LIFE IN LEBANON :: II.

Yep, I’m still in Lebanon. And still loving it!

I can’t believe I’ve been here for four months. It simultaneously feels like I just stepped off the plane yesterday, and like I’ve lived at the R&R Peace Center forever. There have been highs and lows, smooth sailing and rough waters, but I’m continually grateful for the simple opportunity to be here.

Since my last post, I’ve transitioned from one volunteer term to the next. At the end of last term, we took a break from normal activities, like language and music classes. I took advantage of the time off to spend a week in Mishmish, one of the towns that the organization works in. Up in the mountains, surrounded by beautiful nature and a whole lot of Arabic, it was an immersion experience for sure! I learned so much about Lebanese culture, practiced my Arabic, and grew closer to some Lebanese and Syrian friends. My week in Mishmish was certainly outside my comfort zone in many ways—as evidenced by the difficulty of politely refusing to eat meat or drink coffee, over and over and over again—but it just goes to show how the best experiences often happen outside your comfort zone. The confidence and spirit of adventure I gained from that week in Mishmish, as well as from my entire time in Lebanon, are some of the greatest gifts.

After I returned from Mishmish, we jumped pretty quickly into the next volunteer term! We have two additional volunteers: Mathilde, 24, from Belgium, and Janusz, 37, from Poland. Mathilde has previous experience in social work, and Janusz used to own a restaurant in the UK, so they both bring immensely valuable gifts to the table (figuratively and literally!). We’ve become fast friends and are supporting one another through all the stresses and victories of daily activities with R&R.

And wow, how many activities there are! The Lebanese school year has officially started, though it’s still a bit crazy because of corona. With that, R&R has ramped up its programming, especially in Bkarzla and Kousha. Our local teachers offer homework help for students in the morning and afternoon. We’re continuing Basic Literacy and Numeracy classes in Bkarzla for kids who have been out of school for a long time, and we’ve also resumed conversational language classes in Mishmish. I absolutely love the opportunity to help with educational activities. I believe so strongly that education is vital for a brighter future, especially for children and youth who have been affected by violence, displacement, and trauma. To hold this belief, and then have the opportunity to put it into action, is such an honor. The fall brings along non-educational events as well, like the Solidarity Olive Harvest, which is coming up soon. Needless to say, the Peace Center may be peaceful, but it certainly is full, loud, and busy these days!

To find some rest and relaxation, the other volunteers and I have gone several times to the nearby river, and last weekend, we took a trip to Tyre (which is pronounced Sur in Arabic, for some reason). It was amazing! We walked around the ruins, swam in the Mediterranean, and the best part: I FINALLY FOUND SWEET POTATOES! I’m glad we got to explore somewhere new, while also getting some space from the hard work at the Center.

I’ll keep working hard, especially now that the school year is in full swing and I’m the education coordinator for the volunteers. Alongside staff, local teachers, and other volunteers, I’ve been able to meet public school directors, host families for teacher-parent meetings, keep track of attendance, and teach my own English classes. Like I said before, it’s a lot, but it’s also only for eight more weeks. I can’t decide what’s crazier: that I’ve already been here for four months, or that I only have two months left. I keep a daily countdown on my mirror for three reasons:

  1. To practice my Arabic numbers (which are surprisingly quite different from what we English speakers call Arabic numerals)
  2. To encourage me on days when I feel extra homesick
  3. To remind me to make the most of my time left here—to give it my all, because when I get home, I’ll be glad I did

I’m so thankful for the opportunity to serve with R&R here in Lebanon, and also for the prayers, support, and encouragement from family and friends back home. I miss y’all (even more than I miss hearing the word y’all)! I’m excited to be home for Christmas, but until then, I’ll be savoring every drop of olive oil, every morning run in the mountains, and every person I get to interact with. All these things, but most importantly the people, are such a blessing to me, and I just hope I’m a blessing back.

LIFE IN LEBANON :: I.

“Give them a book and they will hold books; give them a weapon and they will hold weapons.”

Lost in Lebanon

Lebanon. People with heartbreaking stories, living in places with breathtaking views. Sunni, Alawite, Orthodox, Maronite villages scattered across Akkar. A country in mourning following a catastrophic explosion, a revolution ongoing to demand a functioning democracy. French, the language of the colonizer, spoken in public schools; Arabic, the language of home, in more dialects than you could count, spoken everywhere else. Students and teachers, refugees and Lebanese, homes in houses, apartments, garages, tents.

This has been life for the past month and a half.

And I absolutely love it.

In case you didn’t know, I’m currently living and working in Akkar, Lebanon, as a volunteer assistant with Relief & Reconciliation for Syria. This organization combines peace-building and humanitarian aid in response to the Syrian crisis. I’ve gotten to help with educational, psychosocial, and emergency assistance programs for both Syrian refugees and Lebanese host communities in Akkar, the poorest region of Lebanon. I’ve been living at the Peace Center in Bkarzla since early July, and now, I want to share a little bit about what I’ve been up to!

We started off with two weeks of training/quarantine for the newly arrived volunteers. There are four of us, all in our twenties: Lea from Switzerland, Livia from Italy, Clément from France, and me. R&R staff members Friedrich and Mohamad taught us about various topics, such as the work of R&R, orientalism, the conflicts of the Levantine coast, decolonizing humanitarian aid, and education in emergencies—just to name a few! It was definitely information overload, but I’m immensely grateful to serve with an organization that really tries to get it right, not just show up with good intentions and hope everything goes well.

