An Evening for Refugees

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A few weeks ago was the annual art show/fundraiser for the refugee organization we work with, Project Worthmore.

A few members of our refugee family came, and were happy to see some of their friends there. We got to introduce them to our friends, and to two of the artists in the art show, which thrilled them.

To me, the best part of the evening was hearing the story of how relationships, which are slow and messy and don’t have any shortcuts, make the differences in people’s lives.  With so much anti-refugee rhetoric being shouted from the political stage right now, it was inspiring to be with so many people who say, “Yes, you are welcome here.”

New Colossus, by Emma Lazarus (on the Statue of Liberty)

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
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Ups and downs with our refugee friends

Six months ago, we started hanging out with a refugee family from Karen State, Burma.  Prior to coming to the US a year and a half ago, they had spent nine years in a refugee camp.  Now they are trying to make a new life here by working, going to school, and learning English.

Not knowing what to expect, we invited them to play soccer and volleyball with us.  (We figured they would be great at soccer, but their awesome skills at volleyball were a surprise!)  We ate ice cream. We had three good meetings together.

And then we ran into all sorts of language barriers.

After two late summer get-togethers that felt awkward and weird, my kids were a little skittish about continuing.  Honestly I was, too.  Maybe the family didn’t actually like us. Maybe that was why we were having so much trouble scheduling a time to get together.  Maybe this was just a bridge too far.

But the refugee organization we work with is kind and persistent and patient, and they organized a Christmas get together for all the refugee families and their US partners.  So we tried again, and  we are so glad we did.

We ate Burmese food (yum!) and sang carols (see the choir up front?)
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The structure of the party gave my kids a role, which they embraced.

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When I walked in their apartment, their smoke alarm was chirping.  I asked one of the kids how long it had been chirping.  “A month?” he said.  In other words, so long he has forgotten when it started.  Teaching them how to change the battery may have been my biggest contribution toward their happiness here.  But they continue to welcome us into their lives, and we are grateful.

Flood

Obviously my previous 2 posts (both including shots of the St. Vrain water ways we have been enjoying here) were pre-loaded and came up automatically. But these same creeks have been swollen past capacity and caused our evacuation on Thursday afternoon. We are safely back at home now and are all dry, but here’s our story of the flood of 2013.

This was going to be our week of “staying home.” My parents were travelling, so my plan was to drive as little as possible and stay around home. Monday was the failed cross-country practice and run, and then my cousin was in the emergency department across Denver, and I went to be with her. [She’s now fine.]  Later in the week I drove to work and home in torrential rains. It’s the first time I’ve ever been on passed by semi trucks on both sides at the same time. I guess if your truck weighs a ton, 18 inches of standing water doesn’t intimidate you. (It sure intimidated me.)  By the time I got home from work, I’d already driven approximately 205 miles over three days, most of it in pouring rain.

So Thursday we were really going to stay home. I don’t think the kids even got dressed till after lunch. Sam ran in the morning and mentioned that the creek was really high, but I didn’t turn on the TV and had no idea how bad things were. My parents, watching the national news in their hotel room, called threatening offering to come home. So I checked the local news. Bad, very bad.  But our street was fine. Water flowed by the curbs and the ground was saturated, but the drainage ponds were still empty by us. It didn’t occur to me to pack a bag.

At four, my neighbor called. She had been watching the news and was concerned. Half an hour later, we got a reverse 911 call stating that we were under orders to evacuate. It was mandatory. Trying to keep the fear out of my voice, I told the kids to put some books and their water bottles in their backpacks and to bring their pillows. I called two of my parents’ neighbors who live alone. One was ready to go and bring another elderly neighbor with her. The other wasn’t home.

Once I got the kids in the car, SweetP started to panic. She needed her book. Where was her book? [What book??] I told her it was in my backpack and to hold tight while I ran across to the neighbor’s house to knock on her door. As I was knocking, our neighbor pulled in. And wasn’t going to evacuate. Her driveway was steep, and if anything happened to the basement she wanted to be there to move things upstairs. She wasn’t going to go and didn’t think I had to, either.

Okay, reality check, people.

I may have brought only water and books to hold a family of 6 over for an undetermined length of time in a public shelter, but I wasn’t going to tell my children to ignore a reverse-911 call for a mandatory evacuation. Secondly yes, I was guilty of sitting around in my dry, safe hubris during Hurricane Katrina and calling the person who ignored the evacuation order and then was stranded on top of his house waiting for a boat to come by an idiot. Forgive me. But is there anything in my house worth risking a life? No.  And as my other neighbor pointed out this morning, this is true especially if the life I’m risking is the rescue worker who has to come fetch me in a boat.  If someone is going to risk her (or his) life for me, it had better be for something I couldn’t avoid.

So we drove to the shelter.  Longmont was essentially bisected by the overflowing river, which had cut off north from south. Sam had been on the road for nearly three hours, trying to navigate a maze of flooded/blocked streets in the town he doesn’t know well.  He arrived at the house just as we reached the high school serving as a the evacuation shelter, and he was able to pack a few sleeping bags, snacks, and toothbrushes.

The high school was relatively calm. Well, the people were. But many people brought their dogs, and the dogs were not getting along. The humane society was offering free overnight boarding including transportation from the shelter) but since the dogs were all as upset as their people, there was a lot of canine snapping and yapping and lunging. (Side note: I didn’t see a single cat or rabbit or bird or guinea pig cage.) The boys played DS, the girls played with the basketballs and another girl they met, while I tried not to freak out about all the unsupervised children packing each other into ball carts and playing roller derby, and climbing fire escapes on the side of the gym. (Can’t say I was successful there. Turns out I can be an officious, over-controlling helicopter adult in two languages.)

