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A few weeks ago, I sat on my daughter’s bed and read my twin girls an unconventional bedtime story. It was from this book, Let Me Tell You My Story. We read one narrative, and then another. Short personal accounts of individuals who fled their countries of origin in search of a life we admittedly take for granted. A life with physical safety, peace, clean water, three meals a day, the chance to attend school, sleep without fear, and freedom.
My daughters are in 6th grade and this year they have a new student in their class. She is from Afghanistan. They tell me she has the nicest smile, is always polite, and has a little sister who runs into her arms every time the two see each other at school. But she doesn’t speak English. And they do not yet know her story.
So in an attempt to help them understand the country she has come from, I began reading to them these refugee stories of courage and hope. I told my girls, “You have no idea what your new friend has experienced. What horrors she may have seen. Or what it is like for her to be in this new place where she is safe, but on the outside, unsure, unable to communicate and make friends.”
My girls went quiet. With each handful of words I read, genuine sorrow began to crease their faces. They were considering it all. The sting of loss. The darkness of despair. The wrongs of injustice. And the need for compassion.
This morning, I read to all five of my children about a young Afghani boy named Khaleeq. The photo opposite his story shows him stacking fragments of broken cement atop each other, his imitation of children’s building blocks. Below are his memories, stacked neatly into the following lines.
I remember my brother. He was killed and dropped at our door.
I remember when they stabbed my daddy many times in the head.
I remember the first time the bombs came in our house.
I remember the other time more bombs came in your house.
I remember when Uncle opened our door and two men shot him with their guns.
I remember the cold nights in the mountains and sleeping on rocks.
I remember the night our tent burned up.
I remember… (166)
As I finished, I noticed my daughter’s large brown eyes rimmed with tears. That is the power of this book at work in our family.
Let Me Tell you My Story is a stunning hardbound book of refugee stories, dedicated to those forced to leave their homes, and to those who welcome them to new ones. The stories were compiled by TSOS (Their Story is Our Story), a group of volunteer photographers, filmmakers, painters, writers, and other skilled specialists from Europe and the United States who are trying to shape international dialogue about refugees by giving them a voice and a platform to tell their stories. Their intent is to better refugee situations — and thus ours — worldwide.
Each member of TSOS heard about the plight of refugees near them and chose to help. Now, as they work together, they are not just raising awareness — “the world is already aware,” they say — they are providing a way for us to come face to face with refugees, “to displace fear with consideration, replace misconception with understanding, and indifference with compassion.”
Editors of the book understand stories of trauma and violence like this are heavy and hard to hear, but “surrounding the dark shadows of human suffering,” editors wrote, “we have encountered unexpected light. The person-to-person selfless connections that take place between the refugee and the volunteer create unique, bright sparks of hope and optimism.” TSOS hopes that by reading this volume, you will feel inspired to become part of someone’s story.
The World’s Most Vulnerable
Refugees are the world’s most vulnerable displaced people. By the end of 2016, the number of displaced people in the world rose to 65.6 million, the largest number ever recorded, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR). TSOS reports that one in every 113 people on the planet is now a refugee — someone who leaves their home to escape war, persecution, or political upheaval. Most are uprooted with little warning and endure great hardships during their flight. Half of all refugees are children.
Those are staggering facts.
Media tends to portray these people as faceless. They use labels like migrants, illegals, immigrants, and refugees, and it would be easy to move along with our little lives, never looking past those labels, never lifting our hands out of our pockets of ease and contentment. But that is not the way of discipleship. If we miss the opportunity to see deeper and further, these sons and daughters of God will remain just a group to us. Just a word, with pitiful connotation trailing behind, as it drifts in then out of our awareness.
The great truth, however, is that these individuals are far more than a demographic or statistic. They are humans. Like you. Like me. In search of a better life for themselves and their families.
Author, Karen Lynn Williams, said that through this book “we are privileged to meet real people living the tragedy of refugee life. They are school children, wives and mothers, musicians, journalists, teachers, husbands and fathers. They are African, Asian, Middle Eastern. They are of the world we share. Their loss is palpable. And their yearning to be free shines through on the page.”
While an enormous number of refugees are currently encamped in or around the borders of Europe, just a few miles from wherever you live, there are likely enclaves of refugees needing assistance, friendship, language training, and hope. Just this week a “Migrant Caravan” from Honduras banded together for safety with hopes that they will reach the United States. Once again the immigration issue is on the political forefront and unless the world stage shifts dramatically, this issue will not go away soon. Yes, it is complex, but the question still remains, how will we respond?
The Power of Story-Telling
TSOS is committed to helping refugees tell their stories in a way that is intimate and emotionally authentic. On each page you will find a photograph or painted portrait, along with a short vignette about the refugee interviewed. Some refugees and their families are still at risk of persecution and even death, so names have been changed and identities kept private. In some images, you cannot see their face. Their backs are turned to the camera, they sit facing a wall, or the lens is zoomed in on just their hands.
