Tag Archives: Zaina

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.

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Love Poem

Blue eyeliner framed her brown eyes, complimenting the vivid blue scarf that outlined her face.  The brightness of those colors and the youthfulness of her features were striking, especially in contrast with the seriousness of her expression, and the dullness of her tone, as she answered me.

I had told her and her friend that we would be doing a unit on “Love Poetry” at the university.  Would they tell me their thoughts on romance, men, love?  What are you looking for in a husband?  

What do you think men are looking for in a wife?

The first question drew dreamy looks, produced smile lines at the corners of their eyes; these vanished rapidly when they came to the second question.  “They want someone beautiful… dependent… to listen to them…”

Dependent?  I asked.

In a low, flat voice, she said, “They don’t want us to be strong.”

A couple of days ago I was in the middle of teaching one of our center’s English classes, when I was interrupted by surprising news from home.  A moment later, I was announcing to twenty Arab women and men something that most of our friends in the US hadn’t heard yet: my sister’s baby had arrived early.  It was time to celebrate.

They sang “Happy Birthday” in Arabic and English.  One went and bought sweets for everyone, and a cake, with the inscription “Happy Birthday Eveln.”  Not exactly how her parents spell it, but he tried.IMG_3839

I felt the joy with my students, passed the congratulations of the community center on to my sister, and went home and cried because I was not with them physically.

Then I texted Zaina.  She hears others’ stories differently since she lost her job, her homeland, and her security in a neighboring war.  She listened to my good news and my grief, offering words of blessing for the baby, congratulations to me as an auntie, and consolation in the challenge of being far apart.  Her capacity for compassion is strong within her sorrow.

On my niece’s birthday (although I didn’t know it was that at the time), my university class had analyzed Sylvia Plath’s poem Metaphors.  They tried to follow each clue:

I’m a riddle in nine syllables, 

An elephant, a ponderous house,

A melon strolling on two tendrils.

“Pregnancy!” they guessed, correctly.  The poem finishes with some less whimsical metaphors:

…I’m a means, a stage, a cow in calf.

I’ve eaten a bag of green apples,

Boarded the train there’s no getting off. 

The speaker seems to have lost her own identity; she has no meaning except as a “means” for the new.  What gives a person identity?  I asked.  What makes your life valuable? 

Hanna, a top student (and also the mother of three teenagers), answered, “Maybe her society told her that her worth was only in having children.  Maybe she didn’t like it, and that’s why she wrote this poem.”

Society often tells us what would make us valuable– whether it’s having kids, possessing lots of stuff, getting some prestigious education… I said.  But it doesn’t always give the right answers.  

What do YOU think?

“I think it is not about what we produce,” said Hanna, “It’s not about producing kids, or about work, or about money.  It’s about doing our purpose.  When God made Adam and…” She faltered for the English name; her holy book has a similar story of creation to what I know.  “Eve.  He gave them… both… a purpose.

Hanna knew that worth is defined by something more profound than opinions or circumstances.

Men– women– society– all sing loudly about what gives us value. Their melodies can be alluring, promising acceptance in exchange for acquiescence to their demands.  These demands can contradict, but sometimes, amidst all the dissonance, we can’t hear any other voice.

But there is an anthem, begun before creation, and its rhythm is restoration.  It’s a ballad of weak ones strengthened, lost ones found, distant ones brought close, lonely ones placed in families, grieving ones granted joy.  A carol of deeper identity than whom we can please, how we can protect ourselves from hurt, or what we can produce.

This is the song I want my students, and my new niece– and you– to hear.  The song I resonate with in new ways, every season.   A love poem set to music.

Listen.

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.

 

 

 

 

Radical Welcome

“We long for the land,” she said. “The soil of home.” Anise chatted with us in the sitting room, one hand cradling a cup of coffee, the other steadying her infant daughter. Her parents had fled war in a neighboring country, when Anise was not much older than her baby is now.

Her identity is bound up in a land she only knows through her family’s stories, of Palestine.

Zaina, the hostess, carried heaping dishes of tabbouleh, vegetables, and hand-made pastries into the sitting room from the kitchen, which doubles as a bedroom for her two children. She sat down and listened as Anise’s stories continued. “My cousin tried to visit our homeland to see his mother before she died. They delayed him at the border for four days. When he got through, she was gone. Grief was strong. He had a stroke, and he has been paralyzed since.”

Anise retold her stories of woe and hunger for homelands with a flair that, from the surface, bordered on cheerfulness. She introduced us new listeners to her decades-old tales with great animation. Zaina’s face, however, grew cloudy, then dark. She burst into tears and ran into the kitchen.

