The Defiant Act of Putting Down Roots

As I sit here writing this, I’m on our balcony off the kitchen. The school kids are breaking for recess and kicking around a soccer ball, their shrieks coming from the middle school across the street. I have laundry pinned to the line – linens and pillowcases. The October noontime sun is strong enough to dry them quickly. The fall weather has come to Turkey but the concrete sides of our apartment building still radiate the heat of the day.

This month marks five years of living in Turkey.

In 2014, I boarded a plane with a one-way ticket in hand, leaving behind the flat prairie lands of the upper Midwest, my family, friends, and most of what was familiar to me, and traded it for dry arid weather, a new community, and something called fairy chimneys (yeah, I didn’t know what they were either). What was supposed to be a one-year teaching gig in a foreign country turned into five.

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It’s weird and insignificant but one of the things I get joy from is looking at the weekly ad circulars with my husband. My mom sends them to us tucked into her care packages. It’s a silly ritual the two of us do together because it reminds us of home. Flipping through the Target and Kohls ads that have traveled across the ocean is a glimpse into life beyond Turkey. It means looking forward. Planning. We do the same with homes on Zillow and things on Facebook Marketplace. It shows that one day we might build a life outside of Turkey.

To us, it’s a strange little symbol of hope.

But what if we cannot, at least for the foreseeable future, make a home in the US? What if, due to politics and bans and greed and misplaced fear, we cannot leave where we are? How do we put down roots when we don’t want to?

Making a home amid waiting is tricky.

Look at this way: If I invited you to sit in a chair pulled up to a desk for the next six hours, what would you do? You have six hours so you’d probably open your laptop and get some work done. Maybe answer some emails. Watch a movie, work on a hobby, read a book. You’d be productive.

What if instead, I invited you to sit in a chair pulled up to a desk for the next five minutes? What would you do? It’s just five minutes so you’d probably stare at the wall. Drum your fingers on the desk. Gaze out the window. You’d wait.

Making a home in the midst of waiting is tricky.

Then what if, after the five minutes were up, I came back and said, “Sorry, sorry. Please sit for just five more minutes.” You’d wait again. What’re another five minutes? And again. And again. Until those five minutes have turned into six wasted hours.

It’s hard to make a home when you’re in prolonged waiting. It makes the heart sick.

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Marrying someone who has refugee status meant finding myself thrown amid bureaucratic limbo. It meant being at the bend and will of politicians who see others like pieces on a chessboard – to be moved, jumped over, kicked off – for their own advantage. The powers-that-be forced us to hit the pause button on life, to waste those five minutes over and over again, to live indefinitely in the temporary.

We don’t feel like we have much control over anything.

But what if there was one thing we could control? What if we could shift our mindset from a temporary-bags packed-we’ll be gone in five minutes- way of thinking to something more settled? Solid? Home?

Marrying someone who has refugee status meant finding myself thrown in the midst of bureaucratic limbo. It meant being at the bend and will of politicians who see others like pieces on a chessboard – to be moved, jumped over, kicked off – for their own advantage.

What if deciding to make a home right where we are was the ultimate act of defiance against the forces keeping us in the temporary? What if deciding to put down our suitcases and put down roots right where we are meant we have some semblance of control over our lives?

There’s a certain freedom in realizing we have a choice to make our current place home.  It won’t be forever, but for now. My arms are big enough to hold on tightly to our dream of one day moving to the US in one arm and cultivate rootedness in the other – even if it’s temporary.

Are you in a place where you are reluctant to put down roots?

Trying to make a home while living in a state of limbo is a messy thing. But we can thrive, strive, and take our unwanted situation and build on it. We can take the dirt surrounding us and press our roots down deep, just a little. And maybe something wonderful will grow.

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Home for me is pretty ambiguous these days. It’s transient. But being in this state of prolonged uncertainty for so many years has widened my definition:

Home is adding one more book to an already packed bookshelf.
Home is nailing picture frames to the wall (when we’re sure the landlords are gone).
Home is watching the potted plants grow and bloom.
Home is the two little painted wooden houses dangling on a string in the kitchen.
Home is a soft place to land. Safe, secure, welcoming.
Home is temporary; it changes, and flows, and exists through everything.

How would you define “home”?

Putting down roots in a place I don’t want to is sanctifying me, preparing me, and cultivating fruit in me. God’s not wasting this time. I don’t want to either.

I thought about trying to tie this all back to something about how, for believers, the earth is not our home because our eternal home is in heaven *insert cute little bible verse here*. But honestly? That’s not where my heart is at the moment. It isn’t easy to decide to let the roots start growing. It isn’t easy to juggle both the present and the future.

