Wednesday, December 02, 2015

The Refugee Next Door

The headlines and social media feeds are again filled with outrage and outright exhaustion over this latest-to-make-the-headlines tragedy in the US. As I consider what people are upset about, it seems to be centered on the fact that the government and society as a whole haven't been able to prevent things like this from happening. I know that's a generalization, but that's what my people choose to talk about online, so that's the information I have to judge.

It's true that governments shape our environment, but they don't control our actions. In the end, what changes life is looking to your own actions. This is a principle of truth that applies in all situations.

Tragedy is often born of pain. The shooters in these stories have tragedies all their own going on. Families torn apart, abuse, mental illness, and a million other reasons lead to days like today, and they will continue to do so. I know this is a hackneyed refrain, but governments and institutions can only do so much. The real power is in our ability to connect with each other one to one. There are broken hearts that need binding up on all sides of every event.

If that seems like a useless point of view, I can understand that. It's overwhelming to think of all the people who need help.  But none of us has to help everyone.

To try and explain what I mean, I offer my story; but not in any way to place myself on some sort of pedestal, because believe me, I don't feel that way at all. I'm not better than anyone, and most days, I'm pretty sure I'm doing it wrong. I'm just doing what I can do. You don't have to read this as some sort of fable or let it make you feel guilty. The point is that small personal actions will change lives, and there is some thing that all of us can do, we just have to be willing to find out what it is.

About 4 months ago, I found out about a situation in the home of some friends I'd met through my church. A very young single mom was in need. She did not have her kids with her and was in the middle of a major transition. She reached out to me for help, because she felt some level of trust in me through our limited previous interactions. At first it was easy. She needed a few rides to appointments and someone to talk to. I took her out to lunch, met with her social workers and was generally nice to her for a few weeks. No big deal.

Soon enough it became important to her that she leave her parents' home, so we started looking. She had a job but a very small budget. With needs being so great and bureaucracies being how they are, our search yielded no good options.

I had made the offer to her to stay at my house if there was ever a time when she just couldn't go home. When she asked if she could move in with me for an indeterminate long term, my first thought was, "Yes, of course," but was followed closely by "Uhhhh, wait. I don't want this right now. I have a life." But honestly, that was the only reason I could think of not to take her in. The only one. I was afraid to think of taking on someone else's burden in such a real, immediate way, but there were no obstacles to me doing so--I had space in my house and plenty of other resources and opportunities.

And so I did.  I said yes, and yes, it felt a little like jumping off a cliff. She moved into my half-finished basement next to my storage area and all my photography equipment and proclaimed it peaceful and beautiful.  She actually used that word. About my basement! She felt safe. So there was a little perspective right there. Help doesn't have to be perfect to make a difference.

She brought a lot to the table. She is hardworking, determined to get her kids back, determined to get her GED and her driver's license. She has firm goals for getting a car and a place of her own. What I do right now is the kind of thing I do for my kids when they live at my house. I get her where she needs to be, feed her, and try to help her get to her next objective in life. She's experienced a complicated family life thus far, filled with tales of immigration, escape from war, poverty, and all the other things. It's been hard. So, I'm trying to strengthen her foundation, that's all. I can't change what's happened to her in the past.

This past week, things became difficult at the place where her children are living, and she asked the next question I've been dreading, but expecting. Can the kids come and stay? She needs them to be back with her. Her two youngest are 4 and 2 years old and again, while my heart wanted to say yes, because of course she needs her children to be with her, the first thoughts from my head were less than noble. They were filled with fear and that aforementioned desire to have my life to myself. As before though,  that was the only reason. She didn't ask me to care for them full-time, in fact she's already on the ball making arrangements for child care and school. She just needs a safe place, and that, I have.

Friends, I really, really want to emphasize that this is not an extraordinary story. People do this all the time. Grandmas take in their grandchildren and raise them. Families help struggling adult children every day. I guess one twist here is that I'm not this girl's family. I was a near stranger to her back in July. Now we have a relationship that is growing stronger all the time, and I have become invested in our shared hope of making her family strong.

It is hard, don't get me wrong. There are  days when I have to juggle my schedule to get her where she needs to be, and days when I can't make it work and she has to take a cab. There are times when I'm much more involved in the situation than I want to be and I find myself wondering what on earth to say when she asks my advice. I honestly hate white-knuckling it through her driving practice and staying outwardly calm while reminding her to check her mirrors before merging left while I imagine our fiery deaths. I will be SO glad when she gets her license and I can say, again, that I am done teaching people how to drive. But then she gives me a hug and tells me I'm helping her make her dreams come true and I figure I can suffer through another 50 hours of practice, right?

The bottom line is that when I doubt myself or my sanity, and I say "This is crazy!! Why am I doing this?" I can't think of any reasons not to continue except selfish ones.

Bad things happen in the world because people stop thinking about the effect of their actions on other people, and I'm not perfect in this way. When these things do happen, if one does judge by the news and social media, our first instinct is to rant instead of to help. Ranting is our blessed right in America, but generosity is our privilege. It also feels much better.

I PROMISE I'm not asking you to take in a stranger or compare your story to mine in any way. My kids are grown. I'm not working full time. My husband is fully supportive of everything that's going on. I'm in an unusually flexible position to be able to help this way, and the opportunity landed in front of me. This will not be your story and that is okay. There are a million ways to make a difference. If you're raising a family and keeping it together, then you're already doing it. You're improving lives in the most profound way possible and maybe preventing some future horror. If you volunteer or donate in ways that you feel good about, then you're doing it. But if you're doing those things and still feeling like the world is spinning out of control, maybe that is a little sign that you could do something else. Maybe you can find a refugee next door, and ease their burden just a little so that they can have some hope start to replace desperation and anger.

I'm still sad about San Bernadino, but I know that what will not necessarily go viral are all the ways that good people have already sprung into action to help and heal. Knowing how that works and that it's happening right now, even though it's not making the news, gives me the peace to cope.

I'm going to say it one more time. I'm not making any news here and I hope I don't, ever. I'm helping one girl. In very, very small ways that take about 15 minutes at a time. But it's leavening me, meaning it's both stretching me and somehow making me lighter. I hope with all my heart that my help to her could ripple out so that two little boys might grow up in a happier home than what they are facing now, and maybe in 15 years they won't feel so sad and desperate that they have to vent their anger in an extreme and hurtful way.

I know. That's dramatic and ridiculously naive.

But maybe not.


  1. Beautiful, Kellie, like your heart.

  2. Oh my amazingness! Can I say how glad I am to know you?! Love you, and your honest and wonderful heart!


Thank you for sharing your insights!