Tag Archives: injustice

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.

Advertisements

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.

IMG_6860
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.

Tears. Discomfort. Foolishness. Blessing.

The chicken brought tears to my eyes.  A sister in the family, the one who had cooked the feast in front of us, held up her nine-month-old baby boy.  “He has never seen his homeland,” she said.

The floor mats, on which we sat, were printed with the letters “UNHCR”– the UN Refugee Agency.  The family fled to this city to find some respite from the war, but here they are not permitted to work, struggle to get their kids in schools, and strive each month to pay unfair, high rental costs.

And as the sun set, its soft shades visible from the second-story landing we visited, they spread out a sumptuous meal to honor their guests.  Chicken, tabbouleh, soup, rice.  All prepared with exquisite culinary expertise and offered with hospitable hearts, constant guideposts amidst the crises of war, poverty, and grief.

Earlier that week, a friend and mentor had sent me these words from a Franciscan blessing:

May you hear the whisper of God’s Fatherly voice guiding you to hold on to the spirit of fellowship and the oneness of our family of faith.

May God bless you with discomfort at easy answers, half-truths and superficial relationships, so that you will live deeply and from the heart.

May God bless you with anger at injustice, oppression and the exploitation of people, so that you will work for justice, freedom and peace.

May God bless you with tears to shed for those that mourn, so that you will reach out your hand to them and turn their mourning into joy.

May God bless you with just enough foolishness to believe that you can make a difference in the world, so that you will do those things that others say cannot be done.

And, May you know the love, joy and freedom that is your inheritance as the children of the Living God. Amen.

IMG_2407
Community of the displaced, outside town.

A local pastor fills a truck with small stoves, blankets, mattresses, other relief items…. and a handful of foreign guests.  We leave supplies at a few apartments– some decent, some dark.  We bring other supplies to tents on the outskirts, tasting the same dust that blows into the faces of those who live there.

Then we stop at a pile of concrete walls with a roof.  It may be a house someday, but for now its floor is rubble, its windows and doors empty holes.  A dusty, broken couch, floor mats, a woman, and five children occupy one room.  A mother of seven lives in the other.

The second woman is on our distribution list for the day.  Her oldest, a ten-year-old boy, silently helps carry “welcome kit” items to the room where his family sleeps.  Their neighbor was not on the list for today, but when we start unloading supplies for her too, the boy helps– he is bigger, after all, than the oldest of her five children.

IMG_2402
“Welcome Kit” supplies for distribution to refugees.

 “We have only been outside the camp for two days,” the boy’s mother told me.  “It was a bad situation.  Much illness, very little water, very little food.  I was afraid.”  She is thin and tall.  And she is determined.  “I will be renting an apartment soon,” she says.

The women kiss my cheeks and we say goodbye with the blessing of this culture: “God be with you.”  I climb in the back of the truck and have nothing left to say.

On the bus ride home to my cozy basement, just a few hours distance, I try to understand what He said: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst… those who mourn… the poor.”

I remember the rest: “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and glorify God…”

And if, after meeting these displaced families, I am more uncomfortable, angrier at injustice, and crying more over the pain of this world, I hope I can also be a little more of a “fool”– believing, no matter how dark the night seems to be, that there is hope of bringing that light.

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.