#resist Denial

It is amazing how a single exchange in a conversation can change your life. 

A teacher saying “good job” about a project you worked your butt off on, a stranger screaming a racial epithet on a subway, or that special someone saying “I do.” Each of these examples must conjure up something similar in your memories, and you can trace how that one exchange has been a part of directing you to where you are today. 

If someone had told me a year ago that I’d be spending most of my days helping Syrian refugees to make a life for themselves in America… I admit with all due humility that I wouldn’t have been too too surprised, but I would not have believed it if someone predicted the draconian extremes that the American give would try to go to harm these people–let alone succeed in any of them. 

Words Cut

In the eight months I’ve been doing this work, I frequently recall a conversation I had theee years ago. I was serving my first year on the PTA of my children’s K-3 school, and I was the PTA’s representative on the School Leadership Team (SLT). 
PTA members (not just me) expressed concerns over the school partnering with Chick-Fil-A on fundraisers. Our school district is mostly liberal, and many parents did not want any school activities to be associated with a company whose president was openly hostile toward the LGBT community. 

When I brought this up as an agenda item at the SLT meeting, a parent member said, “We don’t want to upset any of our families who share those (CFA’s president’s) beliefs.”

My response may have seemed knee-jerk, but it was not. I carefully considered any possible reactions before I said, “So we don’t want to upset bigots and homophobes?”

Hands flew up with a chorus of “Whoa!” and “There’s no need for insults!”

I did my best to keep my cool as I fired back with, “I am not insulting anyone. I’m just calling it like it is.”

Never Give Up. Never Surrender. 

If the words “bigot,” “racist,” “sexist,” or homophobe hurt someone’s feelings, that does not make that person a victim. The sting of those words is not the same as the stabbing pain that the word “nigger” causes a black person, “chink” for an Asian, “fag” for a gay person, “bitch” for a woman,  or “wetback” for a Mexican. The bigot may deeply believe that the hurt they feel is equivalent, but people of conscience must not allow this belief to persist. 

One’s religious beliefs do not justify bigotry, nor does one’s anger at a minority group’s perceived unfair advantages. 

Sexism, racism, and homophobia are forms of violence. We must call this violence out when we see it, we must persist in labeling it as violence, and we must not allow the perpetrators to turn things around on us. 

We don’t have to use words like “bigot.” There are many ways of attempting to reason with these people, and I applaud those who are able to do so peacefully and lovingly, even when things get ugly. But if we feel the need to point things out so bluntly, we must do so confident in our moral authority.

Many vulnerable humans depend on it. 

#Resist Bigotry

The current regime is growing like a malignant metastatic cancer, threatening to kill democracy with each passing day. 

Resistance is a moral imperative. On today’s agenda: Contact your representatives and tell them to oppose the nomination of the racist Jeff Seasions to the SCOTUS. 

From Aleppo to Atlanta

Over the past month, I have become increasingly involved in helping Syrian refugees to resettle in the Atlanta area. I have been working through a local churchbut also with a loose but increasingly more organized group of neighbors, and on my own–to secure housing, pay bills, fill out paperwork, find transportation, get English tutoring, get children enrolled in school, and so many more necessary tasks just to get families up to a basic standard of living.sign01

Two months ago, an extraordinarily generous realtor offered to allow a mother and daughter from Aleppo to move into a house that she was going to renovate and turn over. She and our group of volunteers assessed the amount of money needed to make the place comfortable, and we set up a GoFundMe campaign to raise $10,000 to make the necessary repairs and upgrades.

So far, the campaign has raised over $10,000!

I’m sharing my latest campaign update on TubGoat:

I have my phone notifications set to make a cheery alert sound every time this GoFundMe campaign gets a donation. It has made my day, every day for the past two and a half weeks, when my phone chimes again and again–and again!

This group of volunteers and neighbors have raised enough to cover the necessary repairs, and there is probably enough left to cover the utility bills for at least six months. Thank you all from the bottom of my heart! I have witnessed the tears of gratitude from Em Mohamad and Khawla. You have made a huge difference in their lives; you have given them a chance to make it on their own.

There are many other refugee families who have run out of the scant financial assistance provided by the government. Only 10% are fortunate enough to get a church, college organization, or other groups to help them out.

I urge you all to share links of online fundraisers that you find for such families.

Thank you again.

A Plea On Behalf of Refugees 

Refugee families receive enough government rent assistance to last three months, and food stamps and medicaid benefits don’t last forever. Even families that don’t speak English, have medical issues, or suffer PTSD because they left a country that’s being destroyed by a despot are expected to be self-sufficient after only a few months. 
Only one out of ten families get a co-sponsor: a group or church that works with the resettlement organization to provide assistance in whatever ways it can. The other 90% of families either find work and get by, or they must rely on the kindness of others to survive. 

