Guest Contributor Jennifer Lee | IG: @jennlee22 | Twitter: @jennlee22
Jennifer Lee is a Project Coordinator, wife, and mom. She passionate about refugee care, good books, and spending time outdoors with family as often as she can. This is her second post for She.ology, she wrote this post last year telling her story of making unlikely friends.
It was a bone-chilling, drizzly night in the uneventful span of days stuck haphazardly between the golden warmth of late-summer, and the far-off promise of a white Christmas. Late October in Idaho provides little wonder and amazement. We pulled up to a blue and gray, shed-sized coffee haven, strategically placed in a shopping center parking lot. We were greeted with blaring music and an overly demonstrative hipster-barista, shouting pleasantries as she perched in the frame of the drive-through window. Before we could even order our drinks, we were assaulted with a barrage of questions. “How is your day going?” “What are your plans for later?” “What are you dressing up as for Halloween?” It’s basically an introvert’s worst nightmare. I normally avoid this coffee chain, but this particular day, they unknowingly participated in crafting a surprising perspective on gratefulness that has forever changed my life.
Our friends had been in America for just four months, newly resettled from tumultuous Syria. We were slowly getting to know each other over trips to the grocery store, walks to the nearby park and many, many, many cups of strong, Syrian tea. Every outing was a lesson for them in simple English vocabulary and normal American customs. For us, it was a front row seat to a family valiantly fighting through the grief of leaving their home, embracing a people and place so unlike them, and investing in their future as citizens of an entirely different world than they had always known.
The long, cold months of winter in Idaho were rapidly approaching, and we knew the family would need warm clothes. We miraculously coaxed the mother of the family away by herself for the night, and took her shopping at Target, thanks to generous donations of gift cards from women in our church. Like every mother, she shopped first for the kids. They needed hats and gloves, underwear and tights. She shopped for her husband, making sure he had nice clothes for job interviews. With every item she picked out, she made it very clear how grateful she was. I’m pretty sure “Thank You” was intentionally the first phrase she mastered in English.
My friend, Kalah, is beautifully gifted with the ability to love across cultural lines and bring out the best in people of every race, religion and nationality. She is unintimidated by language barriers, and is master at explaining things with her hands. Her mom worked for many years for a refugee resettlement agency, so she had the opportunity to grow up with refugees from many different places, eat their food and play with their children. Her ability to be silly and bring out the fun in every moment is unmatched, and this night out with our new friend was no different. She made us try on winter hats and take selfies. She danced around clothes racks and pleaded with Amaal to try things on. And she insisted Amaal take us to the scarves, and teach us how to wrap them like she does, making our very own hijabs.
For a moment, I saw Amaal’s tired eyes soften from the weariness of trying to fit into a foreign culture, and embrace the familiarity of friendship. We somehow convinced her to buy a winter coat, some sweaters and a few new scarves just for herself. As we left the store, we decided to stop for coffee at the small drive-through joint in the parking lot. It was just before Halloween, so tacky, plastic spiders and billowy, cotton webs hung from the windows. Skeletons danced atop the espresso machines and orange and black crepe paper flapped in the wind.
We successfully endured the over-enthusiasm of our barista, answered all her questions and watched as she skipped away to make our drinks. I looked over at Amaal, and she was staring wide-eyed and smiling, the wheels of curiosity almost visibly turning in her head. She studied every detail of that odd place. One small tear rolled down her cheek, and she whispered “It is so beautiful,” with such wonder and emotion.
In that moment, I attempted to imagine what kind of world could be so horrible that this gaudy, strange display of American culture could bring tears to the eyes of the beholder. What horrific terror and despair would one have to experience to appreciate this display of simple playfulness and joy, and be utterly grateful for it? Was it my shallow heart and privileged experience of the world that left me annoyed at this sight, instead of in awe of its beauty?
Amaal has this adorable saying she now uses in her almost perfect English. “This life.” She usually says it with a slight shake of her head, in disbelief at how incredibly heartbreaking yet beautifully hopeful every part of “this life” seems to be. She’ll be telling us of her family still suffering in refugee camps in Syria, and somehow convey the appreciation and hope deep down in her bones that things will get better. She’ll share of their struggles with unemployment, learning the language, and providing for their family yet be deeply overwhelmed with gratitude for their new lives and new friends in our country. Throughout her remarkable life, her eyes have been trained to see the beauty in every tragedy. Her heart has learned to experience the joy in every sorrow. And every time I find it hard to conjure up gratefulness, seemingly elusive and hiding in plain sight, I think back to that October night and the many other times my friend has taught me the great paradox of laughter and tears that fill every moment of “this life”.
We are at one of the most vulnerable points in the worldwide refugee crisis, with over 70 million people forcibly displaced in the world, 26 million whom are refugees. The Trump administration has declared its intentions to set the refugee ceiling for our country at just 18,000 for the next year.
World Relief CEO Tim Breene responded: “We are heartbroken by the devastating ripple effect this drastic reduction in the number of refugees allowed into the U.S. will cause around the world. If America continues to systematically shutter the program designed to welcome and offer safe haven to human beings made in the image of God, we fear that other countries will continue to follow our example, doing less at a time when the number of refugees in need of protection globally is increasing. This proposed cut to the refugee resettlement program not only denies safety and freedom to people fleeing religious persecution, war and genocide, but also further dismantles our ability to demonstrate Christ-like hospitality toward the vulnerable.”
There are a few small steps you can take to get involved in making a difference during this crisis.
1. LEARN more about the issues surrounding refugees, immigrants and displaced people. https://worldrelief.org/refugees
2. ADVOCATE by contacting your representatives and senators in Congress to let them know your community welcomes refugees. Check out this website for contact information and a sample of what to say: http://www.rcusa.org/refugees-love-america
3. VOLUNTEER by supporting a refugee resettlement agency in your area or by befriending a local refugee family. Find the resources and contacts for your state here: https://www.acf.hhs.gov/orr/state-programs-annual-overview