On Friday, January 27, the president signed an Executive Order halting the refugee program, and barring entrance to the US from 7 specific countries. As I read through the list, I could feel the ache begin in my body as I braced myself, and then my eyes focused in…Sudan. What before had been a generalized sense of fear and disbelief, now became deeply personal, painfully piercing my mother’s heart.
Sixteen years ago, our family ventured into the world of refugees when we welcomed two brothers, part of the large group of Sudanese “Lost Boys” who were being resettled in the United States, into our home. We truly had no idea at the time how much that decision would change us – individually and as a family. James was 17, his brother Samuel 15; both of them a curious mix of serious, emerging manhood and innocent, young boy. Their words, and the intensity with which they pursued their education reflected the premature maturity that had been thrust upon them at an early age when war forced them to flee their homeland. And as they wrestled on the floor with our boys or curiously examined their toys, we witnessed a very young sense of wonder and playfulness, as they in some sense reclaimed their lost childhood in the newfound security of a home and family. My heart holds countless scenes of both, images that have been playing like a sentimental, familiar movie in my mind as I’ve been writing this.
There is our daughter Katie, two years old and strapped in her car seat for the ride home from the airport where we had just picked up James and Samuel. Her precious Pat the Bunny was snuggled securely in her arms as she watched this stranger sitting next to her, making faces and waving at her. With a mischievous grin on her face, Katie tossed Pat on the floor between them, waiting to see if James would play. Without hesitating, he picked the bunny up, dangled it close enough for her to grab, only to have her launch poor Pat on the floor once again, starting their cycle of mutual delight all over again.
Six short months later, the picture has changed. I see James striding determinedly away from our home on foot, angry and confused, determined to set out as a man on his own. If I am honest, I was ready for him to leave; the simmering, angry disillusionment he had so quickly picked up was disrupting the peace in our home. And yet, my heart was torn as I tried, unsuccessfully, to convince him to at least let me drive him to the refugee agency 15 miles from our home. I look back now and can see the irony in how anxious I was about him walking 15 miles, when he had walked over 1200 miles from Sudan to Ethiopia, back to Sudan, and finally to Kenya again – all in search of a safe place to live.
(Image: Wilkes, Sybella. One Day We Had to Run! Brookfield, CT: Millbrook, 1994. Print.)
Samuel also left our home for a few months, months that left me grieving and feeling like a failure. The painful images that play from that day are ones I would like to skip over, yet they are an important part of the story. I sensed how much Samuel was beginning to identify as a member of our family, yet that belonging came with ambivalence over the loss of his own family, and the reality of survivor’s guilt. I will be forever grateful to another woman (his high school English teacher) who loved him well – calling him out, and telling him he needed to go home to his family. I will never forget exactly where I was standing in our house when the phone rang, “Mom, this is Sam…I have a question for you and Dad.” One month later, as he sat once again in the circle of our family around the Christmas tree, he gave us a book he had written about our family, and I knew something had settled in his heart, and mine.
I’m not sure Samuel would have fully allowed himself to be “one of us” if he hadn’t left, and wrestled through all that meant for him. Isn’t that true for most of us?
We so desperately want to belong, and yet we are just as terrified of it – pushing away the very thing we most long for.
During the decade that Samuel and his brothers lived at the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, the Red Cross regularly sent messages back to his home village in Sudan, attempting to learn if his parents were alive, if there was anything left for them to return home to. With no response, and no hope for safe return to their own country, they came here as refugees and orphans…and yet the UNHCR decreed that they were not eligible for adoption, because of the lack of definite proof. I believe that “unknowing”, wondering if he was really an orphan or not, was a significant part of his ambivalence about our family. So, while Samuel is not legally our son, he is in every other way our son. (Sam did later learn that his parents were still alive, but that is a story for another day.)
Last week, as my whole body reeled from the images of protests on both sides of the refugee debate, I picked up my phone and called Sam. Sam and his wife Rebecca, along with our four adorable grandchildren are currently living in Virginia, where Sam is completing his residency as a doctor in the US Navy. The miles between us were feeling too many; my mother’s heart needed to connect, to hear how he was doing in the wake of recent developments. He told me of the interesting conversations he is having with our two oldest grandchildren, Yar (7) and Mal (5) when they return from school, already learning about the uncertain reality of our world. Yar just wants to know who he voted for, pestering him to tell her, because after all, the election is over, so he doesn’t need to keep it a secret anymore! Mal, however, was more subdued, a word almost never attributed to this vivacious ball of little boy energy.
“Dad, are they going to send us back to Sudan?” Oh my heart. I wish he could know with certainty that could never happen, and yet so many things have happened in the past months that I previously believed could never happen. Because Mal and his siblings were all born here, they are US citizens by birth. Their Sudanese mother, however, is a permanent legal resident. What will that mean for her, for their family?
If I let myself dwell here, a familiar knot of anxious fear begins to take shape in my gut. A fear that is being tapped into and exploited by leaders on both sides. I can literally feel the divisive split in my being. As my anxious heart searches for peace, I have returned often to this verse.
“There is no room in love for fear. Well-formed love banishes fear. Since fear is crippling, a fearful life—fear of death, fear of judgment—is one not yet fully formed in love.”
I John 4:18 The Message
As I take in the familiar words, I am reminded of more images, ones that demonstrate the reality that my life at the time Sam and James arrived was too often characterized by that crippling fear. The decision to open my heart to another, to love anyway in the face of potential harm, changed me forever.
Will you join me in this critical time in our nation’s history, and seek to love anyway? What if we joined together in practices to cultivate that well-formed love? There are organizations and individuals who are speaking into this issue with love and respect and reason. Two that I have found very helpful are World Relief and Preemptive Love Coalition . Whether you start here, or somewhere else, I urge you to just start wherever you are called to make a choice for a life formed by love, not fear.
Janet Stark is a woman learning to bless her depth and sensitivity. She is grateful for the deep love she shares with her husband, Chris and their kids and grandkids. Janet loves curling up with a good book, trying new recipes on her friends and family, and enjoying long conversations with friends over a cup of really good coffee. She is a life-long lover of words and writes about her experiences here.