Refugee Stories

Trump’s Other Wall | Two Years After the Travel Ban

“How have you been sleeping?” we ask new mom, Maryam* as she beckons us into the back bedroom. Her in-laws, visiting from Iran, are sitting in the living room with Maryam’s husband. Their 3-year-old son, Ahmad (who happens to know perfect English) is playing on the floor with an assortment of plastic animal figurines. The low hum from the T.V. plays traditional Persian music.

“Fine, fine”, she says, a surprisingly positive response coming from someone who has just given birth. We tiptoe to a bedside bassinet and peek in over the blankets to see her son, Yosef, sleeping peacefully. In hushed voices, we coo over the sweet newborn.

Two weeks earlier at a local hospital here in Turkey, Yosef was born with a cleft palate. Unable to be properly breastfed, he needs a specialized bottle and specific formula to receive the nutrients he needs to thrive.

Returning back to the living room and our half-finished cups of tea, the conversation has now turned to the inevitable surgery Yosef will have to undergo and the logistics of lining up transportation to get the hospital, a translator who speaks Turkish and Farsi, taking time off of work, and payment.

They then told us of Maryan’s brother-in-law, living and working in Seattle who has been working tirelessly to reunite his family. Exasperated, Maryam’s husband leans forward and asks, “Isn’t there something you can do to get us to the U.S.?”


With an uptick in oppression towards religious and ethnic minorities, Reza fled Iran with his wife and children to Turkey where they applied and were accepted as refugees.

Unable to work legally in Turkey, Reza’s family scraped by on unstable, under-the-table work in construction and hairdressing, working long hours with unfair wages while they waited for their immigration processes to move forward.

Reza’s process was an urgent one, with a blood vessel near his heart threatening to burst. He was promised a life-saving operation by doctors once he arrived in the United States.

After years of extensive interviews, submitting background checks, job records, and undergoing medical examinations, Reza’s family was finally able to go to the U.S. Ecstatic and with plane tickets in hand, they sold all their belongings and packed what they could into suitcases, dreaming of what life would be like once out of Turkey.

But then a new president was elected in the U.S. and their flight was canceled. 

Then rescheduled.

Then canceled.

And rescheduled and canceled again.

After 15 months of being at the mercy of out-of-touch politicians, and feeling like pawns on a board game, Reza collapsed on his apartment balcony here in Turkey. His blood vessel had finally burst. He died of a heart attack at age 54, leaving behind his wife and two sons.


As America looks to the south of the border and to the building of the wall, there is still another invisible wall that has been in place since the beginning of 2017. 

Two years ago today Trump unveiled a travel ban that would bar people from seven countries from coming into the United States for 90 days, then 120 days, and now indefinitely.

It’s where my family and I find ourselves today. Spread out across several countries, divided, and with no end in sight.

Two years ago today as my then fiance and I sat in a coffee shop dreaming of our wedding and our life in America, we first read the headlines of the travel ban, which would drastically change the course of our lives. We glued ourselves to the screen, watching news clips of the mass chaos this order unlocked.

It was a “better safe than sorry” policy carelessly put into place and came with an enormous human cost. People are separated from loved ones, spouses, fiances, sons, daughters, and parents. They are divided – dying, even – while stuck in bureaucratic limbo. 

My sister cannot make plans to marry her fiance, even though he is a citizen of a European country. They are stopped only because of the place of birth listed on his passport.

My mother-in-law is separated from her two sons, unable to visit them. She has missed weddings and births as she waits in limbo.

My husband cannot think about or plan for the future. He is told by immigration officials to “wait, just wait”. And so he does for two years and counting.


And now America looks from the southern border to the east coast as all eyes are on the state of New York, which passed a law permitting late-term abortions.

As I wade through all of the different discussions happening, feeling heartbroken and heavy, confused at what is factual, angry at what is celebrated as an expansion of rights, I cannot help but palpably feel the disconnect of the Church.

