They Should Come the Legal Way

It’s frustrating to see the dismantling of the US’s refugee program, to see this administration gradually take it apart, piece by piece, quietly in the backdrop of other pressing matters.

While the US president boasts of new religious freedom initiatives, the travel ban is still in place, effectively and indefinitely preventing seven countries from entering the US, calling for a “total and complete shutdown” of billions of people. It’s been like this for two and a half years. The number of refugees being admitted into the US this next year is predicted to be set at zero, which will hurt the most at-risk persecuted Christians.

Piece by piece. Gradually. Quietly.

What has been the most frustrating is American Evangelicals’ response to the sojourner, the stranger, the refugee: “Well, they should come the legal way.”

They should come the legal way.

A rich reply coming from people living in a prosperous country, in the comforts of a saturated society, in the warmth of a stable home, behind a laptop, holding a microphone, in front of a podium, sitting in the White House.

They should come the legal way.

This response is from people who hold no concept of what it’s like to be a threat to your government because of your beliefs, because of your mere existence. No idea of what it feels like to never return to your home for fear of being tortured, persecuted, arrested, raped, or killed.

This response is from people who don’t know what it’s like to walk down the streets of their hometown, past their old elementary school, past the neighborhood market and see bodies hanging from cranes. They do not know what it’s like to clutch their toddler and lay flat in a ditch, eyes squeezed shut, comforting the tiny whimpers, praying for the air-raid sirens to stop. They don’t know what it’s like to meet with other Christians in secret, always changing locations so as not to draw any attention, removing SIM cards from phones, and wrapping bibles in newspaper.

We like to think the legal way to immigrate to the US is to fill out some paperwork, get in line, and wait patiently for your name to be called. That’s reasonable enough, right? To get in line like the rest of them?

And yet the legal way means running away from the jaws of a chomping shark that used to be your home. It means facing concrete barriers you have no choice but to try to climb over. It means carrying the trauma of persecution and years of oppression into interview after interview. Presenting your case in front of callous officers, reliving the nightmare each time, trying to convince them your story is true when their only goal is to look for any inconsistency, any excuse to deny you.

The legal way involves paperwork and a line but there is no line. It’s broken and stopped and nobody can move. When your home is the chomping jaws of a bloodthirsty shark, you cannot wait any longer because waiting breeds madness. 

With this administration, the legal way involves more and more concrete barriers, more and more hoops to jump through. But what all it really boils down to is that the refugee’s skin is a few shades too dark and he carries a passport with the wrong birth country.

When your home is the chomping jaws of a bloodthirsty shark, you cannot wait any longer because waiting breeds madness.

They should come the legal way. They should know English and have professional skills but not too many skills because we don’t want them taking our jobs. They should come from really traumatic situations but not too traumatic because we want them to be able to assimilate and function in our society. But God forbid they arrive with nothing and have to rely on the government and taxpayers’ dollars. They should be able to stand on their own two feet. They should make something of themselves. They should overcome all odds but they better not complain about this country because they should be grateful they’re here. They should…They should…They should.

Our brains like to simplify the things we don’t understand, to reduce a truly complicated topic down to the bare bones. And when life happens outside of our own world, it’s easy for us to keep everything at an arm’s distance. Our minds don’t have the grid to understand suffering and trauma when we’ve lived and breathed in a country soaked in convenience and comfort. But we need to try to understand.

We have a president who boasts of his strong Christian faith – who reads the Bible more than anybody (but nevermind he is thrice-married and doesn’t need to ask for forgiveness) – and yet he is doing all he can to stop refugees from entering the US. We have a president who perpetuates fear, using erroneous words like “infest”, “flood”, “hoards”, and “illegals” to describe refugees and asylum seekers. We have an administration that, in words, identifies as pro-life, but in action does everything it can to dehumanize, criminalize, and erase the oppressed.

Our minds don’t have the grid to understand suffering and trauma when we’ve lived and breathed in a country soaked in convenience and comfort. But we need to try to understand.

The United States is a country of plenty. We have protection and stability and safety and opportunities. We have the freedom to practice our faith or no faith. We have the freedom to speak out against the problems in our country, to stand up against injustices and violations.

