A Firsthand Look at the Refugee Crisis and Surprising Hope

Jan 27 2017

Two weeks ago, I met a man with a gunshot wound, and a woman with tuberculosis, babies with malaria, and a toddler so malnourished she looked like the photos we saw in the 80’s coming out of the Ethiopia famine. I waited in line with refugees who arrived in Uganda from South Sudan that very day, babies on backs, belongings bundled, future uncertain. And, though we saw tragedy and enormous heartbreak — I sat a while and squeezed the hand of a mama whose baby couldn’t be saved during childbirth the night before — what took me by surprise again and again… what stuck with me and wouldn’t leave me alone in story after story after story after story…

… was hope.

Hope.

What a strange thing to find half a world away in Africa where I presumed to find only despair.

Hope.

And do you know why?

Because these people, who are fleeing violence, who are uncertain, who are longing for a better future, who want peace, are not alone.

There is hope because they are not alone.

There are people waiting to receive them.

Do you know, in this age of worldwide isolationism and xenophobia and shutting down borders and building walls — in this era where we choose to fear for our personal security, though it has not been threatened, and deny our neighbors safety, though they are under attack — how the government of Uganda has responded to the 400,000 refugees flooding their country since July alone?

Uganda has responded by throwing their borders WIDE OPEN.

Can you imagine?? Wide open borders for refugees rushing to safety. As though the right things to do are to welcome the stranger, and to look after the widows and orphans in their distress, and to reach out to the poor who cry out for help.

And do you know who has shown up to help their neighbors? The Ugandan people.

I mean, yes; Medical Teams International, the organization I traveled with, is there doing health intake and triage for every single refugee entering the country. Every single one of hundreds of thousands of refugees, more coming all the time. But do you know who makes that work possible?

Ugandan doctors and nurses and administrators and janitors and midwives and surgeons and cooks and data analysts who show up every day to love their neighbors as themselves.

It was hope. Over and over and over again. An infusion of hope in a dark world.

Look, friends; I don’t know about you these days. I don’t know what you’re thinking or feeling while strange things are afoot on our planet. I don’t know whether you, like me, want to hunker down some days and mourn and grieve how we’ve lost our way. I don’t know whether you, like me, are populating your personal Facebook feeds with hashtags like #CallingOutTheLies and #RefuseGaslighting because you’re unwilling to be party to alternative facts. I don’t know whether you, like me, have a stash of pretzels and chocolate and Reese’s peanut butter cups on your nighstand you’re eating late at night to swallow your feelings. I don’t know whether you, like me, vacillate between fight and flight, back and forth in rapid succession — I MUST FIGHT one minute, and Oh Dear God, Let Me FLEE THIS INSANITY the next. But I do know all of that is OK. All of it. Shock, anger, grief. It’s all normal. It’s all OK for a time. But eventually, we need to remember hope.

We need to remember hope, and we need to fight for it.

But in case you, like me, sometimes forget — in case sometimes hope slips your mind or you find it hard to grasp — slippery, slippery hope — we can rest for a tiny bit knowing the people of Uganda are carrying it for us until we can pick it up again. Like kites made of garbage bags and flown with joy, we can pick it up again soon.

With love,

 

 

 

P.S. All photos here were taken by yours truly, but are owned by Medical Teams International and are used with permission. All thoughts/opinions here are my own, however, and should not be held against Medical Teams. 😉

P.P.S. The refugee and displaced people crisis is expected to increase in 2017. But do not despair! There are real things we can do to help refugees around the world. Learn what the UN Refugee Agency, one of Medical Teams’ valued partners, is doing to support refugees, more than 50% of whom are children. Learn what it could mean for refugees and displaced people if the world, including the U.S., continues its policies of isolationism. Designate your donations to organizations like Medical Teams International by specifying “refugee relief.” And remember hope, and that we get to help in building it.

P.P.P.S. I’m terribly sorry I’ve been offline so much lately. After our flights were so dramatically messed up, we ended up extending our trip to Uganda so we could still see ALL the amazing work being done there. I was home only 10 hours before leaving for the Magic in the Mess Writing Retreat I run… which was AMAZING thanks to incredible participants and staff who let me recover from jet lag at the gorgeous Oregon Coast. It’s been a whirlwind, in other words. A GOOD whirlwind, but a whirlwind nonetheless.

P.P.P.P.S. The GOOD NEWS is the writing retreat DID afford me the opportunity to finish the latest draft of my book proposal, which is now back in the hands of my literary agent. I do hope to have more news to report on that soon.

P.P.P.P.P.S. The writing retreat participants, particularly Jen and Heidi, DID spend significant time advocating that I STOP DROPPING THE BALL on updating you on Betty and the kitchen remodel, which is … wait for it … COMPLETE, but about which I’ve failed to tell you. So stay tuned for more.

P.P.P.P.P.P.S. I do feel very silly ending a post about refugees with an update about my kitchen. Gross. But I’m also grateful you let me be very Both/And, friends. Both deeply, abidingly concerned about people suffering around the world and what I can do to change that AND excited to cook with Betty.

