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.

Sacred Mark

O let me wear secretly…the sacred mark impressed by Your own hand.

Rabindranath Tagore

Sacred Mark began in 2008, as a job creation program under MCC. Austin spent a lot of his time here in their early days, helping to design the packaging for the handmade soap they were making and setting up booths at local fairs. The initial women all came as graduates from Pobitra and held such a special place in our hearts. Leaving Sacred Mark was probably the most difficult part of leaving Bangladesh, when we moved home in 2010, so I was over the moon to be visiting again!

Sacred Mark is run by a dear friend, Deepa. We were welcomed into their workshop and sat down with her to hear how things are going. After a lovely snack of rice pudding and cha (Black tea with lots of milk and sugar), we toured the soap-making rooms and then up the stairs to where they have added Khanta production.

While there were an encouraging number of new faces, it was such a joy to see some of the original women still working there. They immediately started telling some of the newer women about the shenanigans a certain one of my sons used to get into. Good times! You can read more about Sacred Mark here, including the full poem the name comes from. If you are in the US, you can buy Sacred Mark soap here. You can also follow them on Facebook here.

Photography courtesy of Adrienne Gerber Photography.

Pobitra

About 120km North of Dhaka, is the smaller city of Mymensingh. Our family lived here for about six months and it holds a very special place in our hearts. I could hardly wait to share it with my friends. Entering the courtyard of Mennonite Central Committee was like entering another dimension of time and space. Gardens and flowers lined the walkways and a fish pond lay just beyond the bougainvilleas.

We were immediately greeted by some happy toddlers, whose mothers worked for Pobitra in the next room.

Pobitra, meaning clean and pure, was begun by MCC as a training program for women who have been trafficked. Some were sold by their husbands, in-laws, or even parents. Bangladeshi women who have been raped or pimped out are nearly always blamed for what happened to them. Even those who are not literally held captive, are socially held captive because they are seen as spoiled goods and have no other options for employment. Pobitra has welcomed more than 150 women since it started in 2008, giving them a safe place to come to during the day and to learn literacy, health care, basic skills such as sewing, and most importantly, they are given back their dignity. It was an honor to sit on the floor with these women and hear Sultana, the program director, speak in her gentle way about the transformation happening in these women. Pobitra enters into dialog with community leaders, and are pushing back on the old ways of thinking so that women who are stigmatized against, may stand a chance of being accepted back into the community. We couldn’t help but buy up stacks of the beautiful Kantha blankets they had stitched together, as well as Holiday Stockings, made complete with the name of the woman who made them stitched onto the border.

Check out this short video here, to get a glimpse of the hope that is so alive in this place.

Photos courtesy of Adrienne Gerber Photography.

Glimpses of Truth

I had one of those eye-opening moments on the way to work this morning. An African American woman was approaching cars in front of me as I waited at a red light. I immediately assumed she was asking for money and was weighing what my response would be if she made it to my car before the light changed. As I continued to observe, I realized she was most likely asking for directions instead. My initial assumption was unkind and untrue and I recognized, in that moment, my own implicit bias guiding my actions.

The next thing I observed shook me deeply. As she approached each vehicle, she held her hands in the air to display that she was not a threat. Who asks for help with their hands in the air? What kind of nation are we if people seeking assistance feel the need to put their hands up to display that they are not a threat? It would be very difficult for me to be convinced that racism doesn’t exist here, or that hatred and bigotry are a thing of the past! Try putting both hands in the air the next time you need someone to help you. No one chooses to do this because it is fun; they do it for their own safety.

I saw inequality and injustice played out in front of my eyes, right here in my city today. To the brave woman at the intersection today, I’m sorry I made assumptions about you. You must have been terrified, and I’m sorry for being a part of the system that has given you reason to fear. You are braver than I. Thank you for unknowingly helping me to unpack just a little bit more of my own bias.

Photo courtesy of Adrienne Gerber Photography.

When Labels Slip Away

My body feels as if it has been dropped into an alternate reality. The haze I feel goes beyond being hurled through eleven time zones, and dropped back into a land of ice and snow. I shiver, yet my body bears proof of time spent in a place of warmth as my forehead peels and my feet boast scabs from wearing sandals for two weeks. But the shiver is not just physical for the very depth of my being is in shock, though I have gone and returned many times before. You would think I would be used to this by now, or maybe I am just more aware this time of my own prejudice and Western expectations and the labels I am so quick to apply. Each day I was gone, those things were ruptured with a shocking but beautiful reality. My brain struggles to turn these experiences into words that you would understand. I will try, because the brave and beautiful people I met deserve to have their stories told and because we in the West have so much to learn from those unlike ourselves who we label as “other”.