We can also be a nation of refuge and humanity. We can support politicians who see the value and inherent worth in immigrants and take steps to tear down walls and help to streamline the immigration process so those fleeing their homes can come legally.

The next time we come across news articles about the plight of refugees and asylum seekers may we never respond with “Well, they should come the legal way” because they are trying to. But instead, to stop and think and respond biblically, extending compassion to our fellow image-bearers of God.

We can be pro-security and pro-compassion. They can go hand-in-hand because one of the holiest of sacraments is welcoming the stranger.

They should come the legal way? That’s a nice thought, but that’s not the point.

The Unanswered Question

“How long more?”

My husband asks this question enough times for me to know he’s not wondering how long our walk will take to get to the river. We’ve done it a million times. He’s asking me how much longer we’ll be staying here in Turkey, how much longer we have to wait for our lives to move forward, and how much longer we have to live at the mercy of politicians’ decisions.

“Merhaba. Merhaba.” We murmur a Turkish greeting as we pass by a small boy kicking a beat-up soccer ball in his front yard, then to a woman peering around the corner, pinning white shirts to a line. She nods her head at us.

How long more?

Sometimes he asks this question pointedly, squaring his face with mine and expecting a specific answer like I hold some magic key to that knowledge. This time though, his question is more like a statement, a phrase that is ever pulsing in his veins. Three words syncopated with our footsteps on the street, coming up and out from within him, like a great, heaving sigh.

I still don’t respond to him as we continue walking down the dusty cobblestone street, fruit trees bursting over us, the river sparkling up ahead, a pregnant cat sauntering nearby. But I lean in close, matching my walking pace to his, and squeeze his hand. I may not have an answer but I hope this gesture conveys my solidarity and dissolves the not-question still hanging in the air. Hey, whatever’s going to happen, we’re in this together.

Closer to the river now we see my mother-in-law at the water’s edge, throwing day-old scraps of bread to the ducks. She waves us over and points into the water. “Babies!” she exclaims. We look over the fence at four fuzzy ducklings. Watching her unwrap more bread from her purse — an extra loaf she bought at the bakery just for the ducks — I’m struck by how alone she is here. My husband, too. Strangers in this country, fleeing their homes because of the God they believe in. They didn’t choose to be here. And they can’t choose to leave. They ache over the burden of carrying a title they did not want: refugee.

It’s hard to describe to other people all the subtleties of how our lives are impacted by the travel ban, continually phrasing and rephrasing it. I tend to craft my words carefully, like how my mother-in-law chooses her fruit and vegetables at the Friday bazaar. Slowly. Picking up each one, examining it, smelling it, pressing it, before the finality of placing it gingerly into her sack or back on the stand.

It’s difficult to explain what we’re going through when well-meaning people touch us on the arm in the middle of the coffee line at church. “How’s your heart?” they say gently with a tilt of their head, twenty other people around us, all stretching out their hands to grab a sugar packet or spoon.

We don’t want to be here, is what I want to tell them. This waiting on the edge of our seats is making our hearts sick. Do they know of the arbitrary dates we give ourselves to be in the US? Maybe by his birthday, this summer, her wedding in the fall. And as each date passes we feel the dragging drop of disappointment.

How long more?

He cannot even leave the province without a permission slip, quickly constricting his world to a 90-mile radius. I want to tell them of his interactions with condescending police officers, blase and vague in their answers. Each time the phone rings our bodies stiffen and we stop what we’re doing. Maybe this is the call. The one we’ve been waiting for.

How long more?

There’s the suffocating pressure coming from all sides, knowing he cannot go back, knowing this present country is growing tired of the strain of the millions here just like him. And the country he dreams of going to is so quick to turn its back, put up a wall, and slap a derogative label over people with his shade of skin.

How long more?

With the buzz of post-church conversation all around us, it’s exhausting to try to craft my thoughts before the attention quickly shifts to something else. So, like the precious fruit, I put it back on the stand and instead deliver a blithe reply.

