The People Nobody Wants

I have been following the story of the Rohingya Refugees for quite some time now and have been moved to blog about them here several times before. My dream of one day visiting their refugee camps had finally become a reality. I woke eagerly on Day 3 of my sickness, sure that this would be a better day. I texted my friend, who is a nurse in one of the medical clinics inside the camp, and she confirmed my suspicion that the antibiotics were intensifying my nausea. I put off taking my final pill, in hopes that I could feel more normal for the day ahead. I was able to eat breakfast with my team and we set out for the camp. The road leading out of town was the size of a narrow one-way street, huge holes gaped out of the edges in places, as if a ravenous monster had taken bites of it during the night. We left the town behind and soon the road gave way to lovely views of the ocean on one side and rolling hills on the other. After nearly an hour of driving, we met a sweet Canadian couple who gave us drinks of cold water before catching CNGs (similar to Baby Taxis or Auto Rickshaws) to take us the rest of the way into the camp. As we jostled along the dusty and bumpy brick road, we learn that the road had only been built a few months prior. Before that, it had just been a dirt path, which fast turned to mud during the monsoon. Nearly one million people are crammed into this tiny space that was once a national forest. Now the trees are gone and thousands of tiny huts cluster together on any acreage deemed safe enough for building. I was struck by the organization, the number of blue latrines that dotted the hillsides, and water pumps everywhere.

We passed many NGO centers, women-friendly spaces and even a playing field where kids played soccer together. Many refugees are hired to work at building roads and reinforcing dirt hillsides with intricately laced bamboo in an effort to keep the hills from eroding and turning to mud during the monsoon. Little children greeted us in English as we drove by while Burka-clad women looked on.

It was nearly noon by the time we arrived at the clinic.The heat inside of the tiny metal structure struck me with shocking force, though it was still supposedly the cool season. A tiny pharmacy was located inside along with a waiting room lined with benches, and 4 exam rooms. More benches lined the front of the clinic, to hold the overflow of patient who still had hopes of being seen that day. After finding my friend and being introduced to some of the staff, I was able to be part of one of the exams. An American midwife gently looked into the ears of a two-year-old boy who had an ear infection. He lay asleep in his mother’s lap, made small by her protruding belly which spoke of a sibling soon to be born. Soon the mom was on the exam table, cradling her boy as best she could while lifting up her burka so the midwife could check on her baby. As I perched on my stool in front of the window, I could soon recognize the swooshing song of the baby’s heartbeat. I wondered if I was feeling faint faint from the excitement of it all, or if my traveler’s belly was threatening to do me in again.

I swapped places with one of my team mates and sat outside to try to catch a breeze, but my body just wasn’t having it. They took me to the one empty exam room and I stretched out on the table, rolling up my scarf as a pillow. Nurses fluttered in and out to get supplies while the sounds of crying babies, mothers chatting in one corner of the building, men in the other, all melded together. Sounds and smells collided and bounced off the walls of this tiny life-saving structure that had been carried in piece by piece and put together out of love. I lay, unable to do anything else, on the bed used to diagnose and heal their pain, this pale foreigner, stripped of her strength and left only with an inner kernel of humanity, nothing to give but exhausted love, in much need of rest and healing herself. A tiny speck in a camp of a million refugees, a people no one wants. It was there that I recognized the humanity of suffering and need

The sacred truth revealed that day is with me still. To be human is to be equal. Ethnicity, citizenship, religion, wealth or lack thereof, mean absolutely nothing in the big picture. These categories are lines that we have drawn in the sand, lines that distract us and cause us to miss out on all that life could be if we just remembered this sacred truth. May we actively remember.

To be human is to be equal.

Photos courtesy of Adrienne Gerber Photography.

 

Unexpected Kindness

Misery violently took over my night, pushed sleep aside and sent me rushing to the bathroom. The initial relief was short lived and I soon found myself fumbling in the darkness, desperate for the antibiotics the Traveler’s Clinic had sent with me. I gulped down the first giant tablet, determined to be ready for travel by morning. We had a full day planned, including a visit to a hostel for young girls, shopping and then dinner at a friend’s house before returning to our guest house in Dhaka. Yet, morning still found me pasted to my bed, stomach swirling in unreasonable circles. Relief that no one else had caught the same bug and the reality of our next day’s flight out of Dhaka propelled me out of bed, grateful for friends to help me pack up. This was not the way I wanted to say goodbye to Mymensingh, one of my favorite cities on earth, eyes squinted tightly shut to block out the light and hands grasping a plastic bag just in case. As we left the city behind and headed towards Dhaka, we canceled all other plans for the day and I laid back in my seat and willed myself to survive the journey.

