Tag Archives: listen

Press In

“Do you think we’ve visited long enough?” she asked me, quietly.  Flashed across my friend’s forehead was a wrinkle of concern.  I blinked back my surprise.

Full two hours earlier:  

Nine-year-old Hamza sprinted down the bannister-free stairs and into her arms.  “Miss Joanne!  Miss Joanne!”  His exuberance was equivalent to a winning goal-scorer in a World Cup finals match.

He seized her hand, leading his teacher– and me– proudly up to the second-story apartment (amidst her, “Be careful, Hamza– you don’t want to break your arm again on these stairs”), pausing at its broken-concrete threshold so we could slip off our shoes.  We entered in to kisses from mother, warm welcome from father, shy hello from sister.

Before we could sip the first cup of sweet tea, Hamza– from his position of love and honor at Joanne’s side– asked what they would be doing in school tomorrow.  “You have two more WEEKS of vacation,” Joanne laughed.

Hamza grinned.  “So what are we doing in two weeks?”

Last year, in a community center just a few hours away from my basement apartment, an informal “school” began with Joanne and three other teachers.  They provide free education to 30 displaced children, whose families dwell in apartments across this border town; the concrete of these homes is cold in the winter.  But it is better than the tents of the refugee camps, where most of them started out.  The war not only removed people from their native lands but also ravaged routines, like going to school.  So Joanne’s second-grade class includes students as old as 12.

Others have no place to go.  One mother arrived at the center on “registration day,” seeking help for her household, which included her 15- and 16-year-old daughters.  I asked if they were able to attend a school.  “They have not been in school for a year and a half– since we left home.”  She suddenly began to weep.  “Their future is gone.”

Just like I witnessed last summer, local leaders still fill trucks with mattresses, blankets, gas bottles, stoves, and now heaters.  Then they empty them, little by little, into the homes of the displaced.

IMG_4162One of the leaders, Baha, asked me to come with him for “distribution.”  Culturally, men should try to avoid going by themselves to a female-headed home (culturally, Baha also felt that as a woman i should not lift anything heavier than a blanket into the truck… but that’s a second story).  Many of those who registered for help, like the woman with the teenage daughters, have homes that fit this description; the husbands either remain in war-torn areas, or are dead.  So with another volunteer– to guard the truck while we were inside peoples’ houses– we headed out.

Since the temperatures had lowered in December, the sense of urgency had heightened.  During distribution, whenever we finished emptying a little bit of relief into one family’s home, several new families would gather around Baha to voice their requests.

Their cries would become more urgent, and their bodies press closer, as he climbed into the truck.  “Baha!” “Baha!”  I understood more of their stories than I had last summer: descriptions of the coldness of houses; urgent requests for Pampers or pills or preference over others already registered; reports of the number of children they had at home, in need…

Once in the cab, Baha did the opposite of my expectation: he rolled down the window.

He listened to each of them.  He recorded their needs and phone numbers in a notebook.  And he sang to himself as we drove away, mentally preparing to do it all over again at the next house… as he has been doing for four years.

Back at Hamza’s house, I tried to reassure Joanne that we had visited long enough.  She is hoping to see each of her students during school vacation.  But she knows that most families are not allowed to work; that they are separated from their relational networks; and that presence, that listening, matters.

So she takes her time.

How do you stay full inside when emptying yourself, over and over, into an ocean of want?  How do you listen when the stories pound like waves, individual surges of the same substance, over and over, threatening to wear down or drag under?

Hamza’s mother re-entered with a bag of spongey, pancake-shaped bread.  Half an hour more.  She filled a dish with thick cream and sugar.  Then she showed Joanne and me how to put a spoonful of filling in the middle of each pancake, crimping the edges by pressing them together.  “You have to seal it completely,” she cautioned us.

IMG_4167

My word for this year is “full.”  A week up by the border, and I am reminded that the only way to stay full is to press in deeply.

Because as I learned making this dessert… if you don’t fully press in, all you make is a mess.

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Listen (beyond the words)

“Forgive me– I don’t speak Arabic well yet.  I am new here.  I have been here about two months.”

Often I will introduce myself in the local language, prompting a flow of Arabic words that surpasses my comprehension.  So I make this little speech, and then say what I can.  And listen.

This week, 20 Syrian refugees came together at the community center.  Local Arab women, from our center’s fitness program, had talked about what it means to love others and what they could do to help. They donated clothes.  Then they organized and folded donations from others, and packed 41 bags to share with refugee families.  We invited these 20 women to come for a health seminar and– of course–  coffee, tea, and sesame cookies.

When I welcomed each lady in Arabic, and their response flowed past my comprehension, I made the speech.  “Forgive me, I don’t speak Arabic well yet…”  I added something extra: “But in America, I studied a little Arabic with a friend from Syria.”

Fast connections.  Warm smiles.  I even understood their response: one confirmed that my Syrian accent was still clear, and another insisted that I was “part American and part Syrian.”

Someone noticed the half-dozen young children, present with their mothers.  In record time, she assembled bags of kid-friendly snacks and chocolate milk, and deposited them into six delighted little pairs of hands.

With our own hands wrapped around coffee mugs, the fitness program ladies and Syrian women got to know each other.  One older refugee had been a mathematics professor at a university for 33 years.  “I got tired,” she told me, adding that she now lived with her youngest daughter.  Others named the cities from which they had come.  I recognized these cities from the news; they were sites of violent sieges and extreme civilian suffering.

Another woman told me her name, and I tried the question:  “What is your story?”  She shrugged, saw that I wanted to listen, and began.  I caught some fragments: war, house, destroyed, child… leg (these last two were repeated multiple times).  She did not need me to understand every word.  Even if I had, I think I would not be able to understand what she had been through.  So I listened.

I noticed three children, between three and five years old, contentedly munching from their snack bags.  They sat together.  Their feet dangled off of their chairs.  I attempted to talk to them, and they smiled, but were unsure of how to respond to the woman with long, yellow hair and words that tumbled.  The smallest got an idea, though.  Wordlessly– cheerfully– he offered me a chip.

I accepted.