Oh Church, why are we so quick to slap a “pro-life” frame across our profile picture when just last week we were sharing memes and links that personify immigrants as wild animals, Middle Easterners as terrorists, and the poor as lazy – using language that erases the humanity, the life, of those who are vulnerable?

It is disconcerting to see the Chruch applauding President Trump’s anti-abortion statement when he demeans the lives of immigrants and bans millions of people from entering the country solely because of the passport they carry and the color of their skin.

Why do we find it easier to be silent on most human rights issues except for this one?

We cannot let abortion become a standalone issue that disconnects us from so many other human rights issues.

The travel ban is a pro-life issue. 

I pray that, far beyond defining ourselves as “pro-life”, we live out Christ’s heart: aligning ourselves with the oppressed and the vulnerable, loving our neighbors (not just those who have the same citizenship as us), caring for the poor, having compassion for refugees, seeing the humanity in immigrants, and working to reunite families.

A travel ban that cannot tell the difference between a terrorist and a victim is heartless, anti-family, and anti-life. We cannot support it.

While it seems like every day there is something new to be (oftentimes, rightly) outraged over, please remember that there are millions of people still greatly affected by this ban. 

Each day, week, month, year that goes by where we do not talk about the injustice of the travel ban, is another day that it is a victory for those who support it.

The travel ban is affecting real, innocent people. 

It is time to end the cruelty of the separation of families and loved ones. It is time to support all life.

Two years is too long.

*All names have been changed.

Our Story, Refugee Stories, Turkey

When Peace Kisses Righteousness

There’s something about the Advent season that’s so cozy to me. Maybe it brings back memories of growing up, arguing across the dinner table over who gets to light the wreath-encircled candles and who gets to blow them out. It brings visions of coming home from school, letting the backpack fall to the ground as another numbered paper door is peeled back revealing a tiny piece of candy.

Pondering on this season for a moment, one of my favorite names for Jesus has always been Prince of Peace. The second week of Advent is traditionally the time we meditate on this: Christ the babe, bringer of Peace.

But when I look around, when I read the headlines across my screen, when I hear stories of those close to me struggling, peace is the furthest feeling in my heart.

The other day, my husband got a call from a desperate man who had lost his family (like, literally lost, as in could not find them) while trying to cross from Afghanistan into Turkey. Traffickers confirmed to the 400 fleeing people that the coast was clear, and yet when they moved, the border patrol flashed their lights and sirens and everyone scattered in a panic.

He’s been searching for his lost family for three years.

What does peace mean when the world is a mess, people are separated, and there’s war, famine, and comfortable apathy across the globe?

What does peace mean when my family is spread out over three different continents? What does it mean when my husband has held the title “refugee” for five years?

When I get overwhelmed by the blackened headlines and tragic stories of those who live just a town over, my view of God narrows quite a bit. Those Christmassy words: hope, peace, joy, and love become blurry before my eyes.

I listen far too much to the nightly news, irritating sound bites, political panels, and op-eds. I wring my hands, at a loss of what to do with the sheer magnitude of the refugee crisis. The migrant caravan at the border. Police brutality. How the Church seems to have lost sight of the gospel.

I tend to gather all of these things in my arms and then inevitably buckle under the weight of the racket.

But if I stand still for just a minute, raise my hand up to the noise, I know God is whispering something to me and, ever-patiently, waiting for me to stop and listen to his voice.

Love and faithfulness meet together; righteousness and peace kiss each other. Faithfulness springs forth from the earth, and righteousness looks down from heaven. The Lord will indeed give what is good, and our land will yield its harvest. Righteousness goes before him and prepares the way for his steps. Psalm 85:10-13

Through a gentle whisper, I am reminded that our Savior has already come into this mess of a world, ushering in an intimate greeting between peace and righteousness. Two things that seem so opposite, wholly embrace. And up springs love and faithfulness too, linking arms. Jesus Christ coming as a babe to Bethlehem is the fulfillment of this.

Oh, how we yearn for eternal, divine peace.

