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.

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.

 

Lenten Rememberings – Democratic Republic of Congo

Congolese Food

Decades of civil war and brutal ethnic conflicts have left many Congolese on the run. At the end of 2015, there were nearly 500,000 refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Additionally the UN estimated there are 1.8 million internally displaced people within DRC. And while many Congolese have left their country and are living in camps in surrounding countries such as Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania, Burundi, Kenya and many more, there are more than 400,000 refugees from other countries who have come to DRC for refuge. When I read the history of the DRC, full of wars, genocides, mass rape, and more violence than I can wrap my head around, I picture a volcano inside of a volcano. Desperate people leaving, desperate people coming in from other erupting places.

This lush and beautiful country in the heart of Africa, home to nearly every valuable resource known to man is also the world’s largest source of cobalt. Without it, our smartphones and laptops would be powerless. The Washington Post has put out a story called The Cobalt Pipeline which gives an eye-opening look behind the scenes.  In 2012 UNICEF estimated there were 40,000 children working in cobalt mines in DRC. Children as young as 7 years old work in the mines in very dangerous conditions and are paid one to three dollars a day and many sacrifice their lives so we can carry technology in our pockets and scroll with our fingers while waiting for the next thing to happen in our lives.

With my belly full of Chicken Moambe, Eggplant Curry and Banana Fritters, I type these lines on my laptop which very likely has cobalt sourced from this country of incredible suffering and I feel a volcano within a volcano inside of me, beauty and horror colliding and I don’t know what to do with these tears but I let them come. I grieve for the lives lost, the lives now in terror, the lives in camps waiting and hoping. I grieve for the racial hatred between ethnic groups, for the greed of our wealthy and powerful who are all too willing to take advantage of black bodies to grow our prosperity. When you clear away the clutter, there’s not much difference between a cotton field and a cobalt mine…just a bit more distance.

Today I remember the Democratic Republic of Congo. I’m grateful for the 16,370 Congolese Refugees accepted into the US last year. I’m grateful for the geeks that are out there who continue to develop technology that doesn’t require slave labor to thrive. And all the while I pray that the Democratic Republic of Congo, this country so rich in natural resources, will find healing and restoration.