Our Story, Uncategorized

A Pandemic, a Travel Ban, an Overseas Birth Story

It’s 6 am and I’m already awake, laying on my side—the only position that feels half-way comfortable—when my water breaks. At least I think it’s my water. Truthfully, it feels like I peed my pants. There’s no poetic way to describe it. But something tells me this is not that, and I shift my weight slowly, like a turtle on its back, to look at my sleeping husband.

I lay like that for a while, letting the reality settle around me. The summer sun starts to filter in. A dog is barking somewhere in the neighborhood. But it’s eight days early, I think to myself. Everyone tells you you’ll go late with your first so I assumed I had more time. My mom is supposed to be here, is my second thought. She has all the swaddles, is my third. But she’s six thousand miles away and there are no flights because we’re in the middle of a global pandemic, and now we have no swaddles.

I silently rise from the bed and squeeze past the empty crib, making my way to the bathroom. No one tells you the water keeps coming, after you leave the bathroom, in the car to the hospital, waiting for the doctor to examine you. I wrap a towel around me while I walk through the house.

~~~

Throwing my hand on top of my husband’s shoulder, I laid most of my weight on him, trying to get myself to the empty chair on my mother-in-law’s balcony. My other hand held the bottom of my round stomach. We had just gone on a walk along the river, the June weather warm and breezy. People gathered on the grass, leaning against tree trunks, sipping hot tea. Covid restrictions be darned—nothing can stop Middle Easterners from picnicking in the summer.

Pregnancy had been easy, my body doing what the books said it was supposed to do, week by week, just a little bigger and a little more out of breath. Aside from that, things felt much the same—a saving grace when our life felt incredibly uncertain.

I heaved myself into the plastic chair and we all unwrapped our chicken dürüma common street food in Turkey. I propped up by feet, so swollen that it took work to slide off my sandals. Somewhere a woman shook out a heavy rug from her window. Thin swirls of smoke from the contraband picnics floated to the sky.

We joked that if the spicy chicken didn’t send me into labor that night, the full moon would.

~~~

I text my doula and my mom. They both confirm that, yes, it’s probably my water. I text a photo of the rising hot air balloons to my mom because they haven’t been in the sky since March. She texts back that I need to wake up my husband and tell him what’s going on.

Instead, I pour a cup of hot coffee and savor it on the couch in the silence of the living room.

I once read in a book somewhere a character described as someone with “complete assurance and more than a little recklessness.” I thought of my husband and that line has lived in my notes on my phone ever since. He is Persian through and through and I know exactly how he’d react to the news.

So I finish my cup of coffee first.

When I do tell him, with tears in my eyes, surprising myself with the sudden emotion, he cycles through every sort of reaction imaginable, like a thespian showing off their range in an audition. But for him, a man who wears his heart on his sleeve, it’s completely authentic. He’s upset for not telling him sooner. Then absolutely elated, shimming his hips and shoulders, snapping his fingers, and singing a made-up song. Then he’s on his knees, hands on my stomach, tears down his cheeks, praying for a safe delivery. We go through this cycle a couple more times before we get in the car.

~~~

We had been sitting across the table from each other once in the early days of dating, two cups of Turkish tea in tulip-shaped glasses in front of us, a street cat roaming under the table around our feet. It was during my second year teaching abroad and I hadn’t foreseen starting a relationship here—much less getting married and delivering my firstborn child.

“I have no grid in my brain to even begin to understand,” I had said to him, leaving my tea to cool and putting my hands in my lap, trying desperately to figure out this person in front of me, whose life had been so very different from my own. I didn’t know how to respond to his story of fleeing the only place he had ever called home due to the real threat of arrest, imprisonment–or death.

He had fiddled with the tiny sugar cube on the saucer for a moment before responding, “It’s because you’re an American; you’ve never had to think about what it’s like to be a refugee.”

~~~

My water broke but it wasn’t yet time for her to come. She still felt tucked up, hidden away inside me. The hour’s drive to the hospital, I felt much the same as I had the day before, although now wet and sitting on a towel. It was too early in the morning for the police checkpoints set up at the province border, usually there to take our temperature and verify we had the right papers.

