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.

 

 

Leaving “Whitopia” Behind

 

During a recent trade show, one of our buyers stopped by our booth to put an order together and told me how much she appreciated the cover model we had chosen for our catalog this year. The customers that walk through her door love the Pebble Pixie Rattles, whose variety of skin tones mirror their own. She told me that America isn’t a white country anymore, and she’s right. In fact, 2042 is said to be the year when whites will be a minority in this country. The landscape of us is changing.

Does that scare you or excite you?

As a descendant of immigrants who came here to escape terrible discrimination and death because of their faith, (read more from that post here) I dream of this land being a place where people of all backgrounds can find sanctuary and freedom.

My ancestors were of Western European descent (“white”). They boarded a ship and found sanctuary in this country during the time when Africans were forced to board the slave ships and live out a hellish existence in this country.

I struggle to wrap my mind around it. The disparity of the two experiences epitomizes white privilege.

I thought, in my naive, sheltered, rural “white girl” reality, that when slavery was abolished in 1865, it and all of the injustices associated with it truly ended. I understand now, that couldn’t be further from the truth.

One of my earliest waking moments was when I participated in a Privilege Walk done by Mennonite Central Committee. As a stay-at-home mom with no college degree, I was not surprised to be near the back of the room when the exercise ended. What shocked me was that behind me was a black mom, who worked full time and had a college degree. I was crying by the end of it, shaken out of my comfortable white bubble, while she matter-of-factly said, “This is how it has always been.”

Nearly a decade later, I’m still listening, learning and re-educating myself on the painful realities that make up the history of this land and contribute more than we can imagine to current realities.

Books like The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson are teaching me about the migration of nearly 6 million people from 1915 to 1970, fleeing slave-like conditions and unspeakable brutality in the south, who made their way north and west to begin new lives. Yet, even in these new places, they struggled dearly, often forced to do the most menial work for a fraction of what their white counterparts made, forced to live in segregated and over-crowded sections of the cities where they had to pay double for half the space. As a result, both parents had to work, leaving the children to fend for themselves.

Today people of color are often blamed for the drug and crime problems of these cities. But what if their ancestors had been treated with equality from the start? What if they had had fair and equal pay? What if they could have lived anywhere and done anything within their skill power? What if they could have afforded one parent to stay home and care for the kids? What if equal access to education had been made available?
I listened to a Ted Talk today on Whitopia, by Rich Benjamin on his journey as a black man through the whitest towns in America. A couple of quotes stood out to me.

It’s possible for people to be in Whitopia, not for racist reasons, though it has racist outcomes.

America is as residentially and educationally segregated today as it was in 1970.

This hits me hard.

I look at the beautiful face of Kahiniwalla’s 2017 Catalog cover model, and I get all soft inside. I see what will become a strong woman of color who is not left in the back of the room, but is leading the way to a new era. We can choose to embrace 2042 today.

If we treat minorities the way we wish to be treated, we will have nothing to fear when we become the minority.

Lenten Rememberings – The Rohingya

The Rohingya, one of the world’s most most persecuted ethnic groups, are a Muslim people who have lived for generations in Myanmar. Denied the right to vote and given nearly impossible rules for acquiring citizenship, they are hated and looked down on by the Buddhist majority around them.

The Rohingya speak a dialect of Bangla and are seen by many as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, though many of them can trace their family history in Myanmar for many generations. While they represent roughly 2% of the total population, their Buddhist neighbors fear they will take over and try to make Myanmar a Muslim country. Untold numbers have been hunted down, raped and murdered in a genocide that the Myanmar Government continues to deny is happening. Many have escaped across the border into Bangladesh or by boat to Thailand, Malaysia or the Philippines where again and again they are turned away.

Bangladesh, the most accessible country by land, is currently planning to house them on an uninhabited island that is immersed in water during the monsoon. Many are taking the risk of returning to Myanmar rather than lose their lives to nature. A small number have been accepted as refugees into the US, Canada and Australia but, for the most part, the Rohingyas remain an unwanted and fiercely hunted people group.

Rohingyas eat rice, fish, vegetables, milk and chilis. Meat, such as this Beef Curry is served to guests or for special occasions. We shared this meal family and prayed for a place of belonging and safety for the Rohingyas.

Lenten Rememberings – The Biharis

Bihari FoodThe year 1947 brought about the great split of India. Pakistan was born amidst great upheaval and loss of lives as Muslims and Hindus were divided up into two countries.

It was at this time that many Urdu-speaking Muslims from the Indian State of Bihar escaped into East Pakistan where they lived among the Bengali-speaking Muslims.

