Our Story, Refugee Stories

World Refugee Day in an Age of Zero Tolerance

“Today is ‘World Refugee Day’,” I say glancing up from my phone to my husband. We are still in our pajamas this morning, bed head and all. He hands me my cup of coffee and gives a sad laugh.

I tuck my toes underneath him as he settles in next to me on the couch.  He stares ahead silently for a minute before responding simply with, “We just have to put our trust in God.”

June 20th is what the United Nations has designated as World Refugee Day. “In a world where violence forces thousands of families to flee for their lives each day, the time is now to show that the global public stands with refugees,” it reads on their website.

Funny enough, today in Turkey is also the day where all refugees in our province must report to the police station for their weekly fingerprinting. Were you aware refugees had to check-in via fingerprint every seven days? My husband’s and my week is planned around this one event. After coffee this morning, he quickly left in order to avoid the large crowds gathering at the police station.

Today is the day my mother-in-law arrived back from an out-of-town trip (planned strategically so as not to miss her fingerprinting). Before she left, it took two days and multiple trips to the police station in order for her to obtain permission to even leave the province. Did you know refugees had to get permission to leave their province? Although armed with the correct papers, she still boarded the bus with an uneasiness settling onto her shoulders.

Today especially, I am ever conscious of the weekly fingerprinting, the jumping through hoops in order to leave town, the fear of traveling outside the city in case an officer stops and demands the proof of papers and identification. Refugees who are in limbo are forced to bow to being treated almost as prisoners while they wait to move forward with their lives. 4 1/2 years my husband has had to do this. What do you think that does to someone’s self-worth and dignity?

World Refugee Day comes just over a month after one of my husband’s acquaintances tried to leave Turkey. After threats of deportation and threats over his religion, he made the dangerous decision to put his family on a boat to cross into Greece. This painful choice — that was not really a choice at all — led to the tragic death of his mother, nephews, and cousin.

“No one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land.”
-Warson Shire

World Refugee Day comes one and half months after the U.S. enacted a zero-tolerance policy at the southern border where those who are seeking asylum are being separated from their children.

It comes at a time when politicians and leaders are using the Word of God to defend unjust, disgraceful policies.

This day comes when the Pew Research Center came out with a sobering statistic: nearly 1 out of 100 people are displaced from their homes. That is 65 million people displaced worldwide.

But with this rise in refugees and asylum seekers and an increase in people fleeing their homes from unimaginable violence, comes an uptick in keyboard warriors, people who sit in front of their laptops, coldly typing things like, “do it the legal way” and “get in line like the rest of us” and “but, but, but, it’s the law.”

A Call

For those living in America or in the comforts of a safe, stable home, to those with a job, family nearby, and a place to worship openly, to those who have no idea what is it like to raise your children while bombs are exploding in your city, or what it is like to fear your government, please listen.

Stop angrily typing for a minute and look around yourselves. Or better yet, look beyond yourselves.

Our elementary school history lessons have prepared us for a time like this. If you ever wondered what you would have done during the Holocaust, during the Japanese Internment Camps, or during the Civil Rights Movement, now is your chance. Like then, are you able to see evil as evil now? Unjust as unjust? Today will you stand on the right side of history?

An Apology

To my refugee and asylum-seeking friends, to those fleeing religious persecution, gang violence, domestic abuse, and to those only wanting a safe and peaceful life, if not for you but for your children, I am sorry.

I am sorry wealthy countries are slamming their doors shut to keep out those who were not lucky enough to be born inside the walls.

I am sorry you are judged and treated like a prisoner because of the passport you hold and the shade of your skin.

I am sorry you jump through every hoop possible, dance the dance required of you, do everything possibly right, and still, you are unable to find safety.

I am sorry Americans think it is a simple and straightforward process to flee your home and family.

“No refugee chooses to be a refugee. We do not choose to upset our lives, ripping out our hearts and souls, leaving all that we knew and loved for the unknown.”
– Hoang Chi Truong

I am sorry people have used the Lord’s name to justify the horrendous things happening.

I am sorry people have placed a policy enacted by a fallen man above your inherent worth as a child of God.

We see you.

We hear you.

We cry for you.

We want you safe.

And we want you here.

