Tag Archives: discrimination

Where Is My Defender?

What I remember most is what he didn’t say.

“You should feel flattered by their attention.”

“Others have experienced far worse.”

“You were wearing bright colors– that’s why you got harassed.”

Some form of each of these statements had been made to me in the past.  But the day after this post, I told this visitor about how my serenity– and my lesson on Lord Byron’s poetry– had been interrupted by a group of male university students heckling me from the hallway, and he simply said: “I’m sorry that happened to you.”

He and two other men from Massachusetts had come to the Middle East, to visit my coworkers and to see our community center.  His compassionate response was soothing.  So was my housemate’s recommendation, that I snap a cell phone picture of the perpetrators, and either show it to campus security or to “guys I know who will make sure NOTHING happens again.”

A situation like this didn’t happen often.  But things that made me feel vulnerable did.  After ten months here, I was feeling stranger than when I first arrived.  I was temporarily staying in other peoples’ spaces, feeling awkward about my ability to speak Arabic, and lacking a feeling of connectedness.  Despite my long sleeves in 100 degree heat, my large collection of scarves, and my long hair being held in a permanent ponytail, I stuck out wherever I went.  I was lonely.  I was an alien.  I was an ajnabia (Arabic for “foreign woman”… I was also the only one working at the university at that time).

And the deeper questions, as I looked at the countries and people around me: How could I ask Him to protect me from some simple sexual harassment when thousands were dying in nearby wars?  How could I expect Him to meet me in the vulnerability of feeling lonely, when others were experiencing the deeper vulnerability of losing jobs, homes, and family members?

I leaned over a sink full of dishes that day, remembering that there was no promise of avoiding suffering… remembering my Syrian student’s description of the dead bodies in his neighborhood… remembering my solo walk up the university stairs, stared at by dozens of guys with cigarettes and no subtlety.  Asking, wondering: Where is my defender?

The Boston visitors had come primarily to see the center.  But two of them heard that E. E. Cummings was next in my class’s series on love poetry.  They wanted to hear me try to explain him; they asked if they could attend.  So when I went up the university stairs the next time, on my left was a New England carpenter, a head taller than most of the students; on my right was a new grandfather, with a quick smile and a ready camera on his cell phone.

I had two defenders.  

During class, the carpenter listened attentively to our discussion on Cummings’ poem somewhere I have never traveled,gladly beyond.  The grandfather jumped up every time he heard any disturbance in the hall that might be harassers, kindly smiling as he attempted to snap their pictures.

They rushed away every time.

The Boston visitors left later that week.  The semester was half over; we started a new unit on nature poetry, and I asked my students to list words that described the outdoors.  “Beautiful.”  “Changing.”  “Powerful.”  “Fierce.”

The troublemakers returned to point and harass through the window in the classroom door.  This time I went myself and opened it.

You cannot bother this class, I said without smiling.

“I don’t English,” one of them answered, backing away.

The hallway quieted, I returned to my class.  Students exchanged glances.  I don’t think they could see my hands shaking.  I told you at the beginning of the semester that poetry is about the soul.  This is not a normal class; here we talk about our souls.  And I am not going to let anyone disturb us.

Over the next several classes, I sent a few more would-be harassers away with stern English; soon they interrupted us far less often.  I was no longer intimidated.

I didn’t notice one day when they returned.

One of my students rose.  “May I go get security?” You can, I answered, surprised at her initiative and assertiveness.  But do you want me to just send them away like usual?

I know that not all injustice can be stopped this side of heaven.  I know that suffering is still occurring, in countries and cities and individuals. And I know that situations will continually arise, leaving us exposed, vulnerable. But somehow the knowledge that my Defender sent two men from Massachusetts to the Middle East to escort me to class, when I needed it– makes a big difference.

It’s not the whole story.  But it’s a glimpse of its culmination.

—–

My student declined my offer of help; she wanted to speak up herself.  The next semester, we simply covered the window with paper.

And we were taken care of.

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He Sees

Soundlessly, she sat beside us, crying as her sister Sammi told her tale.  “A European couple offered me a job nannying their children,” she said.  “But then they decided that they want someone else, someone who does not wear a headscarf.”