The doctor confirms my body isn’t doing anything so Pitocin is started. Avoiding an induction was on the top of my birth plan, but with any birth and also the added layer of living in another country, things don’t always go as wished—a lesson I have spent years learning. My husband and I walk up and down the birthing unit’s hallway, dragging the IV drip behind like a dog on a leash. He makes light-hearted banter with the nurses. A hospital worker puts a wooden laser cut design of our baby’s name on the front of our door.

The contractions begin slowly and build up in strength, coming over me like waves, one on top of the other. I assume my body is doing what it’s supposed to do, but the nurses check and it’s not. The contractions come too hard and too fast so I ask for an epidural. 

Afterwards, I carefully bounce on a birthing ball and resume slowly walking up and down the hallway, grasping at the wall’s hand rail, my legs heavy and numb. We eat lunch and dinner in our room and I remember breezily asking my doula if eating now will make me throw up later. We flip through the television channels to pass the time and land on the Turkish version of Animal Planet.

But hours later the epidural wears off and the sharp waves come back. I ask for another dose but my body still hasn’t progressed much. The doctor comes back. It’s late at night and I find myself wondering where she has been. Has she come from her house and family? She’s worried because my water had been broken for over twelve hours. The baby is stressed. She brings up the real possibility of a c-section.

~~~

Early 2017, we’d been engaged for just a few months and began to dream of what a wedding in the US might look like. But then there was an administration change and a man who campaigned on strict immigration restrictions was sworn in. Seven days later, he signed an executive order to ban travelers from seven countries, Iran included. 

Our dreams of a US wedding quickly crumbled and we recalibrated our plans—something we would be doing often over the next four years. The door to the future we had dreamed about was slammed shut. Turkey grudgingly became our home and now the place we would start our family.

~~~

Someone catches my vomit in a plastic bag. Sorry, again, there’s no poetic way to describe that. A c-section is imminent. The doctor keeps saying the baby is stressed, and my doula sifts through the awkward curtain of translating from one language to another to try to understand what the doctor means.

The operating room is cold and white and no outside people are allowed in, one of the hospital’s extra precautions against Covid. But my husband charms the nurses and they bend the rules for him. He’s seated near my head. We lock eyes and I’m grateful to have him there in a sea of nurses and doctors who are speaking in a language I barely understand.

She’s cut out of me and she screams. Her cheek is brought next to mine and I crane to kiss her before she’s taken away to be cleaned.

