Each time I encounter them I feel out of place.
In many ways the scene is always familiar: kids play, fight, giggle, and cry. Some are shy, others outgoing, some are helpful, others cause trouble. Meanwhile, the moms struggle to maintain conversation through the interruptions of child rearing.
Today, a dozen mothers went through piles of clothes, looking for the right sizes and styles for their kids. Some of them were timid, and needed reassurance that it was OK to take as much as they needed. Others confidently packed bags too heavy to carry. I enjoyed watching them pick through the choices, noting their facial expressions as they considered which items to take. They gushed over some outfits and scrunched their noses at others. Just like me, they have their own taste and preferences.
“Where are your sons?” A familiar face asked. She’s a mom of 3 and could easily pass as a model.
“They’re with their grandmother today.” (Truth be told, I didn’t bring them because my youngest has been a raging, albeit cute, lunatic this week.)
I hadn’t seen her in a couple months, so we spent some time catching up. Her kids are doing well in school, and she’s really thankful they have access to a good education. She likes their home, but admitted to feeling a little cramped. Her old home was bigger. We would’ve talked more, but we were interrupted by “H,” lively-and-sometimes-pushy mom of 4, who told me to hold her baby. I was happy to, but her confidence always takes me by surprise (like that one time that she shoved a spoon of marshmallows drenched in chocolate syrup in my mouth because she insisted it was the most delicious thing ever).
I love holding baby “G”. She’s happy, laid back, and has the cutest smile. Though after an hour my hip started to hurt. Later on, I held sleeping “M” so that his mom could go through the clothes. My arm fell asleep. Apparently, I’m a bit out of practice when it comes to holding babies.
“J” is ten years old. She’s had serious health issues preventing her from going to school lately. Those same issues made it difficult for her to hold a bag, so I followed her around and packed up what she liked. It didn’t take long to realize that she’s into “loud” clothing. The brighter the better. Add some sparkle and sequins, and consider it a jackpot.
It wasn’t until I drove “A” home, who moved here just about a month ago, that the sadness really started to set in.
So far what I’ve described sounds normal, and you’re probably wondering what I meant in the beginning of this post. Let me tell you. I felt out of place, because I was surrounded by refugees. In so many ways they are just like me. But they’ve all lived through unspeakable horrors–horrors which I can’t even begin to comprehend–and now face challenges that I’ll never understand.
I know what it’s like to give birth to a baby. But I don’t know what it’s like to give birth in a refugee camp.
I know what it’s like to help my 5-year-old with schoolwork. I don’t know what it’s like to have homework sent home, and not be able to help because I can’t read the language it’s in.
I know what it’s like to leave my home country. I don’t know what it’s like to flee my country without knowing when or if I’ll ever return.
I know what it’s like to lose someone I love from natural causes. I don’t know what it’s like to lose someone I love to violent bloodshed.
I know what it’s like to feel lonely. I don’t know what it’s like to actually BE lonely… like that woman I drove home, who’s truly alone, separated from all her friends and family.
What resonates so deeply during these times is the intertwining of normalcy with the lingering cloud of tragedy. “Refugee” no longer refers to caricatures (whether good or bad), but refers to actual people, who have their own virtues and vices, personalities and preferences, aspirations and afflictions.
And once it becomes personal, the compassion stings more deeply. Because when you hold that beautiful sleeping baby you can’t help but think of the others. The ones who’s first words and first steps will be taken in a refugee camp. The ones who’s mothers are desperately shushing them as they seek an escape. The ones who didn’t make it out. The ones who won’t be let in.