same colorful patterns in my imagination.

My pen, however, like his own halting translation, is unable to soar with them. It scavenges in English for as evocative a phrase, as apt a metaphor, and falls short. I can understand enough Bangla to travel with my father but am not fluent enough to take English-speakers on the journey.

My decision to leave mother tongue and culture behind might have been inevitable during the adolescent passage of rebellion and self-discovery. But I wonder if things could have turned out differently.

What if I stumbled across a translation of Tagore or Roy in the library, for example? “Here’s a story my dad told me!” I imagined myself thinking, leafing through the pages. “It doesn’t sound the same in English. Maybe I should try reading it in Bangla.”

Or, what if a teacher handed me a book about a girl who ate curry with her fingers, like me? Except that this girl was in a hurry to grow up so she could wrap and tuck six yards of silk around herself, just like her mother did.

“Wear the blue sari to the parent-teacher meeting, Ma,” I might have urged.

Chocolate-colored children today have access to more stories than I did. A few tales originating in their languages have been translated, illustrated, and published.

Characters who look and dress and eat like them fill the pages of some award-winning books. But it’s not enough. Many continue to give up proficiency in their mother tongues and cultures.

“Here’s a story from YOUR world,” I want to tell them. “See how valuable you are?”

“Here’s a book in your language. See how precious it is?”

If we are convincing enough, a few of them might transport us someday to amazing destinations through the power of a well-woven tale.

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This essay was originally published here.

Read more by Mitali Perkins

Education

Will the real teacher please stand up?

Picture made for me as a gift from one of my ESL students.
Picture made for me as a gift from one of my ESL students.

To the casual observer, it would be easy to assume that they are the ones who need me.  They’re new here – foreigners from every corner of the globe learning the ways and words of a new land.

Me? I’m the ‘native’, able to translate the words and explain the customs.  I’ve spent years studying how to do this particular trade and even get paid to pass along this knowledge. I know the nooks and crannies of this crazy English language and play the role of a seasoned tour guide helping my students navigate the complex streets of grammar and spelling and pronunciation.

But don’t let that fool you.

Their resiliency, fortitude, humor, and kindness are teaching me just as much as I’m teaching them – probably more.  Having just given up the place I call home, a budding career in academia, and cultural familiarity to relocate our family to the other side of the country, I’m starting completely over too.  Each day as I walk them through the maze of the English language, they teach me how to walk through the maze of life.

It’s ok to be sad

“I pray to my God to bring peace to my country,” a Syrian man told me with slight tears in his eyes.  “But I don’t know when it will come.”

To some measure, it’s always hard to leave home. Even if home wasn’t a safe or wealthy or pleasant place, it was still home.  Many fear for their loved ones left in their home countries, and they tell me this with quivering voices.  Others mourn what their country has become – how evil prevails and goodness hides. Their sadness is real, and they make no attempt to pretend otherwise.

It’s ok to be happy

We had an end-of-term party which I interpreted as wear jeans-and-a-t-shirt-casual-day.  My students arrived decked out in sequins, heels and perfume, ready to dance the morning away.  Many lack money, papers, family, jobs.  They’ve lost family members, careers, homes.  But these things slip away momentarily as they swing their hips, raise their arms, and kick up their heels to merengue or circle dance.  Their joy is also real, and they make no attempt to pretend otherwise.

It’s ok to be kind

It started with a package of paper cups, then a platter of sandwiches.  When another student walked in with a cake that read “Happy Birthday, Jodi”, I grew instantly grateful for the ‘secrets’ that Facebook tells. Still being fairly new to this place, I don’t have many friends to celebrate with, so we were planning a small family affair.  I was ok with that, but what a grand surprise to have a party thrown for me when I thought I didn’t have enough ‘friends’ for that.

Just because I’m their teacher, I’ve received Chinese candies, Venezuelan chocolates, Egyptian plates, Ecuadorian necklaces, Salvadorian coin purses. Their kindness reminds me of our individuality, of our need to see others and to be seen, even in a city of 10 million people.

I see you, I say in my mind each day as I stand before them.  You are not invisible here. You matter.  They’re the ones who taught me this first, I’m just sending it right back.

It’s ok to laugh at ourselves

After learning the word “migraine”, one of my students recounted a pronunciation mistake she made once, “I go to the doctor and tell him I have a ‘ma-ga-ri-na’ and he tell me, ‘Lady, you in the wrong place for a margarita.’”