True peace, heavenly peace, peace that exceeds our understanding, is found only in Christ Jesus. This child, born to a teenage girl and a carpenter, made heaven and earth kiss. The mysterious love of God reached down from above and became fully human so that we can experience his peace. This Prince of Peace is the bringer of Peace. He came and he is still here with us. Heaven and earth have embraced.

So like most days in our life, I hoist happiness onto one hip and sadness onto the other – two companions that are always with me. We will string up dried orange slices like we do every year. My students will cut out white paper snowflakes while dancing to “Walking in a Winter Wonderland”. We’ll put up our humble little Christmas tree (it’s somewhere between Charlie Brown’s and Clark Griswold’s). There’ll be phone calls across the ocean to family. My mother-in-law will hum “Silent Night” as she makes tea in the kitchen. Hymns will be sung in a cozy living room. Every evening before dinner we light a candle (labeled as cinnamon scented but proved to be completely false upon purchasing and lighting it #expatproblems).

And yes, somewhere in my heart there’s the ever-present feeling of homesickness, of praying for stability, for that one phone call to come through. The wondering of how this is all going to work out (will it ever work out?). There’s the burden of the brokenness and the chaos and the injustice of this world sitting in there too. Joy and sorrow, hand-in-hand.

True peace, shalom, is what we all long for. This has and will happen through God’s only Son. His kingdom is here now, working and moving and restoring. I know this and I cling to this. It is also not yet. And we yearn and anticipate for its full completeness.

This Christmas season, may we all know the promises of true peace and righteousness given to us through Jesus Christ.

The Prince of Peace has come, he is still here, and he is coming again.

Our Story

Home, But Not Really

Nope, no balloons yet.

I let the curtain fall back and silently tiptoe out of the bedroom. At half past six this time of year the sun takes its sweet time pushing past the horizon and with it, the hot air balloons. They won’t be hanging in the sky for at least another hour. 

In the coolness of the dark November morning, I grab a sweatshirt and two thick socks, hopping on one foot while putting them on, taking care not to bump into any plastic bins and cardboard boxes strewn about in the corners of the hallway. A mop, a broom, tape, and a bursting black garbage bag lay obediently on the ground just as they were left the day before in the frenzy of moving. 

In Route

After the US’s travel ban was enacted in early 2017, we pieced together a sweet and simple wedding here in Turkey and moved into a 200 sq foot furnished apartment. Nesting our new humble home was pretty nonexistent save for a few picture frames and house plants (that may have caused a few arguments). We conceded to living among someone else’s couches and dinner plates and made it work with a dorm sized refrigerator and a bedroom with no window.

This was all well and good because in the next two months — three tops — we’d be gone. This administration is crazy right now but they’ll figure something out. They can’t do this forever, right?

The oversized suitcases perched on top of our wardrobe served as a reminder of the state of our hearts. We were in route, a short stopping point along the way. Roots shallow and our minds in another part of the world. This is just a minor blip in the plan. No big deal.

It didn’t happen all at once, like a ton of bricks hitting my chest. It was more of a slow realization, a gradual drip of understanding that, yes, this was a big deal. And, now 18 months later, we’d probably be here a lot longer than we imagined. 

Temporarily Permanent 

As the brewing of the coffee slows, I fish a mug out from one of the cardboard boxes and lift off the week-old newspaper surrounding it, serving as a temporary protection while it jostled in a van across town. 

I glance at the inked headlines before crumpling it up into the garbage. “CRISIS AT BORDER”, “CALIFORNIA SHOOTING KILLS 12”, “FIVE MIGRANTS DIE AFTER BOAT SINKS OFF TURKEY”

My heart heaves a heavy sigh as it thumps with anger and disappointment. Our prayers aren’t working. Things are getting worse. 

I look around at the boxes and plastic bags – so many plastic bags that I’m sure they’re multiplying – dirty rags and cleaning bottles. Did we make the right decision? Our move shows that we are reluctantly planting roots and watering it with couches, kitchen gadgets, and bedding. Is this a surrender? 

