Inspirational Women – International Women’s Day

I know many incredible and inspiring women. For starters, I was raised by one. And my parents’ mothers are another two. The family I was born into and the family I married into is home to them. I’ve gone to school or church with them, worked for and with them, and had them as clients. It would take me days to write about every inspiring woman I know! So for International Women’s Day, I’d like to tell you about three, though I have chosen to withhold names.

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X is a single mother. Every morning, she walks her rambunctious daughter to daycare, about half a mile. From there she walks further to the bus stop where she waits for her less than glamorous ride to work. She works a fast-paced job that’s hard on her body, especially her back. After hours of that, she then she gets on the bus, walks to the daycare, and walks home, with her daughter chatting her ears off. Every day she does this, rain or snow, 100 degrees or 5 degrees. She entertains her daughter, listens to Frozen song renditions unless she can hardly take it, cooks their dinner, goes crazy trying to put that spunky kid of hers to bed, and wakes up to do it all again the next day. She loves, protects, and works for her daughter with a ferocity I hope to achieve when I have kids of my own. Without getting too much into her personal life, I can at least tell you she has seen the unthinkable, she has survived tragedy, and she still somehow seems to be thrown curve ball after curve ball. She is weathered, so, so weathered; but at her core she is as strong as steel and she perseveres.

She is role model for women everywhere. I am proud to know her by name.

Y is a fearless leader. Whether she comes by it naturally or not, life has forged her to be. Her husband developed memory problems that make it hard for him to work. So she works seven days a week, holding two jobs just to provide the basics for her big family. No exaggeration, this woman probably spends at least 12 hours every week getting to and from her jobs on the bus. Just like X, she works jobs that are hard on the body. They aren’t fun. But her little ones need food on the table and clothes on their back. She does it for their present and for their future. Because of her husband’s memory issues, it’s actually almost like she has an extra child. Y is crazy outgoing. She is one of those people who isn’t afraid to try something new. She is hungry to learn and show off what’s she learned, not taking the time to worry if she might not get it perfectly right. I want to be like that. She tries to better herself to create a better life for her family. And don’t even dare consider going to her house and not eating her homemade food. She won’t have it–or you trying to leave without taking all the leftovers with you.

She is a role model to women everywhere. I am honored to learn from her.

Z is theatrical and hilarious. It’s hard to imagine having a conversation with her, even on the most serious topics, without being made to laugh at some point. She is sweet and sincere, and she’s raised her four children, who she insists on calling her “babies” despite the fact the two oldest ones are in high school, to be just as sweet and sincere. Each one of them has their mother’s kind sparkle in their eyes.  She pours her affection onto her them. Z may struggle to tell her babies no when they beg for pizza for dinner again, but she diligently teaches them right from wrong, to be respectful, and to make sure they stay away from peers whose parents haven’t taught them these things. Her husband, her babies’ father, was murdered. She was helpless to stop it, and she doesn’t have any other family nearby. So she raises and feeds her babies alone, carrying a heartbreak, a heartache, I can’t bare to think about for very long. That broken heart of hers is gold though. She could be freezing to death and she would give you the coat off her back. She wouldn’t even think twice. I need that kind of heart.

She is a role model to women everywhere. I am humbled to be touched by her kindness.

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Besides sharing the commonality of being three of the most inspiring women I know, all of them also all happen to be Muslim and all happen to be refugees. Despite how this might make them very different from you, I think you will find the same spirit in these women as you do in the very women you find inspiring in your own life.

Happy International Women’s Day! May we always celebrate the women who teach us right from wrong, show us how to work and love hard, and make us, our lives, and the world better, stronger, braver.

Momma, this post is for you. It is you I recognize in every inspiring woman I meet.

Are they sad?

“The people in the churches – what are they thinking about it? Are they sad? Do they know?”

My friend and co-worker, Yusuf, posed these questions this afternoon when I and another friend and co-worker, Nicole, met Yusuf to help him with a project for his English class he attends in the evening.

“Well…” Nicole and I paused, a little unsure of how to go about explaining the complexities of politics and the American church and wanting to avoid saying anything that might make our faith looked bad to our Somali Muslim friend.

We attempted to explain how most people in churches know, but that it’s a little all over the board. Some Christians are sad and angry. “They feel that way because of what Jesus says about loving your neighbor as yourself,” we told him. That part was easy. But how do we explain to our dear friend that some Christian’s don’t give a rat’s ass about him at all? Some would turn their noses up at him because he is black. Some would tense up when they heard his accent. Some would turn him away because he is Muslim. It doesn’t matter that he would give him the shirt off his back. They’re afraid. And people fall everywhere in between these two extremes.

