Gunshots. Phone calls. Frantic packing. Hurried goodbyes. Faces taut with fear. Questions without answers. Everything, gone.
Strange beds. New country. Foreign language. Exhaustion. Tears. Will I see this person again? Will I play with that toy ever again? Questions without answers. Everything, possible.
Discussions. So many discussions. Processing. Settling but not settling. Learning this new place, but not really. What do I do every day? We still need to eat and sleep and wash. But also, we need to work and we need to decide. We are on a tightrope. Do we go back? Do we go back, back, to the place we originally came from? Do we move to the other side of the planet, again? Do we move nearby? Do we stay here? Interviews. Possibilities. Dead ends. Arguments. Everything, temporary.
Another move. A new job. Unpacking. Resettling. Feeling untethered. What if it happens again? How much energy should be put into this new place, these new people? Questions with answers that come slowly, over weeks and years. Everything, new.
I have never been a refugee and to compare my experience of evacuation to that of a refugee is ridiculous. I was forced to flee, forced to abandon a dream and to build a new one. I was scared, grieving, confused, unsettled. I was impatient and selfish and needy. I demanded answers that didn’t exist. I ate a lot of gummy candy and watched a lot of pirated DVDs and did puzzle after puzzle after mind-numbing puzzle. I waited for direction.
But I had a passport to a country that wasn’t at war and that would welcome me back at any time. I had all the members of my immediate family with me, healthy and uninjured. I was received in this in-between place by people who gave my family so many things: clothes, books, meals, a motorcycle to use, toys, a house to rent, counseling services. I had lost ten months of life and household supplies. I did not lose my nation, my history, my past, my family.
I have written many times about evacuating from Somaliland. I have written about trying to build a home there and about trying to build a home in Djibouti after that evacuation. But I have never really written about that in between time. The time of no home, of big questions, of healing from trauma, and of casting new vision for the future.
I have never been a refugee. I’ve had a small taste of losing a home and being forced onto an unwanted migration of sorts. As I watch refugee stories unfolding on the border of the United States or as I watch refugees on foot in Djibouti, walking from Ethiopia through my host country toward the ocean and hoping to get somewhere, anywhere else, I try to overlay what they are facing with what I experienced, an exercise in increasing empathy.
What if I had to leave the house I had raised my children in?
What if I had to leave the town I was raised in?
What if I had to leave the job I loved, the school I invested in, the grocery stores I was familiar with, the running trails I’d pounded over?
What if I had to leave photo albums, wedding gifts, homemade mementos?
What if I had to watch it crumble? Burn? Be stolen?
What I was threatened, aggressed, assaulted on the journey?
What if I could never, ever, ever go back?
What if I left behind the body of my husband, shot? My children, conscripted into the military? My parents, sick with no hope of medical care?
What if I had no direction and all I could do was run?
What if when I arrived at a border, gripping my daughters and a single bag, people shouted at me in a language I didn’t understand?
What if I could see food, shelter, water, schools, hospitals, through a fence, and I couldn’t access it?
I can imagine what a refugee might feel but the best way to grasp what it means, feels like, and looks like to be forcibly displaced is to listen to the stories of those who have done it. Not the reporters talking about it, not the people like me who try to empathize and relate. At least not exclusively us.
Read and listen to Abdi Iftin Noor, author of Call Me American. Or the poetry of Warsan Shire, especially her poem Home. (Here’s a list of books written by refugees and here’s another list, in The Guardian)
For many refugees, like for Moses and the Israelites in the Exodus, there is hope of a Promised Land. Hope of a better life, a future, a refuge, belonging, safety. But for all, before the Promised Land is reached, there is a journey that involves loss and pain and fear and anger.
If you have experienced a forced displacement, don’t shut down these emotions. Be brave and willing to dig into the pain of what you’ve just experienced. And let that pain minister to you, and to those around you who may have experienced something similar.
If you have not experienced a forced displacement, use the questions up above, or these reading and listening resources, to grow in empathy, to explore how you could bless a refugee, to be transformed into a person of compassion and gentleness, to provide resources for their own healing, to offer hope.
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