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Eventually Sam made it to the shelter, too, and I stopped pacing. Sometime around seven, they called overhead for medical assistance. Sam stayed with the kids, and I went running to help. An older gentleman was having signs of a heart attack, and some of us were able to help him until the paramedics could arrive and get him to the hospital. Later I found out he was one our neighbors, too.  As I was returning to our spot in the gym, I heard two of the sheriffs’ deputies say they were going to move us to another shelter, since the high school was going to flood. Seriously?

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Thank goodness for Sam. While I choked down my Salvation Army hotdog, he kicked into problem-solving mode. Lots of friends were calling and texting us with offers of beds, but the route out-of-town was a problem. He found us a probably passable route to friends on high ground, and we signed ourselves out of the shelter. By the time we got there, we felt pretty sorry for ourselves: no clean underwear, no pajamas, no word on the neighbors. I was exhausted. Gill tucked us into her room with fleece sheets and fuzzy blankets, and I was asleep almost immediately.

In the morning, we waited for an update on the flood. The news footage was horrible, but where we were the sun was coming out. It is nearly impossible to fathom the geographical variation in the flooding and the enormity of what so many people will be coming home to. Just as we were contemplating going to buy me some hospital shoes for my upcoming night shift, we found a map showing the evacuation area. Our house was no longer included.

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The trip back took us a long time. 
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We stopped for groceries, and SweetP limped around Target in her one remaining flip-flop. My parents’ phone had died, so I was texting updates to their traveling partners. I was able to check in by phone with several of the neighbors who were all safe.  After various detours, we made it back to a dry neighborhood and saw friends pumping up their bike tires so they could go for a ride. What do people in Colorado do when they’re stressed? Exercise.

Thanks for all your prayers.  Even as I write this, Fort Collins is expecting further flooding, over a hundred people are unaccounted for, and thousands of people are still evacuated. They say more rain is coming over the next two days.

And what about my sense of dislocation?  Turns out that I am surrounded by people willing to help us.  I can speak the language and use my skills, and one lost flip-flop isn’t going to break the bank.  At the end of the day we are all together.  Even if everything I own had been ruined in a flooded basement, I have everything I need.

Dislocation

I’ve been feeling dislocated lately.  I know that’s the wrong way to use that word, but it’s how I feel.

Between my parents and kids there are plenty of people around, so I can’t by rights call it loneliness.  But I feel unsettled and frequently uneasy.

Last week I took the girls to dance class.  I didn’t know any of the parents there (my dance friends were travelling that week) and they were all talking about how terrible their children’s teachers are this year.  It was all I could do not to hold up my hand and interrupt, but before I did, they moved on to talking about how wonderful their vacations were and how terrible it will be when they finally “have” to take their kids with them.  “They’re too young to enjoy a cruise.”  “We wouldn’t be able to drink as much.”  All that to say, the dance parents weren’t my people.

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I told myself to stop whining about it and call someone, but my phone wasn’t working.  It just kept flickering in and out of service, so that I couldn’t even text Sam, and while I understand that this is a First World Problem, it was vexing.  Dance went on and on, and I hadn’t even brought a book (#firstworldproblem).

And then Sam on his white horse to pick up the girls so I could go meet two of my fellow homeschooling moms for tea, and we had a beautiful conversation about our brokenness.  About having to turn to Jesus every day to look for grace, and I wasn’t lonely any more.

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They say 1.75 million Syrians have fled their country.  Nearly a third of the country (7 million people) is in desperate need of food, safe water, and basic necessities.  Half a million Burmese are displaced– a whole generation.  About half a million Haitians are still homeless after the 2010 earthquake.  Those numbers are staggering and unimaginable and I am whining about my phone.

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I don’t mean to be spewing statistics, but it helps me to remind myself of the faces I’ve met who make these statistics real to me.  When I was in Haiti, and when I was in Thailand, they were my neighbors and bid me welcome. They are still my neighbors, and I can still be their community.  Even when my cell phone isn’t working and the dance moms are on my last nerve.

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My hope is that this sense of displacement I am feeling will turn my heart to pray for– and seek out to befriend– others who are displaced, for whatever reason. I am inspired by those around me who are making community: my family, ministering daily to one another.  My dad, who faithfully delivers Meals on Wheels and stays to chat everywhere he goes.  My friends who just became foster parents.  The families in our homeschool group whose heart for the elderly leads them to visit a nursing home regularly.  The committed staffs of  Samaritan’s Purse and Oxfam and Doctors Beyond Borders and World Vision and Free Burma Rangers and Partners Relief and Development who teach me what persistence and caring and hope look like on the ground among millions of displaced people.

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And no, loving those who are so far away from me and my pampered first-world life isn’t the same as loving the dance mom sitting across from me, and sometimes it seems easier to throw money at a problem than to be a neighbor.  Auntie Leila had a beautiful post recently about making community, and I had to go reread it.  It turns out that we all need community.  I am blessed enough to have it here, even if I have to come out of my shell and get off my phone to see it.

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How have you experienced community this week?

World Refugee Day

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My heart is kindled today for those who are forced to flee their homes because of violence, or hunger, or hatred.  Will you pray for them?
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I pray, too, for the brave voices who speak for the oppressed, the homeless, the hated. I am grateful for the brief time I had with this group of rangers who risk their lives to help refugees.
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Lord God, no one is a stranger to you and no one is ever far from your loving care. In your kindness, watch over refugees and victims of war, those separated from their loved ones, young people who are lost, and those who have left home or who have run away from home. Bring them back safely to the place where they long to be and help us always to show your kindness to strangers and to all in need Grant this through Christ our Lord.  Amen.