Changing Seasons

It seemed appropriate that the last morning in our studio apartment was the first day it snowed here. It wasn’t much and it melted as soon as it hit the ground, but it felt like a silent signal of the changing seasons, those strange few weeks that squeeze themselves between autumn and winter.

We find ourselves saying “happy and sad” a lot in our conversations. Feeling the tension of juggling two opposite emotions. And we now feel the balancing act of wanting to push forward and move on coupled with the roots that are sprouting from the soles of our feet. 

While not yet Thanksgiving, the approaching holiday season is before us as is the coming of the birth of Christ. Advent. A time of looking forward with anticipation to the Messiah as the baby in Bethlehem. It’s a season where our hearts yearn for Christ to come and set things right – in our messy selves and in this broken world. 

I think there’s a lot to be said on how the God of the Universe sent his only Son into the world. Here, in this mess, to live and dwell among us. God’s heart is to renew all things. Everything he does is backed by his desire for redemption. As I read the angry, screaming headlines while unpacking our belongings in our new and less-temporary home, I know that Christ is here with us and will one day set things right. We all find ourselves feeling the tension of the already and not yet of the Kingdom.

New Rhythms

There’s something about moving that forces us to reevaluate and re-rhythm our life. With the plastic bins, painters tape and the sharpie scratched across, we are forced to throw out the things we no longer need and keep and treasure the things we do. There are new routines to figure out, like when and how often to do laundry (and to be strategic when washing when there is no dryer). 

It’s an opportunity to re-rhythm our hearts too. Throw out the bad, hold fast to the good. While we prayed a lot about the decision to move, I still felt shaky. I felt shaky even when we made the countless trips down three flights of emergency exit stairs, carrying mirrors and plants and boxes. I felt shaky when we closed the door to the tiny space that was ours for a year and a half.

This isn’t the move we have been praying and hoping for. We don’t want to move across town; we want to move across the world. This new apartment is more expensive. How are we going to pay the bills and the heighten electricity costs? Thoughts of uncertainty swirled in my brain. 

This morning though, as I stood in our new kitchen, looking out at a new and unfamiliar view, I felt the Lord whisper the beginning lines of Psalm 23: “The Lord is my Shepherd. I shall not want”.

I shall not want. I will lack nothing. God, with his father heart, is my shepherd. 

“There has to be at least 50!” I’m back in bed with my husband now, second cup of coffee in hand and he’s counting the balloons from our window. The curtains have been pushed back and the lazy sun has begun to make an appearance. All at once, it seems, bursts of colorful balloons suspend low in the sky. It’s still dark enough to see the giant puffs of fire surging up into the hollows of the balloons. I curl up under the blankets thinking of the eager tourists braving the cold morning air, 20 clustered into each basket. 

Deciding to move was a huge leap of faith. It’s not what we wanted to do, but we trust that God is bigger than we can understand and we know that Christ is near. Our step of faith made however reluctantly won’t go unnoticed. Things will be made right.

For now, we will enjoy the view. 

Our Story

Finding the Rope When Life is Shipwrecked

I’ve never been one to be afraid of the ocean.

Okay, that’s not entirely true. There was that one time, as a 4-year-old where I lost one of my new water shoes while playing in the low tide, sucked off of me by the slurping waves of the Atlantic. With one foot bare and one foot covered and feeling sorry for myself, my mother assured me a nice fish probably made her home out of my shoe. It was scary to have the ocean take something away from me.

And, albeit not the ocean but deep water nonetheless, there was that other time where I had to jump off the diving board at swimming lessons in order to graduate to the next level. It ended up being 15 minutes of me teetering at the edge of the board, knees knocking, clutching onto my lifejacket. The bubbly lifeguard, named Cinnamon of all names, was treading below coaxing me to jump off while a line of impatient shivering kids stood behind me. The deep waters were an enigma, unknown and dark.

Yet there is always something so peaceful about sitting at the edge of the ocean’s shore, toes caked with sand, the waves lazily lapping up and then receding. Or grabbing a blanket and a friend and sitting before the water after the sun has sunk for the night, talking about the stuff of life and not being able to see where the shore meets the water and the water meets the sky.

