Parallel Threads

It was a journey into the sacred. Each step of our pilgrimage of stories led us deeper into the heart and soul of this amazing country.

The constant tension of of beauty and ugliness called something to life within us as we heard story after story with parallel threads of utter pain and glorious triumph. As we walked past piles of raw and putrid garbage, we were also aware of artistically painted, brightly colored rickshaws passing us on a road filled with beautiful people wrapped in colors that brought the city to life on a breezy evening.

We walked in paradox. Endless honking and exhaust from four-lane roads somehow transformed into ten-lane roads contrasted with palm trees, bougainvilleas and dahlias taller than I. A weather-worn 15th Century palace with crumbling buildings surrounded by teenagers taking selfies on smart phones.

A patriarchal society where women are rising up in the best of ways, stitching together a future of hope for the next generation, while young girls learn CPR and basic rescue skills. Discarded women who became leaders and work together to change entire communities. Worn and torn saris stitched into quilts of love by hands that were once held immovable by forces too strong to resist.

A national forest given up to become a refugee camp, swelling at the seams to hold a million of the world’s most unwanted people. Hungry hands reach out to me while vibrant green rice fields stretch from the road, as far as the eye can see. Endless crowds of people and obvious poverty overshadowed by unbelievable generosity. As outsiders, foreigners, we were welcomed and treated as family. Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, all treating us as equals with enthusiastic hospitality. Muslims called out to us wishing peace upon us and sharing their food with us. A Hindu friend wrapped me in her arms and asked about my family. Buddhist hands served us tea. Beautiful diversity, woven together with the warmth of Bengal.

How is it that one of the most impoverished nations on earth can be so generous and welcoming of those who are different, while one of the wealthiest nations on earth is building walls and has collectively forgotten simple kindnesses? A famous prophet once said that if you want to be great, you have to become the least and serve others. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out which nation displays this type of greatness.

I took my friends to Bangladesh to learn and collect stories. Perhaps one day people from Bangladesh will be able to come here to learn and collect stories of greatness. Perhaps someone will write a story of how the nation that grew powerful on the backs of slaves finally became great by serving others. Perhaps there will be a story about the descendants of immigrants who welcomed other immigrants and together transformed the struggling economy into something vibrant and thriving. I dream that someday a stranger will come, be welcomed and write a story about the land that built hope instead of walls and finally figured out that love is the strongest force of all. I hope that someday my nation will display some of the greatness that I discovered in Bangladesh.

 

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 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?

 

 

 

The Rohingyan Nightmare

 

Embed from Getty Images

Smoke rises thick and hovers over the jungle like a greedy wraith, never pausing, angrily swirling on and on as proof of the genocide of the Rohingya of Myanmar’s Rakhine Province. Although they have been hunted down and killed by their countrymen and their government since 1948, the genocide has intensified over the last 30 days as more than 400,000 refugees have poured into Bangladesh, the closest country that shares a land border. Many of them have been walking for four days through the jungle, hiding from soldiers with machetes, dodging bullets, running for their lives. Many are mothers with small children, who no doubt put off this journey as long as possible, hoping against hope that something would stop the madness in time to save them. Now, with village after village going up in smoke and machetes swinging in the hands of the very ones who are supposed to protect, staying is most certainly death. So they grab their wee ones and run.

When I read this post today and saw their faces, something inside of me broke a little more and the madness of the world folded in on me. Breathing in the scent of the spices roasting for tonight’s curried lentils and rice, I was deeply aware of the solid floor beneath my feet and the running water in the sink. As rain poured down outside, I absorbed the dryness and safety of my home. Rice bubbling, vegetables frying, more than enough everywhere I look. But inside my soul weeps for those on the run. For the pregnant mother running through the jungle. For the baby born on the outhouse floor. For the terrified little one separated from her family. For hungry bellies fighting for the tiniest scraps of food. For families who have lost everything – their home, their country, their place of belonging.  I store the leftovers from our meal in the fridge and am overwhelmed by the much that I have. Scrubbing curry rings off emptied plates is a holy act as I am humbled to have so much, yet my soul roars within me, praying for this madness to stop.

