I don’t think anyone seated in the car was prepared for what we were about to see as we abruptly braked and took a right turn off the main road. As the tires crunched over the rocks, dirt, and glass, entering into the haphazard arrangement of a settlement, a flurry of children surrounded our windows. Smiles and curious eyes peered in at us.
Three hours earlier as we whizzed down the highway with an afternoon of sightseeing planned before us, out the left-hand side window was a blur of blue tarps and white trailer pods. All five of us almost simultaneously said, “hey, was that a … camp?” The last word of the question spoken low and hesitantly. We all craned our necks to the far left as the car continued down the road and the shock of blue and white grew smaller out the back window.
The First Thanksgiving, a new perspective
Days earlier, my parents and I were invited to a pre-Thanksgiving-Thanksgiving dinner with Americans, Iranians, and Iraqis. In a small home nestled in the foothills of Cappadocia, Turkey, it was a beautiful night to share with friends from three different cultures. As we got cozy around tables pushed together in the warm living room, we began to explain the story behind America’s first Thanksgiving to our Middle Eastern friends. Three different languages began to hum around the table while ladlefuls of sauce were poured over plates filled with turkey and bowls were passed around brimming with hot mashed potatoes, stuffing, and cranberry sauce.
You know it, right? The Pilgrims fled religious persecution, after a several month long perilous journey on a boat, to the shores of America in search of a better life. They landed in modern-day Massachusetts where Plymouth Colony was founded. With a tough winter where nearly half died behind them, the Pilgrims were able to gain assistance from the native inhabitants and began their new life in the new land. In order to show gratitude for their newfound religious freedom, safety, and prosperity, and to give thanks for the help from the Native Americans, the Pilgrims held a feast to what we now call Thanksgiving.
Does any of that sound a little familiar? “…It sounds like us”, one guest at the table said with a sad laugh.
Not yet on this side
I couldn’t help but feel a little bit of the irony a few days later, as we turned into the camp. As we finished our sightseeing, our car-full vowed to keep our eyes peeled for the shock of blue and white along the highway. As we approached and slowed the car, clothes clipped to lines strung out along the plastic tarp walls were the only indication from the road that there was life inside. Today was Thursday, November 24th – Thanksgiving Day in America.
“Hello?” “Merhaba?” “Ahlan?“.
“Ahlan!”, echoed an excited chorus of little voices. “They’re Arab”, our friend concluded as he shifted into park and climbed out of the driver’s seat, the group of children growing in numbers around our car. We watched silently as he walked toward the tarps. His arms stretched out and a small boy latched on to his forearm, pull-up style, and dangled off the ground, squealing with delight and legs kicking as he was carried along into the tents. “Syrians” our friend murmured to herself as we continued watching from the backseat, waiting for the signal that it was ok to visit.
I can’t tell you how much time we spent at the camp. Maybe 10 minutes, maybe half an hour. It was a blur. It was overwhelming. It was heartbreaking.
Seeing in – stepping foot in, shaking hands with those who actually live in – a refugee camp. It was something all five of us, two of whom are refugees themselves, had never experienced before.
Seeing a toddler patter about, his bare feet fully exposed to the gravel and garbage that jutted out from the ground. Seeing the mothers and fathers slumped against the trailer walls, utterly disillusioned with their long lives of war and flight and violence and uncertainty. Seeing kids erupt into fits of giggles as they tried to mimic my mom saying, “Nice to meet you” and my dad giving them high-fives, low-fives, and to-the-side fives. Seeing a bubbly little girl with an unceasing smile spread across her face, speaking animatedly in Arabic to us, even as our car began to reverse out of their semblance of a home.
These are the images that burn in the backs of my eyelids as the first snowfall came to Cappadocia this week and temperatures dropped below freezing. These are the images that flash before my eyes when I take a hot shower at my home, with water so hot my skin flaunts read splotches as I dry off. These are the images that fill my brain as I kick off my socks in the middle of the night, the robust gas heater in my house pumping out continuous warmth.
Feel this with me for a minute. Sit with me in this.
In light of the President-elect, in light of immigration issues and concerns, in light of wondering what the Church’s place is in all of this, I want you to realize that many people are not on this side of Thanksgiving yet. Over 65 million people, in fact, are not on this side yet. There are millions who are still experiencing – quite literally – the famine and death before the coming feast.
A challenge for this season
So, as we begin decorating evergreen trees in our living rooms, cooking toasty meals, singing carols, stringing together garlands, and making plans to see loved ones, sit in this with me.
I don’t want to go into great descriptions of what I saw on Thanksgiving just so that we can say, “Golly gee, we sure are blessed in good ol’ America” and continue on with life as we know it. Yes, of course, it’s good to start realizing this utterly unfair dichotomy. But more than that, I want us all to step outside of ourselves this holiday season. Life is not about you. Life is not about me.
As with my last few blog posts, I challenge us all to think outside of our lives for a minute and really try to comprehend that these tired, broken men and women, and the joyful, giggly kids, not yet touched by the realities of their lives, are image-bearers of God. All 65.3 million people have hopes and dreams and fears and skills and talents. They have been woven together with inherent dignity and hold intrinsic worth to the God of the universe.
With hot button topics such as refugee resettlement and the vetting process, we must not let the humanness of refugees get buried under the (oftentimes false) statistics we read in headlines. These are real people. They deserve our time, attention, acceptance, and love.
Let’s do all that we can this season to get them on this side of the feast.