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.

These Walls - Do We Have the Courage to Help the Next Aylan Kurdi?

Who Will Be the Mr. Wintons of Tomorrow?

This is post 1 of my series of 7 posts in 7 days. All the time, I run across news articles or blog posts or radio segments that make me want to answer them aloud with my own take on the situation. So that’s what I’m doing this week. For each of these seven days, I’ll take a recent item (by someone much more original than myself) and I’ll comment on it. That’s it, but that’s something!

~~~

A couple of weeks ago, I read an article in the New York Times about Sir Nicholas Winton, who died on July 1st at the age of 106. I had vaguely recalled his story (if not his name), no doubt from something I once saw shared on Facebook. But this time, since the gentleman had just died, I paid closer attention.

Mr. Winton — Sir Nicholas in England since 2003, when he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II — was a London stockbroker in December 1938 when, on an impulse, he canceled a Swiss skiing vacation and flew to Prague at the behest of a friend who was aiding refugees in the Sudetenland, the western region of Czechoslovakia that had just been annexed by Germany.

“Don’t bother to bring your skis,” the friend, Martin Blake, advised in a phone call.

By the time Mr. Winton returned to Britain a few weeks later, he’d had far from his originally-planned experience of relaxing on the slopes. No, Mr. Winton had put in motion efforts that would eventually lead to the rescue of 669 mostly Jewish children from Czechoslovakia.

Please do read the entire New York Times article – it’s an amazing story, beautifully told.

Just the bones of it would be enough to move most people: Man takes an impromptu trip, ends up saving 669 children from almost-certain death.

But then there’s: Man, with just a few volunteers (including his mother), works tirelessly to register children for transport, photograph them and advertise their photos to potential foster families, appeal for funds and provide his own, obtain and even forge documents, and ultimately do whatever it took, bribery included, to successfully arrange for eight trainloads of children to make their way from the dangers of pre-WWII Czechoslovakia to the safety of Great Britain.

And: Man, orchestrator of one of the greatest rescues of World War II, places all evidence of his work in the attic, never even bothering to bring it up to his wife.

After finding his long-hidden scrapbook — crammed with names, pictures, letters from families, travel documents and notes crediting his colleagues — his wife asked for an explanation. He gave her a general idea, but said he thought the papers had no value and suggested discarding them.

“You can’t throw those papers away,” she responded. “They are children’s lives.”

Amazing – the story is simply amazing. After it came to light in 1988, Mr. Winton received honors and praises from all corners. But more importantly, he connected with many of the children whose lives he had saved, and with some of their descendants, who now number more than 6,000.

Reading the New York Times article a couple of weeks ago, and then reading Mr. Winton’s obituary in The Economist yesterday morning, I was struck most by the fact that this man – this man who did an incredible thing, which ultimately allowed for the preservation and creation of thousands of lives – he was just a normal person.

Mr. Winton wasn’t a government official, he wasn’t an adventurer or a clergyman or an expert in the nonprofit sector – he was a stockbroker who decided to skip out on a ski trip. On his detour, he found people in need, so he helped them.

There was a job to be done, so he did it.

Why did he do it?

He never really explained, though he offered a bare rationale in an interview with The New York Times in 2001: “One saw the problem there, that a lot of these children were in danger, and you had to get them to what was called a safe haven, and there was no organization to do that. Why did I do it? Why do people do different things? Some people revel in taking risks, and some go through life taking no risks at all.”

That’s not much of an answer, but maybe he didn’t have one to give. After all, how would one answer the reverse of the question?

Why didn’t others do it?

Why, when Mr. Winston wrote to American governors, senators, and even President Roosevelt, would none of them do what he did? According to the piece in The Economist, “He could have rescued at least 2,000 more, he said later, if America had been willing to take any.”

Why didn’t others orchestrate similar efforts for Jewish children in other Eastern European countries? Why, when the British government organized transports for children from Germany and Austria, did they not do so for those elsewhere?

Why don’t we, when we learn of the six million Syrian refugees inside Syria and the 4 million outside it, act?

What makes some people look at a faraway, impossible-seeming situation and decide to do something about it, and others look and do nothing? Or worse, not look at all?

Given that I’ll soon be responsible, full-time, for four children under the age of six, I’m under no illusion that I can set up shop in the refugee camps of Turkey and Jordan and go about saving the world right then and there.

But having read Mr. Winton’s story, I think it’s time for me to stop assuming that I’m incapable of making a difference on those things that don’t necessarily “concern” me. What kind of a life would I be living if I never sought anything out, if I chose to only deal with the things that land neatly in my lap?