It was awful, I’m not gonna lie. Many roads in this densely populated nation feel like a loop in Mario Cart, only there are a million other drivers racing down the same road and the precipices are real. Our driver, Ramjan, who had been nothing but a gentleman since we left Dhaka, was now doing his best to maneuver his way home. It wasn’t long before I found myself squatting on the side of the road, upheaving the remains of my stomach. Ramjan hovered beside me, full of concern, telling my friend to hold my hand and pull my hair back. He even took a long look at my vomit to try to figure out what I had eaten that was causing my insides to have such a mutiny. When I was finished, he motioned for me to hold out my hands so he could pour water into them. He showed me how to rinse out my mouth and wash my face. As I squatted in the dirt by the side of the road and cupped my hands to accept his gift of water, I felt the Divine tapping me on the shoulder and I knew I was taking in a holy sacrament. I saw my Creator mirrored so beautifully in the face of our Muslim driver who shared his water with this tired and sick American woman. Something inside came unglued and it’s a wonder I made it back into the van instead of catapulting down the embankment.

Here is the painful truth – if Ramjan were in my country, he would most likely be arrested or put on a watch list simply based on his appearance and yet he welcomed me,  the stranger. He played the role of protector and host. He was the one who gently taught the first time visitors in our group how to eat with their fingers. In a country where clean drinking water is a commodity, he shared his with me. Dang, he didn’t even avert his eyes from my vomit! It’s the Ramjans that make the world a better, kinder place. In my home country, we tend to judge people like him because of the way they look or the religion they follow. Instead of sharing our water, we build higher walls so those still desperate to come must cross in the desert south of the border, some dying of thirst on the way. We deny place to those who have lost everything because we are afraid they will take something from us. Yet, no matter how high or long we build our walls, how many refugees and asylum seekers we turn away under the pretext of our own safety, we are the ones who lose the most. By diminishing the created, we push away the Creator and Christ is turned away once again.

Photos courtesy of Adrienne Gerber Photography and Liga Mullins.

A Different Reality

The whirlwind of January’s blizzard and winter trade shows are finally behind us. I sit, staring at our snow-covered deck, trying to wrap my mind around the fact that next week I will be walking around Bangladesh in my sandals. Here the bare tree branches reach out under a grey expanse but there I will soak up sunshine under a clear blue sky, walk on green grass, smell fresh flowers, sip cups of cha, slap mosquitoes and revel in the warm welcome that only Bangladeshis know how to give. A complete different reality is only a mere 20+ hours plane ride away. A few friends will be traveling with me and we’ve had a many conversations about what it will be like. I’ve tried to prepare them for a different reality, which has been a fairly straightforward task because they all assume that life in another country will be completely different from their “normal”.

But what about my neighbor who immigrated from Germany and still speaks with an accent? What about my other neighbors who are a mixed race couple? Or the Latino family up the alley? Or the single mom at my church? Or the black kids playing basketball at the YMCA after school with my son? Or the queer people I love and care about. Do I assume that their reality is or should be the same as mine? Because the more I listen, the more I learn that right here, in my own back yard, the reality of others is as different from mine as Bangladesh is from America. That is why I have no right to form judgements about or give answers to those who I perceive as “other”. I have absolutely no right to tell them how they should react to the hurdles they face.

My reality as a white American straight female is filled with privilege, choices and status that many people I know do not have. Inside my soul, there is a chair, and I have sat myself down quietly, on that chair. I am listening. Too long have I spoken out of my own reality and placed my own expectations on others. Perhaps in listening I will learn. And if I learn, perhaps I will begin to change and grace will meet us both.

The Takers and the Dwellers

Once upon a time, the Church of England was filled with imperfect people who did some really bad things. Others in the church were so fed up with the impurities they saw, that they separated themselves and eventually sailed for a new place where they had been promised land and freedom to live how they wanted. Those giving the land did not own it but saw it as their right since the dwellers worshiped in a different way and were therefore labeled heathen with no voice or value.  A few days after arrival in the new land, the takers went exploring and found a cache of corn that had been grown, harvested and stored by the dwellers and caretakers of the land. They took the corn and came back later and stole even more corn. They also found graves and stole pretty things out of the graves. This was only the beginning. The takers continued to take and showed no respect for humanity and the earth. In spite of this, the dwellers shared with and taught the takers how to survive in this new land.

