The refugee images that won’t let us go

This morning, Louisa stood by our gnome, Christopher Robin, and smiled for a photograph. She held her lunchbox and wore her monkey backpack, all ready for the first day of day care. Her knobby knees, her cheese-ball grin: she’s so 3.

She’s not a baby. She’s a little person.

I held my cousin’s third baby last week, sweet baby Cora. For two hours I held that squirming, sleepy baby on my shoulder and in my arms. Her elbows and knees poked from beneath the gauzy blanket in the same way Louisa’s did from my belly. I didn’t want to let her go: all the warm fuzzy hormonal feelings flooded over me in a way they never did when I had my own babies, thanks to depression and sleep deprivation. (Plus, it’s compelling being an honorary aunt.) Sweet baby.

Memories of the first weeks of Louisa’s life came back, in and out with the news last week: refugees. Refugees, and a two-year-old drowned, washed up on a Turkish beach, and I cried more over that story than I have over news stories ever. I cried because the boy’s body reminded me of Louisa’s knobby knees, and because just two years on earth isn’t enough, and he spent his years in a dangerous place.

 

Oh, sweet baby.

It’s horrific, and holding a baby in my arms who is just as loved as the Syrian baby in his or her mother’s arms tonight, right now — it’s too much. God, it’s too much.

I cried, too, because it’s a home they were after: a safe place. Oh, sweet baby.

***

Louisa was a couple weeks old when we and our church in Wisconsin welcomed a refugee family from Burma to what I remember as the frozen tundra (“we like it a bit warmer,” the father told me that February). Oshkosh, the city that still holds my heart, is a Midwestern city like many others, only more so. It’s white, it’s cold seven months of the year, and its personality is torn between a distinctive downtown and a commercial corridor along a U.S. highway. Probably just a lot like every Midwestern town, only better.

Oshkosh

When word came that World Relief would be reopening its Oshkosh office, we as a church raised our hands to mentor a family. Other churches did, too, giving those mentored refugee families a boost to their successful transition. We had about two months, maybe less, to read a book about resettlement, form a team, and stock an apartment. We weren’t ready, but God’s a guy who knows abundance, and it all came together. Of course it did.

In the weeks leading up to the birth of my baby and the arrival of this new family, my friend Amy, my husband Dave and I corralled donations from our church family of mattresses, dressers, a toaster, a table, and enough food to stock a refrigerator. We put shampoo in the shower and sheets on the bed, and we waited as I waited for Louisa. All we knew were their genders and dates of birth; we knew there would be three: a mother, a dad, and a little girl.

They arrived at the small airport late in the evening one night, and by the time Dave made it home from their apartment, Louisa was curled on my chest, sleeping.

“How did it go? What are they like?” I whispered my questions over my baby’s back.

“It went great. They just kept smiling,” he said, and he talked with a light in his eyes I hadn’t seen since … well, probably since before I sprung the whole “Guess what, I’m pregnant” bomb on him (poor Dave).

Over the next few weeks, I drove the mom to language classes; our church celebrated a birthday and bought the dad a bike. We celebrated when he got a job, then a promotion. They gave us presents of food every time we visited, and we told stories and talked while our kids played together.

They were human beings with stories quite different from ours, coming to a (freezing cold) new place. They were sweet, tenacious. Once Dave wanted to teach the dad how to use public transportation in Oshkosh (“How hard can it be?” Dave said, peering at the bus schedule, because we never took the bus). But he didn’t, because the dad had already gone and taught himself. Little stuff like that: they quickly made the place home.

That was three-and-a-half years ago, and we’re not really in touch much, outside of Facebook. But we pray for them; we celebrated as they bought their first house in Oshkosh, right before Dave and I bought one here in Lansing. God, what an amazing story. Their daughter’s in school now. God, how wonderful.

And how wonderful for all the churches in Oshkosh who said yes?

***

We moved to Lansing months after we met their family, and we looked into refugee resettlement here. Confession: it never got off the ground. What made it easy in Oshkosh was the involvement of our local church, but now the fervor’s in my mind — I can’t erase the picture of the boy on the beach. Louisa reminds me with her knobby knees.

Why are the needs so great? Why do I feel this conflict won’t contain itself in Europe and the Middle East?

How can we as followers of Christ stand by? How can I not notice the line from the book of Esther: “For such a time …”

And how can we not be overwhelmed by the scale of this, the latest in a stretch of social justice crises abroad and in the U.S.?

Yet what can we do?

Dave’s been sending me links to articles about where to donate and how to help. I want more … What can we do? “What can we do?” I asked the ceiling a couple nights ago.

“I don’t know,” Dave said.

… You guys.

(I’m staying tuned to “We Welcome Refugees.” Join me?)

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