My first words were to my husband: There was an actual baby in there! And second: I’m never doing that again. Although even in the moment, I know I don’t mean it.

~~~

She’s a copy of her dad, dark hair, long lashes, eyes the color of copper. No one says she looks like me. No matter though. For nine months I housed her, grew her, kept her safe.

My parents are eventually able to fly across the ocean to meet their new granddaughter. My mom makes casseroles and muffins, does loads of laundry, and walks a fussy newborn. I’ll be forever thankful to have my mom by my side while I took my first wobbly steps into motherhood. Also, she brought the swaddles.

Our baby gets her US citizenship at two weeks old. My husband accidentally rips the corner of her birth certificate trying to get out her passport from the manila envelope. It means a lot to him, this small blue book. Already her future is better than what his own passport could provide. A refugee, a man who crossed borders, fled his home, had everything taken away from him so he could make a better future, whose daughter is a US citizen.

The nurses call her yeni kuş and fındık, the Turkish words for baby bird and hazelnut. My Iranian family calls her zendegeearoosak, and jigaram, the Farsi words for life, mini-bride, and my liver (yes, liver). The neighborhood aunties dote and gurgle and shower her with mashallahs, always tut-tutting at me for not keep her warm enough.

She coos and I call her my little dove. She smiles a hundred times a day and I call her my sunshine girl.

We name her Esther after Esther of the Old Testament, a Jewish woman living in exile, becoming a queen, saving her people. Esther, bold and courageous, standing up for truth and fighting for the good of others.

Our Esther was born to a refugee and a US citizen, in neither’s home country, amid a travel ban and an impossible immigration process, during a pandemic. Already she is strong and brave.

She is our star, a bright spot in the dark, joy in the middle of a whole lot of hardship, made for such a time as this. We are so happy she’s here.

Our Story

Shake with Joy, Shake with Grief

We shake with joy, we shake with grief. 
What a time they have, these two
housed as they are in the same body.

Mary Oliver, Evidence

I lay next to her on the couch, exhausted and out of patience from making endless laps around the living room coffee table in a half glide and half bounce walk, hoping to crack the code to putting an infant down to sleep. It didn’t work, and now, surrendering to her nap strike, we lay next to each other, both awake. I think most definitely I’ve reached 10,000 steps just in this room or, at the very least, have worked my glutes from all that half gliding. The curtains blow lazily, catching onto the arm of the couch, letting through dappled afternoon light across the upholstery. My open palm is an inch from her face as she uses all of her ten fingers to stretch my picky in one direction and my thumb in the other. Her eyes are crossed and lips pursed in an intense focus on this new skill. Head resting on my free arm, I tiredly hum the melody to “I’ll be Home for Christmas” despite it being early November. For some odd reason, sad Christmas songs and three specific tracks on the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack are the only things that stop her fussing. The irony of the lyrics to this holiday tune, though, don’t escape me as I lazily hum something that’s between a fingers-crossed wish and a sort-of-prayer.

We’ve said a lot of sort-of-prayers lately, tiny little requests that seep between our fingers covering our mouths, stopping before the whole dream gets out. They are bashful whispers said to each other out on the balcony after our daughter sleeps for the night. Do you think it will happen? Will we finally get to leave? Afraid to say these secret things too loudly and ruin everything.

If you have been following this little corner of the internet for any amount of time, you will know that this weekend my family and I rejoiced. Four years ago, we were thrust into the choppy waters of uncertainty while the president chose to sign an executive order just days after his inauguration that would bar my husband, mother-in-law, and brother-in-law from living in the United States. The doors closed and the walls closed in too, as my husband’s precarious refugee status threatened to separate him from our baby and me at any point. We watched in horror as my home country became a place that no longer welcomed the world’s most vulnerable but instead proudly waved the flag of “me first” policies, shockingly backed by Evangelical Christians.

Tuesday on, my husband and I glued ourselves to the television and the smartphones in our hands despite the empty promises to ourselves to curb our media ingestion. In true 2020 fashion, I was sure Wednesday would bring more sad, hard news. But today, we exhale, realizing we’ve been holding our breaths for the last four years.

A quick phone call came from my teary mom in the U.S. on Saturday evening telling me “They’ve called it.” I repeated “They’ve called it” to my husband in the office, who repeats “They’ve called it” to his brother in Norway on video chat. We both end our calls, rush to the television, and break out the celebratory ice cream.