After training, we had two main projects: a music workshop and a summer camp. The music workshop brought together musicians from around north Lebanon to learn from each other, jam together, and compose pieces for the summer camp. Then, we put on the fifth annual summer mountain camp for kids from all four communities we serve. Although corona threw some wrenches in our plans, we were able to have four summer camp days, one for each community. I was unfortunately sick for most of the summer camp, but I did get to participate in the last day. We played games, danced and sang, swam, and went on a scavenger hunt themed after the four elements and saving the environment. The kids really enjoyed it, and I’d say the volunteers did, too!

Once summer camp was over, we jumped right in to classes and educational activities. Right now, I’m teaching one beginner’s English class to adult women from one of the camps, and one conversational English class to young adults, mostly from Mishmish, Akkar. I adore teaching! The students are resilient, determined, and enthusiastic about learning. The women in the beginner class truly don’t speak a word of English, so it turned out to be good Arabic practice for me, too. The Mishmish students already speak a basic level, so we can do fun activities with them, like setting up a “shop” so they can practice vocabulary and expressions related to buying and selling. We’re hoping to continue these classes for the next few weeks leading up to the school year.

The main challenge right now is adapting to ever-changing coronavirus conditions. In the time since I’ve arrived, the country has bounced back and forth twice between lockdown and open for business. I had to take a COVID test at the airport and another when I was sick; both were thankfully negative. The pandemic is being handled very differently here than in the States, with much less mask-wearing and lockdown measures that aren’t nearly as strict. R&R is trying all sorts of new things to continue classes and other activities, but safely and responsibly. I’m grateful to be here during this time and help the organization rise to the challenge.

I appreciate everyone’s support, prayers, and encouragement from back home. I definitely feel them; whether it’s a moment of peace after a stressful day, healing from whatever strange sickness I had, or daily activities running smoothly, I can absolutely tell that I am being prayed for and thought of. Thank you to everyone who’s a part of my incredible support system! I dearly miss and love you all. And thanks to everyone for reading this post! Stay tuned for more updates about life in Lebanon.

BLACK LIVES MATTER: HOW TO HELP.

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In this moment—as in every moment where there is an opportunity to move toward justice—there are only two choices:

  1. Justice.
  2. Injustice.

That’s it. End of the story, bottom line, period. There is no third middle-ground option because, as Desmond Tutu so eloquently says, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” This post is one of the ways I’m trying to choose justice.

Below is a list of resources, mostly meant for white people, to learn about racism and get involved in racial justice efforts. There are opportunities to read (both books and shorter writings), watch (both films/TV shows and shorter videos), listen, sign petitions, donate, and more. Resources with an asterisk* are ones I’ve personally read, watched, or engaged with; resources without an asterisk* are ones that have come highly recommended and that I plan to read, watch, or engage with in the near future.

If you have questions about these resources or want to talk more about racism and racial justice, you can comment on this post or contact me directly. This list is definitely not exhaustive; it comes from my limited perspective and thus contains limited resources. I encourage you to engage with other resources and participate in other conversations, especially those shared by people of color. As for this particular post, you’re more than welcome to share it if you think someone you know would find it helpful.

READ: BOOKS.

  • *The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas: Starr, a 16-year-old black teen, witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend by a police officer. If she speaks up for justice, she risks upending her life and endangering her community. This book was also made into a movie directed by George Tillman, Jr., and starring Amandla Stenberg.
  • Just Mercy by Bryan StevensonStevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, shares the true story of his defense of Walter McMillian and calls us all to pursue true justice. The book was adapted into a movie directed by Destin Daniel Cretton and starring Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx, and Brie Larson. In response to current conversations about racial injustice, Warner Bros. has made the movie available to rent for free on digital platforms in the U.S.
  • White Fragility by Robin DiAngeloWhen white people’s assumptions about race are challenged, their reactions are often counterproductive and perpetuate racial inequality.
  • Any book from this list of Books White People Need to Read.

READ: ARTICLES & OTHER WRITINGS.

  • *Letter from a Birmingham jail: This famous writing by Martin Luther King, Jr., responds to clergy who criticized his tactics of direct action in the civil rights movement. It explores many important ideas related to racial justice and remains incredibly relevant today.
  • *Things to stop being distracted by when a black person gets murdered by police: This article by Mia McKenzie reminds us to focus on the actual issue of police murdering black people. It was written in 2014.
  • *White privilege: This article by Peggy McIntosh lists 50 examples of white privilege and explains why it’s important to recognize it.

WATCH: MOVIES & TV SHOWS.

  • *When They See Us: Directed by Ava DuVernay, this Netflix miniseries shares the story of the Central Park Five. These five teenagers of color were convicted of a rape that they did not commit. The series follows them over a 25-year span, including their imprisonment and exoneration.
  • *Slavery by Another NameThis PBS documentary explores how, following the abolishment of slavery in the U.S., the criminal justice system was used to keep black people enslaved and profit off their exploited labor.
  • 13th: Also directed by Ava DuVernay, this award-winning documentary examines the U.S. prison system and how the country’s history of inequality drives mass incarceration. The entire film is available for free on YouTube.
  • Teach Us All: This documentary explores past and present racial inequality in the education system. It’s available on Netflix.

WATCH: TED TALKS & SHORTER VIDEOS.