Eventually, the takers took the entire land and, in the process, set off the largest genocide in human history, taking the lives of 100+ million dwellers. The genocide continues today, as shown in this video by Truthseeker.

Today the takers celebrate the beginning of all of this with a feast called Thanksgiving. They are in the process of building a giant wall around the borders of their land because they fear more takers will do to them what they did to the previous dwellers.

This Land

She lay quietly, waiting, until they found her. Like a treasure, they cared for her and she, in turn, birthed the deer, elk, and buffalo, while berries ripened on her branches and birds filled the space of her breath with song. The bushes, trees and grass burst out in all vibrant shades of green and flowers danced daily in her light. She swelled with life under their care. And they multiplied and soon chubby little feet caressed her face and she laughed at their joy.

But then, the pale ones came. Some were kind, and tired, and grateful for her. They settled in and cared for her. But many others – they tricked, and killed, spread disease and reduced the ones who treasured her from a mighty number to a frail few. They spilled blood quickly to demand more and more of her. They brought in others in chains and shackles and forced them to pull from her what little life she had left so they could feast and sit in ease. Generation after generation they grew, and consumed, and hoarded until an empire emerged.

Then they built walls around her and said, “No More!” to those standing at their doors. They took what was never theirs, hoarded it and turned their eyes away from the tired, the hungry, the ones running for their lives. They shut their eyes and put their hands over their ears and would not share her. But what they did not see was when they shut their eyes and closed their ears, they shut down her life as well. The empire they made for themselves alone, the one that could have fed all the hungry and brought healing to millions, distorted into a poison that consumed them, and they dried up with her. Too late, they realized that their self-protection had become their suicide.

But still she whispers her secret to those who can hear.

I belong to no one; I am both gift and treasure. My bounty multiplies when I am loved and shared. Share me so that I can come back to life and dance again.

 

 

Walking Inside the Story

I put my hands on my ears to block the callous cheers of those rejoicing at the deportations that have been ongoing. There is a rending inside of me as something fierce, something long trapped, seeks release. I cannot give voice to the scream of anguish that I feel rising in me as bone and limb holding families together are torn apart. You see, it’s personal now; I’m on the inside of this story. I have the privilege of walking with him for a bit.

His shoulders hunch under the weight of years, though he has not lived two decades.

He barely meets my gaze, and I feel his grief encircle my heart.

Separated from his mom.

Unwelcome by dad, he does his best to manage…alone.

Siblings scattered across the nation.

Taken advantage of by those who should be caring for him.

He survives on little more than noodles.

He pays the rent.

He goes to high school.

He sends what little is left to Mom, the one he loves more than life itself.

Our nation created this. We are creating orphans. Misery. Chaos. Abandonment. Child Labor. Desperation. Unimaginable pain.

Not a great America. Not a cleaned-up country. Enforcing pain, not laws, we are creating our next disaster.

Can you hear the roar?  Can you feel the excruciating pain of families being torn apart, limb from limb? Our inclination towards self protection does us no good until we can learn to protect all of US.

 

Be Love

I gotta be honest with you. Sometimes the fight for justice for the oppressed takes more than I have. Some days the cost of it all leaves me spent and I’ve got nothing left. But I realized something yesterday, as my husband was being arrested for taking part in an act of Civil Disobedience. Fighting for justice is costly but allowing injustice to go unchecked is the greatest cost to us all.

When we are more concerned about the law than we are about the safety and basic human rights of others, we all lose dignity. When we are turn our backs to the break up of families, essentially creating orphans and widows, the impact on the next generation is profound. When we deny prisoners and detainees communion, prayer and a listening ear, we lose bits of our own soul. When we are don’t bat an eye at the millions of tax dollars being spent in the deportation process of many who have been trying for years to become citizens and have been paying taxes into a system they will never benefit from, we subtly give the message to the next generation that ethnic cleansing is okay.

Injustice unchecked creates monsters. Ignorance feeds them. A society that cares about itself more than others opens the doors and lets them out. But love is greater and always finds a way to push back.

