My daughter brings home sheets full of hard words for her to practice reading and writing. Some of her classmates are just hearing English for the first time in their lives, and they practice the ABCs. My daughter does not notice these differences, but I do. Yesterday, going to the classroom to pick up my daughter, I feel a hand clasp my shoulder. It is an older Somali woman, a grandmother, an ayeyo, there to pick up her two grandchildren. She doesn't speak any English. Her daughter has two little boys at home and just had another baby, so it is the grandmother who walks the two little Somali girls to school and back. She smiles so big at me, her face both ancient and young, she is so excited to recognize my bleached blonde hair amidst the masses. I say hello, I have been helping her learn the ABCs on Tuesday mornings. In the loud and chaotic hallways, children streaming every which way, we pick up our children. The teachers nod at my friend. They do not speak her language and she does not speak theirs, she is swimming in a world that is all new to her, that she is constantly shut out of. She corrals the little girls and they start the 3/4 mile walk back to the small apartment they all share, in the complex where we used to live. She walks slowly and steadfastly home, two small pink backpacks thrown over her shoulder, one of the bravest people I know.
Filtering by Tag: Somalia
The thing I like best about the apartments of my Somali friends are the colorful tapestries on the walls. The fabrics, draped everywhere, to give a little comfort and beauty in low-income spaces. Velvet posters and elaborate tea sets and woven mats and faux-persian carpets cover the walls. Low, luxurious couches line the walls. It smells of cooking oil and ginger and meat. There is probably a thermos full of chai, somewhere. There is most likely a TV in the corner, watching either PBS or Jerry Springer or possibly a video of wedding of a relative far away.
I have spent countless hours in such apartments. I sort of wrote an entire book about it. Sitting in awkward silence. Getting in the way of the day's activities. Trying to decipher bills and school memos for people. Going over homework that will never be fully absorbed. Watching Disney channel movies. Eating goat liver while sitting on the floor. Talking about families and relatives and catching up on all the gossip. Calling electricity companies and being put on hold for hours. Trying to sort out problems with money transfers, or helping older folks get onto Facebook, or troubleshooting broken cell phones. I am good at none of these things, but these hours spent being lost and confused and intrigued and welcomed inside these sacred spaces of East African life in the U.S.—they are the hours that changed me. They are the hours that made me who I am today.
Three men plotted to blow up such a space. A 120 unit apartment in Kansas where many Somali families lived. They planned to park trucks at all four corners of the apartment complex, the day after the presidential elections, and kill every man woman and child that lived there. These men were crusaders, they called themselves. The hatred in their hearts seems unthinkable to me, except that is no longer the right word. For Somali refugees, for instance, it is probably within their realm of normal thought that someone would try and harm them, try and ruin their way of life and kill their babies, that someone would want to exert their dominance in such a violent, horrific way. After all, such situations are why so many had to flee Somalia in the first place, so they are not new to this situation. But I am. I have never known before what it feels like when friends of mine are targeted for death, for hatred, like they are bugs to be squashed. I have never known what is feels like to be acutely aware that it is my people, my culture, that wants to eradicate others. Or maybe, just maybe, I have known. I just never wanted to admit it out loud. That white males are the single most likely terrorist group of our time. And yet they are the ones who I was taught to look up to, to learn theology from, to uphold as the bastions of family virtues and values. And now, all around me, I see the opposite. I see my culture being so vocal in their lust for power, the belittlement of women and immigrants and Muslims and people of color, I see a culture that has betrayed me and just about everyone I love.
Here’s how I move forward:
I think about a few weeks ago. Visiting a friend who is a refugee from Afghanistan. She brings out trays of food to her coffee table, smashed in-between two overstuffed couches. She gives us pistachios and cake and candies wrapped in cellophane paper, dates and large glasses filled to the brim with cranberry juice. My children are ecstatic, eating the sugary items with great joy as I try not mind the inevitable crash I will have to deal with later. My friend has her oldest daughter take a picture of me and her and my children. It’s for my mother, she says, so she will know I have a friend who visited me for Eid. I felt very small in that moment; I hadn’t even remembered that it was the Eid-al-Adha holiday. Technically it was the next day, my friend told me, but she decided to celebrate a day early once I showed up, just so she wouldn’t have to celebrate it alone. I was happy to fellowship with her, to chat and laugh and eat the festive food. But I was also acutely aware that I had just happened to stop by on accident, a whim, to give a reminder about some school related item. What if I hadn’t stopped by? Would she be alone that day, like so many others? Would I be alone in my own house, unaware of the trials of others?
The great wells of cultural isolation, the ocean of loneliness we all swim in—it overwhelms me. So I keep doing the only thing I know how to do: I knock on doors and sit on couches. The apartments of refugees are where I am doing battle for the light. I am fighting for my neighborhood, my community, and ultimately, my country.
If I lived in Garden City Kansas, I might have resided in that very apartment complex. Those are the kinds of spaces I am obsessed with, that I love, that fill me up and open my eyes to so many new experiences. Here in Portland, I lived for years in what was considered to be our own Little Somalia. If these men had lived here, me and my children and my husband might have been blown up. This does not fill me with fear, because it is still just a theoretical. And yet it is turning out to be a much more plausible fear than one that any of my refugee neighbors would ever harm me.