A group of volunteers–some affiliated, some not–met with four different Syrian refugee families last night, all of whom really need some of that kindness of others right now. They all have children, and they all need money to buy food and pay bills. They need volunteers with time and cars to drive them to appointments. They need people to look over all these things they get in the mail that are written in the language they don’t understand, and help them figure out what they need to do to keep from getting evicted or having their electricity shut off. 

Hundreds of you have been so amazingly generous when I have asked for help before. My hope is that we can spread the net wider, and bring in people like you all–people who see how bad things are getting in the world and want to do  good–but who are still looking for ways to help.

Would you please pass this message along to anyone who might be able to help in some way? Especially people, businesses, and groups in the Atlanta area who can help out in person.

I will provide my contact information on request. 

Thank you. …again.

Stepping Up

The results of the US presidential election were a shock to many of us, and while we don’t know exactly what it means for the status and safety of refugees here, and those waiting to come here, we must admit that the outlook is not great.

When I went to the home of my Syrian friends on the morning of November 9 to pick up their nine year-old son for school, his father was in the driveway, talking to a sympathetic neighbor. What could we tell these folks who came here to flee the violence of war, when every credible national and international news outlet says that the election of a serial bigot, compulsive liar, confessed misogynist, and vocal hater of Muslims will lead to increased difficulties for every person in the US who is not a wealthy white Christian male?

I told the boy’s father that everything would be okay. The words caught in my throat. They tasted of bile. But I didn’t know what else to say. If I were them, I’d have been freaking out, and sometimes a horrible lie is lifesaving medicine.

Later in the day, I drove the family to meet with friends from Syria who live two towns over. One family arrived a few weeks before my friends, the other family — a young a couple with three young children — arrived only three days before the election.

I was the only English speaker in the room, and I only know a handful or Arabic words. We all drank thick, unsweetened Arabic coffee as the laughter of our children permeated the curtained windows. Inside, there was no laughter. Voices shifted chaotically from frightened to angry to desperate. I didn’t understand a single word, except for the name of He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Mentioned, and when that name was spoken, it was spoken with a contempt that needed no interpretation.

Many of my caucasian friends (I am Asian-American) tell me that things will be fine, that I can move on from my rage and frustration, and that I should focus now on building bridges.

But I remember the harassment and fear of growing up as The Other during the 70s and 80s in an overwhelmingly white, lower-middle class New Jersey suburb. Last month’s election brought back some of those buried memories. I noticed that I was rubbing my knees, which have scars on top of scars from being shoved from behind (racists don’t dare attack from the front unless they’re in a mob) to the ground, as my schoolmates screamed “Chink!” What must it be like for someone to experience that kind of treatment from the man who in less than two months will be the president of the country in which they live?

Here is what I know: The millions of good people in this country have not stopped being good. People of conscience have been stepping up since then, and stepping up big. From a man in the deep-red state of Texas reassuring Muslims that they belong, to a customer letting a Muslim waiter know that she is glad he’s here. At Standing Rock, US veterans stood between hostile law enforcement and protesters, and when safety was assured, they begged the forgiveness for the war crimes of the US against the tribal nations. The shit is hitting the fan, but good people are picking up sponges, mops, and buckets.

It will be a struggle, and it will be difficult even as those of us who live relatively safe lives will struggle with things like increasing insurance premiums and decreases in educational standards, but we will persevere. Not only that — we will help others to persevere.

I make no illusions that I can build bridges between myself and those who seek to demolish them. But I am inspired to commit to building bridges between others who will work for the safety and prosperity of refugees, and the safety and prosperity of others who are in harm’s way because of the election of a demagogue.

I start with the simple gesture of putting a safety pin on my shirt, as those in the UK have done to show solidarity in the face of Brexit. But the pin in the US is more than a symbol of solidarity. I declare myself a shield for those who may face harm in the coming four years and beyond. I will do no harm, but I will not allow harm to come to those who are targeted simply because of the circumstances of their birth.

Syrian Jitter Juice

Four months ago, I took over the co-sponsorship of a family of Syrian refugees. I’m told that my role is similar to that of a case manager in social work. I don’t know about that. All I know is that it’s completely different than anything I’ve done before. 

I don’t use the family’s names online. 

The photo is of a home-cooked Syrian meal, made with American ingredients.

Fourth-grader M is in the same school as my daughter L. I pick them both up at the end of the school day, and we drive back to M’s family apartment, located above the garage of a most generous family in a well-to-do oasis of liberalism in Georgia. Unless M’s mother is the only adult present, I am invited inside. If she is the only adult, it is not appropriate for me to enter.

We take this time to see if the children have any homework or papers to fill out and sign. If I can help with the homework, I do. Otherwise, I have Google Translate tell M to ask his teacher. He spoke no English before arriving in US from Syria, by way of four years in Jordan. As we work, M’s parents offer me Syrian jitter juice–a fragrant, dark-roasted coffee that is served black and, mercifully, without sugar. Syrians are a people of good taste.