As we all howled at her phonetic misfortune, she stopped us, “It gets worse!  I try to ask for a ‘fork’ at a restaurant but they no understand because I no say the ‘r’ sound good. Yes, teacher, I tell them ‘I have no ‘f&*#’ on the table.”

We lost track of all sense for at least 3 minutes. It’s been a good long while since I’ve laughed that hard.

With all of its questions and pontifications, academia left me with an overdose of seriousness, and all this fun is proving to be very healing for my soul.

Restoration & Reconciliation, Social & Political Issues

Seeking the good of our neighbors

fabric

“All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful.  “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up.   Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor.  I Corinthians 10:23

I once consulted at a school district in a rural Midwestern town that had seen its Latino population grow from roughly 5% in the spring to almost 30% in the fall.  The community was struggling with the rapid transition to say the least.  One man whispered to me that the local mayor had just won his election on the informal slogan, “Get ’em out of here,” and while everyone in the community surely wasn’t this hostile to their new neighbors, many were scrambling to understand and find effective ways to welcome the newcomers to their community.

In The Middle of Everywhere: Helping Refugees Enter the American Community, Mary Pipher details a similar experience in the process of a community coming to grips with its change in Lincoln, Nebraska.  In her observation of the shift occurring in many parts of our country, she poses some important questions about our ever-changing identity:

“Who are we when we don’t have a hometown, when we don’t know our neighbors or our kin?  Who are we when we don’t know the history of our land or the names of common plants or birds in our area? Or when our stories come from television sets instead of grandparents or village storytellers?  Who are we in a world where the universal language is, to quote Pico Iyer, ‘french fries’?

The french fry questions linger in my heart as I spend my days with the perseverant immigrants, in part because I know so well the quaint simplicity of hometowns and quiet cornfields.  While both immigrants and hometowns have their own measures of beauty and goodness, I often wonder how these worlds I live between will manage to sort each other out.

Why don’t they just go back where they came from?  I hear echo through the cornfields, as if any of the rest of us (minus the blessed Native Americans) did this very thing.  For better or for worse, immigration is the story of our country. It is the story of my great-grandparents crossing an ocean from Sweden and finding a big field under a cloudy sky to call home.  It is the story of my in-laws resettling in a new land both to serve in underserved areas and to provide their children with education and opportunity.  It is the story of my students who love the freedom and diversity of this country enough to make themselves an actual part of it. If we “just send them back”, we deny a significant part of our story.

They should just learn English, I hear more echoes. But they are, I want to shout back.  I watch them struggle to grasp a crazy-hard language, hear their mistakes, see their attempts and perseverance.  If we native speakers had to learn our complicated, many layered language, we would surely be slower to criticize.  Don’t believe me?  Read this and this and this and this and this.  Every immigrant I’ve ever met wants to learn English, knows it will increase their ability to be a part of this country, but they also are just like the rest of us – they have jobs and children and histories and all-sorts-of-complicated-realities that slow down the language learning process.

All illegal immigrants do is commit crime, I hear.  We don’t want those kind of people in our country.  And I wonder why the few bad eggs suddenly define the masses.  US Citizens have quite a few of our own bad eggs to speak of, like the continued existence of the KKK, the Minutemen, the abortion bombers, the horribly mean churches, but they are hopefully few and far between, certainly not defining the vast majority of us.  If we allow exceptions for ourselves, why don’t we apply the same parameters to others as well?

“We think the world apart,” wrote Parker Palmer. “What would it be like to think the world together?” Or, to put it another way, how do we spend our efforts welcoming the stranger and telling this story well rather than stomping around pretending we own the place?  Palmer’s question leaves me dreaming with Mary Pipher about how we might embrace the role of cultural brokers for the newcomers in our midst rather than playing cultural guards of something that doesn’t really belong to us anyway.

As an English language teacher, the role of cultural broker is naturally built into my profession.  We spend our days, the motley mix of us from so many countries and languages, taking a stab at understanding each other.  We share a love of food and laughter, a passion for children and celebration, a hope for peace and restoration.  The Mexican students shake their heads over the increasing drug wars in their homeland.  The Middle Eastern Christians’ eyes reflect both deep joy in Jesus and resounding sadness over the reality of persecution for following him.   The Chinese students echo a quiet focus and steadfastness to pursue excellence and value community.  We think the world together, learning these things slowly from each other, opening our eyes to realities far from our own.  But the ESL classroom isn’t the only place where such learning occurs.

