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.

 

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!

 

 

Burden or Blessing?

Fresh MangoesThere’s a small produce place I like to shop at in a nearby town. Like many others, I am drawn there because of the delightful variety of fresh fruits, vegetables and affordable prices. Located in a relatively small, mostly white town, the aisles are typically packed with a diverse crowd of shoppers. As I was checking out one day, the cashier, an older “white” woman, began to talk to me about the foreigners who shop there with their (EBT) “food stamp” cards. She told me that I would have a heart attack if I saw their balances and ended by telling me that she is so tired of supporting all “those people”. At this point I was becoming increasingly mortified, not at the balances she was freely sharing with me, but at her attitude towards those poor and foreign.

When our family went through some really tough times financially, (yes, we know what life looks like below the poverty line) I started to notice how often the word “poor” is used in Scripture. There are 446 references to the poor or poverty. I have yet to find one of those references that are about the poor needing to work harder or stop taking advantage of the rich. What I see over and over and over is this:

Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the alien or the poor. In your hearts do not think evil of each other. Zechariah 7:9&10

Mercy.

Compassion.

Don’t even think evil of the poor.

What does that look like? In a world where often the minimum wage is not enough to feed, clothe and house families, this has to mean something.

Personally, I consider it a blessing to contribute to a system that helps the poor, even if the system isn’t perfect. In an article called The Hidden Benefits of Food Stamps, we see that every $5 of food stamps spent generates up to $9 in economic activity. Every $1 billion of food stamps creates 3,300 farm jobs. Food stamps improve kids’ health and allow struggling families to have more to spend on rent and other necessities. Nearly half of all adults in the US and half of all children will be on food stamps at some point in their lives.

If you’re in the half that will never need to be on food stamps, hold your tongue and your thoughts the next time you’re in line behind someone paying with food stamps. More likely than not, they’re ashamed to use it but know their kids would either be hungry or on the streets if they wouldn’t. While every system is broken and has some who will take advantage of it, there are many more who use those benefits to make the world a better place. Walk in their shoes for a moment because someday those shoes could be yours.

Lenten Rememberings – Yemen

P1350173Yemen, the poorest of the Arab countries, shares borders with Saudi Arabia and Oman. It sits on the coast of the Mandeb Strait, a thin waterway that connects the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden, which empties into the Indian Ocean. Most of the world’s oil supply sails through this strait, like banners of wealth and luxury waving on an unconcerned breeze while a child dies from hunger every 10 minutes on the shores of this country wracked with suffering.

For nearly two years, a war between Houthi rebels and the Saudi-backed president has ripped this country apart. Using weapons sold to them by the US, the Saudis have escalated the war in an effort to defeat the rebels. Before the war, Yemen imported 90% of its food supply. Now, due to air raids and blockades, very little food and other aid is getting through and most of the people have no food or medical supplies. 183,483 refugees have left Yemen and wait in surrounding countries. Most of the displaced Yemeni people, however, are unable to flee the country.

Despite the depth of the tragedy, there are voices of hope and courage within Yemen. One such voice is a street artist known as the Banksy of Yemen. Using the ruins of war as his canvas, he uses his brush as a way to protest the war. He urges his fellow Yemenis to pick up a brush and join him, creating solidarity in this fractured land.

As we ate a light meal of Shafoot with Lahooh, a spongy flat bread similar to Ethiopia’s Injera, we held this suffering country in our hearts and prayed for peace. It’s humbling to have so much, when those who should be eating these dishes are starving. It is hard to sit with these stories and be able to do nothing but honor their suffering by becoming aware of it and praying for it to end.

 

Learning to Breathe in Color

DSC_0466SQMy first glimpse of Bangladesh came at just past dawn. I was worn out from a grueling series of flights and yet eager and excited to experience a new country. It seemed as if thousands of curious eyes watched me, as I stepped out of the airport’s doors into a surging sweaty crowd all waiting for someone or something. My cart was piled high with suitcases, full of more goods than many of them would dream of owning. The grey skies, pregnant with rain oozed an oppressive humidity. I felt dizzy, my soul and body gasping for air. I was almost overcome by the sheer number of people and the blanket of heat that already had me drenched in sweat.

Soon, tucked safely into a van we escaped the busy pickup area and became one with the teeming traffic of Dhaka City. In spite of being in a city, we found ourselves surrounded by brilliant greens. Palm trees. Flowers. Staggering beauty. The color was alive – in the plants and faces, in the saris and lungis of pedestrians, all under a grey sultry canopy that seemed to be pressing down on me. I gasped for air again, hopelessly trying to take it all in.

As we drove, beautiful young women bordered the road, splashes of color, making their way up and down the street. Vibrant yellows and pinks framed against a backdrop of a green so green it left me speechless. This, then, was my first glimpse of the women: Strong brave women on their way to work at garment factories where their blood, sweat and tears, their hopes, dreams and futures would be woven into the seams that bind the garment industry together and cover our backs with bits of color.

These women are the women who changed my life, women I have never met yet they inspire me to take those baby steps of change that seem to grow by the decade until now I find myself back in my own culture, trying to mirror their courage and to some small extent, their sacrifices. These women have shown me that change does not come without effort or sacrifice. By now a number of these women of the garment factories have died from job-related injuries. Some, have moved on, married and care for their families in other ways.

The colors of these women still swirl through my mind as I explain to my sons why we make the lifestyle choices we do. What began over three years ago as a side business, is now our existence. The props of other incomes are gone. I was the first to give up my job and then my husband Austin followed when he resigned from his job at a graphic design firm. Equally exciting and terrifying! Are we crazy? Sometimes we joke about being the only link in this fair trade business not being paid a fair wage. Since starting Kahiniwalla nearly 4 years ago, we’ve tightened our personal budget more than we ever thought possible, finding creative ways to live more simply. Among other things we are slowly transforming our yard into a vegetable garden, we choose to make our meals from scratch and have even experimenting with preserving foods.

I pray about the smallest needs these days and I am at peace because of the stories that have been born from these prayers. I am reminded that, no matter how many things may be on my need list, I possess more than enough. Right here. Right now. Today, right where I live, I am learning to be content with less, to reduce my needs, to re-use, recycle and re-love things that others have cast away so that I can be a link in the chain that brings hope and change to over 6,000 women in rural Bangladesh.

Today, these women are wrapped in just as many colors as ever, and the world, if it could see, would gasp at the sheer beauty that Pebble is bringing about. Change is happening. And if I have to clip coupons, shop at thrift stores and say no to whatever I can live without, I will gladly do that. We are Storywalla, and there is a story to be told. And in that telling, I find my life has more, not less. There is a richness in my heart that I would not trade for more tangible goods. My soul is learning to breathe in color.