I still have that itch to get out of here. Believe me, Turkey is not home. But if I don’t embrace where I am right now and trust God is carefully holding my dreams, I’ll be terribly itchy.

So how do I embrace a life that is forcing us to be stationary? Maybe it has to do with the little things, like putting up photos, organizing knickknacks, and planting gardens. I don’t really know for sure yet. But I know for the health of my soul and sanity I need to keep pressing deep into the dirt and letting the roots grow, just a little, just for a while. I’m sure we will figure it out…right after we check Zillow one more time.

 

Waiting for the Sun to Rise

Every night during the month of Ramadan (or Ramazan as it’s called in Turkey), our town is awakened by the steady beating of a drum. Dressed in traditional Ottoman attire, the drummer weaves his way up and down the neighborhood streets with a stick in one hand and a drum in the other. A ritual dating back hundreds of years, the drum’s purpose is to awaken the locals to begin preparing for sahur, the last meal eaten before the sun rises. The neighbors begin to stir and kitchen lights slowly click on, giving off a dull glow behind window shades.

The beating gets softer as the drummer moves on to the next neighborhood. I let the curtain fall back to its place and crawl into bed. The nights are warmer now so we sleep with thin sheets and open windows. The dog next door barks in reply to the sound of the drum. I flip over my phone on the nightstand to check the time. It’s 2:30 am.

The other evening, after we had finished washing dishes and cleaning up dinner, my husband and I walked by the river running through our town. Each picnic table was occupied with multi-generational families. Savory smoke swirled out from miniature charcoal grills. Everyone sat perched in front of their plates waiting for the call to prayer to signal the start of iftar, the highly anticipated fast-breaking meal when the sun finally sets.

Ramadan brings a communal change in rhythm. The days are quiet, still, and sleepy until the late morning when neighbors begin emerging from their homes to tend to their gardens, climb into cars, and roll buggies on uneven sidewalks to the markets. The nights are alive with meals eaten with friends in the late evening. Children kick balls and ride bikes with the moon as their flashlight. And a drummer announces the approaching sunrise.

***

The other week, we were crowded around a circular table where waiters placed in front of us hot plates of chicken kabab and refilled our water glasses. After hearing a little of my husband’s and my immigration worries, our friend placed his fork back down on his plate, rested his hands in his lap and said, “Hard times always have a destination.”

Usually, when hearing spiritual platitudes by those who are anxious to say something encouraging, my eyes glaze over and my head nods in a polite response. I give the encourager a gentle smile; they’re trying to be supportive.

This time though, the words landed a little differently in my ears. Like the falling shapes in a game of Tetris, each word effortlessly locked itself to the next, one on top of the other. As they were released into the air, I felt something in my heart whisper, “Grab onto this. Remember it.”

We’ve spent the last year feeling like we were walking through the valley of the shadow of death. Our days felt like they were decorated more with sorrow than joy. Hope seemed elusive and dwindling. My Bible remained buried in the nightstand, like a too heavy bowling ball, the unturned pages made of lead. I wrestled with the promises written in scripture. Why doesn’t God make things right, right now? Here’s his chance to do something big and miraculous, but he’s quiet.

I’ve felt huge swells of doubt rise up in me. I’ve asked questions and received no answer. I’ve cried out and heard my laments bounce off the walls and return back to me.

Hard times always have a destination.

Those six words spoken across the table over lunch felt liking tiny dots pulsing inside me, an ember of hope pushing back the encroaching darkness. They punctuated my skeptical heart, one by one.

I thought about the Turkish drummer, banging loudly in the middle of the dark night. His sole purpose is to alert the town of the coming light, to wake up, to begin preparing the feast. Each knock of the drum shouts out the message, “The sunrise is coming! The sunrise is coming!”

We may be walking through the valley of the shadow of death right now, but God promises to lead us to green pastures and to fields of peace. It may feel like endless midnight but the sunrise is coming.

There is a purpose in the darkness. I may not know what the reason is right now, but I will one day. Consider all the activity that happens when the sun sets and the world becomes dark during Ramadan: meals with neighbors, children playing, feasting, and spending time with family. There is life to be lived in the darkness. There is growth, refinement, and cultivation.

God is certainly not the author of the bad, but he paints beauty out of it. The rays of the rising sun will one day scatter across our valley, sending the dark scurrying away, and things will make sense. All those tattered scraps will be woven into something beautiful.

Not now, but soon.

While we wait for the morning to finally come, we firmly hold on to God’s promises and his goodness.

Beautiful things grow in dark places and dawn will always overcome the night.

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?

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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

The Girl at the Bus Stop: Stories of Refugees in Turkey

This is part three 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 one and part two.


The bus stop overhang offers a feeble attempt at shade from the Middle East sun, but I arrived too late to snag a spot underneath it
. The stop is full of locals on their way to work and a few adventurous tourists keen on taking local transportation while visiting.