We told him that some people have never met anyone different than themselves and that makes them very scared, and that fear can make them lash out in hate.

He then told us he was reading comments on Facebook articles last night. “Oh no, it is not good,” he told us. My heart sank. It’s hard for privileged, white American me to read ugly comments sections on posts, but what must my sweet friend Yusuf feel?

Yusuf quickly moved on to making a silly joke about his project, forever our office’s class clown, despite the solemnity of his and his community’s current situation, so it was too late, but what I wanted to say was, “Yusuf, Jesus wouldn’t have been afraid of you.

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[Christians, as you speak and write and share… please be aware that all kinds of ears are listening and all kind of eyes are reading.
The whole world is watching you.]

Trying to Understand

I work very hard and consciously to try to understand and empathize with people, especially people I disagree with. It’s partially because my parents raised me to think critically and challenge my own opinions. It’s also because I hang my hat in more than one world. Particularly relevant to my emotions today: I was raised in a homogeneous, politically conservative Christian environment and now work at a refugee resettlement agency which resettles families from multiple continents, Christians, Muslims, and nonreligious alike.

In order to maintain good relationships and keep conversations peaceful, I do a lot of listening, a lot of trying to put myself in the other person’s shoes to get insight onto why they hold the opinions or fears they do, a lot of devil’s advocacy with myself, a lot of awkward laughing, a lot of reassuring myself they probably didn’t mean that joke, a lot of clenching my jaw through patronizing rants from people who don’t bother fact-checking anything.

And honestly sometimes it is very difficult and exhausting-emotionally, mentally, physically, and spiritually-to continue to stretch and bend to try to understand people who themselves do not-who refuse-to try to understand.  But yet I plow through and listen and process and I labor to understand and respect them.

Then on days like today it feels like I’ve been stripping and stripping away nasty layers only to find there is no better explanation, no additional insight that lets me excuse their cold behavior or cruel words. I just find hate. I just find evil lies. I just find the laziness of the mind and heart that makes those hate and lies grow like weeds.

And as I desperately search for another angle and try on another pair of disgusting shoes, I replay the times they made me laugh, the good memories we have made together, the qualities that made me care about them in the first place, wishing I had that kind of heart that turns cold in times like these. But I don’t. I have the heart that slowly cracks then falls violently  and painfully apart, again and again and again and again.

It’s rare that this happens, but today I am tired of trying to understand.

I am tired of being rudely brushed off when I politely try to correct misconceptions about the very job I do 40 hours a week and the people I work with Monday through Friday from people who can’t even correctly define what a refugee is, much less explain the refugee process. I am tired of getting over snarky comments about the woman in the hijab, when I know the woman in the hijab. I have seen her nurse her baby. She has cried in my office. She has made me try her baklava. I am tired of having people who have never met a Muslim condescendingly and incorrectly summarize Islam to me from an article they read on a xenophobic website, when I am the one who has been learning about it directly from Muslims themselves for over a year. I have been asking the questions. I have been listening to the answers. I am tired of  reaching for reasons to excuse the inability to state a stance without unnecessarily directing nastiness toward people I love deeply, people whose character would put you to shame.

Don’t you see it?

You are being terribly ugly. It is not your perceived enemies. It is you. You are being ugly and there really is nothing more to it.

two paragraphs of me saying what i REALLY wanted to say in the middle of a bunch of paragraphs of me talking AROUND what i really wanted to say

When I think or I type these types of things I usually sandwich them between “I know this isn’t true, but…” and all the examples or points that contradict what I’m feeling.

But I’m not going to do that today. It’s incredibly hard not to, but for some reason it seems important this time. I think part of it is because I spent a majority of my life scared to questionmy religion and my faith. Not scared. Terrified. Although I’m always in at least a slight existential crisis, I had this very rough time my sophomore and junior year of college. My wonky brain (for my new friends, that’s what I call the dance my anxiety and depression do together) was the worst it’s ever been, only rivaled by my sophomore year of high school. The wonky brain drove my existential crisis and my existential crisis drove my wonky brain. It’s hard to decide, even now, which was the original trouble-maker. I’m an open book about that time in my life if you want to know more because you think it might be helpful (or you’re just nosy, it’s fine), but it’s not really the point right now, so I’ll move on.

