We’d been on the road for an hour. I’m not even sure it qualified as a road actually, it was more of a bumpy, dirt-trodden path, and with every twist and turn I felt the familiar lurch of motion sickness and silently wondered when we would stop. I held back my request to move to the front seat. I was here to learn, to volunteer. I was among the privileged and was embarrassed by my own trivial concerns. Surely I could stomach a little nausea. I looked back out the window like they always say to do.
We pulled up to the small, isolated fishing village thirty minutes later, our backpacks stuffed with trinkets for the kids and our arms full with heavy bags of rice and beans.
“Maybe you could help out this mama,” someone suggested as we approached one of the huts. “She has a two week old baby and is struggling to nurse him.”
Walking in the front door, I mentally prepared myself to go through the lactation counselor motions, check the latch, the suck, the tongue for a tongue-tie. Ask about wet and soiled diapers and nursing patterns. I was new to the field, but had already amassed a naive confidence in the ability of the breastfeeding mama to overcome most obstacles in her path.
Until I met her.
I watched her put her tiny, newborn baby to her breast, perfectly latched, desperately sucking. Their combined weight could not have been more than a hundred pounds. In her kitchen area was a hanging basket with a tomato and an onion. It was the last available food in her house. The beans and rice we brought would last her until next weekend.
She didn’t have a breastfeeding problem. She had a hunger problem. I was completely impotent in the face of her struggle. There was no amount of on-demand feeding or finger training that would turn this around. I said a prayer of thanks for the formula that was in the van, held her hand and told her that her baby was beautiful. He was, beautiful.
I didn’t share this story with many people when I returned home, but was met by a similar response each time that I did. “Didn’t you just want to take that baby with you?”
I wanted to take the mama with me. I wanted to find a way bring her and her child to a place that could offer more than a bag of rice and beans, more than the economic opportunities of a washed-out fishing village, an hour and a half outside of the drug cartel violence of the border town many of the village’s members had already fled. I flew home to my own beautiful baby boy, abundantly fed and privileged to have been born on the soil of a country only a hundred miles away from this other world, where homes were built on landfills. Where a few years after my visit, 72 bodies of drug cartel victims would be found in those landfills.
Before that trip, in my previous work I got to meet the families who left, who found a way out of economic despair, or a political crisis, or in some cases, violence that threatened their cities and lives. Most of these families were considered immigrants, though a few qualified as refugees. It is important to make that distinction because while we also have a migrant crisis, international law says that countries have a specific responsibility to protect refugees. I saw first-hand how there is sometimes a fine line between the two, how the difference between fleeing a violent drug cartel and fleeing a war results in different opportunities, and, in this country at least, a different reception. I wonder if our long and complicated history with immigration informs our attitudes towards to refugees, anesthetizing us to their plight, stripping us of our shared humanity.
Fortunately, in our line of work, the distinctions didn’t matter. The families welcomed me into their homes and lives, feeding me and sharing their struggles and victories in acclimating to their new home. There were times when I wondered what they must have left behind to come and live packed into one bedroom apartments with extended families, in communities that were not always welcoming, overcoming language barriers and bureaucratic obstacles to create a new life. I would go home and hold my newborn baby and wonder what kind of conditions it would take for me to leave everything I had ever known, strap my baby to my back and cross a dangerous river, or get on that boat, or climb in that truck and run. Extreme hunger? A war? A community overrun by violence?
Yes. To all of those things. I would flee for my child. And likely you would too.
“no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well
your neighbors running faster than you
breath bloody in their throats
the boy you went to school with
who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory
is holding a gun bigger than his body
you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay.” – Warsan Shire, continued here…
You only leave home when home won’t let you stay.
I thought of that little baby boy yesterday when I read the stories about Aylan. When I shared in the collective weeping over his image, and read his dad’s heartbreaking words. I wondered where he is now. I wonder if they too fled. I wonder if he and his mama made it. I wonder where it even is.
I watched the news pour in yesterday and I did what I always do when I am overcome by sadness. I looked for the helpers (and there are so many helpers) and then I took the small steps I could to become one. I made donations, I shared on my tiny platform, I followed up with the local refugee agency I’ll be volunteering with this year.
It never feels like enough.
It’s not enough.
The response to this crisis has to come from us all. We have to find the courage to turn our collective tears into collective action.
And sometimes, standing on this privileged soil, this soil I was simply lucky to be born on, that can feel impossible. While citizens of Iceland and Germany push back at their governments, offering up their homes to refugees if their leaders will allow more people to come, we listen to presidential candidates yell about who can build a bigger wall around our country and what type of weaponry will flank that wall. While others around the world attempt to use their collective force for good, we are on social media talking about Force Friday, using our collective wealth to purchase more toys we don’t need. We, a nation of immigrants and refugees, make the argument with each new generation that America is done growing now, that it’s time to close up shop. That it’s essentially time to remove the famous plaque from inside the Statue of Liberty. That this generation constitutes the real America. No more room at the inn.
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
I’ve said before that I don’t have a single political or militaristic solution to the crisis in Syria or the threat of ISIS. I still don’t.
But I’m going to keep talking about refugees and immigrants. I’m going to keep asking that you join me in this conversation. I’m going to keep asking that you take one small step today to help. Make a donation to one of the many organizations with people on the ground trying to bring food, resources, medical supplies and support to refugee camps. Call your representatives and ask them to raise the quota on Syrian refugees from 8,000 to something higher, something that makes a dent in the three million Syrian refugees that exist today. Contact your local agencies for immigrants and refugees and find out how you can help those already here.
I’ll include links at the bottom of this post.
Please join me.
Five Practical Ways to Help
The United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR)
Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) International, or Doctors Without Borders
International Rescue Committee (IRC)
Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS)
St. Louis local? Check out these resources:
Immigrant & Refugee Women’s Program