From rural to urban, coast to cornfield, immigrants are now living in nearly every community of the US.  While the actual numbers of immigrants are the highest in traditional states like New York, California, and Florida, the immigration growth rate is actually highest in the south and midwest, places where monoculturalism used to be the norm, where french fries (and occasionally donuts) still speak a universal language. If we want to think the world together, we must seriously consider if our communities will receive newcomers with open arms or if we will just squeeze our eyes tight and hope they go away.

If we pay attention, the church has the basis to lead the way on this one.  The issue of immigration reform in America is every bit as much an issue of human life as abortion, child slavery, and family values.  It is not about Republican or Democratic allegiances, but about families and children and hope and morality.  Given its global reputation of self-centeredness and cultural arrogance, I haven’t always liked the US much, but the immigrants are convincing me day-by-day what a unique potential this land offers, and it makes me want to be part of the solution that helps it live up to its potential.

So maybe you’re thinking, it’s easy for her, she gets paid to spend her days with the immigrants.  But me?  I don’t know any.  What can I possibly do?  I’ve got a few ideas for you:

  • Read.  I’ve listed two books below – Welcoming the Stranger and The Middle of Everywhere – that are by far some of the best I’ve ever read on any topic, let alone immigration.  They will open your eyes to the realities of the issue, and give you insight into the lives and strength of immigrants here in the US and how we might receive them with arms open.
  • Watch.  If you’re not a reader, movies can be a great way to understand the immigrant experience and see life through another’s eyes.  Some of my favorite movies about immigrant life are My Family, The Namesake, Bend it like Beckham, and My Big Fat Greek Wedding.  You can find even more recommendations of movies here and follow the news here.
  • Contact elected officials to urge them to support immigration reform.  The system is outdated and broken and is in desperate need of fixing.  You can learn more details and find ways to contact your representatives on sites like Evangelical Immigration Table and Church World Service.
  • Welcome your neighbor.  Keep your eyes open for newcomers in your community.  When you meet them, don’t just gawk at an ‘exotic’ being, offer a handshake and smile.  Look for ways to befriend them and find out what needs they might have.  One of the best examples I’ve seen of a church doing this is an outreach ESL program at Faith International Church in Indianapolis, Indiana.  When a few members of the church realized the apartment complex across the street had a small group of immigrants, they reached out and offered to teach them English.  Over the years, the program grew from a small group to two hundred students and a whole slew of volunteers teaching, babysitting, and welcoming the newcomers in their community.
  • Partner with organizations.  There are usually government or social service organizations in communities to help refugees settle in a new land.  World Relief, Catholic Charities, and Church World Service run such agencies in many places and are always in need of volunteers to teach English or sponsor new families.
  • Look for ways to provide employment opportunities.  I worked with the CEO of a factory in a very rural community who had hired a large population of Burmese people to work in his textile plant.  He then contacted me about offering English classes because he wanted his employees to have the opportunity to learn English while they worked for him.  It was a win-win situation because he cared well for his employees and they, in gratefulness for his value of them, were very committed to their employer.
  • Live with them.  Matt Soerens, the author of Welcoming the Stranger, developed an interest in immigration initially because he lived in an apartment complex called Parkside which was home to a high number of immigrant families.  When the city of Glen Ellyn wanted to redevelop the apartment complex, many raised their voices and knowledge of the system to protest the decision to displace an established community.  In addition to the residents, the larger community showed up as well, asking the council to allow them to keep their home.  And the council said yes.  They raised their voices together – the citizens and the immigrants – and they won.  This is literally seeking the good of our neighbors.  You can read the whole remarkable story here.

Our world is indeed changing, but it is no new story.  It is one that has been told throughout ages.  The question is how ours will be told.  Will it be a story of closed eyes, cold shoulders and us-vs-them rhetoric or will it be one of neighbors looking out for each other, of welcoming strangers and caring for the very world in our midst?  In our actions, may we live as people who are helpful and who build up those around us, regardless of the similarities we share or the differences we don’t fully understand.

