Love in a Time of Refugees

Thursday, September 24, 2015 - 5:58 am

Love in a Time of Refugees

It was the black and white photo that grabbed my heart.

In the midst of a sea of humanity, 
refugees in tents
Sleeping on bags and blankets:
a tent.

In the background, a mother
wearing hijab
Sitting,
perhaps praying
Next to her child

In another corner
A young man 
In the sun
Staring out into the abyss
wondering 
how people who are somebody
                        from somewhere
                   Came to be 
here

My eyes gravitated 
to the center of the picture:

Inside a tent
A couple
kissing
Oh so tenderly. 
His arms wrapped 
    around her.
Her arm resting 
  tenderly
   on his shoulder.

A moment of affection, tenderness, and love, in the midst of months of chaos. On seeing István Zsíros‘s image, photographer Yannis Androulidakis noted simply:

“The refugees will win. Life will win!”

The refugee crisis has been weighing on me for a while. We live in an age where ideas travel around the world at the click of a button. The goods we consume, from our soap and coffee to our clothing, come from all over the world. Whereas we might enjoy Sumatran or Kenyan coffee or a Chinese-manufactured smart phone, the movement of people is usually for far less pleasant reasons. We welcome ideas and goods, but not so much the people who are attached to those ideas and goods.

Whether looking at the creation of four million stateless Palestinian refugees (homeless since 1948) or the creation of more than nine million Syrian refugees and internally displaced people (since 2011), the combination of political strife, extremism, militarism, geopolitics, and environmental desecration has created millions of refugees. This is likely to be one of the stories of the 21st century.

In some cases they are homeless, with no home for them to go back to. In other cases a new people are now living in what used to be their home. If Jesus said that the poor would always be with us, in this century it’s perhaps the refugee, the stateless, the dispossessed who are with us.

I come back to the couple in the tent. And that tender kiss. Yes, they are refugees. Yes, they are refugees not because they ever stopped loving their home, but because they loved their children more. Because they loved life more. And they clung to the stubborn hope of a better life, of life itself.

I come back to that kiss. There is love, and tenderness, and hope in that kiss. In their love, their tenderness, and their hope, there is hope for all of us.

It reminds me of the beautiful words of the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish:

We Palestinians suffer from an incurable disease called “hope”.
Hope for liberation and independence. 
Hope for a normal life where we shall be neither heroes nor victims. 
Hope to see our children go to school without danger. 
Hope for a pregnant woman to give birth to a living baby, in a hospital, 
          and not to a dead child in front of a military control post. 
Hope that our poets will see the beauty of the colour red in roses, rather than in blood. 
Hope that this land will recover its original name: "land of hope and peace." 
Thank you for carrying with us this banner of hope.

The refugees are not merely a “problem” for Europe. This is not merely a “demographic” or economic crisis. They are human beings with their own lives, their own hopes, their own dreams and aspirations. There, right in the middle of the refugee camps, there is love, there is life, there is mourning, there is loss. There are weddings and funerals, children being born, courtship and poetry.

Their lives have already been drastically altered. Their homes and homelands erased. I will not erase their humanity by turning a people into a “problem.”

How powerful it is to listen, to amplify the voice of such a people. It is as the Somali-born poet Warsan Shire has said:

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 neighbours 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.
no one leaves home unless home chases you
fire under feet
hot blood in your belly
it's not something you ever thought of doing
until the blade burnt threats into
your neck
and even then you carried the anthem under
your breath
only tearing up your passport in an airport toilets
sobbing as each mouthful of paper
made it clear that you wouldn't be going back.
you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
no one burns their palms
under trains
beneath carriages
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled 
means something more than journey.
no one crawls under fences
no one wants to be beaten
pitied
no one chooses refugee camps
or strip searches where your
body is left aching
or prison,
because prison is safer
than a city of fire
and one prison guard
in the night
is better than a truckload
of men who look like your father
no one could take it
no one could stomach it
no one skin would be tough enough
the
go home blacks
refugees
dirty immigrants
asylum seekers
sucking our country dry
niggers with their hands out
they smell strange
savage
messed up their country and now they want
to mess ours up
how do the words
the dirty looks
roll off your backs
maybe because the blow is softer
than a limb torn off
or the words are more tender
than fourteen men between 
your legs
or the insults are easier 
to swallow
than rubble
than bone
than your child body
in pieces.
i want to go home,
but home is the mouth of a shark
home is the barrel of the gun
and no one would leave home
unless home chased you to the shore
unless home told you 
to quicken your legs
leave your clothes behind
crawl through the desert
wade through the oceans
drown
save
be hunger
beg
forget pride
your survival is more important
no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear
saying-
leave,
run away from me now
i dont know what i've become
but i know that anywhere
is safer than here.

Shire is right. Her powerful words deserve a second look:

you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land

I come back to the couple in the tent. Yes, they are refugees. Yes, they are homeless. But life goes on. Love goes on.

There is a love that shines in the darkest places of suffering. There is a love where what is human mingles with what is divine.

There is a love that stands in the midst of turmoil, 
      stands up, 
           and declares with a kiss
              that tenderness, kindness, and affection shall have the victory. 

There is a love that says:  we are human.
There is a love that says:  
 
        we love, 
     therefore we are.

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Contributor

is a columnist for On Being. His column appears every Thursday.

He is Director of Duke University’s Islamic Studies Center. He is the past Chair for the Study of Islam, and the current Chair for Islamic Mysticism Group at the American Academy of Religion. In 2009, he was recognized by the University of North Carolina for mentoring minority students in 2009, and won the Sitterson Teaching Award for Professor of the Year in April of 2010.

Omid is the editor of the volume Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism, which offered an understanding of Islam rooted in social justice, gender equality, and religious and ethnic pluralism. His works Politics of Knowledge in Premodern Islam, dealing with medieval Islamic history and politics, and Voices of Islam: Voices of Change were published 2006. His last book, Memories of Muhammad, deals with the biography and legacy of the Prophet Muhammad. He has forthcoming volumes on the famed mystic Rumi, contemporary Islamic debates in Iran, and American Islam.

Omid has been among the most frequently sought speakers on Islam in popular media, appearing in The New York TimesNewsweekWashington Post, PBS, NPR, NBC, CNN and other international media. He leads an educational tour every summer to Turkey, to study the rich multiple religious traditions there. The trip is open to everyone, from every country. More information at Illuminated Tours.

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