So many of us are breathing that collective sigh of relief right now. It’s been beautiful to see videos of people spontaneously dancing and singing in the streets. It’s special to read messages from refugees in Turkey who are feeling a surge of hope for the first time in four years. God has finally heard our cries, they write. There is hope my home country can be a place of safety for my family and opportunities for my daughter and all girls. We shout also for our friends and neighbors because so much of what happens in the U.S. inevitably flows to the rest of the world. 

The president-elect is not a savior—although, perhaps, it’s easy to slide into that mentality. As believers, we don’t put all our hope in the leaders of our county. The kingdom of heaven has not yet reached its full expression. But we can celebrate and then hold the new administration, who promises to uphold immigrants, Black and brown folks, and marginalized communities, accountable for putting justice and humanity first.

Like the flicker of a cat’s tail, the leaves outside the window shake with the advent of winter. We shake too, for joy and grief. Nothing has changed with my husband’s immigration status, of course. We are still waiting, still living in limbo. He is still a refugee with no claim to a country. But that dread in the pit of our stomachs has eased a little.

I sing the words to “I’ll be Home for Christmas” to a nap-striking baby, whose now fully awake, babbling away on the couch. The song is a secret half-prayer that may or may not come true this year, but we can begin to dream a little more confidently about the next. So we look ahead. There are babies to be put down for naps, and dishes to wash, and congresspeople to write, and stories from the marginalized to hear and share.

So shake with joy today. But shake with grief, too, for there is much work to be done.


What we can do now to hold accountable the Biden administration: Amnesty International, a global movement that helps fight human rights abuses worldwide, has put together a list of priorities for the new administration. Familiarize yourself with their eleven different policy recommendations, especially asylum access, persecuted populations, and U.S. killings of Black people, as these are great talking points when contacting congresspeople. There’s a free pdf as well with additional resources.

Our Story

Not Like We Imagined

Our first evening away from our then two-month-old, my husband and I sat on the rooftop of a local restaurant eating lamb kabob and drinking ayran, a traditional yogurt drink, and texting back and forth with my mom who was visiting us in Turkey for the summer and babysitting that night.

Call us easily pleased or starving for entertainment outside of nursery rhymes, but we couldn’t take our eyes off the sky. It was dusk and, almost as if on cue, hundreds of birds began to stream through the air from the west and take cover among the trees along the river bank. Black dots punctuated the sky, moving together with one mind, one shape-shifting cloud after another. Like airplanes smoothly landing on the runway, each giant flock congregated in the roost, seeking shelter for the night. A cacophony of chirps and squawks and beating wings could be heard above the restaurant’s music.

“Look what God created,” my husband murmured, always mesmerized by nature, especially birds. It’s their statelessness I think, their freedom not hindered by borders, their ability to pick up and move at the first sign of the changing season—something that, for him, is just out of reach.

First, it was the travel ban, which barred millions of individuals from seven Muslim-majority countries from ever entering the United States (still in effect to this day), sweeping my husband and his family along with it. One year of teaching overseas turned into six for me, waiting for the green light to leave. Six years of missed holidays and birthdays and life continuing at home. Six years of being at the mercy of ever-changing immigration policies and borders shutting down.

Then it was a pandemic and a country that didn’t handle it well. A different type of travel ban was put into place. U.S. embassies around the world began to shut down, effectively stopping almost all immigration, like a large locomotive coming to a screeching halt.

We’ve been hard-pressed every direction we turn and buried up to our chins with uncertainty. With our family spread out over three different continents, the future is looking foggier than ever.

Poet Samiya Bashir describes 2020 this way: “This year threads its needle between robbery and gift; horror and beauty. Global trauma and lovely surprises.” Can you relate? Does everything look a little foggy for you too? The last several months have been a delicate balance of holding many different things at one time. We didn’t ask for this. We didn’t imagine it to be like this.

I write a lot on here about finding joy and hope in hard places. The former is easier to define, but the latter, if I’m being honest, is a little more difficult. The definition of hope seems to always roll around on my tongue like hard candy and if I spit it out to look at it, I still don’t know what it is.

But I saw this question posed on Instagram the other day: What does hope smell like? All sorts of answers poured in from hundreds of people. Freshly brewed coffee, a rainstorm, chocolate, newborn babies, cookies baking. Trying to define hope by relating it to one of our senses puts a different spin on it. Suddenly, the unidentifiable candy doesn’t seem so mysterious anymore.

