Do We Have the Courage to Help the Next Aylan Kurdi?

Last night my three-year-old son climbed onto my lap, placed his head on my chest, closed his eyes in a pretense of sleep, and asked me to take our picture.

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He’s an uber-cuddly mama’s boy who just completed his first week of pre-school, so I wasn’t exactly surprised by his little scheme. But I was touched by it.

And sadly, part of me was pained. Because as I held him, looking down at the place where his forehead slips under his fluffy blonde hair, I couldn’t help but think of another little three-year-old boy – one whose sleep was not pretended, whose own hair was dark and wet, whose small body would no longer lend warmth to his mother’s lap.

I thought of little Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian Kurd refugee who drowned in the Mediterranean this week along with his five-year-old brother Galip and his mother, Rehan.

My boy has a five-year-old brother too. He has a mother. He has a father who would do whatever it took – move his family, pay all he could, hold tight to his boys, tread water in a churning sea – to secure his family’s safety.

Children are children the world over; I can’t imagine that little Aylan was so very different from my own boy.

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I first had that realization – that children are children are children – when I was a college student in Germany. I was living in a small town not far from the Austrian border. And near my language institute there were a couple of apartment buildings that housed refugee families.

Some of the children from those apartments would wait outside our building, hoping for a little attention from the college students. They might get a game of basketball, or some candy, or simply a conversation. Whichever it ended up being, they were eager to be with us.

I vividly remember one boy, probably around nine years old, who seemed to take a liking to me. He was sturdily built, with shaggy dirty-blonde hair and a wide, smiling face. He’d come from Kazakhstan, he told me, where “all of the houses are broken”. (At least that’s how it translated from his native tongue, through German, to my own.) He told me of his parents and siblings back home and how much he missed them. He told me that he was in Germany with his uncle because his parents were so desperate for him to have a chance to just go – to get out of his uncertain, broken homeland – that they were prepared to let him leave without them.

That boy broke my heart. I hurt to think of what his parents must have felt, sending him away. I hurt to see the loneliness in his eyes – the one part of his smiling-wide face to betray his situation.

I’ve thought of that boy many times in the years since that summer – especially on hearing of families displaced from their homelands by war or poverty or oppression. His face still swims in my mind, softened by time, yet powerful.

I’ve thought too of another example of Germans hosting refugees. That first trip to Germany, I sought out the village from which some of my ancestors had come. I was fortunate in my visit, making the acquaintance of a man whom I later learned was a very (very) distant relation. Jochen and I struck up a friendship that lasted until his death some five years later. My friendship with his family remains.

On one of my subsequent visits, Jochen told me the story of his house. It was split into two two-bedroom apartments, one on each floor. When I first came, his elderly mother lived in the upper, he and his wife in the lower. During my visits after his mother’s death, I would stay in the upstairs apartment. Jochen told me that the arrangement was not unusual for houses of that age; many homes had been converted into apartments following World War II.

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At the end of the war, large numbers of German refugees had made their way westward from the regions of the country that had been absorbed by Poland and Czechoslovakia. Naturally, they needed somewhere to stay. So Germans throughout the country were urged (compelled?) to make room in their own homes. They split their houses into apartments or (I assume) simply moved their possessions into a few of their rooms. The rest of the space went to refugee families whom they had never met. Jochen’s wife actually came from one of those refugee families: she had no roots in the region of Germany that Jochen (and I) did. She simply grew where she was (re)planted.

In asking Germans to open their homes to strangers, the government sent the message that you are fortunate to still have your home; you are fortunate to still have your hometown and your connections – it is your duty to welcome those who are not so fortunate.

What a concept: asking people to provide assistance in their own homes.

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The little kitchen in that second-floor apartment

I was powerfully reminded of that situation this week while reading of the response in Iceland to the Syrian refugee crisis. Reacting to the news that her (admittedly tiny) country would be taking in just 50 of the refugees, a popular Icelandic author penned an open letter to the country’s welfare minister. In it, and on the Facebook group she set up, the author offered to personally pay airfare for a Syrian family to come to Iceland and she affirmed that her friend would provide the family with a place to live. Soon other Icelanders followed suit; at this point more than 11,000 (of a country of just 300,000 people!) have offered to help the Syrian refugees. Many have offered to host them in their own homes.

In their own homes.

We all (myself most definitely included) have a tendency to view other people’s problems as other people’s problems. Rarely do we offer to help in ways that will impact our own lives. We might make a donation, yes. Hopefully we pray. Perhaps we post something supportive on Facebook, or write a letter-to-the-editor, or publish a blog post. But it is exceedingly rare that we say, “Come into my home. I am willing to change my life for you.”

