Refugees

I have been writing about refugees since December 2013, when I first started reading that Syrians, escaping war and running for their lives, were overwhelming the poorest country in the European Union, a place where I feel a deep connection and affection. “Bulgaria is a thousand miles from Syria! Are they desperate? Well, yes. That’s war, don’t you know? Damn them there, damn them here. War is hell…” That was part of my melancholy homage, that year, to the Christmas spirit. I continued hammering at the subject of refugees until late last year, when with a weary sigh I started picking at a few other themes to fill the space. About three years ago I decided to stop just figuratively wringing my hands about refugees and started volunteering at a refugee resettlement center. Doing something about something is so much better for the soul than complaining about it. 

Photo from The Economist (2015)

In the time that I have been working at the African Community Center — don’t be misled by their legacy name; they handle refugees from all over the world — the world and I have both changed. I have become defensive on the subject of refugees, to the point of not writing or talking much about it. I have become tired of the arguments, and resigned to the cynicism and lack of compassion I see outside the small community of concern. I have had to accept that I can change my heart but no other. As for the rest of the world, the situation is dire and getting worse. For both those blissfully unaware of it all and for those feverishly working against the tide, the result is the same: apathy and futility have the same result.

Refugees are living displaced from their homes by the millions — millions! — in Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, and Iran. Lesser numbers, but still large, live in Uganda, Jordan, and Germany. Really, enumerating more countries hosting refugees is pointless; they are all over the world, mostly in poor countries nearest to the places besieged by war and terrorism. 1 Only a fraction live in refugee camps, although refugee camps recognized by the UNHCR 2 are the exclusive screening mechanism used by the United States for admittance of the few who are selected to be resettled here. Refugee families typically arrive on an airplane, bringing documentation and medical clearance papers. They also carry a note of indebtedness for their airfare that has to be paid back to the U.S. State Department as they become employable and get on their feet in their new country.

As for the United States, though, we’re not even talking about the refugees that have been my focus for so long. Unlike refugees, who flee their homes due to war or persecution, migrants choose to move for better economic opportunities or family reunification, or, as a separate but overlapping reason, for asylum. Still, the parallels are striking, starting with the lifeboat analogy and encompassing every kind of response from unalloyed and impractical mercy to vicious, blind hate speech. Why is this so hard? 

What has consumed us since before the last election, when fear was weaponized as a political strategy, is the terrible mess at  our southern border not with refugees but with other kinds of migrants. Many of those are seeking asylum, as is their legal right if they can prove they would face danger of harm or death back at the homes they left. Our broken-down system of handling the process of granting asylum has choked on the volume, and is completely unable to sort out the legitimate asylum seekers from those that will not qualify. Worse, it cannot account for, let alone care for, either category. 

I read an article in Time that reached into my heart, and expressed so much better than I could the reasons for my concern. It was written by a celebrity [groan] but one with a high degree of earned credibility on the subject. I recommend it for your consideration.

Angelina Jolie: The Crisis We Face at the Border Does Not Require Us to Choose Between Security and Humanity

TL;DR

“We all want our borders to be secure and our laws to be upheld, but it is not true that we face a choice between security and our humanity: between sealing our country off and turning our back to the world on the one hand, or having open borders on the other. The best way of protecting our security is by upholding our values and addressing the roots of this crisis. We can be fearless, generous and open-minded in seeking solutions.”

 

Water Flowing

Stormy and I joined the Peace Corps, not because our own country didn’t need anything (it did) but because it would be an adventure to work in another place and learn about a different part of our great big world. That turned out pretty well.

When we went there in 2002 one of the driving factors for Bulgaria wanting the assistance of the U.S. Peace Corps in the first place was to complete its alignment with the West. The goal was to join the European Union and step into the world of modern commerce and democratic states, after the big change from the former system of government in 1989. That happened. Bulgaria was accepted into the EU in 2007.

It was a few years after that, in July 2013,1 when the Peace Corps mission in Bulgaria ended. There was some unrest and dissatisfaction in the air around that time, with people demonstrating against cronyism and corruption. They were demanding the kind of good and honest government they deserved. (Well, no one ever said it wasn’t a work in progress.) The people were clearly oriented toward that very Peace-Corps-like goal of attaining a fully functioning modern society. At that point the Peace Corps said, in effect, “OK, ’bye. Good luck!” 

I enjoy finding things in the news about Bulgaria, even though it’s been a while now since we were there. The other day I found an article with a disturbing headline, “Welcome to Bulgaria, the world’s fastest shrinking nation.” 2 There were signs of that danger when we were there, and there was some effort in academic circles to encourage bright young minds to stay and “make Bulgaria better” with their talents and skills, rather than taking it all abroad. True, we saw Bulgaria as having a relatively low standard of living compared with Western Europe and the US, but with thrift and ingenuity most people lived very well, requiring little and wasting nothing.