When the village storytellers gather to remember us, let them not retell the oft-repeated story of violence and division, but instead let us leave them with stories of building communities, seeking understanding, and learning from each other.  Let them tell the story of us loving our neighbors.

Related Posts

Further Reading

Restoration & Reconciliation, Social & Political Issues, Spiritual Formation

all the little stories

“Teacher,” she caught me in the hallway where I teach English as Second language to adult immigrants. “Can you help me today?  I need make phone call and my English no is good.  Can you make call for me?”

“Of course,” I told her, wondering what the phone call was about.  “Find me after class.”

After class, I learned more of her story.  An Egyptian asylee, she needed to call the immigration office to check on the status of her husband and son’s paperwork to join her here in America.  They’d been separated for a year – her in the US with their two-year-old son and her husband in Egypt with the five-year-old.

“He tell me I need to call very soon,” she grinned coyly. “You know men.  The children are hard for them sometimes.”

We chatted while waiting on hold for the government agent to answer.  She explained that she was a Christian asylee, that her husband had sent her to the US ahead of him because of high persecution of Coptic Christians in their region.

Then she apologized, “I’m so sorry to take your time, teacher.”

“It’s no problem,” I assured her.  Imagining myself in her shoes, I was struggling to maintain my composure.  There’s usually so little I can do to help in such situations that I was grateful to be able to help through something as simple as a phone call.

The government was predictably slow, so we chatted more about her life, her family, how to survive two-year-old drama.  An agent answered, but the details were complicated, so we had to call another number.  She apologized again.

“Really – it’s no problem,” I explained.  “I like to learn about immigration laws. This is interesting for me. I don’t mind.”

Still no answer on the other end of the phone.

“You know,” she said soberly. “This is a very sad day for your country. I so sad for America.”

I remembered the windows of my apartment shaking when the plane hit the Pentagon only minutes from our home 12 years ago.  “Yes,” I responded in equal seriousness. “It was a very sad day. I was scared.”

“Sad for all the world, teacher.  I remember still.  I cannot believe when I see the plane hit the building on TV.  I so sad for America.”

We recalled our reactions and shock, agreeing that 9/11 had forever changed the world we both knew.  The conversation shifted to middle eastern politics, the tragedy in Syria, Obama, the accuracy of news media and all sorts of topics far beyond my knowledge and her language capacity.  We agreed that war is terrible and that it’s often difficult to tell who’s right or wrong.  Finally, we both ran out of words and the conversation grew silent except for the bad telephone-hold music.

“You like this music, teacher?” she asked.

“Not really,” we both chuckled.

“I’m so sorry this take long time,” she apologized again.

“Really, it’s ok,” I responded, this time meeting her eyes.  “I’m a Christian, too.  We’re family.  I will help you.”

“Yes,” her shoulders relaxed in relief and her eyes lit up.  “We follow Jesus together.  We are family.”

“Do you have anyone here who can help you?” I inquired gently.

“No, teacher, I’m alone here,” she paused and added, “But Jesus – Jesus is here with me too.  He help me very much.”

It was a holy moment, a little story shared by two mother-hearts who understood.

The immigration agent never answered the phone.  We ran out of time to wait and parted ways to pick up our children.

9/11 has lingered quietly in my soul all day.  I didn’t bring it up at all in my class of so many cultures, languages, and religions mostly because I didn’t know what to say, how to speak of such complex tragedy in simple words among such diversity, but the gift of this unexpected interaction pushed that unspeakable day back to the forefront of my mind.

As I drove to my kids’ school, grateful for simple freedoms of togetherness and safety, I reflected on the hard, sad stories of this day – stories of unimaginable loss and painful separation.  With the Egyptian mother’s voice echoing in my heart, I realized slowly that such stories tell themselves every day, albeit on a much smaller scale.

All the little stories. 

They matter.

I could probably write a glimmer-of-hope stories like this almost every week, stories where hope sneaks in to overshadow despair, but I don’t always notice them.

we scatter light

“We scatter light”,  the motto of a Christian school in a predominately Buddhist country where my mother-in-law used to be principal, these words have been randomly inserting themselves into recent moments, whispering me toward small acts of kindness like letting people go in front of me in line, chatting with a store clerk, and today, waiting on hold to help out a mother longing to hold her child again.  The light might not always shine brightly in the face of the darkest moments, but scattered about, it may offer a much-needed glimpse of hope at just the right time.