I brought it up because back then I would stay up into the wee hours of the night, sometimes even until it started get light outside. Admittedly, a factor in that was the fact I was living alone and have had a phobia of someone breaking in since I was child, but a lot of the reason I couldn’t relax was because I was starting to have real, big, looming, ever-growing doubts about Christianity, about God. And I was too scared to fall asleep without having that perfect faith I thought I was supposed to have, because I honestly was petrified I would be banished to Hell if I died in the middle of the night. It seems preposterous now, silly and kind of sad.

I realize now how unhealthy that was, but the fear was very real to me back then. Did my anxiety make it worse, of course? But did the culture of wrath-based, guilt-driven teachings with unconditional love as an afterthought help? No. Am I exaggerating a little about the teaching? Probably. Am I overlooking the positives of the culture I was a part of? Oh, definitely. But, again, that’s not what this is about. I just need you to imagine a young woman rocking back and forth in her bed at 3AM, trying to physically shake all the bad thoughts out of her head, asking God to please forgive her for being so ungrateful and foolish and unfaithful. That is fucked up. And is why I don’t want play down what I’m feeling now.

Because I wonder if I had ever interacted with someone genuinely struggling with their faith, if they had been open about it, if they hadn’t been too ashamed or too afraid of being judged or written off, maybe I would have been a little more merciful on myself back then. Maybe I would have considered that God’s full of mercy too and not chomping at the bit so badly that he would jump at the opportunity to condemn me for wanting some answers. I realize as I wrote this that maybe I’m coming off a little accusatory, but I truly don’t mean to point fingers at or even be referring to anyone or any group in particular. (It’s possible there were open people speaking up at that time, but I missed it.) What I mean is I want to be for someone else what I could have used back then, that’s all.

And if it means that someone might let themselves off the hook so they can breathe and sleep and stop beating themselves up all the time and no longer hold it all in and stop feeling that insatiable loneliness, then I will lay it all out there, even if I get judged or misunderstood. It is worth it to me. I believe truth-seeking is sacred and truth-seekers will find truth (after usually excruciating and long journeys).

So now that I’ve finished that introduction–which I’m pretty sure will actually be three times as long as what I even sat down to confess, here we go:

Sometimes, this week being one of the worst, I read or I think about the Bible, where God or a psalmist or someone brags about how God cares about the poor, how he defends the weak, how he frees the oppressed, how he hears the widow, and takes in the orphan…and I think what a joke. 

It was a lot easier to agree to all that before I worked with refugees. Before I worked with women who have survived militia groups coming and raping every woman in the village and men who had lost limbs and children who had witnessed unthinkable violence and fathers who had lost daughters and single mothers who are falling apart trying to support their son with the what few shitty cards they’ve been dealt and… something in me feels just a little inconsolable. And angry, though mostly sad and kind of tired. Some days I feel like all I’m holding are loose ends.

That’s all I really wanted to say. Those two measly paragraphs. Without the “I know it isn’t true, but…” and devil’s advocacy surrounding them. But of course I felt like they needed a 54 page dissertation as the prologue. I’m not used to letting my questions be what they are, for everyone to see before I know how the answers play out so I can immediately comfort anyone worried about me. It makes me squirm and it makes other people squirm and it’s not fun for anyone. But in my gut I knew I needed to do it, even if only for myself (though, like I said, hopefully someone else finds it at least a little #relatable).

And, you know, I’m fairly certain if I keep looking for answers in all this, I will find them. But if I don’t keep looking, if I try to convince myself all is well when so much doesn’t make sense, I know I will shrivel up and die inside. I guess that’s what I’ve picked up on in trying to follow Jesus in these last few years, even if it’s sometimes at distance with a hint of skepticism in my eyes. You have to be honest and raw, even if it hurts and it’s embarrassing and people are annoyed. And if I can’t be sincere with myself and with God, then what’s the point?

So, my friends, keep seeking. And please don’t be shy. Let me know if you’ve been in a similar boat and where it ended up landing. I believe you have wisdom to share with me, no matter what your beliefs are. Or reach out if you’re still in that boat. You’re not alone.

Alissa

if you looked

I think if you got close enough and really, truly looked…

You would see a mom and dad tucking their little ones into bed and giving them a goodnight kiss after an hour and half of trying to get them to wind down.

You would see little legs running to mommy and daddy’s room after a bad dream.

You would see a father sitting at the table after everyone else has gone to sleep, calculating his budget over and over and over again,  praying those long shifts will be enough to keep his family warm and fed.