Who will be the Mr. Wintons of tomorrow? Could you or I be among them?

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7 Quick Takes Friday (Vol. 13)

7 quick takes sm1 Your 7 Quick Takes Toolkit!

— 1 —

Well, we survived the first day of school! Though by “survived,” I mean something different than most parents do in referencing that Big Day.

As expected, our big 3-year-old (and his parents) had no problem with the drop-off. He was so busy building with blocks that he barely even acknowledged our goodbyes. (Our 2-year-old, however, cried angry tears and shouted “No bye! No bye!”) Big boy did fine in class; I did fine without him (though it definitely felt strange to only have one child with me); and little brother did tolerably well. He was a little sullen and kept asking for “Beh boys” (his nickname for his brother), but there were no more hysterics.

So. No real problems there. It ended up being the pick-up, post pre-school day that we had to survive. While all of my boy’s classmates ran to their moms with shining, happy faces at pick-up time, my guy ran straight past me, grumbling and grumpy. As we neared the car, all became clear: “I don’t wanna go home!” Now there were tears. And wails. And refusals of my attempts to take yet more pictures of the poor kid: “You already did dat!” I had to wrestle him into his car seat (no small feat; the child weighs 40 pounds) as he continued to sob, “I DON’T WANNA GO HOME!” (What must strangers have imagined of our home life?)

On the drive home, he huffed, “But, I didn’t want to weave!” Once home, we barely made it through the door before he flung himself onto the floor – an action borne of exhaustion and an unwillingness to move himself further into the place where he did not! want! to! be! A few minutes later, when I told him that I’d missed him, he answered, “I didn’t miss you!” (Ouch!) It continued. Him: “Did Daddy miss me?” Me: “I’m sure he did!” Him: “Did my brother miss me?” Me: “He missed you very much. Did you miss him?” Him: “Nope.”

You’d think he’d take a really good nap after all that, wouldn’t you? You’d be wrong. Two hours! Two hours I left those boys in their room before I finally gave in and retrieved their annoyingly-awake little selves. They talked and whined the whole time, except for the few minutes, here and there, where they’d be totally quiet, probably teasing me: “Shhh! Let’s pretend we’re asleep… Shhh… Wait for it… Wait for it… Ha! We’re awake! Fooled her!” Their beautiful behavior continued well into the evening.

I’m now torn between wanting him to go back to school again ASAP because it’s clearly where he wants to be, and never wanting him to go back again, because then he’ll never want to leave.

Here are the before pics:

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And here are the after:

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Sobbing because he doesn’t want to leave.

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— 2 —

Speaking of our 3-year-old and grumpiness… it’s been his M.O. lately. Evidence:

Nina, from the Sprout Goodnight Show: “Sproutlets, are you having a good night?”
Him: “No, I’m NOT havin’ a good night.”

He and I have been having a tough time of it the past few weeks. He shouts a mean-spirited “No!” or is otherwise obstinate in the face of my efforts to get him to… do normal things. Like go to the bathroom. Or wash his hands. Or eat. Or get in the car. So I get angry, and he gets put in time-out, so he melts down, and I get more angry… It’s been a little rough. (But please, do not tell me that “It’s not so much the terrible two’s as the terrible three’s!” At the moment, I cannot take the suggestion that this is going to last for another year.)

— 3 —

Per the above, the other day I happened to re-read a post I wrote a couple of months ago: A Love That Changes You. (If you haven’t read it yet, I hope you will. The re-read pushed it way up my list of favorites.) I wrote it right around my boy’s third birthday, and though the post hammers away at one of my favorite points – that each and every individual person is infinitely precious – it’s filled with love for this little guy in particular. It was good for me to revisit. In this season of “NO!” and “I didn’t miss you!” and “I don’t wanna go home!” it was good for me to recall that image of the rocking chair. It was good for me to read about my boy’s soft cheeks and long eyelashes. It was good for me to focus on my love for him, rather than my frustration.

— 4 —

That same post also touched me in a different, much sadder way, given recent events in Syria. More than a thousand people – many of them women and children – were killed in that chemical attack a couple of weeks ago. More than a hundred thousand have been killed in the two years since the fighting began. Millions have had to leave their homes, to live as refugees, to wander in search of safety.

