erin f. wasinger

stories of loving our neighbors, discernment, & other hard things

Tag: refugees

Their story: Teaching players ‘what they’re capable of’

Damber Magar stands in his room surrounded by his sports trophies and academic certificates and diplomas at his home June 20, 2017 in Lansing. Photo by Dave Wasinger

Maybe the most important work of the Lansing Youth Football Club team isn’t what happens on the field.

Sure, soccer matters to the dozen and a half guys on the team. Almost every day the players carpool to Lansing’s Francis Park for two or three hours of practice. Occasionally they scrimmage teams from Grand Rapids. They train for tournaments in Detroit, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.

“This (team) is our passion,” said one of the team’s captains, Damber Magar. Like most of the players on this independent soccer team, Damber’s family are Bhutanese and came to Lansing as refugees from Nepal. Damber’s family was resettled through St. Vincent Catholic Charities in 2010.

At a practice this summer, their coach, Bai Lee, was especially working on positions with the boys and young men who’ve been playing the game since they were toddlers. Some of the players are brothers; a few knew each other when they lived in refugee camps, where children would crowd onto fields to play pick-up “football” games. Others practice with the team with little experience but a desire to connect.

“We don’t care if they don’t know how to kick the ball,” laughed Damber. “We will help them. … After a few months, a few years, they start playing well. They can handle themselves when they’re playing with other people. We can see their skills.”

But after practice, he said, “(the captains) try to tell them not about soccer, but about life.”

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Their story: ‘America offers everything’

“This is home,” Nael Al Saedi said, sitting on his couch one rainy Saturday afternoon.

Photo courtesy of Dave Wasinger/ for STVCC

His family walked in and out of their living room, taking turns telling stories and listening to each other’s. The home has been theirs for less than a year — bought about seven years after arriving in Lansing as refugees.

Inside, the youngest helped herself to ice cream at the kitchen table. Outside, a red, white, and blue pinwheel spun in the landscaping.

This is home, he said.

Sixteen-year-old Hawraa’s consumed with schoolwork and volunteers at a local hospital. Ahmed, 9, is into soccer (“and recess,” he said). Nadaa, 8, likes reading, dancing, and running. His second daughter, Noor, 15, was at driver’s education class.

Al Saedi said he’s proud to watch his kids pursue their own ambitions — he’d hoped the children would have educational opportunities in America. But, he said, he wants them to remember how they got here.

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Social justice for ‘the rest of us’

On the way to their town house’s parking lot we smile at each other, quietly, nervously.

You’ve never driven a car, I ask.

No, she says.

Not even once? I ask.

No, she says.

I decide to start in an empty parking lot somewhere; I mention this but I’m unsure if she comprehends. So I drive us to an elementary school on this gray Saturday afternoon.

I wonder often about the limits of our refugees-turned-friends’ current command of English. How do they worry over the way America’s divided about Islam and refugees? How do they react when they hear the voice of our next president?

I’ve not known them long enough to talk politics — actually, that’s not totally true. I guess I just don’t want to have to explain. But of course our friends must understand the tone if not the content of the arguments America’s making among its people. Anger renders our air toxic. We breathe it without choice.

Our friends wouldn’t have asked for it. During the two-year screening process, they only know they want out. I think of that. My friend didn’t know six months ago that she’d be in some American’s (Cheez-Its-scented) minivan doing laps around a parking lot. She didn’t know she was pregnant then. She’s due on my middle daughter’s birthday. She’ll be 34 then, just like me.

They worship at a mosque that received that insipid letter reminding them that terror’s here, too. The letter cheered that Trump’s presidency means what happened to Jews under Hitler will happen to American Muslims under Trump. (Do we not remember? There is nothing new under the sun.) The letter stirred up cries for solidarity and a new feeling of helplessness. Now we’re praying/ wringing our hands/ sending donations to Aleppo.

I hate helplessness. 

I want to do something, to march somewhere, to go somewhere. But here I am. I am the rest of us: the ones who want to be radical but … aren’t. Kids in school, jobs, bills. Classroom holiday parties and we’re out of milk and there’s blue toothpaste all over the bathroom wall — HOW. I WILL KEEP ASKING UNTIL I GET AN ANSWER.

So our family does smaller, such as the small thing of teaching someone to drive.

She’s now behind the wheel. Seat belt on. Feet exploring. She finds the pedal on the left. “Brake?”

“Yes, that’s stop.”

“And — this one?”

“That’s the accelerator. It makes you go.” I charade that.

I learned to drive on country roads when I was 14. My uncle, his daughter, and I took turns behind the wheel of a tiny Dodge, learning the art of accelerating and braking. I think she could use some stretch of country road.

“Now, we’ll go straight” — I motion in the passenger seat like an air traffic controller — “and then we’ll turn.”

“Ahh huh.” She revs it; I put it in gear.

“You push it down slowly. Slowly,” I say, first motioning with my hand, pivoting from my palm. When I realize I’m asking her to catch my words and my symbols, I point to my foot and mime how slowly to push the pedal.

“OK, OK,” she says: and then she does. But now she punches it to the floor and we lurch toward a strip of grass between the lot and a basketball court.  I nicely yell “Brake, brake, brake, BRAKE.” And she finds it. Only the seat belts and Jesus hold us back as we stop.

And we laugh like my girls do when we flip them upside-down — how divine to laugh when all the world is yelling.  