Our Story

The Uninvited Waiting Season

I remember once seeing a magnet stuck to a fridge that said: “If you want God to laugh, tell him your plans!” While I don’t necessarily agree that laughing at our hopes and dreams is in line with God’s heart toward us, I do believe there is some truth to that refrigerator aphorism. I’m reminded of Proverbs 19:21, “Many are the plans in a person’s heart, but it is the LORD’s purpose that prevails.”

Eight years ago, in the thick of college and in the thick of a desolate North Dakota winter, I was driving to my part-time job at the city’s public library. I had plans to work my full Saturday shift then meet up with friends for dinner once I was off. I jumped into my car, running late. My shift started at 9am, which is basically the devil’s hour for 19-year-old me. Hearing the hard snow crunch beneath my turning tires and waiting for the heat to kick in, I approached one of the three intersections I had to pass through to get to the library. My light was green and I crossed the intersection dreaming of what to order for dinner that night and listening to Justin Timberlake’s “Carry Out” play on the local Top 40 radio station (hey, judge me all you want, it was 2010).

As I was in the middle of the intersection, my mind literally went blank as I heard the awful crunch of twisting metal and the crack split across my windshield. The vehicle going perpendicular to me failed to stop at their red light, T-boning my hood, sending my car lurching into the boulevard.

Plans, whether short term or long term, can be wiped away in a blink of an eye. It causes everything to come to screeching halt. The plans that were written down suddenly disappear in a split second.

I feel that so heavily now in the season we are in. This uninvited waiting season. We had a plan, didn’t we? We had a plan and it’s not working out. It’s not supposed to be like this. It feels as if I’ve been thrown off a merry-go-round, left with my head spinning, trying to regain my balance.

But we are here. The waiting has shoved itself in through the door and parked itself on our couch. It’s here to stay and we are learning to make the most of it. By the grace of God, even though we thought we’d be somewhere else right now, we are learning to live in this waiting season.

We can make plans and lists and to-dos all we want. We can research and highlight and post-it note to our heart’s content. Yet, at the end of the day, God’s plan prevails. The Lord is the one who establishes our steps. I don’t believe God sardonically laughs at our plans, yet I believe he wants us to humble ourselves to the point where we give over our hopes and dreams to him, trusting that he will do what’s best and what’s good.

I can so easily clutch my hopes and dreams of being a family in America tightly to my chest, eyes squeezed shut, turning my shoulder away from God. But the Lord, in his ever loving kindness, draws me to him and gently calls me to lay my plans at his feet. He tells me to trust him.

The other day, while my homeschool kiddos were finishing up their work, I sat down in front of a piano and began thumbing through a tattered church hymnal. Flipping over the vintage red gilded pages with my left hand and lazily playing the melody of familiar songs with my right, I came across a hymn we sang together with our guests on our wedding day. The words of this old tune held a lot of meaning as we sang along with our loved ones, but after a year these words seem to take on a heavier, more real meaning to us:

When darkness veils His lovely face,
I rest on His unchanging grace;
In every high and stormy gale,
My anchor holds within the veil.
His oath, His covenant, His blood,
Support me in the whelming flood;
When all around my soul gives way,
He then is all my hope and stay.

Last weekend, we had some crazy wind storms blow through Cappadocia — like doors rattling, windows howling kinda storms. I looked up on my trusty weather app and it said we were experiencing a “moderate gale”. Reminded of the lyrics of this hymn, I further investigated. A moderate gale is described as difficulty staying upright (my 5 foot 2 self had trouble standing in one place when taking out the trash that night) and branches breaking off of trees.

I certainly feel difficulty just standing upright in this season of life. It feels as if the waves are 30 feet high and we can no longer keep our head above the water. Life will never go perfectly as planned. I feel that now more than ever. But because of the difficult stuff of life, the hard spots, and the dark periods, I have never felt more confident in my Father’s love for me. Oh yes, we can rest, really rest, on his unchanging grace. 

I don’t know when this waiting season will finally get the hint and packs its bags. I don’t know what next year will bring, let alone tomorrow. But whether it’s beauty or heartache, I know that Christ is my Cornerstone. He holds all things together while I hold fast to him.

Our Story

Plants, Bans, and Faith in the Dark

January 27th, 2017

This date became forever marked as a time when lightness and enjoyment became harshly juxtaposed next to uncertainty and insecurity.  It was the opening scene for the following 12 months of feeling both joy and sorrow.

