Speaking up and supporting refugees

I’ve been reflecting lately on what it means to be a life writer in a time when so many lives are in imminent danger — when there are stories far more pressing than my own. It feels like a collision of my interests: telling others’ stories through reporting while I tell my own through life writing.

In October, a month before the election, I started my role as a “family friend” to Sudanese refugees who arrived in Iowa over the summer. They are amazing, to put it lightly. The children all attend school, have new friends over every week, it seems, and still try to teach me the proper “Juju on that Beat” technique after all my poor excuses for dancing. The parents only speak Arabic, the other children are fluent in English and the younger children are starting to speak up more; we’ll all have to speak up more. Speaking up is surviving.

I visited the family last week, as I do two or three times a month.

New furniture sneaks its way into their home nearly every visit, thanks to local donors. A beautiful, beaded Arabic tapestry hangs above a chest of drawers that’s new this week, I notice. It catches the waning sunlight, light from the kitchen, light from the kids’ laptop, almost greedily — as if it was shrouded for too long and is ready to share its story with anyone who will look and listen.

A friend of the family’s is over for the evening; they all call her “Auntie,” though she’s not related to them. The Sudanese community is all family here. We talk about work, family, school; it’s all so normal, just a week after President Trump’s ban temporarily barred refugees from seven predominantly Muslim countries, including Sudan.

Fear fills the pauses, the silences, the moments we both struggle to find words — me in broken Arabic, them in broken English. We’re all broken here. Fear is like that: It transcends language, occupying spaces I hadn’t even noticed were there.

We cook dinner, the family joking again about my picky eating habits. The oldest daughter makes my favorite Sudanese dish.

The laughter, the new pieces of furniture, the food, the tapestry that sparkles no matter where I sit, they all instill me with hope that humanity, change and a better future aren’t about strokes of a pen by powerful straight, white, Christian men. They’re about sharing a meal over mismatched dinnerware. Dancing to Sudanese and American songs back-to-back. Playing Connect Four for hours on end. Just being there for refugees who are also dear friends.

Want to get involved with refugees in the Des Moines area?

Here are a few of my favorite nonprofits supporting them:

  • Ethnic Minorities of Burma Advocacy and Resource Center (EMBARC)
  • Lutheran Services in Iowa (LSI)
  • U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI)

If you’re interested in getting involved with any of the above organizations and have questions, please feel free to reach out to me! I’ve worked with all of them.

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