I thought of them yesterday afternoon as I walked the trails of a local park with my boys. I looked out over the idyllic, peaceful scenery: forest, rolling hills, green farmland. I watched my boys run and squeal and crouch down to investigate small creatures, without a care in the world. We were safe. We were relaxed. We had the luxury of taking for granted our home and our family and our very lives.

Luxury. It’s easy to forget what a luxury such security is. But for millions of people living today, and for countless millions who lived before us, life has not been so much about seeking happiness as it has been about surviving.

There are mothers very much like me in Syria today. Mothers who dare not walk outside with their children for fear they will get caught in a crossfire. Other mothers who feel compelled to walk with their children, seeking refuge from a home that has become too dangerous. As I wrote in that post, “I hear about atrocities and I think of mothers rocking their babies.” It’s a powerful image for me.

I hope you’ll join me in answering Pope Francis’ call to prayer and fasting tomorrow, Saturday 7. Please pray for peace in Syria.

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— 5 —

The reason I re-read “A Love That Changes You” the other day is because I heard a compelling, sobering program on NPR’s Fresh Air. The story, called “Program Fights Gun Violence Bravado With ‘Story of Suffering,’” focused on a program at Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia. “Cradle to Grave” brings small groups of at-risk youth into the hospital to show them the repercussions of being shot. It traces the story of a 16-year-old who was killed in 2004, sharing the gritty details of the treatment he received, the instruments that were used on him, and the impact his death had on his family. To me, the piece pounded away at the “every life is precious” theme from my June post. It was at once sickening, sobering, edifying, and hopeful. It did something to recognize the victims of violence in our own country, to remember the communities in our own backyard where people can’t forget that security is a luxury.

— 6 —

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I love Simcha Fischer. This week, I particularly loved her post, “The Allure of Either/Or.” In it, Simcha discusses recent debates regarding rape, modesty, men and women’s sexual attitudes towards each other. She notes how the debates tend to focus on one side or the other: either the burden for good behavior falls entirely on women or entirely on men. She writes:

Why does it have to be one or the other?  Why does it have to be either/or?  What ever happened to both/and?  I have boys and girls.  I tell my girls that they need to pay attention to what they wear, both for their own safety and sense of self-respect, and so as not to make trouble for people they meet.  And my husband tells my boys that they must respect women no matter what they wear; that somebody else’s dress or behavior, whether it’s intentional or clueless, is never an excuse for bad behavior on their part.  Both/and.

As Simcha points out, “both/and” applies to lots of issues. I feel her frustration all the time. Sometimes I shout at my radio: “Why do I have to choose a side? Why can’t both sides be a little right and a little wrong? Why can’t the answer be more nuanced?” I don’t feel that on every issue, of course, but there are an awful lot of political/societal issues that just aren’t easily answered. We shouldn’t feel compelled to answer them in an either/or fashion. I touched on this, on a very basic level, in my abortion post. One doesn’t have to be a pro-life Catholic or a social justice Catholic. It’s both/and. One is incomplete without the other.

— 7 —

Well, this 7 Quick Takes was a little heavier than my usual. So let me wrap up with a nice, simple little story.

Lately when we’ve encountered other families at the park (pretty rare, actually – we tend to go at everybody’s else’s naptime or dinnertime, I guess), we keep experiencing the same scenario: Our three-year-old is so excited to see the children that he follows them around, wanting to play with them. Inevitably he starts chasing them, roaring. He’s three. The kids, who are a few years older than him, plea to me with a whiny little “Can you tell him to stop chasing us?” I agree and then have to go break my little boy’s heart, because the wimpy eight-year-olds can’t handle some roaring. (Or more like it, they don’t want to play with a “little kid.”)

So when I saw a large group of older elementary and middle school kids, accompanied by a teenager, arrive at the park the other day, my heart sank. I braced myself for my little guy’s excitement and the big kids’ scorn. Perhaps with some disagreeable behavior and questionable language thrown in for good measure. But it never materialized. The big kids started straight in on a game and asked my boy if he wanted to play too. One took his hand and showed him what to do. They all talked to him and praised his ability on the playground equipment. (“Wow! That’s awesome! I can’t even do that!”) They commented, repeatedly, on how cute both of my boys were. Before I knew it, they’d taken the almost-two-year-old under their wings too.

Moreover, they were so nice to each other. There was no mean-spirited teasing, they were polite and kind, and they seemed genuinely concerned with each other’s wellbeing. It was enormously refreshing to witness – such a nice, simple little breath of fresh air for the middle of my week.

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Well, I guess that’s it. Have a great weekend, everyone, and don’t forget to stop by Jen’s to see all the rest of the Quick Takes!