We reached our highly sought after destination, finally. One bus ride to a nearby town. One longer bus ride to a larger city. One bumpy, rickety city shuttle to the larger city’s center. 10 minutes of walking on the uneven pavement by a row of smelly fish stalls with shouting men. Then we arrived to paradise in liquid form. The place where my taste buds had only dreamed of going.

Starbucks.

Okay, okay, okay. Understand me for a minute. When you’re an expat and you live an hour away from any good coffee shops, Starbucks just feels like heaven on earth. The clouds part, the angels sing, and that smooth jazz plays over the speakers as you taste that first caramel macchiato you’ve had in months.

We continued to chat and sip on our overpriced, caffeinated drinks, enjoying this new season we were in and the new glint of sparkle on my left hand. Like the products of our generation that we are, we scrolled on our phones, reading out loud statuses posted by friends and turning our screens towards each other to share funny pictures.

But then he stopped. His eyes fixated on his screen. His brow furrowed. I waited for him to share as his phone vibrated with notifications.

There’s a travel ban. And I think it includes me.”

Are you sure? Does it affect refugees? Can he even do that? How long will it last?
A flurry of questions with answers only slowly becoming clear in the following days.
Yes. Yes. Maybe. 3 months, but probably longer.

What I Speak to You in the Dark

If you’ve read any of my past blog posts you’ll know that this season is a dark season for us. It’s a difficult place to be, in the dark. It feels that any hope we so much as slightly touch crumbles before our very eyes. Last week the latest travel ban was lifted, praise God, and the refugee immigration process started up again. Just this morning, however, we learned of a new immigration policy proposed that could set the immigration process back another six months.

An unmistakable heaviness breathes over our apartment as we rise to make the bed and our morning coffee. Up and down, up and down. Hope then disappointment. Rinse and repeat.

We have spent so much time in the darkness screaming out to God, “If you really loved us, you would open the door for us!” We’ve spent so much time shaking our fists, begging, and crying out to the One who is good and in control. He is in control…right? Yes. Yes, He is. He is good and He is in control.

Oswald Chambers certainly doesn’t mince words on this topic when he writes, “Pay attention when God puts you into darkness, and keep your mouth closed while you are there” (if he were around today, he’d probably say “just shut up and listen for a second”).

In the midst of my screaming and crying, I’ve felt a small tug on my heart to be still. God is speaking, if only I’d stop for a moment. The more still I am at the foot of the cross, I’ve felt less and less like I should pray for deliverance from our situation. Here’s the thing though: my circumstances haven’t changed. We’re here. No phone call has come. No plane tickets have been issued. We are so disappointed. Yet feeling disappointed means we are still trying. We didn’t surrender. We still care. And I know God’s beauty is somewhere in the darkness, even if my eyes are closed to it yet. I know that it will shine brighter than the night time we are in. I know He is weaving a beautiful story here, even if we can’t see it yet. He is teaching us to be faithful in the dark. But it is still such a hard place to be.

The One About Plants

One of our first big marital conflicts was about, well, plants. Houseplants, specifically. But, of course, as these things go, the argument about plants wasn’t really about plants.

One of us wanted to purchase indoor plants to cozy up our first apartment together in Turkey, to make a short-term, one-bedroom feel more like a home. The other saw it as superfluous. It took a lot of conversations (okay, fights) to understand why.

To buy something as unnecessary as a potted plant was to admit defeat. Filling our apartment with things that weren’t needed was to accept that we were staying here. It was a symbol of us giving up getting to the US. We are here in Turkey, and this is now our home.

Plants = permanence, permanence in a place we did not want to be permanent.

To buy houseplants or picture frames or throw pillows, for that matter, was a signal of a white flag. Our hands are raised. We surrender. We give up.

To avoid being extra cheesy, I’ll skip over the whole ~bloom where you are planted~ spiel. However, I do think there is something to this symbolism of plants in our marriage. Oftentimes, when I am finally quiet before the Lord, I can hear that still small whisper telling me that we are exactly where we are supposed to be. It’s an uncomfortable, tension-filled thing to hear. It’s actually the exact opposite of what I want to hear. It doesn’t make sense right now, but I trust that it will.

January 27th, 2018

Flash forward a year later and we are still here.

