I am a refugee, just two generations removed.
At age 15, my grandfather, Alexis Leon Kolshanov left Wirballen, Lithuania, through Estonia, and boarded a ship for New York. His father insisted he leave for his safety. Something was politically amiss in his homeland, and whispers of “relocation” and “extermination” filled the quiet corners of dark bedrooms late at night. America, Great Grandpa Kolshanov said, was the safest place he could think of. But after weeks of stale air and small rations in the belly of a ship, Lady Liberty snubbed Alexis at the gate of freedom. He was turned away at Ellis Island—likely because he was Jewish. Later, he found his way through Canada and was admitted for permanent residence in Vermont, legally or illegally he would never tell. Fear ran high in those days. You never knew who you could trust. Who would understand what fleeing felt like? Who would care that the smell of stale air and small rations still clung to you even now– years after the fleeing?
My grandfather changed his name to Alex Cole, hiding his ethnicity due to the growing anti-Semitism of the day. The reason he fled was real—very real. The siblings he left behind, my grandaunts and uncles, paid a steep price: Alex’s brother, Fodor, barely survived Dachau. His sister, Valentina, died at Auschwitz. And until the day my grandfather breathed his last breath, I could see he was ready to flee again at any moment — because you never know who really sees you.
Who really understands?
Who really cares?
I have never had to flee anything in my life. Not this kind. The kind of fleeing that is especially hard on women who experience the violence of war. But we can SEE it today–that particularly bitter flavor of fleeing we see exploding in this morning’s paper.
Images of families pushing, carrying, dragging their lives from boarder to boarder in hope of entry. Of the body of Alyan washed ashore amidst the tears of so many lost at sea. Of the four million Syrian refugees to date, 74% are women and children, each traumatized to some extent, with new threats to their safety emerging every day. We see them grappling with exhaustion from fleeing, rejection at boarders, and the palpable fear, they and their children may die from the lack of a place called home.
I am a refugee, just two generations removed.
Agencies report one out of three Syrian refugee women are afraid to leave even their temporary dwellings for fear of not being able to return. We can see the fear, the stress, the rejection that convinces women that they are completely alone and unseen by anyone who cares.
“I am abandoned…” Somehow I think that once this thought takes root all hope runs away.
Though Syria fills our newspapers this morning, there are over 30 million women refugees who face a version of this story all over the world. Over half a million South Sudanese refugees arriving in camps today are exhausted and starving. Congolese refugees experiencing rape as a “weapons of war” beg not to “fall off the world’s radar” during their displacement. And so many more in so many places.
Places like the Nkamira Transit Camp set up by the United Nations for Congo’s refugees located just across the Rwandan border. To say the camp is “filled to capacity” would be an understatement. The summer before last, a kind but overworked camp director arranged for me to meet with Uwimana Marie and four other women who sought refuge in the camp. These women, all between the ages 40 and 80, represent a demographic that makes up almost 60 percent of the camp population. As the camp director and I walked past the tarp walls and tin roofs of 11 warehouse-sized living blocks, I saw women were cooking, washing, carrying bundles of charcoal, and waiting in endless lines, ultimately trying to get on with their lives in this new place. Every pair of eyes I looked into pled, “Do you see me? I’m here, I’m here!” When I asked them what they feared the most, the question hung in the air for a long moment. Slowly, their response came:
“We fear being forgotten. There is no hope when you have been forgotten.”
Tears filled my eyes. I also feared being forgotten. My grandfather feared being forgotten too.
Until now, for Congo, for South Sudan, for Syria the world has all but ignored the stunning death, destruction, and violence that plagues the war refugee. So what changed? Why can we can’t turn away this time? Do we see our own children in the lifeless child on the beach? Do we feel the father’s anguish? Do we identify with the mother’s plight? Will we allow the moment slip away?
We are at our best when we fight for the common good. When we identify with the father on the beach; when we feel the pain of the mother; when we call them our own everything changes. The lesser emotions of pity and sympathy give way for something much deeper, what the ancient Scriptures describe as splangchnizomai—supernatural, gut level, no-holds barred empathy.
Empathy helps us become brave and responsible. Empathy is choosing to understand and care about others—over and over again.
For me, this revelation is personal. It is why I can so freely say “I am a refugee,” not just through the bravery of my grandfather, but also through the bravery of my 30 million sisters world-wide who are fleeing the violence of war today. They are mine to see. Mine to care for. My flesh and blood. Violence against her is violence against me. I can not turn away.
Empathy helps refugees become real…
- Real like the new and rapidly growing initiative WE WELCOME REFUGEES. Hosted by A Holy Experience, The Justice Conference and World Relief, We Welcome Refugees seeks to set a table full of tangible ways for you and your church to support refugees on the front-lines of this humanitarian crisis. As the table grows, the courage to take responsibility for welcoming the stranger grows, and the church once again becomes the hallmark of honest love, and a leading voice in bringing peace to this complicated issue. This is a critical moment in time for all of us. You can say yes now: http://wewelcomerefugees.com/
- Real for me and a brave little band of volunteers who started their journey with individual acts of action—an article, a speech, a one-time gift, a vision trip. But something beautiful happened along the way. Our story was birthed out of one woman’s thumbprint, but we hope to end it with a million! One Million Thumbprints (1MT) seeks to catalyze a groundswell of people focused on overcoming the effects of war against women through storytelling and advocacy. We envision a world where women, especially the refugee, are free from the fear of violence, oppression, and poverty caused by war. Read our story and help us send a message of solidarity to the UN and other policy-makers by giving our first 5000 thumbprints here: http://www.onemillionthumbprints.org/
Just last month, a refugee from Africa being relocated to the United States through World Relief DuPage/ Aurora spoke to this idea more beautifully than I ever could.
“We are all refugees, ” he breathed. “Because our real home is in heaven.”
Today, when the world asks the question— “Who is willing to care?”— may we be found with a loud and ready answer of WE DO!
Because we are all refugees.