Be love. Let it define every thing you do. It will pick you off the floor and grow you into something so much bigger than the monsters.

 

The Law of Kindness

It didn’t seem strange, at first, to see this young family ahead of me in line when I went to drop my son off at camp for the week. They stood huddled together, quietly waiting, but then when they reached the front of the line, they quietly requested a place to take a shower. While other children excitedly checked in and called out greetings to long lost friends, the silence of these children and their parents suddenly spoke volumes to me and in their beautiful, brown faces I read an unwritten story and it broke me a little more. What does it feel like to live life on the run, with no home, no place of safety to tuck your little ones into at night, no place to wash the dust of your journey off your weary body? How devastating it must be to have your adopted home become unsafe, unfamiliar and possibly dangerous.

By the time I got my son settled in to his cabin, the family was gone. I realized I had gone on through the line, expecting someone else to do the right thing, the kind thing, thinking up all the reasons why I couldn’t, why I didn’t just offer my home to them to freshen up in. I needed to get my son settled in. I didn’t have enough seat belts in my car. I lived a distance away and they probably wanted to stay in the area. I desperately needed some down time. As I went over my list of “reasons” on the long, quiet ride home, I only felt regret. I felt as if the Christ-child had knocked on my door and I had shut it in his face.

Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me.

So I am writing to myself, as much or more than to anyone else. Something in my bones is grieving, like some ancient DNA that remembers the loss of home, of children, of family. 300 years ago it was not uncommon for Mennonite parents to have their children taken away from them, while they were put into prison for refusing to change their faith. It was next to impossible for them to own land. They were heavily taxed based upon their faith and often hunted down like animals. They were deported, branded (literally) and sometimes sold as slaves,  yet they illegally returned again and again to the places they called home. My ancestors became wandering immigrants, leaving Switzerland and living wherever it seemed safer – France, Germany and eventually finally finding passage to the United States of America.

Recent events have made me keenly aware that I am the descendant of immigrants and that awareness has helped me to step into their stories. And when you are on the inside of someone’s story, well, things just feel a whole lot different.

So today I’m asking all those other descendants of immigrants, especially  those who came here because home was no longer safe, I’m asking you to please stop looking into this story as if you were an outsider, because you are not. Anabaptists, this story especially  belongs to you. You would not be alive today if your ancestors had not broken laws and run away with your great-great-great-great-great-great grandma in their arms. They broke laws so that you could be here today, so how can we be so hard on those who are breaking laws so that their children have a chance of growing up in safety? I’m not talking about criminals who are trying to come in, but the thousands of ordinary, hard-working folks who are running from unsafe situations in their home countries. We have become experts at justifying our existence while denying others theirs. When does it become right for the descendants of immigrants to decide no other immigrants can come here and experience what we have? When did it become right to uphold man-made laws that break the ancient and holy laws of kindness? Our ancestors broke all kinds of laws so that we can be here today but let me tell you what law they did not break – the law of kindness. They fed their enemies. Literally. And remember the iconic story of the guy escaping who heard his oppressor fall into the icy water? He went back, helped him out and saved his life, even though he was caught and put to death anyway. This is our heritage, to love God first with every bit of our being, and then to love our neighbors so much that we are willing to take risks for them.

Remember our heritage, search out our roots. What would our life be like today if unjust laws had never been broken on our behalf?

 

 

 