Or when I wade out into its body, taking a deep breath, plugging my nose, and plunging my entire self into its cool water.  Slowly going further and further out until my toes barely brush the rocky bottom and realizing, in a reassuring sort of way, just how small I am compared to the expansive water.

I’m drawn to the power, mystery, and beauty of the ocean but also frighten by those same reasons.

Wherever You Will Lead

Remember that popular song we all sang so confidently in 2013? “Spirit, lead me where my trust is without borders, let me walk upon your waters, wherever you will lead me…”. This was back when I was in Bible college and my biggest worry was if I had time to grab a coffee before class or if I could make my measly part-time paycheck last so that I could buy… more overpriced coffee, probably.

I sang these terrifying words so boldly without realizing what I was actually singing, without understanding the journey God would have in store for me in just a few years, where my faith would be stretched in all directions.

At this point, in 2013, the Lord had already begun calling me away from the safety of the shoreline. I had left behind my three-fourths finished teaching degree to pursue Bible training – completely the opposite direction of where I thought I was going. And then a year later, I was beckoned even further into the unknown waves, literally across great bodies of water and into a foreign land.

The Ocean of God

I’ve been feeling like God is similar to how I view the ocean: beautiful, sure, but also powerful and mysterious and honestly a little scary.

God’s beckoning us into the deep waters can actually be really alarming despite what a trendy song lets on. As our feet stop brushing the sandy floor beneath us and our legs and arms begin to tread, things can look dark and uncertain fast.

Deep waters don’t feel like a fun day at the beach building sand castles. It feels like the waves are swirling and crashing and the water is blinding and choking and we’re doing all we can to keep our head above the waves. With the chopping waters getting higher, we desperately try to move towards the promise of the land we cannot yet see.

When the travel ban was put into place in early 2017, the little hold I thought I had on life was ripped out like a rug from underneath my feet. My prayers sounded like Jesus’ disciples on the boat while the storm began to brew. “Teacher, don’t you even care that we are all about to drown?” (Mark 4:38 TLB).

This same accusation darts across my mind when I stand before the literal sea in Turkey. Staring out at the Mediterranean I can’t help but image the thousands of families who had no choice but to board their sons and daughters and aging parents on illegal plastic boats, paying traffickers an exorbitant about of money, not knowing how to swim, just to find a safer life somewhere else. And the very waters that swirled around my ankles became the cemetery of those souls. God, don’t you even care?

medupdate-for-pbn
IOM|Mediterranean Migrant Arrivals Reach 88,736 in 2018; Deaths Reach 1,839

Looking for the Good

I’ll be honest for a second: I like to end my posts with something positive, something encouraging and spiritual. But with the season I’m in, I oftentimes have difficulty really believing those things I write.

I’m having a tough time squaring God’s goodness with the crazy things that are happening in this world. It’s hard to believe that the Lord has a perfect sovereign plan in all this mess. It’s hard to believe the Lord is good. Life on earth seems so broken and unjust and…sad. Does God really care that so many of us are drowning?

Treading in the deep waters, unsure of what will happen next, I search desperately for some word of truth or encouragement to grasp onto. When all God’s promises woven throughout scripture seem to be made for the next world, what can we grab onto while we are here in the dark? Hey, Jesus, can you throw us a rope down here? Hellooo?

I know God doesn’t promise a pain-free life nor does he promise to strike down every evil leader (ahh, wouldn’t that be nice?). But I know that the Lord promises to be with us through the deep waters. Not out of the deep waters, but through.

From my viewpoint, things look out of control, swirling, crashing, and chaotic. And yet God can see the bigger, complete picture. There is a reason for all of this. He knows how all the puzzle pieces will fit together, how these knots of string will be worked out. God’s in the business of making beautiful things out of the messiness of life.

Float; You’re Not Alone

The Mediterranean Sea is so packed with salt that you’re able to flip onto your back, lace both hands behind your head, belly poking up, and, without much effort at all, float.