The last 365 days brought on a flurry of pieced-together wedding plans, a white dress that was meant to be worn in America shipped across the ocean, wedding day dreams slightly remodeled and expedited to fit into the new reality of staying in Turkey for much longer than anticipated. We endeavored into our newly married life by enduring travel ban after travel ban (three, to be exact), courts blocking, and judges denying, for one year. 

But God touched our hearts with the realization that that white flag was placing too much power in places that don’t deserve power. Power in news announcements. Power in bizarre and arbitrary immigration policies. Power in the President. One look at the headlines would reduce me to tears.

He is challenging me to, just be still.  To be still when my gut reaction as I’m drowning is to grab onto anything that will keep my head above the water? To be still when my impulse is to call an immigration lawyer, change our apartment, write emails, make phone calls, etc. etc.?

All of those headlines and awful comments from heartless people? They are nothing compared to the mighty and powerful God who loves us and works all things together for good. A loose cannon president? Ever changing policies? Absolutely nothing is too hard for God.

Yes, we are in the dark. It’s a hard place to be. But God is speaking. He is moving pieces around that will one day fit all together. We need only to be still and listen. God, help us to do that.

In Him,
Sarah

Photo by Scott Schwartz
Our Story

Strength Found in Surrender

“I have set the Lord always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken.” Psalm 16:8

Today… I ache.

I ache when I read the headlines each morning.

I ache for this broken country and this broken world.

I ache for the broken immigration system.

I ache for our president and his decision to limit the number of refugees to 45,000 (45,000??).

I ache for the millions of people whose lives are literally hanging in the balance.

I ache for the families and loved ones who are separated and will continue to be separated for an uncertain amount of time solely because of the passport they hold.

I ache – a lot – for my husband and our situation.

I ache for our dreams that we want so badly to happen.

Last night, after hearing some discouraging news, he and I both found ourselves beat down, broken, tired, and worn out. Sitting with our backs against the wall, elbows pressed to our knees, faces heavy in our hands, we realized we cannot go through life and this situation relying on our own strength any longer.

There’s a well-meaning but tiresome saying that has been floating around for years – God will never give us more than we can handle. And it would be encouraging if it were true – oh, I wish it were true. Yet, God DOES give us more than we can handle. When the burdens of life seem far too heavy to shoulder and we finally come to the end of ourselves and to the end of our human strength, this is when we have no choice but to surrender to Him.

This is the place where we both find ourselves now. It is hard and overwhelming.

Yet, oddly enough, I think it’s a good place to be.

Looking at the insurmountable mountain in front of us, we realized just how weak we are. Looking at our hands, scratched and muddy from trying, trying, trying to climb up the craggy cliffs, we realized just how helpless we are.

But we serve a God who divides the waters. We serve a God who breathes life into dry bones. We serve a God who walks on water. We serve a God who was crucified and just three days later walked out from the grave.

My husband and I have a mammoth mountain in front of us, absolutely. It’s impossible. We need a miracle. It looks foggy and we can only see a few steps ahead. But praise God, Jesus’ name is bigger than the president’s. Praise God, Jesus is on the throne, not our president. The Lord is bigger than the government and walls and bans. He is far above borders and policies and numbers and statistics.

Yes, God does give us more than we can handle. He does this so that we might come to the end of ourselves. He does this so that we might rely solely on Him and His strength and His power. He does this so that we walk up the mountain with our hands wide open.

God will intentionally give us more than we can handle and at the same time inject His strength and peace and wisdom into those heavy, too-hard-to-handle situations.

As I’m writing this, my husband is making tea (“so our home feels cozy”) and reassuring me that Jesus is good. We need only to trust in Him.

So this is what I cling to.

 

Refugee Stories

Can You Help Us?: Stories of Refugees in Turkey

This is part one 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 two here.

“He is asking you,” my translator quietly tells me as she places her hand on the arm of the sofa where I’m seated.

I look up from the coffee table. I had been examining papers laid out before me from the UN, precious papers that give evidence that this family has been accepted as refugees.

I had assumed the question was rhetorical but her emphasis on the last word told me otherwise.

“They are asking, ‘What can you do for us? Can you help us?’” she repeated, her soft Arab accent woven like silk around each word.