Part of me wants to do something that dramatic for the refugees of Syria and Iraq. I want to save someone. I want to sacrifice, to pour my small measure of justice and goodwill and mercy onto the scale that is currently so lopsided by the weight of suffering. I want to hold that small boy on my lap and provide him with the same comfort I give my own son.

But I don’t have the courage. I will admit that: I’m consumed with my own husband and our three small boys and my pregnancy. And I remember that we have already taken someone in: last year when my elderly mother-in-law was newly widowed with no place to go, we said, “Come into my home. I am willing to change my life for you.”

That offer was not nearly as dramatic or generous as the ones so many Icelanders are making today, but it has most definitely impacted our lives.

I hope, when our boys are older, our accommodation of my mother-in-law will teach them something about the value (indeed, the duty) of sacrificing for the sake of others. Perhaps one day they’ll have the courage to give the kind of help that involves more than a few taps on the keyboard or a click of the “donate” button. Perhaps they’ll be willing to give of themselves so deeply that their lives will be changed by the giving.

For now, I’ll do the tapping and the clicking. I’ll say that I hope Europe will do more and that the United States will do something. I understand that the task is great and the solutions are uncomfortable. But we simply can’t ignore millions of people who are a fleeing a situation we would ourselves try to escape.

If I lived in that part of the world, or any other torn by war and terror, I would leave. I would grab my boys and some cash and my phone and a few photos, and I. would. leave. You would too.

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Safe and dry and SO FORTUNATE.

So let’s have some constructive sympathy for those in that position. Members of the European Union, revise the policy that requires people to apply for asylum in the first EU country they reach. It is neither fair nor workable to require the poorest nations of the EU to shoulder the burden of migration that, in reality, aims for the wealthiest ones. European countries, revise your allotments for refugees upward. United Kingdom, revise it way upward. United States, prepare to take some Syrian refugees of your own – lots of them.

Friends, let’s donate (here’s a link to Catholic Relief Services) and pray. Let’s encourage our friends to do the same and let’s ask our governments to take action.

And if you have the courage to give the kind of help that changes your life for the sake of those like Aylan Kurdi, follow those Icelanders’ leads and offer space in your own home. Offer airline tickets. Offer to help integrate refugees into your community. Start up a U.S. or U.K. or German Facebook page like that Icelandic one. I’ll be honored to do my small measure to help you.

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Five Favorites (Vol. 2): Anniversary Edition


Linking up with Hallie for this week’s Five Favorites! Be sure to check out the rest!

(Updated to add that I’m also linking this post to Jenna’s “I Pray I Don’t Forget: What I Love About My Husband” at A Mama Collective. Check out those stories too!)

Tomorrow we’ll celebrate our fourth wedding anniversary. To mark the occasion, I thought I’d dedicate this week’s Five Favorites to my excellent husband, Brennan. So here’s some background on our relationship, Five of my Favorite things about B, and some of my favorite photos from our wedding. (Randomly placed and more than five, because I needed to break up the looong intro in #1.)

— 1 —

Brennan is interested in things – so many things.

Wedding Pic 1

In passing, this may seem pretty inconsequential: “Umm, big deal, Julie. Everybody’s interested in something. Even lots of somethings.” So let me back up for a minute and give you a little background on what lead up to our relationship. It should give more meaning to this and some of the other Favorites. Or maybe I just like to provide more information than anyone could possibly care about. One of the two.

Wedding Pic 2

Anyway, I was single for what felt like a looong time before I met Brennan. And I mean single single, not dating-but-not-yet-married “single.” Other than three very brief relationships in my early twenties, I was alone and lonely, day-dreaming of my ideal man. (Does that sound a little pathetic? Sorry. It was what it was.) Toward the end of my twenties I had the blessed insight that I needed to adjust my outlook on single life and my approach to maybe/hopefully finding the man with whom I could share a future. All-in-all, it’s a longer topic for another day. But the pertinent part is that I refined the list of qualities I hoped to find in my future husband. I realized that, most of all, I wanted to find a man who was good and kind, moral, responsible, hardworking – and interested in the world around him. I knew that I could never marry a man who didn’t have those values. And I figured that if my husband had an interest in the world, a hunger to learn and do, then our life together would be an open horizon – something to be explored.

Wedding Pic 3

We walked to the church, which was super fun,
except for how worried I was about the hem of my dress.

When I met Brennan, everything fell into place very quickly. Good? Kind? Moral? Responsible? Hardworking? Check, check, check, check… and check. But the clincher was really that he was interested in so many things. He caught my eye on eHarmony (yep, that’s how we met) because he said he loved bees.