  • *We need to talk about an injustice: In this TED talk, Bryan Stevenson, the author of Just Mercy (discussed above) and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, discusses racial inequality in the U.S. criminal justice system.
  • *Color blind or color brave?: This TED talk by Mellody Hobson encourages us to talk about race, even and especially when it’s uncomfortable.
  • *After the tears have dried up: Terrence Smith, student pastor at Buckhead Church and personal friend, shares some of his thoughts, feelings, and examples of ways to help.
  • *Buckhead Church conversation: Terrence and Clay Scroggins, lead pastor at Buckhead Church, discuss how the big-C Church can move toward racial justice. They share a four-part framework—learn, listen, lament, leverage—that I found super helpful.
  • *What is intersectionality?: In this brief video, Kimberlé Crenshaw explains the concept of intersectionality and applies it to educational settings. She also has a TED talk on intersectionality.

LISTEN.

  • *Is all history white history?: This podcast episode from The Liturgists discusses how racism affects our perception of history and how we can use empathy to better understand different perspectives.
  • How to be an anti-racist: In this podcast episode, Brené Brown and Ibram X. Kendi explore how to uproot racism in society and in ourselves.

SIGN.

  • *This list includes petitions for justice for George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and many more.
  • *For my fellow Auburn fans, this is a petition for Auburn University to rename Wallace Hall. George Wallace is a former governor of Alabama who promoted segregation and vehemently opposed school integration.

DONATE.

  • This website is dividing donations between 70+ bail funds, mutual aid funds, and racial justice organizations. You can choose to have your donation divided equally, or allocate different amounts to different groups.
  • The Loveland Foundation brings opportunities and healing to communities of color. Their therapy fund provides free therapy sessions for black women and girls.
  • *If you’re strapped for cash, you can watch YouTube videos (list in this twitter thread) whose ad revenues will be donated to the Black Lives Matter movement. Don’t skip the ads!!!! I have them playing in the background as I write this post.

ENGAGE.

  • *Check out the Racial Dot Map, compiled by the Cooper Center with 2010 Census data. It shows geographic segregation, the separation of people of different races into different geographical areas, in the United States. This video and this video help explain geographic segregation.
  • *Visit the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, AL. The museum mostly focuses on racial inequality in the U.S. justice system, while the memorial is dedicated to victims of lynching. Although these sites are currently closed due to COVID-19, when they reopen, it’s definitely worth your time. The museum and memorial were created by the Equal Justice Initiative.
  • Connect with Campaign Zero and their new 8 can’t wait initiative to decrease and ultimately end police violence.
  • *If you’re a college student, take classes in African studies, sociology, social work, or other fields, related to racism and racial justice. I give credit to my social work and sociology classes for educating me about these issues and connecting me with many of the above resources.
  • *If you’re a student at Auburn, attend meetings and events with the Black Student Union. Auburn’s BSU is welcoming and open to people of all races who want to learn and engage with the black community. I grew so much and honestly had a lot of fun going to meetings this past year. If you go to another school, check with your school’s BSU to see if you can get involved.
  • Schedule a meeting with your local police or sheriff department and ask about what they’re doing to decrease police violence against people of color. How are they training their officers to de-escalate? Are they practicing community policing? Asking these kinds of questions will urge your local police to do their part to end police brutality.
  • Engage with other opportunities from this list.

TAKE CARE.

Engaging in racial justice is hard. It’s hard for allies, and it’s infinitely harder for people of color, who must advocate for their own existence. As we do this hard work, remember to take care of yourself. Light a scented candle, meditate, take a bubble bath, exercise, play video games, whatever you do for self-care. Personally, I’ve been limiting my time on social media and doing calming crafts. True activism is a sustained effort over time to be better and do better. And it’s not going to happen if you burn out in the next week. Do the work, but remember to take care of yourself, too.

Thanks for reading.

True, we are often too weak to stop injustices; but the least we can do is to protest against them. True, we are too poor to eliminate hunger; but in feeding one child, we protest against hunger. True, we are too timid and powerless to take on all the guards of all the political prisons in the world; but in offering our solidarity to one prisoner we denounce all the tormentors. True, we are powerless against death; but as long as we help one man, one woman, one child live one hour longer in safety and dignity, we affirm man’s [woman’s] right to live.

-Elie Wiesel

GRACE VS. TRUTH.

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And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.

John 1:14

Over the past few months, I’ve heard a couple Christian speakers mention this verse in their messages. They discuss what it looks like to fall too much on the grace side: sinning over and over again, but not really caring because you can just ask for forgiveness on Sunday morning. Then they discuss what it looks like to fall too much on the truth side: legalistically following rules and creating a checklist-driven faith. They present grace and truth as two gaping pits on opposite sides of a tightrope, with Jesus the only capable acrobat. The rest of us follow Him by teetering along, arms outstretched, always leaning one way or another and eventually falling into the merciful nets below.

I’m calling BS on that one.

I just don’t think grace and truth are polar opposite ends of a spectrum. Maybe it’s my personal inclination, but I feel like that line of logic is almost always used to intimidate into obedience. “Yes, God is endlessly merciful and abundantly gracious, BUT… do what He says or else.” That’s a little dramatic, of course, but presenting grace and truth as polar opposites automatically shames dependence on God’s mercy. You’re constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop; “yes, you’re forgiven, BUT you can’t take advantage of that forgiveness and you have to go obey right now.” The immediacy of the contrast creates a frantic pace leading toward perfectionism.

As I’ve reflected on this verse and the way speakers have taught about it, I’ve come to realize what I believe is the simple heart of the matter:

GRACE IS THE TRUTH.