25 years later, when East Pakistan won independence from West Pakistan, after a bloody war over language, Bangladesh (literally the country of Bangla) was born. The Urdu-speaking Biharis again found themselves in a land that did not want them.

As Urdu speakers they had not supported this war for independence and about half a million fled into Pakistan. Pakistan, however, would only accept about a third of them so many today are living as stateless Pakistanis. Many who remained in Bangladesh were killed or lost their homes, bank accounts, lands and jobs. Today they live in slum-like, crowded camps throughout the country, where families of up to ten share a one room hovel and up to 90 families share one toilet.

In 2008, the Dhaka High Court gave citizenship and voting rights to 150,000 Bihari refugees who had been minors during the war. Children born since the war were also given citizenship. Life remains hard for them as they try to hold on to their language and customs, while living in squalid conditions in a country that still looks down on them. Many youth would like to leave and get jobs in other countries but passports are not issued to anyone who has an address inside of a camp. As of yet, the UNHCR has not addressed the statelessness of the Biharis.

During our years in Bangladesh, we were privileged to get to know one Bihari woman especially well. She would tell stories of life inside the camp while she scrubbed our dusty floors and share her dreams for her children while she washed the dishes. She was a tiny woman with a big heart and impressive strength.

The Biharis in Bangladesh are famous for their kebabs and fried snacks so tonight we had some friends over and shared Shingaras  (a deep-fried pastry filled with savory potatoes and chilis), Bihari chicken boti kebabs, Parotas (a flat bread fried in a bit of oil), and Shemai (angel-hair vermicelli cooked in a sweet milk spiced with cinnamon and cardamom).

For a glimpse at Bihari life in Bangladesh, check out this video.

 

Lenten Rememberings – Burundi

Burundi MealBurundi, a small African country hemmed in by Rwanda, Tanzania and the DR Congo, is no stranger to hard times. A civil war that lasted from 1993-2005 left 300,000 dead and many fled the country as refugees during those years. Some of those same refugees, having returned home after the war, are once again on the run as refugees. Since the election of President Nkurunziza, the police, intelligence officials and the ruling party’s militia, known as the Imbonerakure, have been on a killing rampage. Nearly 400,000 have fled the country, fearing for their lives, with an average of 724 refugees arriving daily in Tanzania. Camps are full in Tanzania, with only one, Nduta, still accepting new arrivals. Nduta recently passed its capacity of 100,000 and the struggle to shelter the refugees is huge.

In the DR Congo, refugees from Burundi are finding healing by performing dramas based on real-life experiences. You can read more here and watch a short video clip.

The refugee camp in Rwanda has passed capacity, with many people living in overcrowded communal hangars covered with plastic sheeting.

In Uganda, Burundian refugees are given small plots of land to build homes and plant crops.

Burundi cuisine is simple but delightful. Red Kidney Beans with Plantains, Fish with Tomato Sauce, and Pili-Pili hot sauce served over white rice made a delightful meal.

Ten Things You May Not Know About Refugees

10 Things1. It is VERY difficult to officially become a refugee.
To officially be a refugee, one must flee from danger in one’s own country, to a second country. In that second country, one then applies to the UNHCR for refugee status, a process that takes 18 months to 3 years. Only then can application to a third country for resettlement begin.

2. Coming to the US as a refugee is even more difficult.
If a refugee is chosen to go to the US for resettlement, it takes a minimum of two additional years for all the screenings and interviews to take place. Less than 1% of all who apply to the US are accepted.

3. The refugee problem is NOT going away.
As of June, 2016, there were 65.3 million displaced people and 2.3 million of these were refugees. Less than 5% of these refugees will ever be resettled.

4. Stay in a refugee camp can last well over a decade.
Refugees receive a stipend of roughly $30/month while they wait for resettlement. About 60% of adults find jobs and 13% of children also work to have enough to survive. One-third of the world’s refugees stay in camps and the average stay is 17 years, although some say it is less.

5. Refugees are given a LOAN to purchase airfare to their country of resettlement.
Refugees are not given a free ride. The International Organization for Migration gives them a travel loan with which to purchase their airfare. This is an interest free loan which they have to begin making payments on within 4 months.

6. Refugees CANNOT choose where they are resettled.
Refugees do not choose where they are resettled, although if they have family in an area, the resettlement agency will try and resettle them near there. Most agencies work with the new refugees for 90 days to find housing and help acclimate them to life in their new country.

7. Refugees who resettle in the US do NOT have it easy.
Refugees are not given a life of ease. The $925 one time stipend they receive, per person, barely covers rent and transportation for more than a month or two. Many do not speak English and the amount of stress they face to navigate a new city and find a job quickly is daunting.