You would see a momma waving to her daughter as she gets on the bus for her first day of school, hoping she will make a friend and that no one will be mean to her.

You would see a rambunctious little tyke laughing, running, splashing–and eventually swimming–in puddles after rain and you would see a tired mother sighing as she dreads pulling him out of his sopping wet clothing and giving him another bath.

You would see a father holding his crying child who just wants to see his mom again.

You would see a mother dreaming of the things her children will achieve with opportunities she didn’t have.

You would see a little boy eyeing the candy jar, too shy to ask for a piece even after his dad’s encouragement, and you would see the delight in his eyes when you give him a piece any way.

You would see parents proudly introduce you to their tiny newborn.

You would see a mom, who is not playing games anymore,  raise her eyebrows at the sibling instigating the squabble and see the sibling mumble a half-hearted apology.

You would see a wife telling her husband she misses him and loves him, her voice cracking because she’s exhausted trying to do this all by herself.

You would see a mother proudly prompting her son to tell you what she’s learning at school.

You would see a father reuniting with his children, who have somehow gotten so big, for the first time in years.

You would see a father shaking over the death of his first born.

You would see a mother rocking back and forth on the floor, in absolute emotional agony, imagining what could have happened, what could be happening, to the children who were taken from her.

You would see these things. If you looked.

And I am certain of this: You would not see a refugee. You would see yourself.

 

 

how you have changed me

when i knock on your mother’s door and i hear you inside yelling my name in excitement, waiting for us to play the game over and over and over where you shake my hand, i say, “oh, hello! how are you?” and you giggle endlessly because the words are nonsense to you

when you beamed as you showed me the beat-up, used car you’d saved up for by putting in long, 12 hour night shifts at the factory and pinching pennies anywhere and everywhere 

when your 3 older kids teased your youngest one, the way siblings do, because getting her vaccination shots made her cry

when i broke fast with your family and you served a mysterious white drink you all clearly loved but made me want to vomit and i drank almost all of it anyway just to be polite

when you sang and danced to songs you didn’t know at 6 in the morning after a night shift, just because you loved the music

when you decided my fair-haired self needed some enhanced eyebrows,  drew them on thick with a black eyebrow pencil, and admired your work as your children laughed shamelessly at me

when  you told me your dream was to be a doctor who helps poor people as we filled out a job application for a hotel housekeeper position we weren’t sure you’d get

when your face lit up as you talked about your spouse and children joining you in America some day, maybe

when the rain poured down and me, my roommates, and you, my sweet, goofy, little neighbors, danced in the rain like we were in a movie

when your voice shook as you told me how you never sleep because you work all night and your little ones keep you up all day

when we laughed later about how earlier we had bonded over hating snow on the way to your job interview but then when the interviewer asked you if you liked snow, you got nervous and said you loved it

when i hear you tell new volunteers you have 3 kids, but i know you have more, that they’re lost somewhere in Africa, that you don’t know what country, that you don’t know if they’re alive or how to find them

when we played outside at the yearly celebration and we named our team “Sleepy, evil, cranky cats with mustaches” (but “Fart” for short)

when i took your family of 10 to a charity to get clothes for winter, how the staff made you put some of what little you picked out back and i wondered if you were embarrassed, how it all fit in 2 trash bags, how my own clothes on my body felt worthless, meaningless, like rags

when your leg had been blown off in a bomb and all you had was a mediocre prosthetic leg that hurt to use, but you walked 2 and 1/2 miles to english class every day anyway because you want to build a good life for your family

when i see you and say “Amakuru?” and every time you shake my hands, laughing and exclaiming, “Ni meza!!” like I’ve made your entire day, when you look at me with those kind, grandmotherly eyes and they make me miss my own grandma

when i attempted to paint a unicorn and ornate butterfly on your face with face paint, because i had no way to communicate in a shared language that the picture you pointed to was far beyond my skill set, and when I saw you smile for the first time because you finally understood something i said as I pointed to my dad and mom and said, “‘abi, ‘ami”

when i asked how your wife was and how your newborn son was, your first child, both back at the refugee camp, when you told me casually and softly as you smiled how he’d passed away, but i saw the pain in your eyes, thinking it was so unfair that you never even got to meet him, knowing you wouldn’t get to hold your wife for months, maybe years, and then when i went home and cried and cried

when we taught you how to use “your mother” as an insult, and you told us our mothers smell-ed as you left the room

when we took a break from soccer to sit on the curb and use sticks to etch our languages’ alphabets in the dirt, testing each other on our learning progress

when i held your hand and chattered to you during the entire outdoor kid’s club one saturday and you stayed completely silent leading me to believe you didn’t understand anything i was saying, only to come prancing in next week speaking perfect english

when you addressed me as “mister” with that mischievous gleam in your eye knowing full well that mister was only for men

when i went to pick you up for an office meeting and you asked if i had time to meet your newborn baby, only 4 days old, when i melted seeing how small she was compared to the bed and her tall, gentle father, the love in your eyes, that beauty from the ashes

through all of these moments and more

you have made me more whole

how can i explain?