It sounds so simple as to be almost unbelievable, but to me, this explanation makes the most sense. If the Word of God is true and the Word of God tells of grace, how can grace be anything but the truth? In the back of my Bible, the concordance lists 21 verses for grace and 11 for gracious. Some of those are:

  • Thus says the Lord: ‘The people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness; when Israel sought for rest, the Lord appeared to him from far away. I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you.’ (Jeremiah 31:2-3)
  • Through Him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. (Romans 5:2)
  • For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God. (Ephesians 2:8)
  • Therefore the Lord waits to be gracious to you, and therefore He exalts Himself to show mercy to you. For the Lord is a God of justice; blessed are all those who wait for Him. (Isaiah 30:18)
  • The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. (Psalm 103:8)

The grace described above in the truth of Scripture is true grace. True grace is not an impossible balancing act. True grace isn’t in contrast with the Bible; rather, it’s a vital thread woven into the very heart of God’s word and the Gospel message. True grace is not a message of “God forgives you BUT…”. I am so sick of God-forgives-you-BUT Christianity. God-forgives-you-BUT Christianity stifles true affection for God by immediately following forgiveness with commands. It’s unnecessary, because if you actually take a moment to sit in the overflowing grace and love of God, you just want to lean in to Him. You don’t have to threaten people to obey; you need to give them space to let the miracle of forgiveness sink in. God-forgives-you-BUT Christianity displays the kind of Jesus who leaves breadcrumbs hoping we’ll follow Him, then exhales an annoyed sigh when we don’t get it right. That’s not the Jesus I find in the Bible, or the Christ I have come to know in a deep, personal relationship.

John 1:14 says that Jesus is “full of grace and truth.” Not “Jesus perfectly balanced grace and truth.” Not “Jesus perfectly walked the tightrope of grace and truth and never fell into either pit.” No, Jesus is full of grace and truth. How can He be full of two things that are polar opposites? Is it not actually much easier and more straightforward to believe that He is full of grace and truth because, in Christ, grace is the truth?

Let’s stop buying into the message that grace and truth are two opposite extremes. Let’s stop viewing grace and truth as Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em robots, duking it out until one overcomes the other and we have to reset our footing. If that’s the case, one has to win and the other has to lose. But I believe my Jesus is victorious over all, and nothing about Him can lose. I believe in a Heavenly Father who doesn’t ask me to walk a tightrope, but to give Him a giant hug. I believe that grace is the truth—and what a beautiful, powerful truth it is. Together, may we embrace it; believe it; trust it; and live it.

PRAYING FOR THE PRESIDENT.

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(Before you start reading, can I ask you a favor? Read the whole entire post, pretty please.)

There’s been a lot of talk on twitter since this group of worship leaders visited the White House and shared about their experience on social media. From what I can tell, most people are pleased that faith leaders are praying for the president. That makes sense to me. What people aren’t pleased about it, is faith leaders also saying that so many good things are coming out of the White House and that everyone there is focused on not leaving behind the marginalized. Other Christians are calling bull, because President Trump’s words, actions, and policies have hurt many people who are marginalized.

President Trump has said lots of racist, anti-immigrant, and misogynistic things. In office, he’s followed up on many of these comments with policy decisions. His administration has torn apart immigrant families at the border and refused to let doctors give detained immigrants flu vaccines. He’s lowered the refugee admissions ceiling every year, from 45,000 to 30,000 to 18,000. Before and during his campaign, and throughout his time as president, he has consistently demeaned the marginalized with his rhetoric and harmed them with his policies.

Jesus, on the other hand, was much more interested in standing with the marginalized than pleasing the powerful. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, He challenged Jewish stereotypes about people from other races, ethnicities, and nationalities (Luke 10:25-37). He interacted with a Samaritan woman in kindness and grace (John 4:1-42). Jesus was actually a Middle Eastern refugee Himself (Matthew 2:13-15). He cleansed lepers (Mark 1:40-42), called a rejected tax collector to be his disciple (Matthew 9:9), respected the poor (Luke 21:1-4), and dined with outcasts (Mark 2:15-17, Luke 19:1-10). Rather than appealing to the powerful, he turned existing social hierarchies on their head; one of my favorite tweets from this week said that Jesus “rode into Jerusalem on a donkey to mock the entire system of empire and power.” Jesus’ pattern was making the leaders of his day mad because He loved so boundlessly.

I think these contrasting patterns are why I feel troubled by the worship leaders enthusiastically supporting President Trump. Christ deeply loves the people whose pain has been caused, amplified, or invalidated by the current president’s words and actions. And even if the president has helped some marginalized populations, like Kari Jobe says he has with fighting human trafficking, we can’t ignore the track record of bigotry. We must applaud some actions and criticize others.

I’m incredibly challenged living in that tension. I want to love all people: the religious far-right, immigrants, the Trump administration, people of color, women, members of the LGBTQ+ community, people with disabilities. I pray for the powerful and the powerless.

But I also feel convicted to love the powerful by standing with the powerless. Because ultimately, when one person is hurt, we all are. I believe in a common humanity such that, when an ICE or CBP agent rips children away from their immigrant mother, that border patrol officer is also losing. When we demean the inherent worth of others, we miss an opportunity to learn and grow in the wonderful presence of people who are different. As one humanity, we win together or we lose together. In this moment, love requires me to boost our chances of collective victory by supporting the marginalized, oppressed, and vulnerable. I can’t do that without calling out the powerful people who marginalize, oppress, and increase the vulnerability of those populations.

I’m not passing judgment on President Trump, anyone in his administration, Kari Jobe, Brian and Jenn Johnson from Bethel Music, or anyone else involved in the faith summit (which ironically seems to have only included Christians). I’m passing judgment on their actions, which I believe is an entirely different and incredibly healthy thing to do. If my actions hurt someone, I certainly want them to call me out. And I also want supporters of that hurting person to show their support publicly, in part by publicly criticizing my hurtful actions. It’s how I want to be treated, so it’s how I’m trying to treat the president and the religious leaders surrounding him, with this blog post.