Sammi spoke in a matter-of-fact voice, like the entire affair was of no consequence.  However, we all knew that this had been the kind of opportunity that does not come often– and that the reason it was rescinded appeared to be flat-out discrimination.  My mouth fell open and then filled with words like that’s horrible and they have no idea what an amazing person they are missing.  Sammi’s sister’s eyes simply filled with silent tears.

Sammi shook her head.  “Don’t cry,” she commanded in English, as if using their second language would make them both feel stronger.  Her sister had completed Young Leaders before I arrived in the Middle East; through that program, they had connected with our community center, and eventually I had met them and they had accepted me into their family.

Now 18 years old, this youngest sister dreams of skydiving, passing her final exams for high school next month, and working toward a psychology degree.  Her compassion is the size of Saudi Arabia, and more precious than all the oil it contains.

I stopped speaking.  I wrapped my arms around her and prayed inside that God would wrap His arms around her gentle soul.

Dana knows what it is like to experience deep suffering.  And great joy.  And pain, brokenness, loyalty, and love.  She is known as a woman of wisdom, and is the giver of some of the best hugs I have received while in the Middle East.

I came to work late one day– in the middle of a busy couple of months, when the weekends were full of Young Leaders events and the days seemed long– to good-natured joking from some of my coworkers.  “You should look more rested, after you took the morning off.  You still look tired!”

I laughed with them, saying I was much refreshed, since I had spent the morning quietly relaxing, reading, and sleeping.

Dana, however, eyed me carefully.  “You look more than tired.  There is something else– what is it, really?”

Later that day, I found Dana alone and sat down beside her.  “There is something else,” I said, quietly.  “Don’t know how, but you see what other people don’t see.  I did spend some of my morning resting, and did eventually feel refreshed, but first there were tears…”

She listened as I explained why.  Then she wrapped her arms around me.  She told me she would pray and reminded me of the goodness of God.

I told her that when she put her arms around me, when she said that she could see me, I knew His eyes were on me also.

Sammi and I sat in the car with the windows rolled down, sweating as we longed for a breeze and waited for her sister to emerge from the house.  A four-year-old boy started to walk in front of us, talking to no one that we could see, and swinging an empty, pink-stained paint bucket.  We smiled at each other, happily distracted from the heat to wonder at the little guy’s chatter, and his choice of toys.

He noticed us and went immediately to Sammi’s side of the car.  He extended his hand to shake– while I suppressed my surprise and wondered if this kid’s culture had ever taught him to be cautious with strangers– and she politely took it, asking his name.

His answer was unintelligible, but she established that he lives in her neighborhood.  Then he said, in a voice just as matter-of-fact as Sammi’s own had been about the recent job opportunity lost:

“Do you know the news about my sister?  She’s dead.”

She kept her voice normal and asked what had happened.  “We gave her medicine, and we shook her like this, but she never got out of bed.”

“When?” He didn’t know.  As he wandered around the car to my side, Sammi told me, “He has a Syrian accent.”

I shook his hand.  Where are you from?  “Homs.”  The fallen capital of the Syrian revolution, some would say, but to him it is simply home.  He told us then that his favorite food is cake.  His favorite color is blue.  And then Sammi’s sister arrived, and we left.

Our arms waved goodbye.  But in our hearts, we held him.

His eyes are on us.

When injustice slaps beloved friends.  When delayed hope sickens hearts.  When shells echo in a four-year-old’s mind.

Sometimes we extend His love to each other with a hug, a word, a hearing of each others’ tales.  Sometimes we feel that love straight from the heart of the Father.

But even when we can’t see, when circumstances steal our eyes from His, He wants us to know He is present.

His arms are extended.

And He sees.  

Beyond All Expectation

Skip school.  Don’t help with housework.  Return anger with a higher degree of rage.  Use coarse language.  Objectify.  Disrespect public property.

Expectations for local teenage boys, in many peoples’ minds, do not rise much higher than this.

And those who challenge expectations face consequences.  So when fifty teenagers piled into the community center, for the first day of our Young Leaders’ “Winter” Camp, their presence defied stereotypes.

