I was sitting at a dining room table with mismatched chairs shoved behind the couch in the cozy living room. Chicken legs were bubbling in a pan on the stove. The savory spices tickled our noses as it wafted throughout the rest of the apartment. The television in the corner was on low, providing quiet background noise to our lesson. I sat with her – Zahra. We had laughed when meeting for the first time at how similar our names were. We muddled our way through the textbook’s chapter on Socrates, summarizing each paragraph as we went. I think I was as lost as she was when it came to crafting an essay on classical philosophers. But we pushed through. We giggled a lot. Her children crawled onto my lap and wove their fingers into my hair. We complained about Minnesota winters, clicking our tongues at the falling temperatures. She talked of taking night classes at the community college and how difficult it was to balance her courses with caring for her family. She talked of home home in Somalia and now just home in America.
Swiping her index finger across the screen of her phone, she began telling me about her family. As each new picture appeared, she described her children – three grown sons, two already living in Europe and one living with her now in Turkey. Soon a picture appeared of smiling women gathered closely together. “My church in Turkey”, she explained. “In America, in America, in America”, she said, pointing to the faces of the majority of the women. “Do you hope to go to America too or back to Iran?”, I asked. Reaching beneath her turtleneck, she pulled out a golden cross necklace with “GOD” gilded across it and gently brushed the piece of jewelry with her fingers. “America. We cannot go back home because…” – her voice trailed off as she drew a line forcefully across her neck with her thumb – “…you know…”. With a half-hearted laugh and a shrug, she left the sentence incomplete, the unspoken violent words hanging in the air.
Sitting in the tent with fire-hot heat pumping out from the soba in the middle, we were motioned to sit back on the pillows placed around the tarp walls. Two women – just girls really, 22 and 24, and both married at 14 – brought in tea for us. Children tumbled through the tent opening, socks soaked from the cold December rain. One of the women, breastfeeding her newborn baby girl, told of her flight from Syria. She was 7 months pregnant, her oldest son on her hip. She walked 5 hours straight, carrying her family through checkpoints and across borders, fleeing for her and her babies’ lives, all alone. Holding her children close, she expressed concern about both of them not getting the nutrients they needed to grow because she was unable to produce enough milk. The incredible trauma she experienced stopped her body from producing the sustenance to keep her children healthy. Her son was 2 years old and still not walking.
These are three stories from three different women from three different countries. These are three snapshots of moments where it became glaringly clear to me, like a punch in the stomach, that these women were, well, humans. Suddenly, the numbers and statistics and headlines crumbled before me as I looked into their faces. All three women yearned for a stable life, to provide for their family, to make sure their children were happy and healthy. They only wanted stability, safety, and certainty.
I encourage you to find your own punch-in-the-stomach realization. Look for those moments. Standing in line at Target, make a silly face at the precious babysitting in the cart in front of you. Smile at his mother as you pick up the toy that was dropped. Say “salaam alaikum” to the Somali women you see at the grocery store. I guarantee it will elicit a giggle from them – and you. Bring cookies over to the new next door neighbors and explain to them your city’s bus route. Volunteer to be an English tutor through your local resettlement agency and you’ll find yourself in a similar situation as I did, studying Socrates, laughing, and seeing the humanity in refugees.
When you find your own punch-in-the-stomach story, spread it around to anyone who will listen. Do not stop sharing it. Our obsession with safety and security in this country cannot snuff out our capability to empathize, to be merciful, to connect and feel and hurt for those who are suffering. Our government may have made the decision for us to not welcome refugees at the moment. But that should not stop us from welcoming those who live right next to us.