Ten Things You Should Know About Undocumented Immigrants

  1. An estimated 50% of undocumented workers pay income tax. In 2015, this was in the amount of 23.6 billion dollars. While some are paid under the table, many find a way to pay taxes because they believe it will help them to become a citizen someday.
  2. Even though they pay taxes, they are unable to take advantage of any government programs such as Social Security, Medicaid, Earned Income Credit, Food Stamps, SSI and Pell Grants/Student Loans.
  3. 67% are between the ages of 25 and 54. They are not content to sit around taking benefits, they work. They tend to take on low-paying jobs, mostly in agriculture, construction, production (manufacturing, food processing and textiles), service and transportation.
  4. They help create jobs. 13% are self-employed and have found legal ways to open up businesses. In 2014, these entrepreneurs generated 17.2 billion dollars of income.
  5. Studies have shown that where immigrants increase, crime tends to decrease. In one study, the ten areas with the largest growth of immigrants had lower levels of crime in 2016 than in 1980. Another study showed that while the population of undocumented immigrants tripled from 1990-2013, crime in those areas fell by 48%.
  6. Current immigration laws make it nearly impossible for anyone to immigrate lawfully. Immigration 101 breaks it down into three ways – if you have an employer in the US who is willing to sponsor you, if you have a spouse who is a US resident (or after 5 years if you are single and your parents are US residents, and after 10 years if you have a sibling who is a US resident) and, lastly, if you are seeking asylum. An undocumented immigrant who has a child that is a US citizen aged 21 or older, can apply as a family member but the wait can be 20 years long. To understand how immigration laws have changed since our ancestors arrived, read this article.
  7. Not everyone who is undocumented came here illegally. They may have had a tourist or student visa and overstayed. They may have been brought here by parents when they were quite young. Even for these children, it is almost impossible to become a US citizen.
  8. Asylum seekers cannot apply for entrance until they reach a US border. Refugees are people who are seeking asylum and receive permission for entrance before they enter, a process which takes years. Asylum seekers are held in detention centers until they can have a Credible Fear Interview to establish that their lives would be in danger if they were forced to return home. For more on the process, read this article. Families were kept together during this time until the recent Zero Tolerance Policy began. Now all undocumented adults entering the US, including asylum seekers who are going through the “legal” way to do things, are criminally prosecuted, which gives authorities the “right” to take their children away from them. Now, instead of being held in detention centers, they are jailed. This separation of families violates international law, according to Amnesty International.
  9. It costs an average of $10,854 to deport one person. Mass deportation could cost the US Government $400 billion. The labor force would shrink 6.4%, resulting in a $1.6 Trillion reduction of US GDP and the US economy would shrink 5.7% according to New American Economy.
  10. Undocumented workers already give more than they take. Imagine if they were given a clear path to citizenship. Not only would most of them be paying taxes, it would open up doors for education and better jobs. All of this would result in an estimated $68 billion in local and state tax revenues within a decade. Federal Tax revenues would increase by $116 Billion and the estimated GDP growth would be $1.4 Trillion.

If you remove the humanitarian motivations, the religious dictates, a heart of compassion, and look at it purely from an economic viewpoint, studies overwhelmingly demonstrate that it costs us greatly to dismiss those often referred to as “illegals”. But these undocumented immigrants give back to us in so many other ways as well.

May their bravery give us courage to speak up against unjust laws. May their willingness to leave everything behind give us the willingness to leave behind our prejudice and the fear of cultures different from our own. May their hard work and payment into a system that they will never benefit from give us at least a little courage to work harder to be open to new ideas and to give them a chance, whether we ever benefit from it or not. Instead of viewing these fellow humans as lawbreakers or animals, may we learn to see them as risk takers and trauma survivors who are also our brothers and our sisters.

Love and Ashes

Today is both Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday. We’re in the middle of Black History Month.  Rohingya refugees are still streaming across the border from Myanmar to an already-crowded Bangladesh, now totaling 900,000.  Love and bravery, death and injustice, all wrapped up in the cold and dark of winter.

For me though, it is Ash Wednesday that ties it all together.

Ashes rubbed in the shape of a cross saying:

You are dust and to dust you will return”.

Sometimes it takes the crumbling remains of death to remind me of the greatest of all loves. A love whose whisper penetrates through time and space,

The only thing I ask of you is to love me with all you have, and to love your neighbor as much as you love yourself.” 

If we did that, love our neighbor as much as we love ourselves, it wouldn’t be a lonely day for anyone. We wouldn’t have only a month of Black History because our history books would speak truth each day of the year. We would not have 1.19 million refugees in need of a home. According to UNHCR, less than 6% of these found home last year. I did the math and it is heart wrenching.

So my gift to you, on this day of love and ashes, during this month of remembering, is to share with you a beautiful glimpse of humanity in the moving picture Human Flow. Created by Ai Weiwei, a Chinese artist and activist, who spent his childhood in refugee camp, The Human Flow beautifully documents the refugee crisis and it’s impact on the world. Ai Weiwei says:

“The refugee crisis is not about refugees, rather, it is about us. Our prioritisation of financial gain over people’s struggle for the necessities of life is the primary cause of much of this crisis.”

You can read more of his story here, as well as watch the trailer for the movie. For those of you with Amazon Prime, The Human Flow will be released on Prime on February 16.