So what’s wrong with that? The EU, that’s what. Ever notice, when you want something for so long and then get it, it comes out way differently than you thought it would? So now it seems that no one thought about the long-term effects of having open borders between an economically depressed area and a prosperous, busy one with chronic worker shortages. People move, like water flowing.

Song Khon Waterfall, Loei Province, Amphoe Dan Sai, Foto: Martin Püschel 14:23, 29 December 2006

Photo from Wikimedia Commons, Martin Püschel

Reminds me of the news lately, closer to home (and getting closer every day). I wonder what will happen with those thousands of people flowing through Mexico from Guatemala and points south. Of course it’s a different situation but there are parallels. Coming from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, the people in that desperate, flowing stream — many of them at least — are escaping deadly gang and government violence. Others are just trying to escape hopeless (really, really hopeless, probably like you can’t imagine) grinding poverty by coming to the Land of Opportunity. In an article from CBS News,3 most of the travelers said they were fleeing extreme poverty. As the article noted, though, that is not a condition for asylum or refugee status in the U.S.

A similar caravan, though smaller, was in the news earlier this year (remember that?) Only 300-some made it through the journey and the process, and were admitted for asylum. That process, and the outcome to date, is described in an informative article in USA Today, here.

I’m no dreamer, in the John Lennon sense. I don’t Imagine there are no countries, no borders. In the same way I don’t imagine there are no dams, reservoirs, or channels. We need water, and it has to flow.

Does anyone who reads this believe we shouldn’t have asylum and refugee programs? There are so many who need, and deserve by virtue of humanity, to be saved from the devastation of war and violence. Can we help them? All of them? Do they want to kill us? Do they want our jobs? Are these hard questions?

Spring and Miracles

Spring is a time of miracles. Plants and flowers are coming back to life, birds are returning to their summer homelands. Newborns in the wild are rustling and chirping, bleating, squealing, and yelping all around. I am reminded of the wonder of the miracle that I am here, and living, and doing what I want to do. How many things had to happen, just so, for all that to manifest itself into being? What are the chances? I live in awe at how unlikely it all is. Miracles at every step.

When I was a boy, each week
On Sunday, we would go to church
And pay attention to the priest
He would read the holy word
And consecrate the holy bread
And everyone would kneel and bow
Today the only difference is
Everything is holy now
Everything, everything
Everything is holy now.

       Holy Now by Peter Mayer 1

This particular springtime has been sprinkled with some pretty special events for Stormy and me. Last Sunday was Easter, significant enough on its own as a miracle commemoration but more so this year with our grandson’s religious confirmation — the grandson who was born while we were working in Bulgaria. He has grown into a young man: tall, athletic, smart, friendly and generous of spirit, and with a ready smile for everyone. There were some very moving church services marking the Resurrection story and its meaning in our lives, and a delightful gathering of family and friends. Kids hunted Easter eggs and counted their treasures, and none of them brought up that thing about the connection between bunnies and eggs.

In Bulgaria, Easter will be this coming Sunday, this year a week later than ours in the west. Orthodox Easter usually hits on a different Sunday from our western version, since the two main branches of Christianity follow different calendars.2 The rule for placement of Easter in both is that it’s the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox. (You knew that already, right?) That’s the “ecclesiastical” vernal equinox, though, not the real solar one, and I suppose that’s why, if you have different calendars specifying the baseline events, “your results may vary.” The story about what happened, though, and the significance of it to Christians of all kinds, is the same. A miracle.

Picture from Wikimedia Commons, 640px-Foster_Bible_Pictures_0062-1_The_Angel_of_Death_and_the_First_PassoverThen there’s Passover, another holy seasonal observance commemorating a miracle. That one follows yet another ancient calendar, the dates of celebration drifting independently and with serene indifference to our customary sun-only calendars. This year it came in neatly between the two Christian Easter weekends. Passover brings fastidious preparation and painstakingly detailed family and community rituals, and keeps alive a rich historical tradition and remembrance of miraculous preservation from death and destruction.

This past week, during Passover between the two Easters, we went up to the mountains and watched our newly-Christian-confirmed grandson showcase his skills in “the nationals” of the US Snowboarding Association, competing in the halfpipe. We joined a lively contingent of family and friends on a sunny deck facing the brilliant white mountainside of Copper Mountain Resort. We watched all the competitors, noting the names of standouts (we’ll see them in the next winter Olympics) and absorbing a little about the little-understood (to most of us) sport. The best word for it is “spectacular.”

