Monthly Archives: September 2015

The Kiss of Release

She approached me in the middle of the bus.  “One of the girls is crying,” she said.  “She got a call on Miss Mae’s phone, and now she’s really upset…”

I looked forward, where Mae– one of our local teachers with Young Leaders– was leaning over a slump-shouldered fifteen-year-old girl.  Teena.  Her family was the one that set up an accidental (for me) blind date with her brother, shortly after I arrived in the country.  There had been no second excursion with Mohammad, but when Teena applied for Young Leaders, she immediately won our teachers’ hearts.

She had determination, ready laughter, social intuitiveness.  What could have happened to bring about those tears? 

Mae explained.  Teena had been given permission by her mom to go on this class trip to a desert reserve, but another family member found out about it and responded the opposite way.  He called and demanded that the bus stop at a nearby security checkpoint.  From there, he would pick Teena up and take her home.

“He’s on the way already,” Mae told me.  “Teena says he never lets her go on trips outside of town, with school or clubs; but he did not know about this one until a few minutes ago…”  We told the bus driver to slow down.  We called Teena’s mom to see what she wanted to do.  She instructed us to let Teena go if that was what this relative wanted.  We called him, we begged, we reasoned.

She’s with all of her friends.  She’s worked hard in this program.  She’s already twenty minutes out of town.  We will protect her like our own sister, our own child.  

He refused.

I knew that Teena’s seat in the program would be lost if she did not participate in ALL activities.  So no field trips also meant no more after-school English lessons.

No more leadership-building activities.

No more mentoring from Miss Mae.

A few days after this incident, I called a cousin of Teena’s whom I know well.  I asked her to appeal to the male relative on our behalf: She is a delight everyone in the program.  But if she doesn’t take the trips, we have to give her spot to another student.  Please, remind this relative that your family knows me, and that I will look after Teena like my own sister. 

Then we called Teena and asked her to have her relative come to the center, so we could try to persuade him face to face.  She was thrilled.  She knew we were fighting for her.  We felt a small measure of hope.

The day of the meeting, Mae called to reconfirm.  No one answered.  Teena texted soon afterward: “We can’t have a meeting today.  Our father passed away this morning.”

That night, Mae and I drove around Teena’s neighborhood, until we found the apartment where dozens of women were gathered to recite funeral prayers and support the family (the men– including the relative who had forbidden Teena’s attendance on field trips– met somewhere outside).  Despite her grief, Teena’s mom recognized me right away.  I kissed her cheeks and repeated the consolation my tutor had taught me for such an occasion.

Someone pulled up extra chairs, and the mom introduced me: “She’s American, a teacher.  My daughter Teena is with her in the Young Leaders program.”

With us in the Young Leaders program.  I repeated the words as if to etch them in stone.

On rising to leave, I forgot the phrase I had learned for funerals, so substituted my favorite parting words: “God be with you.”

Despite hearing that the relative planned to withdraw Teena from the program entirely, Mae and I returned to talk with Teena’s mom, and with a friend who had a voice in his life.  We drank three cups of coffee, offered consolation again, and explained why Young Leaders was vital for Teena’s personal development.  We invited all of them to attend the Opening Ceremony.  We sensed that they supported us– but depended on the male relative’s approval for Teena’s inclusion in the program.

On rising to leave, Teena’s mom randomly informed Mae, “We wanted this foreigner to marry our son.”

It made the mom smile briefly.  It also left me needing to explain the story to my coworker.

We discovered, just a day before the Opening Ceremony, that as soon as the friend had approached Teena’s male relative, he knew what was going to be said.  “Don’t even try,” he said.  “I decided she isn’t going anymore to Young Leaders.”  And that was the end of that portion of the story.

We used all the cultural wisdom we could get.

We fought, we visited, we begged.

We prayed.

Still, with the Opening only hours away, she left an empty space.

—–

What is surrender?  Some think of giving up.  Of being controlled by someone other.  Of passive living.  But what if it is active?  What if it calls for us to not be coerced, but consenting?

What if surrender needs to happen even in the moments that we are fighting… visiting… praying… as much as when we are giving a kiss to each cheek and saying, “God be with you,” in releasing with a blessing?

—–

A hasty search of the waiting list.  Acceptance into the program of a new student.  Her face is familiar when she joins Mae’s class at the Opening Ceremony; we realize her sister was in last year’s program.

Our hearts accept it as a little bit of balm.  What is your name? we ask.

Faith.

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Ten Thousand Times Ten Thousand

Their voices traveled through the air and across the sand.  The cliff where these teenaged Young Leaders stood was facing another, larger mountain, which threw back the sound.  The students were surprised; it was the first time, for some of them, that their voices had echoed.