Sending love, friends.

 

Feet on Dusty Ground

Jan 12 2017

True confession: I’m not very good with suffering. I don’t like it. And, whether it’s my suffering or others’, I invest quite a lot of energy in avoiding it. I turn off the news. I hide the sad things on Facebook. I take Ambien to sleep at night. I eat all the french fries. And I shudder whenever I hear Christians say, as Christians often do, “I pray that my heart will be broken by the things that break the heart of Jesus.”

I get it.

I do.

I understand what they’re trying to say in praying to be people of compassion and people of Love and people who see the suffering of others and thus respond.

But I shudder because my heart is already broken by these things.

And I avoid sadness because I’m not sure my heart will keep beating if it’s broken any more.

I plug my ears and squeeze my eyes closed and say LALALALA very loudly to drown out the suffering din because I feel helpless and like there’s nothing I can do, anyway — there is only one of me and so many who hurt — so it feels like an exercise in futility to continue to offer my heart to be pulverized.

The truth is I don’t intend to stop shutting down the news and hiding the “too sad to bear” items in my Facebook feed, because it’s OK to have coping mechanisms and to know how much on any given day I can take before breaking utterly, beyond repair.

And yet.

And yet.

And yet.

I took pictures the past few days in refugee camps where mamas and their babies sat in nutrition and feeding classes taught by Medical Teams International. Mamas who fled South Sudan only the day before, afraid for their lives and the lives of their children.

I held hands with small kids and waved to the big ones.

I walked through hospital wards and met men recovering from gun shot wounds, women recovering from rape, children recovering from malaria.

And, friends, many smiled.

Not all.

Not everyone.

Certainly not.

But many.

Mommies are proud of their babies everywhere. All over the world. And when you coo at the little ones and tell the mama her baby is beautiful, she shines, because she knows it’s true. It’s like she’s been in on the secret from the beginning — this baby is everything, this baby is precious and perfect, this baby carries light and life, this baby is made in the very image of divinity and Love — and so, when you see it, too, and show the mama with your eyes and your smile and your hand on her baby’s brow, you quite literally share a piece of her soul.

And she smiles.

And in that smile is hope.

I’ve spent the last few days walking dusty ground, sweating and smiling with people who are sweating and smiling and sobbing with me. And I’ve been reminded that entering into suffering is also entering into hope. Entering in. The reminder that we don’t walk dusty ground alone. The reminder that our highest calling is to learn the ways of Love and to love each other as we love ourselves. The reminder that we are here to bear witness to each other’s lives. The reminder that entering in is also an action as vital as food and medicine.

And I am glad — truly glad — to be here.

Sending love… and hope in the middle of pain… with feet on dusty ground,
Beth

P.S. The photo above is of our momrade, Margaret, and her son Christopher whose life was saved by Medical Teams International (MTI). Margaret is a mama of twin boys, just like me; Christopher’s twin is John Baptist, not pictured. I’ll be writing more of Margaret and Christopher’s story in the days ahead and sharing via MTI. You can follow MTI’s work at their website, www.medicalteams.org, or on Facebook here.

P.P.S. MTI is not sponsoring this post, nor paying me for this opinion. All thoughts shared on this blog are my own. Obviously. Or I’d be a lot more careful about what I say. Heh heh heh.

P.P.P.S. By mistake, I only packed one pair of socks for this trip. I have now become an expert at handwashing socks in Africa and drying them by the next morning. Totally putting that on my resume for the future. This is why travel is important; because LIFE SKILLS.

P.P.P.P.S. I also have spilled something at nearly every meal and also in the car on long, back-country drives. Because I’m traveling with me, and my skill set is Expert Level in Spilling Everything. To date, I have spilled milk, coffee, passion fruit juice, and mango juice, some of those all over myself. HOWEVER, I only spilled on the CEO ONCE, and that was a bag of beef jerky which doesn’t soak in, so I’m considering that a win.

On Connecting with Our Hearts

Jan 10 2017

We arrived in Africa after 54 hours of travel. It was supposed to take 26 hours, but, as Greg messaged me shortly after my arrival, “no plan survives contact with reality.” It turns out the ice storm in Brussels was very, very real, which meant six hours sitting on a plane that would never take off, six more hours of waiting in line to rebook, and three more countries added to our routing – Germany, Saudi Arabia, and Ethiopia – before we arrived in Uganda. But arrive we did, so WOOHOO! AND, most importantly, my traveling companion, Martha Holley Newsome, CEO of Medical Teams International, UNDERSTANDS THE IMPORTANCE OF COFFEE, so it’s all going to be OK. We’re here. We’re safe. WE’RE GETTING COFFEE REGULARLY.

We’ve spent our first two days meeting with the Kampala staff of Medical Teams International and with the Uganda Representative for the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees, a man named Bornwell with a beautiful smile who walked me down the stairs after our meeting. I asked him why he does this work — why he’s done it for 28 years, which is his entire professional life — and he told me it is his heart. “If you do something not connected with your heart,” he said, “you are in the wrong job.” Which, amen, right, friends? Amen. Being connected to our hearts would save the whole world. Connected to our hearts and connected to each other.