Trisha Leimer, TSOS president recalls her first experience interviewing refugees at the camp in Greece. She write, “Residents in every tent stood in line to sit down in front of our cameras and talk about their painful, personal experiences. After each interview, they’d stand up, one after the other, take a deep, cleansing breath, then say, ‘Thank you. I feel so much better. Thank you for listening.’ We hadn’t expected that at all” (13).
Simply telling their story and speaking to someone who listened seemed to be therapeutic. The TSOS team realized story-telling was opening doors, hearts and minds. Not just for those who told the stories, but for those who heard them.
Nestled among two-hundred-plus pages of interviews, readers will also find the stories of TSOS volunteers. These are just as moving as the stories told by refugees.
Especially touching to me was the story of Twila Bird, TSOS chief editor. Bird’s husband was diagnosed with MS in his mid-thirties and quickly lost the use of his body. Within five years he was completely bedridden and lived the last twenty years of his life as a quadriplegic. Their four-level home became a nightmare for him to navigate. Before long, a personal friend confided to them that he and others had gathered funds and drafted plans to remodel their home. “For the following two months on weeknights and Saturdays, many men who normally wore suits and ties for their day jobs donned work clothes and joined in the happy hum of construction activity” (80). Bird writes, “It’s my turn to give back.”
Melissa Dalton-Bradford, TSOS writer and linguist who has spent countless hours in refugee camps teaching german, french, and english to refugees said, “I have been given so much. Not as a reward but as a sacred responsibility” (25).
Julie Anderson opened a library in an empty restaurant near Frankfurt refugee camp. Ben Levaton convinced Le Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris to donate their practice cakes which they typically throw out. Karen Martinez created the Art Without Borders project where she set up a venue for refugees to sell their art and help children process the trauma they experienced through art mediums.
Stories from TSOS members, interspersed throughout the pages of refugee survival, inspire us to think creatively about how we can contribute. Story-telling connects us. It unburdens and lifts us. And it allows speaker and hearer to find common ground, even in the darkest of places.
Additionally, the book educates readers on the language of refugees, defining words like asylum, borders camps, and smugglers. At some point almost all refugees are at the mercy of smugglers who demand enormous amounts of money to transport refugees through treacherous terrain or across borders. Conditions are horrid, refugees are often placed at great physical risk, beaten, detained, depraved, starved, sexually assaulted or raped. But TSOS writers explain, “When what lies behind is worse than what lies ahead, refugees take risks” (217).
In Their Words
Interviews were translated as accurately as possible to retain authenticity in the voice and language of each refugee. Their words are doorways into their souls. You can hear what they value, what they have lost, what they desire, what they feel, and what they are living for. This attempt at accuracy and honesty makes the book even more riveting. Here are a few of their words.
“I don’t need economic support. I speak five languages. I just need security. I just need peace. I just need to live” — Musa, Afghanistan (110).
“No one sees my pain. No one sees my loss. I am invisible” (113).
“I can’t shape my life to this different society. I’m feeling bad… The people reject me… I want to work. Humans are supposed to work. Work for myself and the generation after me” — Tamba, West Africa (30).
“One part of our journey was in the sea and I was afraid we would drown. I asked God to help us. All of a sudden, the sea got really peaceful. He helped us. Whenever I felt I couldn’t continue anymore, I asked God and He helped us” — Rasheeda, Afghanistan (33).
“My middle son lost his life to the bomb. My oldest lost his mind” — Yosuf, Afghanistan (34).
“If you have a child, you will understand how I feel” — Ghezal, Afghanistan (41).
“We are four sisters… Our uncles wanted to forcibly marry us off. They told my mother, ‘Your girls must marry anybody we tell them to. Daughters have no right to talk back at all. You know, girls have no value here’” — Sharoreh, Afghanistan (67).
“I must be strong for [my Mom]. She worries a lot and gets tired” — Arif, Syrai (62).
“I play piano all the time. I play with orchestras in Stuttgart, Hamburg, Munich, and Berlin. It’s a very big pleasure, but I don’ t feel good. They clap for me but those back in Syria are still in prison, under siege, under bombs” — Aeham Ahmad, professional pianist and Palestinian from Syria (71).
“Papa started to drive the boat. He was worried about all of us. Men came and took him away. I haven’t seen him since” — Nooda, Syria (97).
“Color is only color. Are we not all human beings?” — Baros, West Africa (140).
Ali, from Afghanistan spoke about spending days and nights in the mountains between Afghanistan and Pakistan. He walked with a prosthetic leg and hiked through rugged mountains over 2500 meters. He saw people in the mountains who were dead — some from hunger, some were shot. He showed TSOS pictures on his phone of seventeen people transported in one smuggler’s car through Iranian territory. “I kept thinking, ‘I will be dead; I’m not going to make it!’” (47).