I see the question resurface in his eyes as he stares out at the river. I help my mother-in-law unpack the steaming lunch she brought. We set out the fresh village bread and a tea thermos — a staple at any Persian picnic — and bow our heads in prayer. She prays in Farsi for God to have mercy on us, to hear us, to help us to trust him. I look up at the two heads bent.

God, how long more?

Sleeping Churches in the Midst of Fleeing Homes

Arifa unlatches the rusted metal door and collapses the umbrella she used to protect her olive skin from the arid sun. She beckons us inside. With bags and pillows hoisted over our shoulders, we squeeze sideways up the building’s stairs leading to her family’s apartment. 

I had spent the last few days with a group of university students making house visits to refugee families in Turkey where we conducted audio interviews to share with churches back in the U.S. Arifa served as our translator as we listened to several harrowing stories of refugees who had to flee their homes due to death threats from ISIS. After a long day of translating and interviewing and, because we were from out of town, Arifa invited us to stay the night with her family. 

Over her shoulder, she explains why they decided on this apartment and not one closer to downtown, where refugees usually live. Their place is farther out of the city and she needs to take the bus to the police station for her weekly fingerprinted check-ins, a requirement for all refugees in Turkey. This is not a short commute and she must structure her week around it. But the rent in this area is cheap. Markets are nearby. And it’s quiet. She’s thankful for a park across the street so her children can move and play during the long days at home. 

Arifa’s children are not in school because they don’t know the local language, but also because Arifa doesn’t want to expose her children to the Islamic teachings prevalent in the local schools. There’s also fees, transportation logistics, and the inevitable bullying that comes along with being a foreigner. 

In a break of polite small talk, Arifa confides to us she’s concerned about her youngest. “She’s getting chubby,” she says bluntly. We laugh internally at this, knowing that addressing weight is not taboo in Iraqi culture. 

Sounds and smells float from each door as we move down the dimly lit hallway – a Turkish television blaring today’s news, babies crying, dishes clanking, the arrhythmic beat of a drum spilling out from a radio.

She raps softly on a door and we’re immediately greeted by a girl.

“I’m Nadia!” she announces before we’ve had the chance to step through the doorway. A smile widens across her face and she hops up and down, the anticipation of three overnight guests bubbling from inside her.

“Nadia’s English is perfect,” Arifa says to us over the bobbing head of her daughter. She places her keys on a hook near the door and umbrella behind a cabinet. “She’s learned it all from YouTube.”

A man walks in from the kitchen with a small child clinging desperately to the back of his leg. Arifa introduces us to her husband, Bashar, and youngest daughter, Noor, her round brown eyes peering up at us from her father’s pant leg. Arifa motions down the hallway telling us to make ourselves at home while she checks on dinner, the smell of cumin and cardamom floating from the stove. We carry our bags to the bedroom while her daughters scurry ahead of us.

“We all sleep in here together,” Nadia announces as she plops down on one of the two mattresses laying on the cool tile floor, her long black hair tied into two braids. Despite living in a two bedroom apartment, Arifa sleeps with her husband and daughters in one room. It’s better for them all to sleep together after the trauma of fleeing their home in Iraq.  Sleeping with her babies close provides a sense of security and safety in a world where there is none. I’m starkly aware that this is a measure of fear I’ll never know. 

“But tonight,” Nadia announces, “we will sleep in the living room and you three sleep in here––you are our guests!”

We exchange startled looks, hesitant of whether or not to object to the sleeping arrangements, unsure of the nuances of Middle Eastern hosting. Feeling foolish that I had assumed this was the guestroom and not their entire family’s bedroom, I hastily pick up my backpack, ready to apologize for my wrong assumption. I don’t have time to protest as Nadia pulls a laptop onto her legs and begins blasting music videos. Noor, still silent, shoves pictures she has colored in my face.

“Ask her for a back scratch,” Nadia suggests of her younger sister. “She gives great ones.”

***

Post-dinner, we lounge with Arifa’s family, the table still pulled up to the couch, bowls of fresh dates set before us and the television on low in the background. Noor’s backscratches were evidently all that was needed to break the ice and, squished next to me, she loudly demonstrates counting from zero to ten in English and Arabic. 

