(This is the second installment of a new fictional series. You can begin at the first installment by clicking here.)
The next morning began very early, as they always do here. There was breakfast to be cooked and paperwork by the droves to be completed. I saw Sarah and the little one, Ada, at breakfast. I explained that I had to complete several things for work, but that I would come find her when I was done.
A few hours later, having been relieved by a local volunteer, I went to spend time with Sarah. I found her in her room, reading the Qur’an. Ada slept peacefully in a bassinet on the floor. Sarah smiled when she saw me and invited me into her room. We sat around the small round table near her window.
“I brought you some water. Ada seems to be sleeping well,” I said.
“Thank you. Yes, she is catching up on months of stress and too little sleep,” Sarah replied.
“How about you?” I asked. “How are you feeling this morning?”
“I’m ok. Everything about my life is surreal and has been for so long. I have a hard time relaxing.”
“That certainly makes sense. I’m amazed by all you have been through. I read your history last night. I hope you don’t mind.”
“No, I’m glad. It will save me the telling.”
We both sat in silence and let the weight of her history wrap itself around the room.
“Sarah, you speak English very well. Your papers didn’t mention how you became educated. Do you mind me asking?”
“I don’t mind. My father was a very wealthy man and he made sure that all of his children were educated by a western teacher that he hired to live in our home. We were very fortunate. Very few children, and even fewer girls, receive an education where I am from. In the end, it didn’t matter though. My fate was inescapable.”
“What do you mean, inescapable?”
“Well, when the war came most of us were more educated than the rebels but while intelligence may prevail over time, a gun prevails in an instant. Reason and argument were not entertained. Obedience was the only allowed response – as you have read.”
“Yes. Your story… I can’t imagine. I am so sorry.”
Again we sat, letting the silence swallow my apology and bear witness to the absurd inadequacy of words. There were never words that measured up to the pain.
After a while I asked, “You said you had some questions last night. I’m ready to talk about those if you are still interested?”
“Yes, I am. I hope you don’t mind my request. I thought, perhaps, it was too bold of me after you left last night.”
“Not at all. My concern is just that I may not have answers that satisfy you. But I think the best thing to do is to dive in and see how I can help. I think they told you that you would be here for a couple of months at least, so we have time. We don’t have to rush through everything today.”
“Will you be here for the next few months, too? Do you not have a home in America?”
“I do have a home in America, but I’m here for another six months. If we can’t get through everything in that time, then I can guarantee that I’ll have answered everything I’m capable of answering.”
We both laughed nervously.
“Tell me what you are wondering about.”
With a deep breath, she began, “We read the newspapers in the camps. There was always a tattered paper making the rounds and being read to those who couldn’t read themselves. So we have been following the arguments in American about whether refugees will be allowed sanctuary. Many, including me, have been surprised by….,” she paused for quite some time.
“Go on,” I said.
“I’m not sure how to explain what surprised me. I guess, well, what I know of Christianity and Jesus made me believe your country would welcome us. What I know of your history, too. Many of us grew up hearing about the opportunity available in America to anyone who works hard. The ‘American Dream’ we heard was for anyone. Growing up in a closed culture with very little opportunity, many of us saw America as a land of hope. So, I guess my question is – What has changed?”
I sat looking at her. Her huge brown eyes so full of confusion, pain, and mixed still yet with hope. I could hear Ada breathing steadily as she slept. I smiled as a tear fell down my cheek. What has changed? Everything has changed.
“I’m glad we have months, Sarah. I think it may take months. I’m going to try and answer your questions, but I have to tell you that I can only tell you my perception of what is going on. The questions you have are heart questions, and I cannot see into anyone’s heart but my own, and even that is suspect at times. But I’m going to try, ok?”
“Yes. I know that you are just one person, but I’ve been wrestling with so many questions for so long. I’m just glad you are willing to listen and try.”