Forgive me if I can’t lay it all out just yet. There is something sacred about being welcomed as a stranger into the story of another, for even a brief moment, of observing utter pain and despair being transformed into the very deepest joy. It’s as if a lifetime of joy and pain have been squeezed into two weeks and there is no language to translate it into.

So I’m holding these stories in my heart, yet they leak from my eyes and I am more than undone. For among the poorest of the poor, I have met the bravest, kindest and strongest souls you could imagine. I saw glimpses of the Creator in their faces, heard whispers of the Divine in their stories. I sat myself down and I listened. Labels slipped away and love was all that was left.

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 Irony

I wake up to the bitter taste of irony. I try to shake it off, like a bad dream, but it stays with me. Can one person’s idea of safety have the power to bring destruction to untold numbers?

800,000 people are working without a paycheck or else not showing up for work at all. These are the people who work security at the airports and control air traffic. They staff our parks and museums. They research disease, care for wildlife and oceans. They inspect chemical factories, power plants, and water treatment plants. They inspect our seafood, fruits and vegetables. They facilitate the distribution of food and medicine for women and children on Native American Reservations. They are FBI agents, Border Control agents. They work in prisons, the Coast Guard and Secret Service. They are government lawyers working on cases that have been waiting for years to go to trial: Immigrants who have been waiting for decades for their Immigration Court case to be decided, are now being pushed to the back of the line and may spend another 4 years in detention, just waiting for a new date. They work for the IRS, or did before this government shutdown. Promised grants for programs that help women survivors of violence are on hold. Read more about who these people are here.

Our family has lived through a season with no paychecks. The stress was all-consuming. We continued to work, care for our sons and do what we could do but our brains were constantly cluttered, full of distraction that seemed to make even the smallest of decisions difficult. So my heart breaks for these families and I fear for us as a nation. We are more vulnerable because of this, than for lack of a physical monstrosity to demarcate our border. If the pursuit of safety cripples those who keep us safe, how safe are we?

The good news is that we don’t need to sit around waiting for things to get better. Every day is an opportunity to create a better reality, right here, right now. Here is a link to a practical list of things you can do to help those affected by this shutdown!

 

 

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.

Reasons to Vote

Weary, so weary. Stories of injustice clog my ears. My tears turn to lead as I hang my head and wonder how we got here, to a place where beautiful souls are gunned down in a place of worship, where cries of greatness have turned into building walls and ripping children from parents. A place where protecting the life of the unborn is more important than caring for those who already breathe in the air we share, where we incarcerate African Americans at a much higher rate than “white” Americans for the same offense. Where thousands in my city are not registered to vote, convinced that their voice would not make a difference. Where women are squashed like unwanted bugs and choose to stay silent because they are not believed, where abusers are protected and victims are shamed.

So I am not going to vote in hopes that some greatness will find us. The greatness is already here; we have just shut it down and hidden it in a box or a cage or a cell. The greatness we seek is best seen in the least of these. So I am going to vote for the sake of these –

  • For the woman on the other side of the wall who ran to keep her children safe from gang-lords. For the boy who works the night shift then goes to school all day to care for his family because of what ICE has done in my city. For the families in hiding, though for years have been trying to be legal like me, whose hard working tax dollars benefit everyone but themselves and now they wonder where their next meal will come from.
  • For the families in my district who cannot own homes or borrow a dime to improve their spaces. This ensures that property values and taxes stay low, so low that not enough goes to fund the schools and their children are fought instead of taught by teachers who exhausted and under-equipped.
  • For the African Americans unjustly incarcerated who line the cells of private prisons while the owners line their pockets with billions. For the black bodies laying on the ground through no fault of their own, silently screaming for us to take note. For the daughters of the woman who remembers her uncle being tarred and feathered and hung from a tree for just being who he was. For the same woman whose last words to her daughters were, “Don’t ever stop.”

I will not stop. I will remember these and I will vote for their sake.