We didn't practice at night, but isn't this pretty anyway?

We didn’t practice at night, but isn’t this pretty anyway?

We practice in that elementary school parking lot for a half hour, going forward and reversing, driving in the pick-up lane. She speaks in Arabic to herself, or maybe to me, thinking like we all do that if we only keep repeating our foreign words (maybe slower, maybe louder), eventually enlightenment and understanding will dawn on our companions.

“More, or are you ready to be done?”

“Stop,” she says, motioning the way umpires call runners safe.  

She notices the school sign. “Yes, that might be the school your kids go to if you live over here when they are 4 years old.”

“Four?” She has the same look as if she’d discovered a $50 bill in her pocket. She giggle-dances just as I did when my youngest started preschool. How divine to laugh when all the world is yelling.  

At her house, I defend her as her husband jokes through Dave: “Is my wife good at driving or hopeless?” Her husband and Dave have learned to clarify what they’re saying to each other using Google Translate. We laugh. And the kids do, to, as they hear Mom drove. They’re in on the joke.   

How divine to laugh when all the world is yelling.

That’s part of our upside-down response, friends. 

Some of us will resist hatred and fear in front of state government representatives and with our congressmen and -women. Some of us will write letters, will march, will carry signs, will go there.

Some of us will drive around a school parking lot.

The lucky might get to do a little of everything. None of us can do it all. So, together we’ll do it all. Because we’re upside-down people. We can yell, but we know it’s divine to laugh.

{Part 2 of 2.}

How we respond here to the refugee crisis

I watch my friend in her sparse kitchen.

She uses a small saucepan to scald milk for us to drink. Dave used to do the same when he baked bread in our kitchen, and the sweet-sour smell reminds me of home. She pours two steaming glasses and then sits on the folding chair, the only piece of furniture in the living room besides the loveseat on which I sit. And their new television.

This is our third visit with this refugee family we’ve begun to mentor through a local resettlement agency, and formalities of hospitality come first.

“We drink,” she smiles, motioning to the plastic tray she’s carried out. It has a bowl of sugar and two true tea spoons: petite and beautiful. “Then we go?”

I nod and try to sip the scalded milk before a film forms on top. Our kids, all six under the age of 9, bat each other with balloons we’ve just blown up. Their bare feet slap the laminate as they run. Incense she lit smells like spices whose names I don’t know. Home.

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My husband and I have been paired by a local resettlement agency to help the newcomers with bus routes, library cards, and their questions. A big percentage of their questions center on snow, and how deep, again, will it get? (A week later, we will stand outside while the children watch their first snowfall. Alice will make a snow angel and Violet will throw a snow ball. Our friends’ children will be terrified of the whole experience. But that’s next week.)

On this particular day, I’ve agreed to help the mother learn how to drive. I’ll be helping the family of almost-six acquire a different kind of freedom than they first received in July, when they arrived from a country in west Africa. Like another family we’ve mentored before, their choices and goals speak to an eagerness to start: quick to get jobs, quick to master English. 

For my American family — whose perspectives are the only ones I can write about — we feel eager, too. The world is breaking apart in places we can find on the maps that fall from the pages of my old bible. Our country is screaming in anger or horror about these things. More loudly are the Americans not screaming in anger at all. The void, the inaction, howls.

Yet, here we are, the lamenting. We sit in this living room, practicing being Boaz.

Remember him? Boaz, the man who married Ruth the Moabite in her Old Testament book, didn’t keep with public opinion about foreigners, either. Plus, Moabites were the sworn enemies of Israel (think of this warm-and-fuzzy life-verse option from Isaiah: “The Moabites shall be trodden down in their place as straw is trodden down in a dung-pit,” v. 25:10 NRSV). Boaz, as an Israelite, was supposed to hate Moabites. Instead, he marries one. Ruth the Moabite. 

He marries Ruth, the community finally embraces her and celebrates the baby that God gave the couple. She’s in Jesus’ genealogy: all evidence that this story’s more than a happy tale. It’s a message. God probably cares more for people than the boundaries we put between us and them.

One person: Boaz was one person who didn’t care for majority opinion. God blessed that.

We’re five people (but three are under the age of 9). We don’t care for the alleged majority opinion either. And God’s here, too.

***

So, here we are on that Saturday, the last one without snow. The mom has her state of Michigan learner’s permit, though in a few moments when we get in my van it will be clear our lessons will start at Point A.

For now, in her living room, her tray holds two spoons and a bowl of sugar. She scoops two heaping spoonfuls into her cup; I mimic her. Her spoon clangs like someone would do in their own home, where they’re comfortable.

“We’re going driving,” I remind Dave. He and the father are messing with a TV antenna that looks like a flyswatter. 

The woman finishes her drink, then moves through the obstacle course of our children, sprawled now on the floor in the spartan living room. She comes back moments later in jeans and a plaid flannel scarf draped around her head.

We’re all ready.

{Part 1 of 2 / Next post}

Advice for those discouraged by the election

Dave, Louisa, and I climbed a few uneven cement steps to the door of a stranger. Knocked.

A woman wearing a beautiful teal scarf on her head answered the door with a confused expression. It’s hard to convey “we’re here to mentor you” with someone who doesn’t speak English.

Pause.

For those of you who woke up Wednesday discouraged, consider this moment. Think about what we as hopeful visionaries, Jesus followers, and do-gooders have gained, even in our disappointment.

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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.

***

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