Arifa passes around tiny tulip-shaped cups of tea and a sugar bowl and begins to tell how and why her family fled to Turkey.

They lived in Northern Iraq in an area called the Ninevah Plain and were fortunate to be close to both their aging parents. They were Chaldean Christians and spoke a dialect of Aramaic, close to the same language Jesus spoke. 

In 2014, Arifa and her family made the difficult decision to flee. Christians in this area had long been targets of persecution, government-sanctioned intimidation, and now threats from terrorist groups, which left many feeling afraid for their and their family’s lives. 

With only a few hours ahead of ISIS’s invasion, Arifa and Bashar packed only the essentials into suitcases: necessary paperwork, clothes, and family heirlooms, only taking the most valuable possessions. As she lists off the things she chose to pack, my eyes drift to the framed picture of Christ on the cross fixed to the wall above their television. 

“There is nothing left for us in Iraq,” Bashar interjects. “The United Nations is––,” he forcefully brushes his hands together then throws them in the air to express his disgust with the lack of help. Arifa and Bashar speak of the frustrations of not being able to resettle their family in a safe and stable place, of living in limbo, of not knowing what tomorrow will hold.

Arifa shows photos she received from a relative still living in Iraq. As she swipes her finger across the phone screen, updated pictures of what was once their home flashed before us. Kitchen cabinets were ripped from the walls. The ISIS symbol was spray-painted over countertops. Her daughters’ toys were scattered on the floor. A rumpled, well-loved doll lay discarded in the corner. Sofas were overturned and carpets ripped to shreds. More graffiti desecrated every surface. The violent photos reveal that their home was no longer a home but a symbol of many who have nothing left to go back to. What once held memories had been stolen and torn into pieces.

“Why are the American churches sleeping?” Bashar punctuates the air in the living room. We have no answer. We sympathetically shrug our shoulders and murmur our apologies, as if saying, “I’m sorry” for an entire nation and its politicians makes up for it. Christian brothers and sisters are being targeted, persecuted, and fleeing their homeland, yet the American Church is sleeping. 

He sighs, looking over at his daughters playing quietly on the sofa, shuffling coloring pages and crayons between them. Leaning back against the armchair, with a tea glass in his hand, he sighs, “We cannot go back home and nobody else wants us.”

***

It’s summer 2018 and Arifia’s family will leave in the next month to Canada once their plane tickets are issued. She’s overjoyed, understandably. They can begin to look forward to a new life where they no longer look over their shoulder, where they no longer sleep on the same mattress or live life with uncertainty and fear. 

I’m married now. My husband is a refugee and suddenly the stories I had heard before now hit a lot closer to home. We have been waiting since our wedding in 2017 for the United States to open their doors. Arifa’s family and countless other Iraqi refugees were able to move to Canada in 2018. Knowing the importance of immigration, Canada was the leading host country of formally resettled refugees that year.

I think back to the question Arifa’s husband had asked three years ago: “Why are the American churches sleeping?”

We live in a time where 37,000 people are forced to flee their home every day. As of June 2019, there are 25.9 million refugees in the world –– the highest ever recorded. These numbers show no signs of stopping.

Then why are American Christians sleeping? Are we so saturated in entertainment, in misplaced outrage, in bogus persecution that we cannot look up for a minute to see the suffering going on around us? Are we so focused on the semantics and legalities that we justify away the atrocities with a shrug of a shoulder? Is the “not my problem” attitude one we really want to take on?

In an op-ed to USA Today, Dr. David Curry, CEO and President of Open Doors USA, writes on the detachment we feel when it comes to the Global Church. He describes this indifference as “whistling through the graveyard.” Are we so blinded by our own lives and comforts that we cannot see the death and destruction of our brothers and sisters?

Curry writes, “I envision a world where American Christians remember persecuted Christians in hostile regions in every church, every Sunday. Through these sorts of efforts, I have hope that an awakening is possible.”

The Church is global. We must remember this.

Remember the poor. Visit the prisoner. Feed the hungry. Clothe the naked. Welcome the stranger. Deliver the oppressed. Serve the least. And rise for the marginalized (no matter their country of origin. No matter if they have the right papers).