They were not taking a break during school holidays, with their peers.  They were sitting shoulder to shoulder, cross-legged on carpet squares, listening carefully as the program director explained the week’s themes: Understand your identity.  Understand the truth.  Understand what it means to be a leader.

They watched clips from a speech by the highly-respected ruler of this nation; he called on youth to become authentic and clear-sighted leaders.  They listened to a story about an eagle who was raised as a chicken: born to ride the wind instead of scratch the soil, but limited by the assumptions she had internalized.  And throughout that hour, they seemed to forget that only a thin square of fabric separated them from the cold concrete floor.

They were locked in to every word that was said.

IMG_4105Two weeks ago, I sat along the beach, wondering what I was called to and searching for one word to lock in to for the next twelve months…. Something to shape my approach to work, friendships, family, faith, and everything else.  No big deal, right?

One word.  But as the sun was setting, I still had thousands of words tumbling in my mind.  Fragments of dreams, run-on sentences of determinations, each lofty but seemingly empty.  I had already tried hard, in the past year, to become all of those things.  I had landed far short of my goals.  Why should I expect my story to be different this year?

The students, when they finish their Winter Camp, will have heard writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TEDTalk The Danger of a Single Story.  She tells of growing up in middle-class Nigeria, on a university campus.  Later, in the United States, she discovered that many people had a single story of Africa: one of “senseless war,” poverty, and rampaging diseases.

When she– or her novels– did not fit into those categories, she faced others’ disappointment.

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Image from http://www.ted.com

She admits that, at times, she too has believed in “single stories.”  After seeing much Western media coverage on desperate immigrants from Mexico, who risked the breath in their bodies to achieve American soil, Adichie was shocked to travel south of the border and see contented souls, living out daily routines.

And, she says, she was ashamed.  She had bought into the media’s tale, as if it were the defining narrative for all Mexicans.  “That is how to create a single story,” she realized.  “Show a people as one thing, and only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.”

During the camp the Young Leaders will choose a way to express their condolences, to youth in a similar leadership program, in a city where 136 students and 13 adults recently lost their lives.  They know that many people around the world associate the majority faith here with violence, although they themselves are grieved and horrified by the events in Peshwar… and now also in Paris.  Adiche’s words resound in the context of these tragedies: “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.  They make one story become the only story.”  

These teenagers face the single story of assumptions from outside their culture, expectations within their neighborhoods– and the limitations they put on themselves.  Will others’ opinions, or their own past failures, define their futures?  Will they internalize false presuppositions, like the story of the eagle who thought she was a chicken?

Or will they figure out who they really were made to be?

Stories soar in the context of relationships.  Sitting by the sea, searching for the right word, I saw that I had limited my hopes for 2015 to what – I – was capable of making happen.  Alone.

IMG_4135
Our words – from friends worldwide.

So I chose a word that is primarily relational.  It depends more on the Author of the story than on anyone else, and it feels like a risk.  If you gave me a word, and I gave you mine, know that I will remember you this year — we’re in this story together.  And if not, but you want in, comment with your word below :-).

Me.  You.  The teenagers in the leadership program .

Will we tell a second story?

One Word (a matter of light and death)

I held the box in my hands, waiting.

It gave me a moment to observe the givers.  One grinning, rubbing his hands– a gleeful, boyish gesture of impatience.  One watching with eyes shining, and a quiet whisper: “She’s going to love this.”  One sitting very close, her hands poised to assist and her presence, as always, a steadying one.

Their delight and anticipation on another’s behalf– that is worth more than anything they could have put inside this box, I thought.  Finally, I released their treasure from its plum-colored case.  It caught the light and shimmered.

IMG_4061My friend’s fingers fastened the fragile chain around my neck.  “We knew we had to choose this green stone for you,” she said.  “Because of your word for the coming year.”

It was the night before I left New York, in order to move to a different language and culture: that of the Arab world.  A few days earlier, I had been with most of the same friends on New Year’s Eve.  We spoke of our hopes for the coming year, set out the challenges, and then summed up our focus– what we were each determined to pursue in 2014– in a single word.  Mine was Life.

