The world hemorrhages. Refugees flow from its wounds.
Is there a way to be innocent of this?
People are washed ashore. They die of suffocation in humanity-stuffed trucks. They flee war and politics; they flee starvation. And finally, we don’t even have sufficient air for them to breathe.
For words to matter about all this, they have to express more than “concern” or even outrage – that is to say, they have to slice internally as well as externally. They have to sever our own lives and personal comfort. They have to cut as deep as prayer.
“What in my life today, in myself, in my community, in my culture, prepares me, not some other person in some border area trying to live his or her own complicated life, what prepares me to take in a refugee?”
This is where I felt the cut of razor wire into my heart.
“My bigger TV? The little glider in my backyard? Any of my stuff? My careful savings in order to have enough to pay my quarterly estimated taxes and what’ll come due next April? My love of poetry and Shakespeare? … I look around at my conservative neighbors, who and wherever they are, and I wonder just how very different I am — not in what I believe but in what I will actually do.
I open this door of uncertainty not to pretend I have answers but precisely because I don’t.
I think about the words of Somali-British poet Warsan Shire: “no one leaves home unless/home is the mouth of a shark …” I think about the refugees in my own city, Chicago, standing at intersections holding signs that plead for help. Help means money. Maybe it also means eye contact. Sometimes I don’t even have any of the latter to spare.
Eye contact can be the beginning of God knows what. A dozen years ago I gave eye contact to an old friend, a Guatemalan who had fled U.S.-sponsored hell in his native country in the 1980s. I’d written about him when I was a reporter. We were friends, but I hadn’t seen him in a long time.
Then, there he was. It was 2004, a year into the occupation of Iraq. We were at the Federal Building, at the end of a march protesting the war. When I saw him, my blood ran cold because I could tell in an instant that his life had collapsed. I could tell that he was destitute and homeless and utterly lost and the last thing I wanted to give him was eye contact, but I did. And with it I offered him the mirage of hope.
We talked. I invited him for dinner. He was a skilled carpenter and did some work for me. Eventually, a few months into our reconnection, I invited him to move into my house. He lived there for almost five years.
This was not an easy situation. His spiritual wounds were deep; he treated them with alcohol. I know that I helped him, but I don’t think I would be so open again. I’m careful about the eye contact I dole out, but I cannot sever myself from a sense of responsibility to others in need.
I hate the idea of razor wire on national borders. I am torn apart by the suffering of refugees and the bombastic manipulation of politicians, who try to turn the planet’s most vulnerable into national enemies. But I don’t trust or understand my relationship with collective humanity. Who are we in relation to others? What do we owe them? What do we owe ourselves? How do we unite in all our flawed humanity? Let the dialogue begin.