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.”

 

Owed to My Mother

Happy Mothers Day! If you are one, you deserve more than a day. That goes for all mothers — ones who gave birth themselves, adopters, steps, grannies and aunts and big sisters who took over to fill a void, “bonus moms” of all kinds.

I once misunderstood something a friend said, talking about appreciation of mothers, and after a moment I realized she meant a poem, an ode. But I was off on my own thought. Ode to my mother! No, owed. To my mother? OK…

My life, for starters.

Something of a dry sense of humor, if I flatter myself. I owe that to her.

Reaching way back, I remember her reading at bedtime, those old stories. She took me into the pages, walking me into the soft golden pictures with her voice and all its many personalities. Sometimes I still go back there, when I think of those stories, or when I read them to my grandchildren.

Anna, about 1944Bacon and eggs before school on dark cold winter mornings, in long-ago days when these were good for you. Fried chicken on Sundays, potatoes and gravy and greens, meals together every night. It wasn’t just eating though; it was a family communion.

I owe to my mother the way I think about life. Attitude. “You decide how you feel. You don’t let things run you.” If the worst thing happens, you get up in the morning and you do what you have to do for the day. It doesn’t change you; you know who you are. You change it.

Confidence, doing things I didn’t think I could. She gave me that. The bicycle I rode for the first time was her old bike, handlebars tall as my shoulders. It was taken down from the rafters and fixed up for me when I was ready. Mom held me up and pushed, running behind. “Don’t let go!” I called out. She didn’t answer. Pedaling hard, I didn’t see her turn me loose. I don’t know that she ever did.

Respect for women. It came in jagged little bits sometimes. When I was older, once after a few beers with my brother in the kitchen, he talked of being afraid to do some fool thing or other and I called him a pussy. Mom stopped me cold. Not just that the word was vulgar and crude, and shouldn’t have been said in her presence. It offended her more than that. “Does that word mean weak? Women are weak? Or afraid? Women don’t have courage?” 

That thing about giving me my life, though, that’s the big one. She didn’t just give it to me and leave me to figure it out. She shaped it and gave it color and form.

“Try it, see if it works.”

“Just look at that sky. Isn’t that beautiful?”

Yes, that’s it, my life. Owed to my mother.

 


I wrote this essay when I was younger so you may have seen it before. It still rings true to me and brings back warm memories and appreciation. I miss my mom. 

Pavlin

A Friend in BulgariaPavlin died.

He and Krassimira were our “host parents” during our Peace Corps training. We lived in their home, ate their food, learned their language, appreciated their practicality and humor, and became a part of their family more deeply than we ever could have hoped.

He was ten years younger than we were, and now he will never grow older. In my fondest memories he will always be 46, and it always gave us both a smile when I called him Dad. Another Bulgarian friend, meeting Pavlin over a weekend Peace Corps training session, remarked that he liked him. “He is a gentle man.”

Bulgaria

In the hills above Koprivshtitza. Pavlin sang us a few bars of the Bulgarian National Anthem.

I had not been able to get in touch with Pavlin by phone or message for a long time. He had drifted away from Facebook and other kinds of artificial social contact. Thinking of him one recent day, I texted his daughter, asking how he was. She told me he was no longer among the living. He had died a few days before. We shared text-message tears.

Stormy and I had learned that he was ill, dealing with chemo and the other grimly hopeful realities of cancer, when we last visited Bulgaria. When I wrote about that trip I didn’t intrude on his privacy by telling about his illness, saying only that amidst lots of good changes since we left, the lives of some we knew there had been “burdened beyond bearing.” He had moved back to the village where he grew up, to be cared for by his aging mother, not far from where we knew him and Krassimira.

Back when we were there with them, in addition to our daily schedule of classes and training activities, our family activities were regulated by his work schedule: 

Pavlin worked for the Bulgarian National Electric Company, twelve-hour shifts. His schedule was a four-day cycle: 7:00 AM start for a day shift, then the next day starting at 7:00 PM to work the night, two days off, and repeat. He commuted by motorcycle to a distribution substation a few kilometers outside of town. He was usually there by himself, unless a repair or emergency required another technician or engineer to come in. Rosen drove us there once for a visit when Pavlin was on a night shift. The isolation of the outpost was striking. It was a concrete building the size of a small barn, at the end of a long dark path. A single small bulb by the door welcomed us. The control room, in contrast, was brightly lit. Big pale-green consoles held buttons and levers and meters. A status board indicated the condition of different parts of the system with red and green lights. A green and white sign posted over the desk gave the reminder, “Work here.”

He gave us that sign, as a parting gift when we finished our training and were leaving the comfort and security of his home to go out and begin our work. The little souvenir carried a wistful message that brought a tear to his eye with our leaving, that he wished we could stay there with them rather than going off to Pazardjik. “Stay. Work here.” 

Bulgarians at Bulgari

Our favorite Bulgari, in front of the BVLGARI shop on Rodeo Drive. They visited us in California in 2005.

I think of Pavlin sometimes when an adversity needs to be best met with a smile and a shrug. And more, then, to start on the solution without complaining. That was like my father in America, which might have been why his down-to-earth ways resonated with me. 

I think of him when I taste rakiya, — Bulgaria’s national moonshine — the  strong drink that he taught us to enjoy and appreciate. I remember the warm starry night in the village where we joined him with his friend distilling it in a large copper and brass still, his friend stoking the wood fire as the constant rushing sound of cooling system water filled the room cascading into an open reservoir in the loop, and valves hissed, and we all visited and laughed together over sausages and cheeses until time seemed to collapse and it was very late, all done, time to go. Pavlin’s friend gave me a bottle of his own supply of matured rakiya that night, to give to my father in America on our upcoming visit.

I think of him at Easter. He taught us the Easter greeting that everyone uses for those three holy days, in homes and on the street, in shops and banks and drab gray government offices: Hristos voskrese, Christ is risen! And the response, Voistina voskrese, Truly risen! For the solemn seasons anticipating both Easter and Christmas, he did the Post, the fast, avoiding “all animal products except honey” as a sacred discipline. I think those sacrifices, and his kind and generous nature, must have earned him some blessed relief in entering his heavenly home.

I hope so.


Pictures of my friend Pavlin