But that’s not the only reason why I’m writing this. Another tweet inspired me by sharing a story about A.J. Muste. A reporter asked this pacifist activist if he thought his protests, standing alone outside the White House with a candle, would actually change policies. Muste responded, “I don’t do this to change the country. I do this so the country won’t change me.”

Given the dangerous political climate, where will I be in five years if I don’t actively resist white nationalism and publicly stand with the marginalized now? If I don’t shake writing this, thinking about what some of my peers who support Trump might say? If I don’t take a comparatively minuscule risk to prevent this country—the country whose Statue of Liberty boasts “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” but whose immigration policies say anything but—from changing my character?

For me, it comes down to this: Jesus cared more about standing with the marginalized than pleasing the powerful. To follow Him, I must embrace the same mentality and follow it up with actions. That’s uncomfortable. It’s countercultural. It goes against every natural inclination to shrink away from conflict and make sure everyone still likes me. But it’s the way of Love. And ultimately, it is more fulfilling and life-giving for everyone involved than the way of complacency. Let us reject the way of complacency, of enthusiastically posing for cheesy photo-ops with the president but not speaking out against some of his more destructive patterns and policies. May we walk in the way of Love by standing up for our hurting, marginalized, oppressed, vulnerable brothers and sisters.

THE ASYLUM RACE: MY FIRST SHORT STORY.

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Hey everyone,

I wanted to make quick post to let all my blog readers know that I recently finished my first short story. It’s called The Asylum Race, and it flips the border crisis on its head to show how racism is embedded in our immigration system. You can read it here.

(Seriously. Please read it. Here is the link. And one more time: it’s here.)

Let me know what you think, and consider sharing the story if you found it meaningful. Most importantly, remember to choose love over fear. Everyone, everywhere, every time.

Thanks for reading.

THE SUMMER I LOST SOME SWEETNESS, BUT FOUND MYSELF.

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“‘Fight back but don’t burn it down’ is my middle name,” I texted my boss the other day. This statement pulled me into a moment of reflection. I thought about Haley of a few years ago, and even Haley before this internship, and realized how much I’ve changed. And I’m really excited about that.

For as long as I can remember, sweet has been one of the main adjectives others use to describe me. At a retreat for a student organization I was a new member of, we wrote notes on posters for our fellow members; my poster had “sweet” on it at least fifteen times. Friends try not to cuss or talk about their wild weekends around me. I’ll smile if I make eye contact with you. I like herbal tea, floral patterns, and Jane Austen novels. The other day, someone legitimately referred to me as “the purest noodle.” It’s pretty easy to see why sweet is one of my most common descriptors.

That’s not a bad thing, for sure. I find a lot of strength in my gentleness. People can be so quick to judge and attack; I want to challenge the world’s harshness and hatred with trust and kindness.

But as others have continued to call me sweet, it’s become more and more important to me as a piece of my identity. I clung to this word and let it define me. I put on fake smiles when I wasn’t feeling it, to keep up the persona. I held back from sharing my authentic thoughts and emotions. I ran from conflict the way birds run from the water in this vine. The whole time, I thought I was doing the Right Thing, because people kept calling me sweet, and that’s what I’m supposed to be, right? I was being sweet for sure, but not my full self.

And then this summer I interned at a refugee resettlement agency. (Read more about how much I love refugees here and here.) I was put in situations where people I cared about, our refugee clients, weren’t getting what they needed or deserved. Being denied interpretation services, barely given the time of day at a doctor’s office, told that an appointment must have been canceled when I know it wasn’t. In those moments, I had a choice: lie down and let myself and my client get walked all over, or fight back.

So I learned to fight back.

With kindness and respect, always. With humility, acknowledging that I certainly don’t do everything right either, always. With compassion and concern, always. But still fighting back. And it wasn’t easy, but that fighting spirit within me pushed up through the weeds of my desire to be liked by everyone everywhere all the time. There was certainly a learning curve, but at the end of the day, I’m walking away from this summer knowing how to fight back.

Conflict doesn’t scare me anymore. I’m no longer prioritizing my sweet reputation above all else. When I need to stand up for something I believe in, advocate for people I care about, or raise a personal concern, my heart pounds a little faster but I still speak. I’ve realized that this world needs me to be my true self, nothing less. Sweet is part of my story, but not the whole one.

I’d say I’m a sweet fighter, a love warrior, to borrow from Glennon Doyle. I value kindness, I’ll give you a warm smile, I’ll express sincere gratitude—but I’ll also insist on rights being respected, ask for what’s needed even if it’s inconvenient, and hold people accountable for doing their jobs. That’s my authentic self, and it’s who I’m committed to being.

Kindness goes so far in this world that sometimes seems overrun by bitterness and hatred. I truly value that. But where there is injustice, just being sweet does not go far enough. Where there is injustice, to love is to fight. To fight kindly, respectfully, patiently, but also to fight hard, well, and persistently. Friends, let us always be kind—and, let us never back down from a fight when it is needed for love’s sake.

CALL TO ACTION: SPEAK UP FOR REFUGEES.

Yazidi Refugees In Syria Celebrate Liberation Of Sinjar From ISIL

I didn’t even know how to describe my feelings when I saw the news today: The current administration might lower the refugee admissions ceiling to zero. The presidential determination process allows the President and their administration to determine the maximum number of refugees allowed in the country per year. In 2016, the ceiling was 85,000, and the number of refugees resettled was 89,994. In 2018, the ceiling was 45,000, and the number of refugees resettled was 22,491. This year, the ceiling is 30,000, and so far the number of refugees resettled is 21,260.