I had no idea how much dying would be required.

When I boarded the plane to the Middle East, I didn’t just carry on a guitar, a green pendant, and a good old L.L.Bean bag. I carried with me memories and anticipation.  But these had expanded with unchecked assumptions and fears: things that would stick out, in the year that followed, in the strangest places.

Change cuts deeply.  In those twelve months, it felt like a hammer and chisel were being applied. They broke off some pieces that I didn’t know existed, and others that I had been convinced were essential.

When I thought the work was complete and my appearance was again smooth, some new layer or other facet would be exposed.  I was left, for all to see, ragged.  The pressure of perfection built as I tried to adhere to mixed messages, regarding various aspects of life:

  • Dress attractivelythey don’t like frumpy here.  But not too attractively-you don’t want to look like you are trying to be sexy.
  • Work hardyou’ve got to learn Arabic and do your part as a member of your new “family”/company.  But don’t work too hard heed the cautionary tales of depression and burnout, from friends… and those no longer here.
  • Don’t expect too much— things may be slow, you have to be in it for the long haul.  But don’t expect too little— or you’ll get it. Too little.
  • Keep in touchyou need family and friends back home.  But open up hereyou must learn to depend on local friends/coworkers.
  • Be independent-– there are endless stories of “needy” personalities.  But don’t be too independent— don’t act like you know what you are doing before you really do.

But I’m not sure I’ll ever really know what I’m doing.  I am sometimes needy; sometimes overly communicating, sometimes overly guarded; sometimes focused on surviving, sometimes dreaming steps ahead; sometimes lazy, sometimes extended too far; sometimes sticking out, sometimes caught at a grocery store with a mis-matched skirt hastily thrown over my exercise clothes.  Complete with sneakers.  Frumpy AND sweaty.

What’s being put to death is security based on perfection.  Performance.  People.  And pleasing others.  A work that is in progress, but oh, it is positive.

And it is painful.

My story is only one part of the challenge.  The second stories cut deeper.  Sweet ladies whose dreams, bodies, and spirits are assaulted by discrimination and human depravity.  Syrian friends sent far from home, wondering which relatives are alive, wishing for escape.  Treasured family members and friends facing death, separation, and sickness from all around the world– their questions are unanswerable.

One morning I woke up to this world of work in progress, and I had in mind the manger.  A cloth-cloaked baby surrounded with straw.  Appearance is weak, but all power is His.  Lowly, but “by highest heaven adored.”  He is startling and He is strong.

And He is life.  An explosion of all prior expectations.

I’m on the sidelines.  I realize, in that picture, that we can cease attempting to perform perfectly, to resolve every question.  Because while chiseling has to happen for the stone to gleam, the brilliance never came from inside the rock.

Our tenderly cut stones catch the Light.  And we shimmer.

Locked In

My hands were scrubbing a sink-full of plates and plastic bowls.  My eyes were filling with a water of their own.  Both a challenging situation in class, and a short night of sleep, were brimming over into the dishpan.

I wanted to be told that everything would be okay.  And to get a hug.

Setting the dishes on the drying rack, I thought of others whose stories of challenge had come my way recently.  Omar takes a class at our community center.  He works long days but seems to smile unceasingly, despite his concern for his mother and siblings, still in a neighboring country at war.  One day I asked him to draw a map of his neighborhood, part of a class project on learning how to give directions.  “Draw a map?” he said, that smile of his ever-present.  “If I draw a map of my neighborhood, I will have to draw dead bodies.”

I had exchanged texts with my friend Zaina earlier in the week, asking her about life in her new home.  Conflict displaced Zaina’s family more than a year ago; she and her husband, and their two children, have moved at least six times in the six months since I met them.  “What you mean?  I have one home, in Syria.  Anything outside of Syria is a house.”

A quiet voice woke me early in the morning, after a gentle knock on the door of my current second-story bedroom.  I am helping to care for my four youngest housemates while their parents are away, seeing them off to school in the morning– or, in this case, keeping them home.  The voice whispered, “My tummy really hurts.”