“Through all of my experiences I’ve learned that you can hear what a person says with his lips, but you have to look into his eyes to know what’s in his heart” — Shakila, Afghanistan (75).
One day MoMo from Somalia came home to find his entire family dying. His parents, six sisters, and four brothers. “Someone killed my family. I don’t know why… I am always stressed about memories of my family and war… I see my family in my eyes, and I don’t know what to do. I am not strong. I need work so I won’t just think about my family anymore” (101).
Each story has its own unique heartbreak. Most families are ripped apart. Few families stay intact. That is the norm, rather than the exception. But as I worked through their words, their pain became part of my story, part of what I am learning about the the resiliency of human spirit. I was impressed with how wise and ironically rooted these unmoored people are in what matters.
In Their Eyes
I studied each photograph and painting for some time. All of them were truly beautiful. A stillness rises out of these images that is perfectly juxtaposed to the turmoil of their upturned lives. Every face reflects a degree of light and an air of dignity.
When I paused to examine their features, their skin, lips, hairlines, and eyes, I could see maybe, in part, what God sees in His children. Their unmistakable value. Their body, made in His image. The pieces of Him living inside them. I thought about what Jesus would have seen as He looked into the eyes of those who were broken in both body and spirit.
I noticed one young woman’s eyes, and thought how much she looked like my own daughter. I could not imagine the evil that would brutally and violently rage against beauty like this.
Words teach, inform, and stir us, but images connect and soften us. In their eyes you can see loss, hurt, and uncertainty, but you can also see resiliency, relief, and a spark of hope.
Artist, Elizabeth Benson Thayer, contributed dozens of oil paintings to the project. They are all extraordinary, and seem to offer movement and inference where the photos offer focus and stillness. Thayer explains, “Art has the power to bring people together in a shared experience, to overcome prejudices, and to reteach the act of seeing.”
In this painting, which Thayer titled, “A message to the World,” she writes about three boys from Afghanistan she met in Greece. One of them trailed her all day, wanting to play, laugh, hold hands, and watch her draw. She writes, “Hundreds of thousands of [refugees] are children traveling alone. They have fled violence, conflict, and intense persecution in the hope that the rest of the world will show some humanity. Children are the first to see magic, the last to lose hope. Long after adults have given in to despair and cynicism, a child believes in that which is good and right… Their future is uncertain, and their past is gone forever. This precarious position could understandably inspire fear and mistrust… Yet so soften it is the children who are able to rise above the rhetoric and show us all what humanity really means” (211).
We all need refuge at different times in our lives. Stop for a moment and think of a time when you needed refuge, be it physical, spiritual, financial, or emotional. I’m sure you can picture the place, person, or experience that offered you sanctum and safe harbor.
Remember the psalmist’s cry? “I looked on my right hand, and beheld, but there was no man that would know me: refuge failed me; no man cared for my soul.” And then the response, “I cried unto thee, O Lord: I said, Thou art my refuge” (Psalm 142: 4-5).
In reality, we are all refugees. Displaced, dependent, searching, longing, mourning, raging, suffering, and waiting. But in the arms of the great Mediator, that same Jehovah of the Old Testament, we find refuge. He stands next to us in our grief. He steadies us, cradles us, guides us through this journey out of our heavenly home, heals us, enables us, and sometimes, He simply waits with us.
As disciples we have a responsibility to care for and serve God’s children, no matter their situation. We can be their refuge. We can become part of their story. We can let them into our lives.
Heather Young wrote, “What would you do for your family? What would you do for your most cherished people? They are each cherished by someone too. They are all people” (153).
How You Can Help
TSOS knows one person, one organization, even one country can’t end human suffering but “personal connections can and will push back the darkness one spark at a time.” So here is what you can do:
- Buy this book. All proceeds will help fund awareness for refugees worldwide. Consider giving it as a gift. Let Me Tell You My Story is available on Amazon, at Deseret Book, Familius, and other select sellers.
- Share this review. Post an image of the book on your social media feeds.
- Donate direct to TSOS.
- Find ways to serve or help refugees then share your story.
Last year my twin boys gathered art supplies for a local elementary school where the majority of students do not speak english as their native language and the school had no money to purchase supplies for their art program. For a birthday party, we asked friends to bring socks and toiletries for refugees rather than gifts and we mailed them to the refugee camp in Frankfurt. We also follow an Instagram account the keeps us aware of local refugee needs in our community @serverefugees.
Let Me Tell You My Story is a gripping collection not just of stories, but of lives. Each one precious. Each a survivor. Each one deserving of opportunity. A reverent salute to TSOS for their diligent, compassionate work on the refugee front. Theirs is a treatise on true humanity that helps us see our own lives and histories through the powerful lens of refuge.