While I know nothing of the terror they are running from and can only imagine what they feel, I do know what they are running to. Bangladesh is a tiny country, about the size of Iowa, yet it has a population of about half of the United States. Imagine if half of all the US would decide to move to Iowa tomorrow? And then accept 400,00 refugees in 30 days!

Bangladesh is already struggling to deal with the massive flooding that has hit the region, the worst in decades. As a developing country, resources are stretched thin in the best of times. Lack of space and resources are a very real problem.

If there is a family on the other side of the world that has to live in a concrete pipe, or huddle under a tiny piece of plastic while the flood waters rise inches away, can I say, “Be blessed” and scroll on to the next tidbit of news?

Every voice is needed when there is an ethnic cleansing going on. Never think your voice is little or your circle of influence too small. There is always something you can do.

For Myanmar, for the Rohingya, you can pray. You can be aware and share the awareness. You can give. Unicef UK, Oxfam, and UNHCR are all working with the Rohingya.

You can also write to your senators urging them not to support giving aid to Myanmar’s army.

And hug your lil’ ones a little more today. See past the mess of your home to feel the abundance that you have right here, right now. Feel the love, and then give it away.

 

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.

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.

 

Lenten Rememberings – South Sudan

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Guest Post – Riley Miller – Age 13

South Sudan is located between Ethiopia and the Central African Republic. There are more than 2.25 million displaced people in South Sudan and across its borders. Nearly 1.5 million South Sudanese have registered as refugees with the UNHCR.

One of the main reasons there are refugees in South Sudan is because they have been displaced due to war. In school, at Early College Academy, I learned about South Sudanese refugees. One of the refugees was a boy named Chuol, a 9 year-old boy, when his village was attacked and bombed by soldiers. He was with his mother and grandmother and they fled to the swamp. Chuol’s mom ran in a different direction so Chuol and his grandmother kept going. They went into the swamp water and hid for hours so they wouldn’t be caught by the soldiers that raided their village. Chuol was constantly afraid that he might die but he was more scared of soldiers then the most vicious crocodiles and poisonous snakes. Eventually they found their way to a camp on a tiny island with at least 80,000 other people running from the war. Later they were able to find a camp in Juba, South Sudan’s capital. When Chuol was in the camp, he felt very traumatized because he had seen so much blood, gore, and killing. He has dreams just like every other kid and hopes to become a doctor some day. You can read more of his story here.

Our meal consisted of Asida, Red Stew, Spinach with Peanut Butter and Peanut Salad.

Lenten Rememberings – Afghanistan

P1350153A people unwanted.
Rejected.
Humiliated.
Brave souls who escaped terrorist attacks and war in their country, sometimes fleeing with nothing more than the clothes on their backs, are now viewed by much of the Western world as being terrorists themselves.

Currently Afghanistan is the world’s second largest source of refugees, numbering 2.7 million, according to the UNHCR. In addition to this, there are an estimated 3.7 million displaced Afghanis, mostly residing in the neighboring countries of Iran and Pakistan. Many refugees are being forced to return to Afghanistan, mostly from Pakistan but some also from Iran and the EU. The EU no longer considers Afghanistan to be a war zone even though the fighting has not stopped.

In Pakistan, Islamabad issued a mandate that by the end of 2017, all Afghani refugees must return home. Tensions are high in Pakistan, where many Afghani refugees have lived for two or three decades. Some have already made the choice to return home even though their children have never known life outside of Pakistan. For many this seems to be the only choice due to escalating harassment since the mandate. Yet upon their return to Afghanistan, many are harassed all over again being suspected as Pakistani spies.

These refugees who have spent years in “the wilderness” are returning home to what? Despite the promise of shelters being built to house them in the early stages of repatriation, none are ready. Winters are harsh and lodging scarce in this land that has been blown apart by bombs. In one study’s estimate, 60% of Kabul’s buildings are damaged or destroyed. Reconstruction is a long way from being finished in this land that has known so much fighting.

Tonight as we ate our Kabuli Nan, with Afghani Chicken Karahi and Sabse Borani, we held these brave and beautiful people in our hearts and pray that their homeland would once again become safe and strong.