She sat next to me on the couch later that morning, drawing, and I graded Poetry class homework.  “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers – that perches in the soul,” we had read.  One student defined perches as: an edible freshwater fish, providing me with a moment’s laughter, before I entrusted my sick young charge to another friend and left for class.

The week of late nights and early mornings was starting to take its toll, and for some reason I felt irritability stretching icy fingers around my soul as I got in the car.  Shook it off temporarily by listening to some good music.  But when I arrived to the predictable welcome outside the university– dozens of young guys who hang on the university steps between classes, and gape at me as I enter– the irritability flooded back.  Don’t pay attention, I said to myself.  This happens all the time to women here.  Don’t let it bother you.

During class a few other young men lingered outside the door of my classroom, gawking through the window and talking loudly with each other.  When, finally, even my students told me they were distracted by them, I had my (one) male student go out and tell them to leave.  Then it was back to the love poems of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Lord ByronDon’t let it bother you, I repeated, forcing focus from myself, for the students.

But my frustrations spilled over in the kitchen, when my hands were full and my soul had time and space for questions.  “Lord, I know you see, but will you act?”  To defend me.  To heal sickness in a young one.  To soothe the sorrows of my Syrian friend.  Disconnected situations, fused by the element of brokenness.

When darkness means death in our neighborhoods, distance from our homes, disease in our bodies, and discrimination in our hallways– we need salvation.

A soft song was playing in the background, as I struggled with God and the sink:

I will lock eyes with the One who’s ransomed me

The One who gave me joy for mourning

I will lock eyes with the One who’s chosen me

The One who set my feet to dancing

We Dance, from Bethel Music

 When I lose perspective in the shadows, He’s still there.  He is calling me to lock eyes with Him, even when I can’t see what will happen…  Because there is that thing with feathers, that perches in the soul.

Hope.

For a second story.

 

 

 

 

Testing Our Courage

Exam grading at the University:

My friend has a tall hair, and a green eye. 

Talking with my students about why this sentence is incorrect led me to a deeper understanding of how difficult English can be.  Last week, we went over the most frequent wrong answers, to this and other questions on their midterm.

The students want so badly to be perfect. I try to affirm them for taking risks with the language, for trying different things when still unsure of their use of words.  (Like the student who, when asked about her interests during the spoken exam, grinned and said, “I love evil.”  I broke in at that point: “Excuse me– could you repeat that?”  She replied, still grinning: “Oh yes.  I love eevviil. Eeevviiil Tower– Paris– right?”)

But my students are still gripped more by what they missed than by what they accomplished.

As is our practice each time we meet, we reviewed quotations.  The students have learned a new quote every week, and have practiced explaining the thought behind each of them, quotes like:

  • Experience is a hard teacher, because she gives the test first and the lesson afterward. –Vernon Law
  • It’s not how much we give, but how much love we put into giving. –Mother Teresa
  • Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it. — Helen Keller

Last week I found out, minutes before my class was to begin, that there would be a university-wide seminar on “violence against women.”  I reminded my students that some of our conversations about speaking up– or our quotes– might relate.  We went to the auditorium together.

Injustice and inequality were portrayed in the stories of four women, in a well-made film by Half the Sky; the power of educational opportunities for women was emphasized.  When mediator opened the floor for comments, a young man stood.  His words prompted the student on my right to murmur disagreement, shaking her head.

“What did he say?” I asked.  Among other things, she translated, he said that women could avoid being hurt by simply staying at home.

Fire in my stomach.  The mediator responded; another student, one on my left, reached for the microphone.  She trembled, but barely.  “If a man and a woman make the same mistake,” she said, “the woman is treated differently.  This is not fair.  I have had this happen to me.”

By the end of the discussion, the young man had gently backpedaled on his statement.  Several female students had told their experiences, perspectives, and passion for change to be made.  They had not waited to make their every word perfect.  They had no knowledge of how he would respond.  But they spoke anyway– and the world spins a little more justly today, because of their words.

May we have their courage in the small things, not just the seemingly big moments.  And may our tastes of justice create hunger to know the One who made us, to live in shalom with with Him, the self, the creation, and each other.