My country was founded on white supremacy, the belief that the white western way of operating in the world is superior to all others. The results of this underlying assumption that undergirds nearly everything of our country ranges from benign naivety to micro-aggressions to men plotting to kill hundreds of people based on their race and religion. If this election season has shown us anything, it is that white supremacy is alive and well in our hearts and minds, and always has been. It’s been jarring and depressing for people like myself, but this season is not without its own silver lining. Only what is brought into the light can be dealt with. And here we are, a blazing light being shown on the ugliness within. It’s time to figure out how to be white in a society which elevates us and denigrates others. It’s time for radical hospitality, empathy, and action. It’s time to give up positions of power and influence and platforms and listen to the voices who have been saying all along that there is another way. It’s time to mourn how oppressive white supremacy is, how anti-gospel and anti-Jesus it is. It’s time to start fearing for our own souls. People say they are scared of refugees, scared of Muslims, scared of foreigners and protestors and immigrants and activists. But these are the ones who have shown me another way. They have taken my fear and my despair and turned it into something else: they have turned it into hope.
Today a storm is hitting Oregon. It is wet and dark and rainy and the winds are starting to pick up. If the power goes out I will be worried about all of my friends in apartment complexes. Do they have water? Will they feel scared? And I realize they have survived so much more than me, they will survive a few days without power, a little bit of flooding, but still—I pick up a few extra gallons of water just in case. They would do the same for me, and more, in a heartbeat. They watch out for me and my family. As I grieve my own community—Christian men defending assault and xenophobia and outright racism—I find comfort in the safe spaces of the apartments of my friends and neighbors.
Survivors teach us. They teach us how to continue on, how to rebuild lives, how to exist in a world where people want you harmed, or worse. They are also the watchmen of our culture, and they are the first to suffer as leaders whip up aggression and fear.
Please keep our refugee and immigrant neighbors in your prayers. If you attend a church, or are a leader in a church, please consider contacting your local mosque and asking how you can support their community in this time of violent words and violent action. Contact your local refugee resettlement program and ask how you can volunteer or help with Muslim refugees, to let them know that we have a greater capacity for welcome than for hate.
Maybe someday, you too will find yourself in a similar apartment, a similar couch. This is the only strategy I have for these days and times, and in the end I think it is the only one that will work.
It's been a rough few weeks on the internet. I have wanted to write about violence, #yesallwomen, abusers, rape apologetics, and #howoldwereyou; instead I wrote an essay about WIC.
Of course, it really isn't about WIC (or Whole Foods for that matter). It's really about a much bigger issue that creeps into my bones: how much I would like to forget about the most vulnerable. In my life, there have been a few times I have been confronted with this, and in the end it is better to face it than explain or medicate or wish it away. The world has always had a hierarchy that was very much at odds with the kingdom of God, and it still continues to do so. Every day I see the fruit of this, teaching English to women who were never allowed to step foot inside a classroom before--due to outright discrimination or due to the constraints of crushing poverty.
I suppose this piece comes out of a renewed sense of wondering how our family is going to grow and the frailties inherent in all of our options. I am also thinking about the meals my daughter eats at the park, all the children who come to get fed. I am thinking about my own #howoldwereyou story, which I would much rather forget. I am thinking about a God who is so relentlessly for the vulnerable that I feel nearly swallowed up in his love.
So it's not really about WIC. But it is about the good news, for people who tend to not experience very much good in our current world.
Here's the beginning of the piece:
Thus says the Lord: Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place. - Jeremiah 22:3
The other day, I walked into a Whole Foods to pick up a few items, my WIC vouchers in hand. I have the luxury of thinking carefully about my food purchases. My husband and I do not want to support the torture of animals, and we do want to put money back into the hands of our local economy. We try to eat more in-season, locally, organic, fair-trade. We still, however, sit somewhat close to the poverty line, and we have had to make a few sacrifices. Less meat, more beans. Rice and pasta to tide us over. Eating what is on sale, doing without non-essentials like alcohol or snack foods.
The WIC vouchers help too (especially in more expensive stores like Whole Foods). I wandered the aisles, looking at the beautifully stocked shelves, until I found a clerk at the back of the store. “Do you participate in the WIC program?” I asked. He had never heard of it before, but his female co-worker was sure that the store did. I didn’t see any of the tell-tale blue stickers placed under the proper cereal boxes or bags of dried beans, but I took her at her word. As I queued up to pay and saw the look of confusion on the cashier’s face (male, hipster glasses) when I handed over my voucher, my stomach started to sink. As the line piled up behind me I tried to explain what the WIC program was.
The boy was interested, but he had never heard of it. He called his manager and confirmed what I already knew. Whole Foods did not participate in the program. I left my small bag of groceries at the register and walked out the door, trying to keep my smile bright. I went home and e-mailed the customer service team, who responded to me within several days. “Unfortunately,” they wrote, “we cannot participate in the WIC program” due to conflicts with “quality” in regards to specific products such as infant formula. It was short, conciliatory, dismissive. It was clear that they did not need my business, nor the business of anyone who found themselves in need of a little assistance when feeding their children.
The e-mail brought me back into those harrowing first months of my daughter’s life: due to a vicious medical emergency, she was born nearly 2 months early and I was left without the ability to breastfeed her. I was sad and shaken up by my traumatic birth experience, grieving the loss of my ability to feed my own child. I remembered the price of formula, the staggering realization that it would cost us upwards of $150 a month. Due to both my medical emergency and the financial strain of losing work hours, WIC was a godsend in the area of feeding the baby. I had never felt more vulnerable in my life, both physically and financially.
In a flash, as I deleted the e-mail from Whole Foods, I was reminded of my vulnerabilities all over again. And I did not like it.
Go on over to Christ and Pop Culture to read the rest.