“Ok. The first answer is actually fairly easy and one I’m sure you know. People are afraid. The terrorists who attacked our country in 2001 and the Muslim mass shooters since have instilled a very primal fear in people. Many are scared that no matter how well our screening process is for refugees we may still be shepherding people into our country who will then begin recruiting and plotting to kill on a massive scale.”
“Yes, I did understand that this fear was very strong. I understand the fear, too. I mean, I’ve lived through exactly what is feared, right? I’ve lived through extreme religious fanatics coming into a peaceful town and killing so many. I understand fear, Addy. They killed… They killed my babies,” she ended in a whisper.
“At the same time though, last week in the camp…did you hear about the little one and her mom who died?”
“Yes, I did.” I couldn’t say anything more. A young mother had given birth in the night and both the baby and mother had been found in the morning, dead from exposure. It wasn’t the first time, either. There was just so many here. It was overwhelming.
“So you know what is happening. You see how many of us are dying to be safe. You know that we fear the same thing and we are dying trying to escape. Literally, Addy, we are dying to escape.”
“I do know, Sarah.”
“I know about your God. I’m one of the few that I’ve ever known who has actually read your bible. I know that your God instructs you to take care of the stranger. The story of the Samaritan – aren’t I a modern day Samaritan, Addy? Isn’t Ada?”
“I think you are, Sarah. It is why I’m here.”
“Yes, this is not about your heart though, Sarah, it is about the heart of your country. The heart of your leaders. Explain to me their hearts.”
I sat and looked out the window at a grey and cold winter sky. I prayed as I looked out. I prayed for the words that could explain a contradiction that I did not understand.
Finally I began speaking.
“I can’t explain it, Sarah. I can not explain it. I have had this same conversation so many times before I came here – except that I sat in your chair and asked people I’d known my whole life those same questions. They never answered in a way that penetrated my heart and I know that there is no way I can answer that will satisfy yours.
The thing that did change for me was when I finally realized that I was asking the wrong question. The question wasn’t – How can other people believe in Jesus and still say we shouldn’t help? The question was – How can I know that there is real risk and yet still feel like I should help?”
I became quiet then as I re-lived the tension filled conversations with my family as I told them I was leaving to come here for a year. Sarah sat with me and waited.
“Sarah, the only thing I can do is explain why I feel the way I do and to tell you that I am not alone. There are many who also feel this way. Even some of those who are saying no to refugees want to find a way to say yes.
I worship a God who commanded I love other people. Jesus said some form of ‘do not be afraid’ more than 21 times in our gospels. His second most frequent directive was to love our neighbors. ‘Do not be afraid’ and ‘Love your neighbor’ His two most frequent instructions. He admonished his disciple for raising a sword against the very ones who would kill Him. He said that he who lives by the sword, dies by the sword. He told us to overcome evil with good. This God I worship and Jesus I follow, they said that to love them is to love and care for you. One love cannot exist without the other.
And even though I believe this, it doesn’t require that I become naive. As you are aware, you were searched for weapons before you came into the shelter. The conversations you have had with everyone, including this one, will be recorded and analyzed to try and determine if you wish to cause anyone harm. You will stay here for months while we do our best to determine your intent. But our goal, is that once we are comfortable that you mean us no harm, we will find a country who will provide a safe home for you and Ada.
But Sarah, the fact of the matter is, even if I spent every day with you for months on end, you could hide your heart from me. We may very well determine that your are of no danger, place you in a country, and learn that we were wrong. Learn that you committed atrocities and had planned to all along. I had to figure out what to do with that possibility…”
“So, ” Sarah asked, “what did you decide? How did you end up here if even you fear me?”
“No, Sarah, no. I don’t fear you. I’m sorry, I know that this is not easy to hear. I’m just trying to answer your questions honestly. Please, understand, that I trust first – we start, you and I, with trust. Ok?” I took hold of her hand, “I don’t fear you.”
“Ok. Yes, of course. I’m sorry – it’s just so hard to go from eight months of life and death survival to intellectual conversations about strangers who fear me. I’m sorry, go on, this is exactly the conversation I need to have. Help me see how you moved from fear to helping.”