I drag the back of my hand across my forehead and consider what’s worse: dry heat or humid heat. The taxi stand poised next to the bus stop serves as a temptation to leave immediately in the comforts of an air-conditioned ride by paying more than ten times the bus fareI gaze at the seducing yellow cabs as I wave my cell phone back and forth in front of my face in a failed experiment to create a breeze. 

As we all peer down the road, waiting for the bus to turn the corner, a beat up car pulls up and out tumbles more people than a vehicle of that size should be able to fit. We all look up from our phones and our wristwatches and our conversations. Out steps several women dressed in layers of thin, draping fabrics and floral scarves wrapped around their faces, the cloth pooling at their necks. They carry a flurry of children, some anchored to their hips, some by the hand, and some running, happy to be out of the cramped car.

I notice the reddish brown hair, sallow skin, and tattered clothes and shoes from the children running in circles, the throaty, melodic sounds coming from the mouths of their mothers, and stares from the locals and am able to assume they are Syrian refugees.

Currently, there are 973,200 Syrian school-age children in Turkey with the number on a steady increase. As of the 2017-2018 school year, about 63% of Syrian children were enrolled in Turkish public schools or temporary education centers. In Turkey, all children have a right to free education including those from families who have sought asylum. And yet, many barriers still remain. Because Syrian families have hopes to return to Syria, parents have expressed concerns over their children attending schools taught in Turkish, for fear of losing their native language. Along with language barriers, Syrian refugees cited economic hardship, social integration with Turkish children, and lack of information on how to register for school as issues preventing them from enrolling their children in school.

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Syrian refugee children play in a kindergarten at Midyat refugee camp in Mardin, Turkey. (FILE Photo) | Daily Sabah

Watching the women attempt to gather their energetic children close, one small girl makes her way towards me, giggling and staring. I make a mental note to look up how to say, “What’s your name?” in Arabic. The few lone phrases I do know escape me and wouldn’t have helped anyway. So I resort to smiling back at the child and giving a small wave.

Just months earlier, the body of a three-year-old Syrian boy washed up on the shores of a Turkish beach. Alan Kurdi, dressed in a red shirt and blue shorts and with both of his shoes still on, had passed away in the waters of the Mediterranean Sea. His family was determined to reach safety and security, but only his father survived. The photo of Alan had sparked outrage all across the globe, particularly in the West. And yet, now, three years later, little has been done to help the plight of Syrians and other refugees here in Turkey. 

With nothing to say to her, I contemplate jogging over to the market across the street to buy a treat for her and the other children but am stopped by the logistics of missing the bus and the awkwardness that giving food might bringI don’t have time to make up my mind because the bus approaches and everyone begins to shift, gathering their things and making way to the curb.

For a second I am amused at the mix of people – the tourists and me, local Turks, and Syrian refugees – all partaking in the same mundane activity. We all step on the bus and I still keep my eyes on the women and their children as everyone settles into the empty seats.

 

Turkish Coast guard member carries a baby into rescue boat after total of 174 Syrian refugees captured by Turkish coast guard while they were illegally trying to reach Greece's, in shores of Antalya, southern province of Turkey on March 12, 2016.
Turkish Coastguard member carries a baby into a rescue boat on the shores of southern Turkey after a total of 174 Syrian refugees tried to reach Greece.

There’s a commotion at the front of the bus between the driver and one of the Syrian women. The questions she is asking fluster the driver as he is likely impatient at the interruption to his clockwork routine. There’s some more back and forth jabber before the driver throws up his hands and exclaims, “Allah Allah!” (“Good Lord!”) in exasperation. I watch in sympathy, wishing I had the language to help get across what they were trying to say to each other. As everyone stares at the action unfolding, I hear the word hastane exchanged between the two and there is a final understanding that the group wants to go to the hospital.

Turkey hosts 3.5 million refugees (over 90% are Syrian). Registered refugees have access to free medical care and prescription medications. However, there are few Arabic (and Farsi and Dari) speaking medical staff and translators making it difficult to go to hospitals for medical concerns. Furthermore, according to Human Rights Watch, Turkey has begun turning away Syrians who cross into Turkey and denying asylum registration to those who are already here making it difficult to access free medical care.

Through the small opening of the two seats in front of me, I see a pair of round eyes staring back at me. It’s the same girl from the bus stop. I wave and smile again, my only offering. She peers her head into the aisle and around the seat. I motion for her to sit next to me and she gets up and takes the empty seat. We continue our same nonverbal exchange: smile and wave until we come to the stop in front of the hospital. A woman motions to the girl to get up, they gather the rest of the children, pay the driver, and step off.

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.