I placed the handful of worn papers back on the table, and my eyes went from her hand to her face and then to the eyes of a man sitting across from me. A 54-year-old man who had been a refugee for 14 years, seeking safety first in Syria, then back to Iraq when the Syrian war broke out, then to Lebanon, then back to Iraq, and now in Turkey, where he waits with his wife and teenage son. Their first appointment with the UN isn’t scheduled until 2019.

“Can you help us?”

The question hung in the air and suddenly everything felt heavy, like lead. I became painfully aware of the sound of the string of plastic prayer beads rolling around the palm of the man’s hand, the black and white static of the television in the corner, the picture of the Virgin Mary hanging above the sofa, and the fact that I was the only non-refugee in the room.

His wife comes through the doorway holding a tray of tiny teacups filled with black Turkish coffee. I quickly sip from the glass of water offered and accept the coffee, thankful that her entrance shifts the mood and the interview continues on without me having to provide an answer.

The story of this man and his wife and the trauma and loss they have experienced and are still experiencing is not an uncommon one. Most stories begin with a painful retelling of ISIS invading hometowns, stories of people fleeing with only the clothes on their backs and their children at their sides, just one hour – 60 minutes – before the invasion occurs. Fleeing at a moment’s notice, leaving behind homes, memories, and lives that they will never know or return to in the same way again. Each story stops here, in Turkey, where thousands of people’s lives hang in the balance, where every family is forced to hit the pause button and wait in agony for an unknown, unclear future. Working stops, school stops, money stops. The decision to freeze in place, unable to move forward and unable to move backward, is made for them.

The bones of each story, weighted with grief and torment, are the same, yet the details that fall between are unique.  Entering homes, sharing a cup (or two, or three, or four) of çay, sitting across from one another, laughing and crying with each other, and hearing their stories hardly leaves the listener unchanged. Each story I heard, I cherish with such respect. Each story that entered my ears lays heavily on my heart. Such courage was shown as each story was spoken out loud, as thoughts and feelings that have stayed locked inside for so long come tumbling out, like rain pouring down in torrents.

These stories are with me now as I lie in my warm bed. These stories will stay with me as I hop on a plane to Italy and Greece. These stories will stay with me as I freely move across the ocean, home to America for the summer.

“Can you help us?”

What do you say when a 60-year-old woman shows you to a bedroom in the corner of her apartment where her debilitatingly depressed brother lies in a bed, not showering, not eating, waiting to die?

What do you say when a family of seven all sleep in the living room of their tiny attic apartment and have gone three full years without being in school yet still have dreams of being doctors and engineers when they grow up?

What do you say when a woman shares that one day her husband just disappeared in Iraq and has not been seen or heard from since 2014?

What do you say when a Yazidi family with five beautiful, graceful girls have no food in their cupboards, who have crossed into Turkey on foot, escaping sex traffickers, whose father has crossed into Europe on a boat and they live in fear that their neighbors will find out who they really are?

What do you say when a man shoves a photograph of his dead brother in front of your face, his body filled with bullet holes placed there by ISIS?

What do you say when everyone in the room turns to you and asks, “can you help us?”

What do you say when you are a white girl from Midwest America who has the entire world at your fingertips, can go anywhere, be anything, yet cannot help these families?

Sometimes it is okay to be silent. There are times when words ruin the moment, a contrived response minimizing what was just shared. Sometimes there are moments that call for sitting in uncomfortable, awkward stillness, and to just grab the shaking hand across the table and pray.

That uncomfortableness, that awkwardness, that frustration of wanting to say something, to do something, anything to help – that’s what we all should be feeling when we hear stories, numbers, and statistics of these hurting souls on the news. We need to be uncomfortable. We need to fidget in our chairs. We need to feel the injustice rise up in our chests, like lava threatening to erupt. We need to do something, anything to help.

“Can you help us?”

I’m still figuring out how to answer that question. But I can listen. I can pray. I can carry these stories in my heart and share them with you. You can listen to these stories and you can pray. We can keep these stories moving and alive. We can watch the news and see hearts and souls and real human beings.

“It’s a kind of healing, to speak the hard things”, my translator told me after I assured her she only had to share with me what she wanted to share. We had just met and sat at a çay bahçe, a Turkish tea garden, discussing what tomorrow’s interviews would be like. “It’s difficult. But I think we all want our stories heard”.