On most days, the TV in the living room is playing Arabic or Indian music videos, dubbed Hollywood or Bollywood movies, or Arabic telenovellas. Yesterday’s televised entertainment was music. I don’t know enough to identify the artist, or even the genre. It doesn’t matter. It’s all good.

Home

The music didn’t last long. K (father/husband) had discovered a YouTube video (I can’t find it yet. All that comes up in searches is war footage) that he was eager to show me. It was filmed eight months ago, in the family’s home city of Douma, a suburb of the Syrian capital of Damascus. The videographer rides through the streets of Douma on motorcycle or Vespa, panning left and right to highlight points of interest or capture residents going about their daily business. Mostly, though, the scenery consists of similar dun-colored, four and five-story buildings that are familiar to anyone who pays attention to world news coverage of the Middle East.

After a minute or so of K and R (mother/wife) point and exclaim “House!” They owned two houses (Apartments? Condos?) in Douma.

It is easy for me to imagine this as a neighborhood in Florida or Southern California, with the desert-themed architecture and palm trees. It would be easy to imagine if every fifth block wasn’t the obvious scene of a bombing, with crumbling facades and rubble piles breaking the scenes of suburban domesticity. As of eight months ago, the family’s homes were intact.

The local mosque, an impressive circular building the size of a large city block, is gutted by missiles. The zoo, less than a mile from the family’s home, is crumbling and abandoned, its rusted gates twisted and overgrown with climbing weeds. I don’t want to think about what happened to the animals; it’s even harder to think about that than it is to think about the thousands of humans who’ve been killed at the hands of other humans.

Douma was the scene of a 2012 battle in which government forces attacked and killed protesters. The scenes in the YouTube video of folks shopping, eating, and hanging out at the corner bodega belie the area’s recent history of mass destruction and death.

“Z school!” (Z is M’s older sister) 

“My work!”

R and K proudly point out places that were once a part of their daily lives.

At one point, the camera pans to the side of a ten-story building. The entire side of the building is covered with the image of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad. Young M looks up at the screen and sticks out his tongue. R looks down and shakes her head. K lets out a “Tsk” sound as his face turns from a smile to a grimace.

I feel anger and frustration at a man whose greed and hubris have resulted in my friends’ misery. I feel sad that their home is so far away—not only in physical distance, but in time. What they loved is gone.

As we all would, I make my daily attempt to empathize with my friends.

Making It About Me

I try to imagine what it could be like to have to flee my home, for my children to leave their schools, for our family to leave behind everything and everyone. I try to imagine how I would get along in a place where I didn’t speak the language, where I couldn’t eat most of the food, and where I had to rely on strangers for everything from rides to the grocery, to reading my children’s homework, to figuring out American shoe sizes.

I can only attempt to imagine and empathize, because these things are far beyond my experience. No matter what kind of fucked-up things have happened to me in my time on this planet, it doesn’t approach the fucked-upedness of what Syrian refugees have gone through.

I imagine discomfort every time I asked my hosts or a volunteer for a ride to Kroger. I imagine confusion and frustration when people converse around me and I can only understand one out of every twenty words. I begin to attempt to try to imagine the depression caused by having my family ripped from everything and everyone we know.

I imagine I might sometimes feel like a zoo exhibit, even as those who cause me to feel that way give generously to make my family safe and comfortable. I imagine that gratitude would be overwhelming, as would resentment. And depression.

How would I want to be treated when I feel those things? I would want to be treated like any other friend and neighbor–in this neighborhood where homes are only destroyed when a new buyer wants to build something bigger, where we are able to look at images of our president with respect, and where half the people on the block haven’t moved out because they live in terror that they may wake up in the morning at the bottom of a pile of rubble. Or not wake up at all.

So as a friend and neighbor, I enjoy my cup of jitter juice. I groove to the beat of the darbuka. I do my best to understand today’s Common Core lesson. I ask if I can drive anyone to Kroger. And I do my best to listen, even when I have no clue what is being said.

Bridging the Divides

What I’ve learned from coordinating a refugee co-sponsorship:
It is 100% a team effort. That team includes the refugees. They’re the ones working the hardest. 

Google Translate is your friend. It’s a friend who’s drunk 24/7 and has Tourette’s, but it’s still a friend. 

Email is obsolete, though MailChimp™ makes a damn good case. FaceBook groups and IM–lord forgive me–are more effective for group communication. 

Having too many volunteers has its problems, but they’re good problems to have. I’ve learned to be a better delegator. 

Big-ass volunteer projects are a great way to make new friends. 

War fucking sucks. I knew that already, but it’s a good thing to re-learn. 

Always remember to seek the counsel of the wise and experienced. Stay humble. It’s easy to do when you have coffee every day with people whose home country is a flaming pile of rubble. 

Bowling is the great unifier.

Respect for everyone’s choice of spiritual lifestyle is a moral imperative. When the time comes to get to work, whether or not someone believes it’s God’s work doesn’t matter. We all sweat together.