A few years ago, I saw my mom’s fear of refugees dissolve. While visiting me and my family in the Midwest, she sat in as I taught an English literacy class for East African refugee women, mostly from Somalia and Oromia. We were learning the language to describe our families, and we all went around the room saying how many children we had (the numbers were high—5, 8, 4—because Muslims view children as a gift from God).
When I introduced my mother, my class started probing. They asked how many children she had. “Three daughters,” she said, explaining that I was the middle child. No sons? The women seemed a little sad for her. My mother told them that she did, in fact, have a son, but that he had died in childhood as a result of a car accident. The women immediately expressed grief for her—a few even got up to hug my mom.
Then, despite various cultural and language barriers, one by one the women in my class shared how they too, had lost children, through sickness, famine, and war. One woman shared how six of her children died in a refugee camp. This woman, and every other person there had been touched by profound loss.
Our English class was transformed into something else. As the women hugged my mom and enfolded her into their circle of grief and resilience, she stopped seeing them as refugees. To her, they were grieving mothers, just like herself.
A few days ago I sent a brief text message to Maryan, a Somali, Muslim, neighbor, and friend. I told her I was thankful for her, I was sad about everything happening in the news, and I wanted her to know she was always welcome.
Later, the phone rang: “I haven’t had time to listen to the news,” she said. “What’s going on?” My heart sank.
Many of those most affected by the recent executive order concerning immigrants and refugees were too busy surviving to be glued to the news or to social media networks. They were single mothers and men working the swing shift, recently arrived refugees trying to navigate schools and hospitals and so many bills. Maryan had three children and worked at a minimum wage job. She was too busy to worry about the powers that be.
I didn’t want to be the one to tell Maryan, but here I was. Like many of my neighbors, I knew she was too busy trying to survive to pay attention to the news. I briefly outlined for Maryan the ban on refugees from Syria and six other countries—including her own. She did not seem surprised. “It’s ok,” she told me. “Everything is in God’s will.”
I also believe that God is ultimately in control, and that the Psalms, the Prophets, and the Book of Lamentations show us that the Christian faith includes the concept of complaint. We are invited to cry out, ask questions, and demand justice without fear of losing our place in the presence of God. The God of the Scriptures desires honesty. God does not want a relationship built on hiding our struggles and insecurities.
Maryan and I talked for a while longer. Finally she asked with a worried voice: “Will Trump send back the people who have already arrived?” I told her I didn’t think that was possible, that I believe that God is in control of the world but gets upset when the people he loves are treated poorly.
“We should all pray,” my friend told me. “All of us together should pray, and then God will have to listen to us.” She told me that her husband is still in Somalia. She will have to work that much harder at her job to make enough money to go visit him, if she is even allowed to do that. She paused for a long while, and then told me she felt very sad, both for herself and that so many families will be separated by this ban. “So many people have spouses or family members still in these countries,” Maryan told me. “But what can we do?”
The sense of powerlessness in her statement hit me. I feel it too. What can I do to help my friends and neighbors, those already here in America and those who are now barred from coming? I want everyone to know what I have experienced: that refugees have been the single biggest source of blessing in my life. My relationships with them are proof of what Jesus says: Blessed are the poor in spirit, the sick, the sad, and the oppressed. By being in relationship with refugees, I have been plunged into a world all-too familiar with war, trauma, sickness, death, forced relocation, and long imprisonments in camps. There are no easy answers for their situation.
In my friendship with these women, I have been forced to confront whether or not I truly believe that God is a good father and if I will choose to praise God even in the midst of heartbreak. Over time, my faith has been tested and made stronger. The more acquainted I become with Jesus, the more I see someone who draws near to those the world disdains. His oft-quoted words in Matthew 25:40, “Whatever you have done for the least of these, you have done for me,” have taken on new meaning. I have seen how his message of the kingdom of God is good news for my friends in every respect—not just spiritually, but socially and economically as well. Because of my experiences with the sick and the sad and the oppressed, I have received the blessings of a vibrant faith and relationship with Christ.
Just a few days ago, my mom was volunteering at another English class I run, this one for parents at my daughter’s elementary school. I was introducing my mom to one of my newer students when Yasmeen, a friend and neighbor from Afghanistan, corrected me. “She is not your mother,” she told me, with a little frown. “She is my mother, too. She is our mother.” Yasmeen put her head on my mother’s shoulder. “My mother is far away, in Afghanistan. This is my mother now.” My mother embraced Yasmeen, and I watched as new families were forged right in front of my eyes. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Usually in the most unlikely of places.
D. L. Mayfield lives and writes in Portland, OR with her husband and two small children. Mayfield likes to write about refugees, theology, and downward mobility, among other topics. Her most recent book is Assimilate or Go Home: Notes from a Failed Missionary on Rediscovering Faith.