Just a few days after our daughter was born, we got a call from her pediatrician late at night urging us to bring her in as early as possible the following morning. We spent the next 24 hours in a cramped hospital room as she laid blindfolded under UV lights, black-out curtains drawn tight and, in true Middle Eastern fashion, heat pumping out of the vents despite the mild June weather. My still swollen feet and aching abdomen incision were made worse by sitting on the uncomfortable couch in the darkened room for an entire day and night.

When we were discharged the following day (our daughter was fine, by the way. The lights did their magic and her bilirubin levels were back to normal.), we walked out of the hospital doors and had to squint the sun was shining so brightly. My husband and I gulped down the cool air as we walked to the car, healthy baby in tow. The afternoon sun radiated onto our faces and outstretched arms. We rolled down the windows and stuck our hands out the entire hour’s drive back home, so grateful to be out of the dark hospital room and basking in the fresh air.

That’s the smell of hope: when you’ve been indoors for so long and are finally able to go outside. It’s that first breath of fresh air, cool and cleansing. It’s the smell of earth, dampness, soil, life. It’s knowing the sun is shining brightly just beyond the darkened room.

Back to the birds. They continued to streak across the sky that night while we were on the rooftop, something innate telling them the season will be changing soon. Despite the hottest part of the day still being in the triple digits (Lord, help us), there was still the tiniest, quietest whisper of something new happening, the ending of one thing and the beginning of another. It was that hint of light after coming out of the darkness, the promise of a fresh breath of air.

We turned back to the meal in front of us and fawned over pictures of our sleeping baby sent by my mom. We talked about those last six years and all that had happened and all that hadn’t happened—the good, the bad, and the unimagined.

You’re supposed to write about what you know. I don’t know a lot about what’s happening now or what will happen in the future. I wish there was a different ending—a victory ending—but that hasn’t happened. We are still here, waiting, standing on the threshold of two things. I wouldn’t have imagined life would be like this. But one thing I know is that there is peace in letting go. There is power in having an open hand. We may still be in the darkened room draped in blackout curtains but just on the other side of the wall, there is sunshine. Hope is in the unexpected and unimagined—whatever that smells like.

Uncategorized

Little Joy Crumbs

A tiny foot is wedged into the bottom of my ribcage, prompting me to surrender to third-trimester insomnia and rise with the spring sun. I make coffee, pulling down the same two mugs I always do for my husband and myself. It is a daily rhythm serving as an anchor in these strange times where one day bleeds into the next.

Today the coffee has to brew over the gas stovetop because of a neighborhood power outage—a small inconvenience, but I have lived abroad long enough to expect interruptions. It comes with the package when signing up for the expatriate life.

But how troubling it is the first time the veil of certainty is stolen from our startled hands and we realize we were not as in control as we once thought. How troubling it is when a novel virus carries itself invisibly from street to street, city to city, and we all find ourselves behind the closed doors of our homes, our routines wholly and completely upset. “Normal” holds a new definition now, the old meaning tossed aside. One day it was and the next it was not.

My husband and I have had good practice braving the onset of life’s interruptions. Prolonged uncertainty breeds isolation but we have learned to receive it. Along with living in a foreign country, we got married amid a controversial travel ban, paddled the choppy waters of immigration visas, and are now bringing a child into a worldwide pandemic. Uncertainty is an always-present third party perched on top of the couch, a visitor who has missed the cues and overstayed its welcome.

Like brewing coffee, walking outside each day—perhaps more of a waddle, belly propelling me forward—has been another anchor, a sacred cadence for the soul.

 Neighboring homes stand stoic and taciturn as families tuck themselves inside. The unusual silence cloaks everything like a stubborn layer of dust. There are masked faces, parks wrapped in police tape, canceled plans, and disappointments.

 But when looking a little more closely, there is also a wave of a hand from a watchful grandma behind glass, a clumsily colored rainbow taped to a window, a softer and gentler greeting between two people as they pass six feet apart. A turtle ambles across the rocks. The lilac trees blossom into soft purples. A collared dove perched in an evergreen calls out in a long, slow lament.

Having weathered many upsets in life, my husband and I know the feeling of juggling juxtaposing emotions. At the beginning of the year, we received news that caused the seams of our life to unravel and the ground beneath our feet to shake. The heartbeat of every one of our prayers for the last few years was for a single door to open. And now, after one phone call with an impassive immigration clerk on the other end of the line, that door was closed shut.

Yet life went on and my belly grew a little rounder each day. A week after receiving the devastating news, we held a party with our close friends where we bit into cupcakes to the count of three and cheered when little pink sprinkles spilled out from the middle—a girlWe celebrated with frosting decorating the corners of our laughing mouths, sprinkles falling into cupped hands. And I remember feeling these words dash across my mind for just a fleeting moment: This is kind of nice.