The drastic proposed cuts down to 10,000, 3,000, or even zero are honestly devastating. For one thing, while refugees are not our fellow Americans, they are our fellow human beings. As such, we have a moral obligation to offer refuge through the resettlement process to as many as we safely, practically can. Beyond that, resettled refugees are vital contributors to their communities. They pay taxesjoin the workforce, start businesses, show hospitality, and create an atmosphere of cultural diversity. If we don’t want to admit refugees for humanitarian reasons, then we have plenty of selfish reasons, too.

The administration may cite national security as the rationale for lowering the refugee admissions ceiling, but fears about refugees are unfounded. UNHCR emphatically states that “persons who have committed serious crimes or who might pose a security threat are not eligible for refugee status or resettlement.” The Coalition of Refugee Service Agencies (CRSA) in Georgia explains that “refugees undergo a rigorous background, security, and medical screening process involving eight U.S. federal agencies, six security databases, five background checks and three separate in-person interviews, among other things.” According to the New American Economy Research Fund, crime rates are more likely to considerably decline, not increase, in cities with influxes of refugee resettlement. According to the Cato Institute, you’re significantly more likely to be murdered by a native-born terrorist than in a terror attack by a refugee (1 in 28 million vs. 1 in 3.86 billion).

All the data I’ve seen point to one thing in this case: the refugee admissions ceiling cannot be cut down to zero. And all the personal experiences I’ve had with refugees point to one thing as well: the refugee admissions ceiling cannot be cut down to zero. This summer, I’ve met refugees who are resilient, and hospitable, and generous, and so so kind. They are hardworking, motivated self-advocates; loving fathers, mothers, husbands, wives, sons, and daughters; and people who absolutely deserve whatever second chance we can give them for a life free from persecution.

I’m asking you to contact your representatives so we can protect the refugee resettlement program and actually increase the refugee admissions ceiling for fiscal year 2020.

It’s simple, but if we’re all in this together, it can make a huge difference for thousands of people around the world. If you’re with me, then just follow these steps:

  1. Find out who your representatives are at whoaremyrepresentatives.org
  2. Call them or write them an email or letter. Here’s a script to start off with: Hello, my name is [NAME], and I am a constituent from [CITY/TOWN] in zip code [ZIP CODE]. I’m calling/writing to urge you to protect the U.S. refugee resettlement program and support a refugee admissions ceiling of 95,000 for fiscal year 2020. Refugees make many meaningful contributions to our country through workforce participation, new businesses, taxes, and cultural diversity. Please make your voice heard for a higher refugee admissions ceiling before the presidential determination is set in September.
  3. Share about the cause with your friends and family and on social media. I’ve attached some graphics you can use if you’d like.

Thank you so much for reading and for speaking up. As always, I have one final ask: let’s choose love over fear, everyone. Everywhere. Every time.

WORLD REFUGEE DAY 2019.

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(This is an updated version. The original post appears below.)

My heart is really heavy this morning. I saw on the news that the FBI had arrested a 21-year-old Syrian man, who entered the United States as a refugee, for an ISIS-supporting bomb plot against a church in Pittsburgh. A flood of emotions, thoughts, questions overwhelmed me.

Today is World Refugee Day, a day for standing in solidarity with people around the world who have been forced to flee their homes due to violence and persecution. But the headline I saw wasn’t about how refugees pay taxes, start businesses, or create jobs. It wasn’t about how communities with an influx of refugee resettlement in the years 2006-2015 saw decreases in violent crime rates. It wasn’t about how refugee families on the way home from the airport are already asking when they will learn English or when their kids will start school. It wasn’t about how refugee families invite caseworkers into their homes for tea, demonstrating the utmost hospitality even when they have few financial or material resources.

It was about a Syrian refugee with a bomb plot.

Of course, I condemn ISIS and any terror plot, including this one. Of course.

But the thing is, I know that so many other refugees do, too. Refugees have often experienced terrorism firsthand. They have been persecuted for their religion, race, nationality, political opinion, membership in a particular social group, or any combination of these. Many of them would be disgusted if you asked them whether they ever considered joining the violent group that caused them to flee their homes. The vast majority of refugees, including those from Muslim-majority countries, do not want to create more violence—they only want to live in peace.

Please, I’m begging you, please don’t let Mustafa Mousab Alowemer become the story of refugees in America. To my knowledge, he is only one of fewer than ten refugees who have been arrested in the past several years for ISIS-related activity, while thousands upon thousands of refugees have been resettled peacefully. Refugees have built vibrant lives and become vital contributors to their communities. How come white Americans can shoot children at school and it’s not the story of all white Americans? How come people are already generalizing one incident related to refugees to argue that all refugees are terrorists? (Just look at twitter: you’ll see it.) This claim is just not true. I know firsthand.

The refugees I’ve met and worked with this summer have faced immense hardship. They fiercely love their children. They want to work and support themselves and their families. They have invited me into their homes to serve me tea and snacks after I do something as simple as picking them up from the grocery store. One refugee I’ve worked with this summer didn’t speak a lick of English six weeks ago, and has now learned to say hello, how are you, I am good, thank you, and goodbye. I met a refugee from Syria at a World Refugee Day event this past weekend; she said that I had touched her heart by speaking with her in the few Arabic phrases I know. Yesterday, one family taught me how to say “I love you very much” in their native language so that they could say it to me and I could say it back. Then they tried to guess in the car which way we’d turn to go to their house, and cheered and laughed when we went left and their sister was correct. As I dropped them off, they hustled inside their house to get me a bottle of water before I drove away. The refugees I’ve met this summer are peaceful, strong, kind, and brave. Please, think of them, these beautiful people—not one person with a plot to bomb a church—when you think of refugees.