Tomorrow, we head to refugee camps to visit our momrades there who are fleeing South Sudan to save their children and, thus, themselves. I won’t have time to write a lot while I’m here, but will try to update you as I have connectivity and a minute to spare. Bear with me if it’s slow and sporadic going. I may only be able to share a few snippets — a “thought for the day” — and personal photos since I’ll be focused on my work with MTI, but I want to keep you in the loop and have you join our world here as much as possible.

I’ve only been in Africa two days, and yet I feel a little like I’ve come home. Growing up in SE Asia has its similarities, I suppose, and I find myself at ease in the developing world in ways I never quite do in America. As though America is the cross-cultural experience, and the developing world understands what’s important. Food, water, safety, health, and a future for our kids. I just feel so… distracted… in the States. Like I’m chasing the strangest things and pretending they’re important. Status and stuff and an entire aisle in the grocery store devoted to nothing but cereal; what an odd way to live.

Sending love, friends.
Beth

 

January Book Selection for It’s a Likely Story Book Club

Jan 7 2017

Waving in the dark, friends. And in the light. It’s 12:52am at home and 9:47am where I’m typing this from the Brussels airport, ready to board my flight to Uganda in a few minutes. Light and dark, chasing each other across the world, and I feel like I have a foot in both at the moment.

I’ll try … try, try, try … to write periodically while there. We’ll see how the internet holds up. I’m eager to meet our refugee momrades and to sit with them in the dark, in the name of all of us, and in the name of Love. To hold hands. To live in the mud. To see magic there. Stay tuned, friends. I’m holding you close in my heart while I’m there.

In the meantime, I’m late (because OF COURSE I AM) in telling you our January “A Likely Story” Book Club selection. This one comes suggested to us by one of my favorite librarians, Korie Buerkle, who has, for several months now, been reading books with protaganists who are not white. The book below is an epic YA fantasy, and is the first book of a series, only two of which have been written to date. I must say, I’m about a third of the way through it and am enamored already.

Enjoy, friends.

And see you on the flip side.

 

 

 

ALikelyStory

A Likely Story Book Club
Announcing: January’s Book Selection!

An Ember in the Ashes
by Sabaa Tahir

Laia is a slave. Elias is a soldier. Neither is free.
 
Under the Martial Empire, defiance is met with death. Those who do not vow their blood and bodies to the Emperor risk the execution of their loved ones and the destruction of all they hold dear.
 
It is in this brutal world, inspired by ancient Rome, that Laia lives with her grandparents and older brother. The family ekes out an existence in the Empire’s impoverished backstreets. They do not challenge the Empire. They’ve seen what happens to those who do.
 
But when Laia’s brother is arrested for treason, Laia is forced to make a decision. In exchange for help from rebels who promise to rescue her brother, she will risk her life to spy for them from within the Empire’s greatest military academy.
 
There, Laia meets Elias, the school’s finest soldier—and secretly, its most unwilling. Elias wants only to be free of the tyranny he’s being trained to enforce. He and Laia will soon realize that their destinies are intertwined—and that their choices will change the fate of the Empire itself.

“Sabaa Tahir grew up in California’s Mojave Desert at her family’s eighteen-room motel. There, she spent her time devouring fantasy novels, raiding her brother’s comic book stash, and playing guitar badly. She began writing An Ember in the Ashes while working nights as a newspaper editor. She likes thunderous indie rock, garish socks, and all things nerd. Sabaa currently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her family.”

And here’s a review of The Stupidest Angel: A Heartwarming Tale of Christmas Terror by Christopher Moore, our December book club book.

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On a scale of 1-5 (1 being the worst, most heinous book in the history of the world, and 5 being I WILL FORCE EVERYONE I KNOW TO READ THIS) we rated The Stupidest Angel a 3.1. You’ll note the rating scale is a little harsh. It’s, like, practically impossible for anyone to rate a 5. Like that annoying college professor who thought awarding me an A+ meant I actually had to EXCEED expectations for my specific work according to the parameters set out in the syllabus instead of to do just fine and be generally smart as a person which was the system I preferred. So I guess I feel the need to point out a 3.1 is a solid C grade for this book, which is a C, and, as I told my college daughter when she brought home her first semester grades, C’s GET DEGREES! GOOD JOB, BABY!

Comments from our Facebook book club group:

Terry FischerWolfe: I loved it. It reminded me of another of my favorite authors, Tom Robbins. Quirky books have always been a favorite of mine. I give it a solid 4.

Alissa Cowan Norman: I loved it. My husband was entertained when I picked it back up after a couple days and said “Gotta see if the zombies eat everyone now…”. The language didn’t bother me at all, and I already recommended it to my MIL, so… I give it a 4.

Diane Bognar: I read maybe half of it and then returned it to the library. Couldn’t get into it at all. The part I read would be rated a 1.5.

Sarah Kessler: I read it and really enjoyed the writing style! That said, I would give it a 3.5 for the language and some of the content which I just felt was unnecessarily vulgar. Highly entertaining tho and very funny 😊