 

 

what i would say if i could come in for tea

I pull up to your house in the late afternoon. As you and your oldest daughter climb out of the car in your work uniforms, you smile and gesture toward your house like you do every time, “Alissa, shay?”

I wish I could say yes, but unfortunately I have to go back to the office and work for a couple more hours, which I try to explain in five basic English words. Me. Work. Sorry. Thank you,. And I just have to hope you’ll understand I’m not rejecting you. Really, I always wish I could come inside and drink tea with you, even though the last time I stopped by your house to explain the details of your first U.S. job–first ever job–and you served me tea, you laughed at me for only putting in one “Wahid?!” spoonful of sugar.

I wish I could come in and really talk with you. I have so many things I wish I could let you know but can’t because we don’t speak the same language (yet):

I want to tell you that your family is too beautiful, sweet, kind, and humble for words. All of you have some of the kindest eyes I’ve ever seen. You work hard, you never complain, you always say thank you.

I loved on your first day of work, when we stood at the bus stop and I shyly tried to show off by pointing to different things and saying the color in Arabic, how delighted you and your daughter were. You tried to teach me the colors in Tigrinya as well and didn’t even give up on me when I obviously wasn’t a natural at that particular language. You listened carefully and repeated after me when I said the colors in English too. You are such quick learners. I love how we’ve been slowly teaching each other new vocabulary in our own tongues. Alyawn. Al’iithnin. Shwkulata. 

I want to reminisce and laugh with you about that same day, when we waited at the second bus stop to transfer. That day when, of course, the bus broke down before it got to us. We waited for so long, but you never got crabby or sassy even though you probably were totally confused and cold. The translator who was meeting us at the hotel to help with your training had to come find us to drive us at the last minute. What an adventure that morning was! I actually don’t know if the translator even explained what happened or if to this day you tell the story of that crazy girl who made you take a bus to another bus stop to be picked up by a sayara an hour later.

I want to tell you I wish I never met you. Because I wish you never had to leave home. I wish the rest of your family and friends were a few minutes away. I wish you didn’t have to leave behind the comfort of your home and culture, all your belongings, or the places where so many of your important memories were made. I wish your country was safe and your human rights hadn’t been violated the way they were. I wish your husband were still alive.

I want to tell you that whenever your kids pop out the front door to grin and wave at me as I drop you off, I sometimes drive away sick to my stomach. Because I start thinking about how truly good your family is, and about all the people who hate you, who repeat venomous untruths about you, who might threaten or act violently toward you,without even knowing you, without even thinking twice. It’s not fair. 

I don’t know: Is it better for me to try to explain that while there are indeed some almost entirely evil people, a lot of them are just…well, they have never been taught how to think critically so they just keep building their opinions on lies and  propagation; they’re afraid so they close up and lash out; they’ve never been exposed to anyone who wasn’t just like them, who wasn’t white and identified as Christian, so their hearts have gotten so hard they can’t even see their hypocrisy. Or is it better for me to tell you how angry it makes me?  Sometimes it keeps me awake at night. Sometimes it causes me question my own beliefs. Sometimes it makes me shake and cry and feel like throwing up. It’s not right.

I know that if they only knew you–if they only saw your smile, if they only heard your sweet voice as you try to pronounce a word in English for the first time, if they only got to drink tea with you, if they only got stranded at a bus stop with you, if they only were the ones your children waved at, if they only knew your story–they would feel heavy with shame. They wouldn’t treat you badly or think of you poorly anymore. They wouldn’t stiffen whenever they see your hijab. They wouldn’t be impatient that you’re not fluent in English yet. They wouldn’t call you a terrorist or a dirty refugee  They wouldn’t threaten you. Knowing you would change them. They would love you like I love you, I know it.

I realize that’s not enough, but someday I’m going to tell you anyway. And I hope when I get to we’ll have the option of having this conversation in either of our languages (although let’s be honest, it will probably be English; you heard me trying to say “peanut” in Arabic. It was rough.)