For many of them, it was also their first trip to this famous desert reserve– despite its proximity, only an hour from their homes.  Their first time racing across the sand in the backs of pickups.  Climbing sand dunes.  Seeing stars undimmed by city lights.  Letting themselves go in a trust fall.  Day five of our group’s summer camp took them into the “wilderness,” both rewarding and continuing the previous days’ intensive English and leadership development.

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The students raised their voices again, in celebration and to hear the rock reply: “YOUNG LEEEEADERRRRRRS!!” 

Lana had been one of the first to make it up the cliff.  She was not one of the original Young Leaders; she had been at the top of our waiting list of 180 students, and when another girl’s family withdrew her before the camp, this petite 15-year-old got her chance.  She wore a flowery headscarf and an expression of delight the whole week.

“Do you remember the lesson about dreams?” she asked me.  I did.

Lana and her classmates had thought first of occupations, when they had been asked, If money were not a factor, and you knew you would succeed, what do you dream of doing?IMG_6706

We pushed students to take the question more broadly: what kinds of people they would help, how they would influence the world, what experiences they would have.  Answers ranged from, “Create peace in the Middle East” to, “Take a selfie with a lion.”  Students made posters about their dreams, and Lana had written something, without knowing how soon it would be fulfilled:

‘Climb a mountain’— this was one of my dreams.”

The setting sun spilled golden light across the desert, creating a storybook-like background as groups of students stood chatting, or bent to write their names in the sand.  But Lana’s eyes looked at me with a deeper fire, and with pride.  She came from a family of limited resources and opportunities.  She had, nonetheless, turned at least this one dream into reality– so what dream could come next?

I cannot show you her picture.  My cell phone wouldn’t quite capture the desert light, anyway, or the glow in Lana’s eyes over this simple experience.  But even if it did, respect for her culture and privacy would limit what I share in this public space.

If you saw her picture, would its thousand words-worth articulate a call to somehow take action?  Climb a mountain.  Ask a young person their dream.  Chase a dream yourself.  

Last week many of us viewed a photograph that we did not want to see.  It spurred media, individuals, and governments to focus once again on the long-term problems faced by displaced people.  It saddened us, it shook us.

But it cannot surprise us.

If it does, we haven’t been paying attention.  To the hundreds of gut-wrenching headlines over the past few years.  To the thousands dead (220,000 in Syria’s civil war alone, about half of whom are believed to be civilians).  To the millions displaced (from Syria, 7.6 internally, 4 million in other countries–the most severe displacement crisis since the Rwandan genocide).  To the swell of voices of oppressed people who have lost their homes, family networks, and security, and are desperately seeking a place of shelter, safety, and hope for their children.

Somehow a single, controversial photograph of a dead Syrian child on a beach commanded us to face the incomprehensible.  But far too many other tragedies came before the one with Aylan Kurdi.

My good friend Zaina is one among the displaced.  She lived where I am only a few months, in between her life in Syria and in the country where her husband now has work.  Last week she sent me a message: “I saw you in my dream last night, my dear friend.  How are you?”

When I returned the question, she sent emoticons streaming with tears.  Financial stress, social isolation, the cultural gap between where she is from and where she lives, and continuing difficulties registering her son for school– these have left her heartbroken.  If I sent a picture of her son– a round-cheeked six-year-old with a mischievous glint in his eyes– would the story mean more?  “Sometimes I think about trying to get to Europe by boat,” she wrote.  “Maybe it is better to die at sea than to live here.”

This is not news.  This is a mother of three– a woman the same age I am– seeking options.  Getting doors slammed.

Though my hands are tied from reaching her, I stretched words out across the distance.  Your life echoes, it matters, to me, to your beloved family.  Please be careful.

“I won’t attempt anything,” she texted.  “It’s just my sadness doing the talking.”

Her sadness is what needed to be heard a long time ago.  We tend to photograph drama, to tell stories full of excitement, but the slow death of Zaina’s hopes and opportunities speaks loudly of the need for justice both in her country and in the surrounding region.

Even if you can’t see her, can you hear her?

Lana’s slow ascent toward one of her dreams– and the light in her eyes– speaks of the power of putting action behind ideals.  She envisioned a goal and accomplished the task.  Even if you can’t see her, can you hear the echo of her voice, across the oceans?

Hearing is not sufficient.  Will you take action against the injustice, near and far away, that you encounter?  Will you stand for the ones whose stories don’t make headlines and don’t get photographed– or who do, yet continue suffering?

A picture is worth a thousand words.  Action’s value can be ten thousand times ten thousand.