“I remember very clearly the exact moment it all became clear for me. One day a few months before I came here, I was talking with a friend who was making a convincing argument that we needed to shore up our borders and just insulate ourselves from any risk of radicals coming into the country.
We were sitting in a restaurant having this conversation when suddenly I looked out the large windows and saw a vision. Thousands of refugees huddled together. I could see men who looked just like the terrorists we had all seen on TV, but at the same time they looked just like the characters in the Bible stories I had watched on TV. I saw women holding their children. I saw toddlers crying and cold. Everywhere I looked were families and they were all looking right into me. From person to person I looked each one in the eye and I was not afraid. I didn’t see anything to fear. I only saw pain, hunger, fear, need – everywhere I looked, desperate need.
And then they were gone, replaced with cars and normal traffic. I sat with my eyes closed, still seeing those pleading faces in my mind.
Finally I spoke to my friend –
“I think you are right,” I said slowly, “I think that we might let some radicals slip in if we let all the refugees in, even if we are very careful.”
My friend sat back, relieved that I finally saw reason. He was so satisfied that I almost felt bad to go on…
“But,” I could feel the tension rising with that one small word, “I feel like, even if that happens, it’s better than doing nothing.”
He started to launch back into his argument.
“Listen,” I said, “you make sense. Truly, I understand what you are saying. And I know it sounds a little crazy and maybe even un-patriotic to disagree. But what if the refugees weren’t overseas? What if there were five-thousand refugees in the parking lot right now? What if they were out there right now and they were dying from hunger and exposure?
And what if I told you that twenty were absolutely radicals. Would you ask me to watch the five thousand die because if we helped them the twenty would kill us?
I don’t even need you to answer that because I’m telling you that would be a death to my soul.
I think in this exact moment I understand what Jesus meant when he said, ‘He who lives by the sword, dies by the sword.’ He didn’t mean not to own a sword. He meant not to live by the sword.
I think he meant that we can’t make decisions out of fear. Even if we have the biggest sword in the room. Because once we let fear make our decisions, we are living by the sword.
We can protect ourselves AND love the refugees and take care of them. I have to go help. I have to help because if I decide not to help to save my own life, it will cost me my soul.”
“Then, I thanked my friend, paid our bill, and left to make my plans to come here.
So, I didn’t move from fear to helping – I moved through fear to helping. It’s still right behind me and sometimes all around me. But for me, I felt like I was choosing between deaths – I could either physically die because I was loving people in a dangerous situation, or I could die spiritually because I did nothing to help innocent victims.”
Sarah and I were still holding hands over the small table. Our eyes filled with tears over the enormity of it all. She desperately wanted to hear that there was a way for my people to stop fearing her people, and I wasn’t able to give that to her. I desperately wanted her to understand that even the people rejecting her were good people, but it was impossible for her to see past her brutal reality.
And then a small whimper called out from the bassinet. Ada was hungry.
“I just want you to know that I love you and I am going to do everything I can to help you and Ada.”
“I know, Addy. I know you will. Thank you for talking with me. I need to take some time to think about everything you have said. Will you be able to talk again tomorrow?”
“Absolutely – every day.”
“I want to explain how the words of your leaders are being used to turn people to the enemy.”
“I’ve read a lot about that, but I would very much appreciate hearing your experience first hand.”
“And then maybe we can dream of what the world might look like if fear were not a part of it. Wouldn’t that be beatiful?”
“Oh it would, Sarah. Let’s talk about that, too.”
She turned and scooped Ada up from the bassinet. Ada saw her mother’s face and lit up with the joy that is innate in every baby I’ve ever seen. Innate as if we were all made from one beautiful image…
I stood, gently kissed the top of their heads, and asked softly, “What does Ada’s name mean in your culture?”
Not lifting her gaze from the beautiful little ones eyes, she replied, “Grace.”
Of course it does I thought, and I went to begin the supper preparations.
“Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy,” I prayed.