welcoming the refugee

I work with refugee women and their families at the Refugee Women’s Network in Atlanta. We were asked by Reuters to provide one of several “expert views” about refugees and the incoming presidency. The piece we are a part of can be found here. What follows is the complete piece I submitted to Reuters yesterday.

The words immigrant, refugee, Muslim, walls, and terrorism have ignited fear, hostility and division throughout the 2016 presidential election cycle. The refugee communities we work with at the Refugee Women’s Network in Atlanta, Georgia, arrive to the U.S. from countries where conflict, war, persecution, killings – and terrorism – have torn them from their homes, their families, their cultures and everything they know.

In spite of the images we are bombarded with of boats packed with people off the coast of Greece, or long lines in a camp in Lesbos, a refugee is not an abstract identity. Refugees are people who had homes and careers, who studied in universities, fell in love, built families and raised children with an eye toward a better future. They hoped for the same simple things we strive for as Americans.

In their home countries, they are no longer safe. When they arrive in the U.S. and are resettled in Atlanta, we do everything we can to not only ease the transition to life in America, but also so that they know they are welcome here. With limited funding from federal and state governments, the resettlement budget per person is extremely tight, and the months they can receive support are few. Most refugees receive help finding work in often-dangerous food production or manufacturing jobs, even those who bring medical degrees or doctorates from their home countries.

Our clients bring with them the traumas of all they have experienced and lost – homes that have become rubble, spouses who have been killed, chronic or terminal illnesses they have contracted from all they have suffered. Our job is not only to help them adjust to their new lives so that they can gain social and economic self-sufficiency, but to help them begin the long process of healing.

Refugees are scared right now. Their safety and future here feels more tenuous, and the messages they have heard throughout this election have in many cases revictimized and retraumatized them. They are concerned their missing family members won’t be allowed to join them in America. They fear they will lose their green cards or be deported. Like their American counterparts, they worry about how they will get health insurance, whether they will be able to go to college, if their food stamps will be lowered, if they will lose the social security disability coverage they began receiving after an injury at one of the local chicken factories where many of them work.

There must be continued funding at the state and federal levels to support the work of both large and small refugee organizations nationwide. These organizations must be well-staffed to provide a continuum of care that supports the range of needs of all members of a family – not just for the first 120 days after their arrival.

As providers of this support for refugees, we look to the presidency of Donald Trump and his administration to remember that we are a nation of immigrants, and that our diversity is not our weakness, but what makes us strong. For 130 years the Statue of Liberty has stood as the symbol of our welcoming shores for all those who come from tyranny and oppression. The nations of the world are watching to see whether we will open our doors to welcome refugees into our democracy. Our hope is that the incoming presidential administration – supported by the legislature on both sides of the aisle – will retain a spirit of inclusion that makes refugees feel not only welcome, but safe.

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dear california

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Dear fellow Californians, from your friend who left the Golden State seven and a half years ago:

I’m having a hard time with all the posts – both humorous and serious – about California seceding from the union. I’ll tell you why.

I left California with my nuclear family seven and a half years ago so that we could pursue a better future, and it has been a good move for us. It was hard to leave, believe me. I love California, and it will always be my home. I consider myself a native, even though I only arrived from abroad at the age of seven in 1978, also so that my family (of origin) could pursue a better future. I still have my 415 area code, and I won’t let that one go easily. California made me who I am, and I am proud of that.

But for seven and a half years now, I have lived outside of California – in places that have been good to me and my family. I spent four years in historically conservative Southwestern Ohio, where I got to be part of the vote in Hamilton County in 2012 that gave President Obama his victory. After voting in California since I became a US citizen in 1994, 2012 was the first time I could really feel my vote counting. It felt amazing, and I was not alone. I met really good people during our time in Ohio. People who love their children as deeply as I love mine, people who care and who work for justice and hope, people who may speak a different language or have different beliefs or religions than me but who ultimately want many of the same things. When we moved into our home in Ohio, a neighbor I didn’t yet know literally brought us cookies to welcome us to the neighborhood. I know, cliché, but I remember saying to my husband, “I love the Midwest. People are so nice here.” And I was right, they are. For the first time in my life, in the Midwest, I had African American neighbors and friends, and my daughter went to school for the first time where her fellow students did not all look like her. It took leaving my Bay Area bubble for this to happen. Because in spite of the great diversity of California, my world in the Bay Area was incredibly homogeneous, and I take full responsibility for that.

We adopted our African American son just a few months before we left Ohio. He is my gift from the Midwest, and because of him and the people I met while living there, I will always feel a connection to Ohio. To the “Middle America” I got to know for the first time because I left California.

We now live in the South, in Atlanta, Georgia. This is the second time I live in a red state. Again, I have African American neighbors and friends. Again, my son isn’t the only black person in our neighborhood or community. He isn’t even the only black person in our Jewish community. Here in the South I have also met good people – heart-driven people who also fight for justice, who are as dismayed by bigotry and hate as my family and friends in California, and as my friends in Ohio. I have friends who voted for Hillary and I have friends who voted for Trump, and both of those friends are raising really good children. I have met GLBTQ friends here in the South. I have met transgender men and women here. I have met friends of all colors and races. I have met friends who are native Southerners and others who, like me, are transplants with other area codes in their phone numbers. For the first time here in Georgia, we were able to buy a home. We couldn’t do that in the Bay Area.