Gathering tissues, Anise said to us in a matter-of-fact tone: “She fled Syria only eight months ago. It’s difficult. We all long for our lands.” And she went to the kitchen to pursue Zaina.

My second-story view this week is from an apartment in the United States, where I am staying with good friends. We are grieving the transition of a beloved woman of faith from this life to the next. Her husband sent me a text in the weeks leading up to her death, letting me know specifically that he was praying for me.

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Upside-down, isn’t it? The displaced being hosts. The grieving giving prayers. The wounded bringing wholeness. Since moving eight months ago, I have become an adult who needs to re-learn communication; a member separated from a body; an extroverted person who spends great portions of time in quiet.

It’s changing my perspective.

There is this story about giving food to the hungry, drink to those who thirst, a visit to those in prison, and a home to the lonely. Jesus said, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” In this upside-down time, I’ve been starting to see this story through the lens of the “least of these.”

For I was hungry for companionship, and an Arab family asked me to spend every night of their holidays with them, eating and playing games. I was thirsty for knowledge of the language, and new friends patiently repeated themselves until my mind was sated, unable to hold more. I was sick, and the women in the community center’s wellness program offered seven different cough remedies. I was a stranger to their country and their language, and they kept pouring coffee and urging me to eat more, kept insisting that I remain with them.

Last month, a family of Syrian refugees invited some friends and I to their home. From the second story of an apartment building on the border, they have watched and waited more than a year for stability to return to their homeland. Over the elaborate meal they fed us, we asked them about rent and employment and heard the story that had become familiar: high rental costs, no jobs.

Back at Zaina’s, while Anise was comforting her in the kitchen, I had thought about the night before.  I had been alone in my house, crying out homesick and longing for my own “land.” And I realized that with my decision to move here, I was sensing some type of hunger, thirst, and what it meant to be alone– and that Zaina, and my other friends who have been displaced by war and division, experienced that pain with much less choice and a far greater depth.  Yet they were the ones feeding me, helping me learn the language, and inviting me into their families.

I carry them in my heart for these days that I am visiting in the United States. They exist on the borders, uncertain of rent but offering a meal to strangers. They bear longing and even pain– for lost soil, for absent loved ones– and still look up, seeing those around them who hunger and thirst.

Even when my soul thirsts– when I grieve– when everything feels unsettled– will I extend a radical welcome?

Reference Point. Or…The Dinosaur in the Hallway.

There is a dinosaur in the university.10342460_10203321969786695_2019027340608404385_n

Silver-spiked, short-armed, long-clawed. A protruding forked tongue. Eyes that are surprisingly mellow, belying his sharp fangs and reaching fingers.

I went to the university yesterday with my sister. I had asked her to come with me to meet some of the other teachers and my students, while I quickly handed in my grades for the semester. But trying to function in a language/university system that are still somewhat strange to me, my “quickly” translated into an hour and a half.

When we finally left the teachers’ office, I pointed at it. “See that?” I said to my sister. Her response: “Why?”

“I don’t know why there’s a dinosaur in the hallway. But let’s take a selfie.”

We took a picture and hurried in the other direction, before anyone could ask us what we were doing. As we left the university, I told her that the dinosaur had one other purpose. “Every hall here looks the same,” I said. “Nothing is hanging on the walls; the dinosaur tells me I’m going in the right direction.”

A point of reference keeps me steady in uncertain days. My dear friend, Zaina, approached me at the community center this past Sunday, after our fitness class. “I’m leaving in one week,” she said, the tears in her eyes belying the calm tone of her voice. “My husband has decided we need to go sooner than I thought.” Zaina and her family came because of conflict in their home country, and though she is afraid of going back, her loyalty to her husband is stronger than her fear.

Zaina’s friendship has been a point of reference for me, letting me know I am heading in the right direction. We ask each other questions and talk about dreams for the future; she lets me practice the stories I learn in Arabic. Her English fluency allows deeper conversations than I can have with many others yet, and she has become one of my closest friends.

When I said goodbye to Zaina, I gave her a book that has been a point of reference for me. “These are poems, mostly written by King David– he experienced war and loss. But he found steadiness in his faith.” I showed her the first one, and she read it aloud, in Arabic. “He is like a tree, planted by streams of water…”

Zaina’s plans changed; she will be here for a few more weeks. In the meantime, she is collecting notes from the people who marked her life here, words she can reference when this season ends. She gave me a note, as well. “I noticed the foreigner, but I didn’t know when I first laid eyes on you,” she wrote, “that you would be a friend who stays with me wherever I go.”

Some points of reference develop through time. Some through investment and effort. And some are given to us, as surprisingly and swiftly as a dinosaur in the hallway.