“The Lord sits enthroned over the flood; the Lord sits enthroned as king forever. May the Lord give strength to his people! May the Lord bless his people with peace!” Psalm 29:10-11

Just like Jesus in the boat with his frightened followers, God has the power to calm any storm, to part the waters, and stop the rain. Yet more often he commands us to be still through the storms and to trust in him. 

“I pray that your hearts will be flooded with light so that you can see something of the future he has called you to share. I want you to realize that God has been made rich because we who are Christ’s have been given to him!” Ephesians 1:18

While I still can’t completely reconcile God’s good plan with this messed-up world, I’ll cling to what I know: there is a lighthouse out there somewhere, planted in solid ground, pointing the way forward. I will swim until I find it, all the while knowing I’m not swimming alone. 

And this: There is a calling on and a purpose for each of us and the things we go through.  When God draws us out into the deep, unknown waters, it may be his way of drawing us closer to him. Seek him.

Oh to have that sort of faith. To really believe it, to understand it and stand under it and to be certain that without a doubt, the Lord is right next to me.

“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.” Isaiah 43:2

In His name,
Sarah

Resources

7 Books to Help Understand Immigration and the Global Refugee Crisis

51m5JkhX0bL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_SEEKING REFUGE
By Stephan Bauman, Mattew Soerens, and Dr. Issam Smeir
(Non-fiction)

This title is part of my holy grail resources on the Global Refugee Crisis. While filled with facts, numbers, and statistics, the authors balance this with putting faces and the humanity back into refugees by incorporating true stories throughout. The fears and myths regarding refugees are addressed as well as the Biblical mandate to welcome the refugee. A book for Christians wanting to know what is really happening and how to help.

Notable Quote: “The Bible challenges us to persevere—in welcoming refugees in our own communities but also in the larger tasks of addressing the root injustices that force them to flee”.

 

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THE MAP OF SALT AND STARS
By Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar
(Fiction)

If the beautiful cover doesn’t grab you then the braiding of two stories – one ancient and one modern-day –  will. Told from a Syrian child’s point of view, The Map of Salt and Stars outlines the struggles and hardships refugees are presently enduring, not by preaching but by showing in a compelling and enchanting way. Nour’s story stayed with me long after I put down the book.

Notable Quote: “Don’t forget,’ he says, and Abu Sayeed looks up while he translates, holding the words back a little, ‘stories ease the pain of living, not dying. People always think dying is going to hurt. But it does not. It’s living that hurts us.”

 

51xxFa3T0EL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_WELCOMING THE STRANGER (Revised Edition)
By Matthew Soerens and Jenny Yang
(Non-fiction)

A must read if you want to have an informed decision when it comes to the voting polls and to hold knowledgeable conversations on the topic of immigration in the U.S. Welcoming the Stranger provides an easily-understood history of immigration with relevant anecdotes and useful resources for individuals, churches, and small groups. A must read.

Notable Quote: “When we read the Bible as a sacred narrative of God’s interaction with humanity, we find that immigrants and refugees play many of the most important roles in the story. Throughout Scripture God has used the movement of people to accomplish his greater purposes”.

 

614ClzmOf3L._SX317_BO1,204,203,200_SEA PRAYER
by Khaled Hosseini
(Fiction, Short Story)

To commemorate the death of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, a Syrian boy who drowned while trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea with his family in 2015, novelist, Khaled Hosseini writes a fictional letter from a father to his son on the eve of their journey out of Syria and across the seas. The 48-page watercolor-illustrated book has also been made into a 360 degree illustrated film, which can be seen here.

Notable Quote: “I have heard it said we are the uninvited.  We are the unwelcome.  We should take our misfortune elsewhere.  But I hear your mother’s voice, over the tide, and she whispers in my ear, ‘Oh but if they saw, my darling.  Even half of what you have.  If only they saw.  They would say kinder things, surely.'”

HONORABLE MENTIONS

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Wamariya
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A Hope More Powerful 
Than The Sea
By Melissa Fleming
(Fiction)

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Love Undocumented 
By Sarah Quezada
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