In Memory

 

Today is Memorial Day in the United States. Banks, schools and government offices are closed. Parades have marched the streets of our cities. Families gather for a picnic or meet at the cemetery to leave flowers on the graves of loved ones.  For many, it is a day of honoring those who gave their lives for this country. For others, it’s just a day to sleep in and hang out with friends over juicy burgers and potato salad.

As a young girl in a long line of Conscientious Objectors who refused to pick up weapons in times of war, I  personally knew no one who had died in the line of duty. It was pretty much a day of picnics for me. As an adult, however, I’ve come to realize that today is not a picnic.

May 30, 1868 was the first official Memorial Day. It was originally called Decoration Day, and was set aside as a time to decorate the graves of those who had died in the war with flowers.

Three years after the end of the Civil War, we decided to decorate the graves of those who died in the war between us. The war between the North and the South. The war that threatened the collapse of an empire. The war that turned brother against brother, that was really about keeping the South in the Union and protecting an economy built on the backs of slaves than it was about freeing those slaves. This did not begin as a day to honor soldiers who died “over there” but, rather, the ones who died here.

But there is another version, an unofficial version, of how Memorial Day started. David W. Blight, a Yale historian, has found a list of commemorations initiated by freed Black Americans. The largest took place on May 1,1865, less than a month after the end of the war, when more than 10,000 of them gathered to dig up a mass grave of what had been hundreds of Union prisoners. These Black Americans dug up the bones that represented their freedom and lovingly gave them each a proper burial and built a fence around the new cemetery. Then they marched, lamented, honored, and sang with crosses, flowers, wreaths and anthems.

Later, the South hushed the voices of the Black Community and made the day about the reconciliation and sacrifices of White America, completely leaving out the voices of Black America. Mississippi,  South Carolina, and Alabama each have their own days to celebrate Confederate Memorial Day as State Holidays, in addition to the National Memorial Day.

153 years after the end of the Civil War and we are still fighting each other, still shushing the voices of Black America, still making things about us.

I’m going to fire up my grill soon and throw on the burgers. Then I’m going to sit my boys down and tell them about some pretty brave folks who dug up a mass grave, and honored the bones of those who had suffered for their freedom.

Isn’t it time we stop making everything about us?

Isn’t it time we stop telling Black America what patriotism looks like?

 

 

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 – 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 – 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.