Sunday, February 5, 2017

When I Think of the Refugee

She didn't want her family to see her uncovered head.  I doubt she very much wanted me, a foreign stranger, to see it either, but life had flung her far from anyone who would know how to help her with her thick, black hair, and landed her in a suburban bathroom complete with an unfamiliar hair dryer and running water.

We made our best attempts to understand one another, but the bridge between us stretched so far, we couldn't find understanding in the middle.  As she moved her garments around to lean her head into the sink, I saw the scars.  Lines on her back and shoulder that suggested something brutal had happened to her.

She is a refugee.  Her country suffered a civil war and she ended up on the wrong side of the the power. Her gorgeous, regal features were despised for whatever ancestry they suggested to the oppressors.  She fled her country and resettled in a neighboring one--into a camp that was beset with almost as many dangers as the war zone she left behind.  She had more children at the camp.  Her older children died there, too. Family members went permanently "missing."  After seven years of living in limbo, her family finally made it to the United States.  They made it through the long vetting process and passed all the requirements to become refugees here--many hoops to jump through before landing among us.  How she and I ended up in this position of vulnerable need is another story altogether, but when I think of the refugee, I see those scars.

I remember that bereaved mother, her improbably optimistic husband, her five resilient children.  I remember how they had to adjust to a new kind of exile from their homeland, with all the comforts of its language, food, culture and community, and scrabble for a new normal with a new kind of poverty.  Theirs was the poverty of being without wheels in a metro area with highways instead of paths.  Theirs was the poverty of being without style in a culture so overclothed that the distinctions are based on the kind, cut and creator of clothes.  Theirs was the poverty of being without community in a culture that saw their head coverings as a suspicious affront, their language as an obscure hassle to translate, and their intellect as somehow diminished for not having been shaped by exposure to modern technology.

My family was part of their transition team for six months.  Six months of watching our toddlers speak an international language of giggles, our boys, the international language of LEGOS.  Six months of sporadic visits, generous food, few words, lots of smiles.  Six months of memories--the infamous zoo trip, playing Uno and other games, helping them register for school, introducing them to the budget-saving wonders of thrift stores.

I read that our country has halted all refugees entry for four months.  I can't pretend to be an informed citizen into all the reasons behind that decision.  I know it's a big, complex issue.  I haven't felt in danger from refugees, and I don't feel safer now knowing that none are coming for four months.

When I think of refugees, I remember a woman, my age exactly, who has been through more than I can understand or imagine.  I wonder what her back would look like if she had been asked to wait four more months.  I wonder if we would have met even fewer of her kids.  I wonder what enemy intent on our harm would go through such a long, arduous process, of wait lists and medical examinations and years of life in an overcrowded camp to get to the top of a refugee list, when there are faster and more efficient ways to get here.

And I wonder why we are so quick to want to trust that our multi-billion dollar government can create any program at all to ensure our safety, to weed out every threat, to encase us in a bubble of secure comfort.  How many people's suffering is it ok to ignore to raise our own safety by small percents?