8. It’s not uncommon for refugees to face identity crises.
Refugees must leave their past behind them. A doctor in the old country now works in a menial minimum wage factory job. A teacher cleans toilets. Qualifications and paperwork rarely transfer across borders and they are forced to start at the bottom all over again. Their self worth is often pummeled and depression not uncommon. There were recently two suicides in a refugee community near where we live. The struggle to find meaning is real.

9. Refugees are fleeing horrors, NOT taking advantage of an opportunity.
Refugees come here because they don’t know where else to go. They are not coming to the US because they’ve heard all kinds of warm and wonderful things about this country. Many of them have clear memories of a beautiful life they once had. Rolling green Syrian hills or a small farm in the Congo. Loud family gatherings with food so unique to who they were. Walking to school with their friends or haggling in the market. All they loved has been stripped away. They land here, after fleeing the horrors of terrorist attacks in their own countries, after living through nightmares that we cannot even begin to imagine, and we act like they are the terrorists.

10. Refugees create WEALTH.
Refugees give back. A 2012 study in Cleveland, Ohio shows how refugees in that area generated $48 million in economic activity, supported 650 jobs and created nearly 2.8 million dollars in local and state taxes. The cost to resettle these refugees was $4.8 million. That is a ten-to-one return! Refugees do not take away from us, they give back.

Now, stop reading about refugees and go out and get to know them. They need you to welcome them and you need them more than you know.

Lenten Rememberings – Syria

P1350045Today there are nearly 5 million registered Syrian Refugees. This means that these millions of people have fled their homeland, are staying in a second country and have applied for refugee status. Once they receive their official refugee status from the UNHCR, they can then apply to a third county for resettlement. This process is tedious, with only the first step of applying for refugee status taking anywhere from eighteen months to three years. The second step of applying to a third country for resettlement can take up to two years. One third of refugees today live in a camp somewhere and their average stay is seventeen years. While there are more than 20 million refugees in the world today, less than 1% will ever be resettled in a third country.

These numbers are staggering to me and this doesn’t even take into account the number of displaced people within Syria or those who have crossed borders and have not registered officially as refugees.

These refugees are people like us.

Hard-working fathers.

Brave and strong mothers.

Wise grandmas and doting grandpas.

Ornery toddlers and elementary kids with big dreams.

Beautiful babies and crazy but awesome teenagers.

People like us.

If they are fortunate enough to make it out of their war-torn country which has taken all they have and ground it to dust, breaking their hearts and their bodies, they are then relegated to a tent among thousands of other tents. Here are some images from various refugee camps to help give some perspective. In talking together as a family tonight after a meal of Fattoush and Manoushi, a Syrian flatbread, my thirteen-year-old reminded us of the trauma these folks have endured and of the nightmares they have at night. Even while removed from immediate terror, the violence of their past still haunts them.

I’m tired of fear closing the doors to people in need. I follow One who lived bravely, took risks, and hung out with those in need, One who simplified the greatest commandments to loving God and then loving other humans as much as we love ourselves.

What does it mean to love someone who exists in a tent having lost everything or someone who has lived her whole life running while bombs drop in the background? I grow weary of people who enjoy every physical comfort imaginable justifying a tightening of our nations borders in such a time of great need.

Friends, we have so much!

Let’s not be so afraid of change or death that we stop living.

 

No Matter Where You Are From…

Yard Sign Welcoming NeighborsThis sign graces our front yard. It does a good job of putting our hearts into words. We want our home to be welcoming, especially to those who may not feel so welcome right now.  My friend from Jordan was so excited when she saw it that she had to stop and take a picture. She told her son she couldn’t believe anyone would do that!

Last weekend I took our boys to their first public rally. It was a welcoming rally, and we put our voices together with many other voices from our city to let it be known that we want to be a welcoming city. My oldest carried the sign from our yard and immediately we had a slew of folks asking us where we got it.

A young Afghani woman shared her story about how her father was killed by the Taliban. When grief caused her to pause her story, the crowd filled in the pause with “We are with you!” The irony of it all gripped me. Here was a Muslim woman who herself had lost someone she loved to terrorists, and has come to us for sanctuary. Her father had been part of the resistance against the Taliban, so after he died it was no longer safe for her and her family to remain in Afghanistan. They spent two years in Pakistan before coming to the US, during which time they could not go to school but had to work to support themselves.

We forget that many refugees themselves are victims of terrorism. We also forget that throughout history, and still today, people with our same skin tones and religious affiliations have inflicted unspeakable terror on others.

Enough lines drawn. Enough boxes. We are people.

If you would like a sign to let those around you know that you welcome them, you can buy a one here if you are in NE Ohio. It is also available on here on Amazon.

But then be ready to open your doors. A sign is no good if you aren’t ready to live it.