This is where the Shepherd is. Are we listening or are we sleeping?

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This is part four of a series titled “Stories of Refugees in Turkey”, dedicated to sharing the stories of refugees with hopes of giving readers a look past numbers and statistics into the dreams and lives of real people. Read part onepart two, and part three. (All names have been changed.)

When It Feels Like God Isn’t Good

It was inching closer to 9pm on a Sunday when my husband announces to grab a sweatshirt, “we’re going out!”. I’m used to his spontaneity, so I happily shrug on a sweater and we bound down the stairs to our motorbike.

Are we getting coffee? Going to the local festival downtown? I pester him with questions until he turns over his shoulder and says, “you talk too much”.

We head the opposite direction of town. Once the burning of the city lights and whining of the traffic are behind us, he turns the bike into a now deserted soccer field. The motor is cut and the gravel crunching beneath the two tires stops. Without a word exchanged, we simultaneously look up at the sky above us.

Out in the rural spread with no masking streetlights, a blanket of sky is peppered with tiny white dots, like a ginormous sheet of black fabric draped above our heads and little pin sized holes poked through. As our eyes adjust, more and more stars appear.

We stay seated on our bike, necks craned upward, quieted by the holy, mysterious sight.

What happens when God doesn’t seem good?

Lately, my go-to phrase, muttered angrily under my breath is, “Satan always wins”.

This world is hard and messed up and full of sin and confusion. I think of all the Sunday school memorized verses about God’s goodness and how he protects and provides and always wants what’s best for us. Yet, between clenched teeth, as I mutter those three angry words, it seems like those feel-good verses should come with some fine print or at least an asterisk.

Does God really care about that scary diagnosis? Does he care about her miscarriage? His job loss or their divorce?

Where is God’s goodness when he didn’t protect her as she walked home alone? When life is stolen from a womb? When 69 million people don’t have a place to call home?

And where is God now as we are waiting for this one dream to materialize? Does he really hear us? Does he really care that we are slowly exhausting our energy and our hope? Is God really bigger than the evil-infused earth?

The world is one soggy mess of grief, pain, and sadness, isn’t it?

With scary headlines and cynical twitter feeds, clinging to God’s goodness feels elusive and almost…naive. The doubt, the anger, the fear creep into our hearts. Sorrow has punched us in the stomach and the waves seem to only get higher. Why try so hard to find God’s goodness when it’s so obvious this world isn’t good?

I won’t pretend to know why God lets bad things happen or why it seems like Satan always wins. I won’t pretend to wrap up this post in a pretty little bow filled with good feelings and shoulder pats because I’m still very much wrestling with all these same questions.

But what I do know is that Satan hasn’t won. I do know that we already know the end of the story. That Jesus, on that day on the cross, won. He has full victory over this broken, messy world.

And I do know this: that God does care about our pain. He does care when devestating news is on the other end of that phone. He is there when our knees buckle and tears fall. He hears our prayers and knows our longings and dreams.

My trust is imperfect. My hope is half-hearted. But it’s a start, right?

God spoke to us, as we were staring up his creation in the late summer sky.

The breather of stars, who holds the sky in his hands when it feels like it’s crashing down, sits with us in this mess. He throws his arm around our shoulders, pulls us in close and whispers, “I know”.

“When I get to heaven, I’m asking God why he created the stars,” My husband says in the quiet night, still sitting on our bike.

I think maybe the One who holds all things together, the Victor, God who works all things for good, made the stars just for us. With one giant breath he spread the stars across the universe so that when we look up from the swirling waters and see those tiny pin-pricked holes shining down, we know that God is with us.

With all the dirt and evil and brokenness in this world, we can look to him, weary, blurred-eyed, and exhausted and trust that he sees us and he knows. His plan is to redeem and restore.

We can trust (imperfectly) that he has already won.

The Gift of the Wilderness | Finding Rest

My waiting season oftentimes feels like the wilderness. Vines wrap their tight fingers around my heart. Pine needles poke relentlessly at my sides. The sticky cobwebs of my mind muddle my thoughts. I am tired, out-of-breath, and ready to give up.