California will always have my heart, and I will always feel like I am home when I land at SFO, drive past the Pacific Ocean and breathe the delicious mixture of salt and bay leaves. But a piece of my heart is also in Ohio. And now, it is also in Georgia.

Dear Californians, I know you know this, but I have to say it: You are not better, smarter, more focused on justice and what is right, more civilized, more progressive, more traumatized today after the election, than other Americans. 26% of people voted for one candidate, 26% voted for the other, and 47% didn’t vote – because either they were disenfranchised or apathetic. But not all of the 26% who voted for your candidate (who was also my candidate) came from California or the Northeast. They also came from Ohio, from Georgia, and from all the states that are so easy to dismiss as foreign, as different, as backward, as stuck in the past.

This is not a time for divisiveness. We need California’s elected officials in the U.S. legislature to partner with the elected officials of all the other states. We need your progressive messages. We need your activism. This is not a time to separate yourselves, to protect your bubble. This is a time to get out of that bubble, to sit in that uncomfortable place and connect, to reach out to understand – not to get to know “the other America” but to realize that we really aren’t different. We are all America. And we need you – not to be separate, but to work alongside us for unity.

the way back

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As I got into bed last night around 2:30am, I told my husband that I felt like I had fallen through a hole in time and landed in an alternate reality. Like the dystopian fiction my father introduced me to when I was my tween daughter’s age: Huxley, Orwell, Bradbury, Camus. As if real life were still moving forward somewhere in the place I had fallen from, and I just wanted more than anything to find my way back there.

I lay awake for a while, knowing sleep was going to be elusive even though I was physically, mentally and emotionally sucked dry. I thought of all the people celebrating the 2016 election while I was lying in shock, the depth of sadness I feel today only barely registering. I practiced the words I would tell my daughter in the morning, when she woke up and realized that we hadn’t woken her up from sleep to hear the victory speech of the first woman president.

I don’t believe people are inherently bad, but I do believe that when we act from a place of scarcity rather than abundance, of fear instead of trust, of individualism over connection and collaboration, that we can do incredible harm and create rifts that can take generations to heal. I don’t want to be a part of that.

I woke up this morning and recognized a familiar feeling. It’s hard to describe, but it reminded me of the day over eight years ago when I woke up from a dark and brief sleep and realized that I had – the night before – said goodbye to my baby daughter Tikva as she breathed her final breaths. In that remembering, I felt a combination of shock, bewilderment, disbelief, the beginnings of a grief that I would (will) never quite completely shake, and this question:

How will I ever reconnect with hope?

There is one difference between that morning in 2008 and this one today. I have the gift of hindsight, the gifts of my experience, and the big picture of all I have gained since then. I know how I found my way back to hope.

It was a dark time, and for days, weeks, months, and even years I felt it all – anger, sorrow, fear, regret, doubt, hopelessness, aloneness, grief. So much grief. I cried and I wrote and I cried and I wrote and I questioned every single moment of my daughter’s short life and I screamed WHY at the universe, which had no answers for me.

And then, as I did all those things, I began the long, slow work of healing. And I did it, without realizing at the time, like this:

I connected. I met other parents who had lost their babies. It was painful and terrifying because all of a sudden there were a million ways babies can die, and I became aware of how often it happens and how many cracked hearts there are in the world. But those parents – they saved me. We saved each other. Connection saved us. It saves us every day.

I wrote. I wrote as if my life depended on it. I shared my experience for my own survival. I shared in others’ experiences as a witness, as a friend on the most difficult road. I put aside shame and self-consciousness and fear of not being good enough and I spoke openly about my experience. And I heard from others that they understood, that they felt understood. And I was able to turn some of my pain into a love that I could share with others.

I owned my story. I took responsibility for it, recognizing it as the greatest gift my daughter had given me. I started to practice radical self-love, forgiving myself for the ways I thought my body had let her down. I told my story in a new way – as a story of the mighty power of unconditional love. As a story of resilience. Even as a story of hope.

I reached way beyond my comfort zone. I sat with the discomfort until its edges softened and ease sneaked in. I trusted that I could contribute to the collective healing even as I was struggling to heal myself.

I became relentlessly determined to be a light in the world. Because I have held both life and death in my arms, and I don’t take anything for granted. Because on my daughter’s headstone are the words, “Love is all you need.” Because I know that I came here in this lifetime simply to love and to connect.

This morning I said to my husband, “I really need to read something today that is going to give me guidance on how to move forward. How to regain hope in order to dissolve the fear and sadness I feel.” I held my children tight before sending them off into a world that feels changed from how it felt yesterday. I went on Facebook and found comfort there, in community. I cried. I listened to Paul sing Let It Be and Hey Jude. I cried some more.

I don’t know that I’m going to find that single piece that will tell me what to do because I think the knowledge of how to move forward is going to come out of each one of us – together. But I am determined to find my way back to hope, so I promise you this:

I will connect.

I will write.

I will be responsible for the story I choose to tell and the words that I use.

I will dare to do uncomfortable things and put myself in uncomfortable places in order to bring about justice for all people.

And I will remain relentlessly determined to be a light in the world.

Will you join me?