Whenever our star was doing his runs we sat on the edges of our seats, holding our breaths at least figuratively. Whoa! Looka that! He got good air! Hey! Was that a 360 or a 540? With a twist! Great going! Woo-hoo, he’s still alive! After each run he boarded the rest of the way down the hill and came up to the deck to greet his adoring fans, grinning and feeling good about doing his best — one of his runs was a personal record — and even on a run that didn’t score high, he was happy about keeping it smooth and flowing.

I recalled when he was born and I was showing off his newborn picture to my kids at Bertolt Brecht Language High School.

“After classes a little contingent of my eleventh grade girls… came up to the teachers’ room and serenaded me with ‘Happy Grandson to you, Happy Grandson to you, Happy Grandson dear Mister, Happy Grandson to you.’ … The girls just about exploded with excitement about how cute little Jason was, and how fortunate we were. How fortunate indeed.”

Miracles abound in our lives, and it’s rare that we pause to recognize and appreciate them. A sense of reverence helps, and some of the rituals of our seasons can get us going in that direction. One of the most moving examples of that, in my memory at least, was the Easter we were together with our Bulgarian family in Panagyurishte. The night was cold and dark, and we were bundled against the chill, walking with arms folded. There were glimmers of winter starlight as we walked with slowly increasing numbers, neighbors joining on the way converging on the church near the town center. Murmured greetings, quiet night.

“The church was freshly painted and everything in the surrounding garden was trimmed and renewed. A large crowd stood reverently all around the church, many times more than could fit in the church building. At midnight, the priests came out of the church carrying candles. People in the crowd lit their own candles from those, and the lights spread through the crowd until everyone was holding a lighted taper, shielding with hands against movement of the cold night air. The priests sang the Resurrection story from Matthew. At the end of the service it was a striking sight to see people spreading out from the churchyard and out into the dark streets, still carrying candles, ‘bringing the light home.’”

Photo from Wikimadia Commons, cropped: File:29th annual Candlelight Vigil (34534663942).jpgIt was a sign of good luck to make it all the way home with your candle still burning. We all did. Krassi had prepared a post-midnight meal of lamb, hardboiled and dyed eggs, and an Easter bread rich with egg and butter. The bread, called kozunak, was baked with little slips of paper in it, bearing words like Luck, Health, Happiness, and Success. Pavlin taught us the proper Easter greeting that everyone used, Hristos voskrese, meaning “Christ is risen.” The response was Voistina voskrese, “Truly risen.” Over the three days of Easter, we heard those words over and over, not just between friends and family but also with co-workers, merchants, and even in grim, gray government offices such as the one that sold train tickets.

I wonder sometimes what we’ve lost in our country. Not just that we don’t maintain the comforting customs made convenient by the dominance of one cultural heritage (when the children were required to stand and recite The Lord’s Prayer in public schools. That was within my lifetime!), but bigger than that: our overall quality of community and caring sometimes seems to be in need of redemption. Civil discourse is a casualty of our escalating political divisions. Will it take miracles to bring us back together? What if we could achieve that elusive ideal of complete security, would that do it? Or how about if we all convert to one religion, or maybe we need a common enemy so we can live again under the threat of war. Will sending troops to our border fix it, or a trade war to make us whole? (“They’re easy to win.”) Do we need to MAGA, or is A already G and we have only to realize it in our individual lives, families, and communities as we work toward the common good? (The common good, of course, being defined as the good of our neighbor as well as ourselves, to borrow a phrase from the second greatest commandment.)

But is all that greatness really lost? When I look for miracles I see them. There are people feeding the homeless in shelters and in storefront churches; people giving lifesaving care in hospitals and at disaster sites; people healing wounds and caring for the traumatized; people working (still!) to settle refugees escaping war and chaos into a new land, new communities, new lives. There are medical advances that cure wicked diseases that have plagued us since the dawn of time; we carry little machines in our pockets that connect us with all the world’s knowledge and with each other: machines that our grandparents could only have seen as magic — no, not just magic, miracles! There are angels among us who will donate their organs to heal the lives of others; everywhere life is brimming with heroism, wholesome striving for ideals, generosity, love, and caring. As Peter Mayer wrote in that song that I quoted before,

When I was in Sunday school
We would learn about the time
Moses split the sea in two
Jesus made the water wine
And I remember feeling sad
That miracles don’t happen still
But now I can’t keep track
‘Cause everything’s a miracle
Everything, Everything
Everything’s a miracle.

We have only to see it.