For me, this season has lasted 19 months. Twists and turns. Nerves unraveling. No appointments scheduled, no plane tickets bought. Every morning when the phone rings, we hold our breaths that maybe today is the day when the skies will clear and we will stop circling this mountain in front of us.

We have all been in a place of waiting, stranded on an island inhabited with more questions than answers. We have all cried out to God, praying that He would just answer that one fervent prayer.

Does your waiting season feel similar? 

God is whispering to our anxious hearts, “Dear one, not yet”. He beckons us to rest at his feet while he does his mighty work in us, preparing us for the days to come.

This overgrown place is the womb in which trust and hope can grow. It is here that God speaks and moves and restores. Like a slingshot stretched tautly preparing to launch, it is here he is doing the most. The God who was in the garden is also here in the wilderness.

Blessings Unwanted

The other day as I was standing on my balcony taking in the summer sunrise and the chatter of magpies, I felt the Lord whisper to me, “This season is a gift”. I almost cried when I felt those words dot across my heart like goosebumps on skin. How can you appreciate a gift when its contents are the last thing you want? I can think of hundreds of things that the Lord should grant. But, out of all the cries and dreams saturating my soul, this is what he gives me? Like a spoiled child at a birthday party, I shove the unwanted gift back and stomp and pout.

“The Lord is good to those who wait for Him, to the one who looks for Him. It is good that one should be quiet and wait for the saving power of the Lord.” Lamentations 3:25-26

Sitting there that day, watching the morning sun stretch through my neighbor’s leafy grape vines,  I felt a new perspective opening up in front of my eyes. The camera lens finally came into focus, lifting up my drooping spirits.

Yes, I’d love to be in America working, setting up our new home, and planning for our future. To be close to family and friends. I would honestly give my right arm to be there.

But right now, I get to be here.

Not “have”, but “get”.

I get to be intentional with my time. I get to spend my days next to my husband, settling into life together as partners and teammates. I get to slow down and hang the clothes on the line, letting the rays of the sun bleach and dry. I get to walk through the streets of our town to buy fresh fruit and warm bread. I get to put on quiet music and wash each dish with my hands. I get to do things that nourish my soul like write and draw and read. I get to live simply and slowly. I get to wait and rest in this season.

But God Meant It For Good

“Do you think God really wants the best for us?” I leaned over to my husband one night before bed, feeling the constricting twists of anxiety.

My husband, in all the things that he has gone through in life, responded with, “I think so. Looking back on my life and everything that has happened to me, yes, I think God wants the best for us”.

And so I take heart in God’s track record as my anchor as I paddle through uncertain waters.

Waiting is tiring. It is exhausting to see the days and weeks and months slip by while so many questions are left unanswered. It is tempting in the midst of suffering to take things into my own hands, convinced that God’s timing is taking too long. If I were in control I would have hopped a plane out of the country months ago.

I don’t know when we will leave. I don’t know when this season will end. I have no date on a calendar in which to squeeze tightly. No countdown. But I know we are supposed to be here. I don’t know why and I’m not really searching for a reason. I don’t want to stay stuck in the reason and miss the revelation. 

I don’t want to spend my time here twirling my fingers and impatiently tapping my toes. Or let the darkness take over as I pull the covers over my head waiting for this all to pass. I don’t want to sit and wait to get out of Turkey when God is calling me to be here now.

Waiting really is a precious blessing. Oh, how difficult that is to write. But I know God is with me. I know He is working and He is keeping His promises. He knows what is good for me and will give it to me when it is good for me. 

God tells me this season is a gift. And while I’m not yet ready to shout that from the rooftops or tattoo it across my skin, I am choosing to step into trusting Him every day. It is not an easy truth to swallow and I do not say it lightly. I wrestle to accept it every day as I stand on our balcony in the soft, still mornings.

He is inviting me to slow down, to look to Him, to be quiet, and wait. I don’t want to waste this slow season, especially when I know that the Lord is doing so many things right at this moment.

This is where I secure my foothold: He is calling me into his goodness and mercy today and his steadfast faithfulness tomorrow.