Bees? Who loves bees? My beekeeper of a hubby, that’s who. A few years before, Brennan had gotten to talking with a co-worker who kept bees as a hobby. B thought it was interesting, so he started to read up on it. He read and read and researched… and the next thing he knew, he was putting together hive boxes and picking up packages of buzzing bees from unhappy postal workers.

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We gave out little jars of Brennan’s honey as favors.

Brennan has done the same thing with other hobbies: skiing, target shooting, cooking, home improvement, etc. On the house front, he’s taught himself how to do all sorts of useful things: woodworking, plumbing, mechanics, painting, even pest control. Brennan identifies something he wants to know how to do and he just figures it out. There doesn’t seem to be a “What if?” with Brennan – just a “How?”

Likewise, Brennan has cultivated his interests in history, architecture, and politics by reading and reading and reading… The man loves the internet. And good nonfiction. And audio books that he can soak up on his commute to and from work.

Brennan didn’t grow up doing any of the above; he wasn’t influenced by beekeeper or carpenter or plumber or historian or architect or politician parents. He just happened upon something (many things) that interested him, he had an open mind, and he decided to pursue the new activities and ideas. With gusto. I love that. I can’t wait to see what will be inspiring my husband in ten or twenty years.

— 2 —

Brennan gets stuff done.

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Just as I love how Brennan is active in pursuing his many interests, I also love that he takes the initiative to just go ahead and do what needs to be done – even if it’s tedious or unpleasant. Me? I’m the procrastinating type. The type who avoids the things I find intimidating or disagreeable. But, big or small, Brennan does what needs to be done. Hours upon hours of schoolwork while also working full time? He does it. Paying the bills, going to the doctor, cleaning the bathroom? He does it. Doing preventative maintenance on our very old house? He does it. And not just that – he does it well, without a fuss, and with very few complaints. What a great example to set for our boys. (And, er… for me too.)

— 3 —

Brennan is a loving father and a patient teacher to our boys.

Wedding Pic 6

On one of our first dates, Brennan and I visited an arboretum. Walking through the trees, Brennan spotted an insect hovering near some leaves. Very gently, he pointed it out to me, studied it a bit, and explained what it was doing. In that moment I thought to myself, “Wow. What a wonderful father he’ll be.” And he is. Brennan had very little experience with children before our boys were born, but he jumped in with both feet – doing all kinds of tedious tasks, showering the boys with hugs and kisses, playing all their wild games, teaching them about the world around them, and showing them great patience and a powerful love.

— 4 —

Brennan is a kind and supportive husband.

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This cake tasted so good that our guests gobbled it up before we could even get pieces ourselves!

I love staying home with my boys, but I am a social person by nature and I need to be around other adults. I need some mental stimulation and I need a bit of a break from the constant demands that come with having two very active young boys. I also need to feel like I’m giving something to my community. Brennan understands this, he supports me in my efforts to do things outside of the home, and he has never once complained about it. And it’s no small thing on his part: I serve on the board of a historic home an hour away from our house and I sing in our church’s choir. Both require my presence at times that necessitate B leaving work early. Sometimes hours early, meaning he has to make up those lost hours on another day. But Brennan says that if I really want to do something, I should do it.

— 5 —

Brennan has high standards.

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Gotta love the tiny spectators.

Brennan has high standards about lots of things – work, behavior, food, coffee and chocolate, goods and services that we buy – but let me feel flattered for a minute that he also had high standards when it came to finding the person he wanted to marry. When he was doing the eHarmony thing, going out on first date after first date, Brennan’s buddies at work started to give him a hard time. They’d joke about how he rarely made it to a second date. “What’s wrong with her this time?” was their standard question. One friend told him “everyone settles.” But my Brennan? He answered, “Not me.” He shared my conviction that it was better to be single than to be with the wrong person.

Perhaps this last Favorite sounds a bit self-gratifying. Certainly I’m glad that my husband didn’t “settle” for me. But more than that, I admire a person who will hold out and work hard for what he or she really wants. Too often these days, people expect instant gratification – in relationships, in their homes and careers, in their spare time. But Brennan couldn’t be farther from that. To achieve the kind of life he wants, Brennan works hard, he makes smart decisions, he sacrifices, and he is patient. He sets high standards for himself and he keeps to them.

I am so thankful that this man came into my life. I am grateful for all his hard work and careful planning. I am glad to have his love and his good company. I feel blessed to be building a life with him. Happy anniversary, Brennan. I love you.

Wedding Pic 9

All photos are credited to Gordon Eisner.