Today, I will wear my GA Loves Refugees shirt. I will serve my refugee clients as best I can. I will walk away from the temptation to see hate and respond by spewing more hate; I won’t even get into arguments with people doing that on the Internet. I will raise my voice to share the stories of the thousands, the millions of refugees who only want peace. I will choose love over fear. Please, join me.

(Original post below.)


It’s World Refugee Day! World Refugee Day, held annually on June 20, commemorates refugees’ resilience, resourcefulness, and contributions to their communities; gives us an opportunity to stand in solidarity and support with forcibly displaced people; and reminds us that millions (yes, literal millions, 25.4 to be exact) of people have no home right now (yes, right now, as you read this) because they have been forced to flee.

I’ve been interning at a refugee resettlement agency this summer and loving every second of it. It’s allowed me to discover a deep passion for the forcibly displaced and to learn about the global migration crisis and the refugee resettlement process. For World Refugee Day, I’m sharing some of the things I’ve learned and ways you can get involved in helping refugees around the world or in your own backyard.

I hope that you will learn something from this blog post. I hope that your heart will break a little for the plight of millions who have been forced to flee their homes. I hope that you will find empathy and compassion for their struggle. I hope that this empathy and compassion will drive you to get involved, in some big or small way, to help refugees. More than anything, I hope that this post honors the refugees I have the undeniable privilege of serving this summer. They are some of the most generous, hospitable, grateful, hard-working, incredible people I have ever known. They deserve any and all respect and dignity I can show them with my words.

LEARN SOMETHING.

There’s so much to learn about the global migration crisis that it can feel overwhelming. Here are a few pieces of information that I think are the best starting point:

  • One of the most important things to understand about refugees is the difference between a migrant, refugee, asylum-seeker, and internally displaced person (IDP). This one-pager explains the definitions. The main differences are in reason for flight and process of seeking safety. Migrants leave their homes voluntarily. By contrast, refugees, asylum-seekers, and IDPs (collectively referred to as forcibly displaced) are forced to flee their homes owing to a well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. To seek safety, refugees cross an international border and receive refugee status from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). UNHCR provides refugees with (limited) food, water, shelter, and health care, and may consider them for resettlement to a third country, such as the United States. Asylum-seekers seek safety by presenting themselves at a port of entry to a country like the United States, where they are interviewed (or wait for an interview, or are detained while waiting for an interview) to see if they qualify for asylee status, which allows them to stay in that country for their safety. IDPs seek safety by leaving their home, but not crossing an international border. (They may be on their way to an international border, or unable or unwilling to cross an international border.) Understanding these terms is key to understanding the global migration crisis as a whole. The global migration crisis refers to the unprecedented numbers and extremely difficult conditions of forcibly displaced people around the world. Which brings me to my next point…
  • Stats. Overview figures from UNHCR show these unprecedented numbers, as well as where refugees come from and where they’re being hosted. A lot (and I mean a lot) more information can be found in their 2017 Global Report.
  • The resettlement process, which is how refugees come to a third country like the United States, is also important to understand. UNHCR has a good overview of resettlement. It’s crucial to note that people who have committed serious crimes or may pose a security threat are not eligible for resettlement. Once a refugee goes through the long, long, long process of resettlement, they face additional hardships in a third country, including limited language proficiency, seeking employment, difficulty navigating the health care system, prejudice, cultural adjustment, and more. Resettlement agencies, like the one I’m working with this summer, try to help refugees integrate into their new community.
  • Beyond the numbers, the definitions, the legal jargon, and the generalizations about refugees’ plights, it’s vital to understand refugees’ stories. Refugees are so often lumped into just one category—refugees—that we forget they’re also people, who have incredible strengths, talents, senses of humor, friends, family members, aspirations, favorite foods. Refugees are human, just like you and me. We absolutely must remember that. A great book about refugees’ stories is City of Thorns by Ben Rawlence. Women of the World Refugee Podcast and Refugee Stories: In Their Own Voices are two great podcasts to learn more about individual refugees. Compelling videos include a twenty minute documentary from Refuge Project and this shorter one focusing on refugee children.

DO SOMETHING.

As you learn the stories of individual refugees, you will be filled with deep sorrow for all they’ve endured. For many, that heartbreak, empathy, and compassion leads them to action. There are so many ways to get involved in alleviating the pain and suffering caused by the global migration crisis. Here are just a few:

  • Give your time. Volunteer at a resettlement agency in your area. You could take refugees to doctor’s appointments until they learn to use public transit, serve as an interpreter if you speak another language, or just be a source of social support while refugees adjust. You never know how valuable a first friend in America could be! You also never know how you could use your unique gifts: Luma used her soccer skills to start Fugees Family, a soccer team now supplemented with academic programs, which has made a difference for young refugees on her team, their families, and the larger community in Clarkston, GA.
  • Give your money. You can donate financially to a resettlement agency in your area. UNHCR also accepts donations.
  • Give your time and money: Knit! There are several ways to knit or crochet for refugees. I just finished my first blanket for Welcome Blanket, and Knit Aid (currently on hiatus) accepts knitted donations for refugees. This is a great way to communicate to refugees that they are loved. You go out, buy the yarn, spend hours knitting something together, and send it off with the hope that it will keep someone warm. That handmade item isn’t just practical and useful; it’s a beautiful reminder to a refugee that someone, somewhere, cares about them.
  • Support refugee-owned or -supporting businesses. Refuge Coffee in Clarkston is definitely a fan favorite, but there are so many more in the Atlanta area and throughout the United States, from auto repair shops to restaurants to clothing stores. Do a little Googling and find a business that helps refugees near you.
  • Learn a few words in another language. Refugees may speak one or a few of many different languages, from Swahili to Arabic to Urdu to Burmese. Learning “hello,” “how are you?,” and “goodbye” is an easy way to create an instant connection with a refugee and help them feel less alone.
  • Ask who they are, not what happened to them. I received this instruction in our intern training and thought it was so valuable. It’s natural to wonder why a refugee has come to the United States, but to ask is requesting that they recount what’s likely the worst thing to ever happen to them. How would you feel if a complete stranger asked about the worst thing to ever happen to you? I’m guessing not so good. Instead, ask about who they are. What are their dreams in the United States? What do they enjoy about life in the United States? What makes them happy? I know I said earlier that you need to understand refugees’ stories, and I absolutely believe that, but you need to earn the right to that story through relationship. A one-time encounter at a World Refugee Day event, or even a few weeks volunteering with a refugee family isn’t enough to justify invading their most private memories. Respect who they are as people by respecting their right to tell their refugee story to whomever they choose, whenever they choose to do so.
  • Share this post with a friend. If you’ve learned anything here or you’ve been inspired to get involved, consider sharing this post or some of its resources with a friend. I can only reach my own circle of influence with my words, but if you reach your circle and they reach their circles? The ripple effect can help so many people learn about a largely misunderstood issue and the people it affects.

Let me know if you want to chat more about refugees, the global migration crisis, or another related topic; I’ll gladly talk more about it. I hope that, wherever you are, you feel safe in your own skin. And I hope that you’ve learned something and been inspired to do something for those who don’t feel safe, all around the world.

PHONES & CONS.

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(Yes, I fully realize the irony of using technology to talk about the downsides of technology. Let’s continue.)

There’s a life I want to live.

It involves lots of books. Quiet times with God, as the sun rises, curled up in my armchair with a mug of tea. Visiting all the National Parks. Deeply investing in people; going the extra mile for them. Learning new languages. Sharing—the material blessings I’ve been given, the real and raw parts of my story, my faith. Running lots of miles. Being part of something bigger than myself.

There’s a life I’ve been called to live.

It is full (John 10:10). It is wise, making the most of every opportunity (Ephesians 5:15-16). It is clothed with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience (Colossians 3:12). It is free (2 Corinthians 3:17). It clings to what is good (Romans 12:9). Its center is this: to love other people (John 13:34).

And isn’t it interesting that on the lists of things that give my life meaning and things that I am called to, my phone doesn’t make the cut?

Seriously. You would think that, given the amount of time I spend on my phone, it must add some pretty substantial value to my life. And it does add value: it’s one way I connect to people I love, especially the ones who live far away; I enjoy listening to music or podcasts while I run or drive; I’m able to snap pictures of gorgeous sunsets. But mostly, my phone doesn’t add much value. It adds ease. It’s easy to use an app for everything from language learning to Bible reading to email checking. It’s easy to kill time waiting for the bus by checking twitter or Instagram. It’s easy to text words that would be scary or uncomfortable to say aloud. It’s easy to hit the “next video” button, over and over.

Funny how ease wasn’t on my desirable life qualities lists, either.

Added value (albeit limited) and ease are good things, certainly. But I’m coming to realize that, in many ways, my phone actually takes more from me than it gives.

According to my screen time stats, I pick up my phone 99 times per day and receive 119 notifications per day; disregarding sleeping hours, that’s an average of about one pick-up every 10 or so minutes and one notification every 9 minutes. I spent more than 26 hours on my phone last week; that’s more than a whole day. No one would think it’s unreasonable to say: that’s way too much.

And this problem is a lot bigger than me. Several studies link excessive phone use, as well as excessive social media use, to a rise in mental health problems for teenagers. (This is not to say that mental health disorders like anxiety and depression aren’t real or serious and should just be solved by getting rid of smartphones; reducing smartphone use may just be one tool in the toolbox for coping with mental illnesses.) Excessive phone use can also be related to sleeping less, damage to romantic relationships, chemical imbalances in the brain (this one got me y’all), and over-reliance on the Internet with so-called “lazy thinking.” I mean, what?! These little boxes in our pockets are way more powerful than they seem, and they don’t always work their magic in our favor.

Despite these downsides, I’ve resisted getting serious about some sort of digital detox. I always remind myself of the myriad benefits of my phone generally and social media in particular. But the positives don’t erase the negatives, and in this case, they don’t outweigh them.

So I’m getting a flip phone. Yes, I’ll still have my laptop, and yes, I’ll still be texting and calling. But kicking it back about ten years to when I didn’t have a smartphone is still a big move. It’s one I’m so ridiculously excited for, and that I’ll definitely be writing more about on this space. It’s the right move for me right now, because it’s moving me toward the life I crave and the life I am called to.

I am not imploring everyone reading this to follow suit, go to the AT&T store, and buy a flip phone. Please know that is not what I’m doing. I just want us all to think—really think, with our minds, not our machines—about the pros and cons of our phone use. My guess is that most of us need to make lists of the things that matter most and seriously consider how our phones help or hurt our pursuits of those things. The benefits don’t mean that the costs aren’t real and serious. If we don’t take action steps, as drastic as going off the grid or as small as setting a daily social media time limit, those drawbacks will steal our true connection, authentic presence, and joy.

We were not created to live behind a screen. Let’s start living like it.