When receiving the difficult news earlier that week, all our future dreams dissipated in front of us. We could no longer plan ahead. The curtain of certainty was stolen and replaced with an unending today but never tomorrow. But this—celebrating the coming of a new baby girl with pink cupcakes and laughs and prayers—was nice. 

The late poet, Mary Oliver, writes that joy should not be compared to a crumb. Recognizing the scattering of little joy crumbs on the counters of our lives does not need to be embarrassingly brushed into our hands and down the sink or quickly wiped from our lips before anyone has noticed. “If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy,” she pens, “don’t hesitate. Give in to it.” We have permission to recognize the little bit of beauty in the struggles of life.

Spotting joy—there it is and there is another!—does not overshadow the weight of grief, disappointment, and pain, for these too, are important to hold. Feeling one thing does not negate the other because both/and fits comfortably on our laps.

Joy makes space for these heavy things. We can lift it onto one hip and sorrow the other, our arms wrapped around both like a mother gathering her children to her. It is in the tension of life’s complications where the scent of God is. It is here—right here, at this moment—where the Creator speaks, for he holds it all together. At this crossroads is where we can partake in the glory that will be revealed at God’s coming again.

Joy is in the kick of a tiny baby’s foot, the slow brew of morning coffee, a power outage, the daily rhythm of rising and opening curtains. It is in a leisurely walk, the still small whisper of God’s voice, two mugs set out on the table, frosting on a cupcake. Perhaps looking for these is a way to fight back against the heaviness of life. Perhaps it is okay to see a morsel of joy in the middle of pain.

So when you do see little joy do not hesitate. Give in to it. Grab on to it.

Resources

3 (more) Books to Help Understand Immigration and the Global Refugee Crisis

download

The Ungrateful Refugee: What Immigrants Never Tell You
By Dina Nayeri
(Nonfiction)

As a child, Nayeri was forced to flee her home country of Iran because her mother was a Christian—a crime punishable by fines, arrest, imprisonment, and death. Nayeri details their harrowing and heartbreaking flight through several different countries, accounting what it was like to be a child growing up without a home and living in limbo. Several other refugee stories are interwoven into Nayeri’s memoir as well. Due to the subject at hand and how intensely personal it was for me, finishing the book left me in a sort of book hangover for a while, and I found myself needing to take a break from reading anything afterward. This is a powerful story that looks intimately into the psychology of a refugee. Get your pencils ready; you’ll find yourself underlining a lot.

Notable Quote: “We drift from the safe places of our childhood. There is no going back. Like stories, villages and cities are always growing or fading or melding into each other. We are all immigrants from the past, and home lives inside the memory, where we lock it up and pretend it is unchanged.”

91+UbXN-oaLThe Beekeeper of Aleppo
By Christy Lefteri
(Fiction)

Nuri, a beekeeper by trade, lives a simple and quiet life with his wife and young son in Aleppo, Syria. As the war rips his country, family, and livelihood apart, Nuri and his wife make the difficult decision to leave behind all they have ever known and become one of the millions of displaced Syrians.

I picked up this book on a whim during an airport layover after the title and cover caught my eye. While Nuri’s story is fictional, it represents the voices of the millions who bear the title ‘refugee’ and a heartbreaking yet realistic depiction of the refugee’s experience. There are definitely disturbing parts of this book, but it is a must-read story that is stunningly emotional and thought-provoking.

Notable Quote: “I wish I could escape my mind, that I could be free of this world and everything I have seen in the last few years. And the children who have survived – what will become of them? How will they be able to live in this world?”

51YBMz37y1L._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_The God Who Sees: Immigrants, the Bible, and the Journey to Belong
By Karen Gonzalez
(Religion/Theology)

We need more books on immigration written by immigrants. Gonzalez does just that as she recounts her family’s flight out of Guatemala to California and Florida. Partly an autobiography, partly a Bible study, and partly on United States’ immigration policies, The God Who Sees puts a much- needed face to statistics through both modern-day and Biblical stories of displacement.

Using Biblical scripture, Gonzalez issues a plea for the Western Church to open its eyes to the plight of immigrants in the US and to treat refugees and asylum seekers as Jesus has commanded. This book is a great start to diving into the immigration issues that are so pressing today.

Notable Quote: “When we talk about immigrants and immigration we are always talking about people who matter deeply to God. We are talking about people made in the image of God—people like Hagar and my abuelita.”

 

Check out seven other books to read on the Global Refugee Crisis here.