I Won’t Look Away

Our eyes grew wide in disbelief at the yelling, shoving crowd. We had been warned, to be fair, that our trip to the Mogamma, the towering government building in Tahrir Square, would be difficult. But this was something entirely otherworldly. We clutched our passports to our chests and braced ourselves against elbows to the ribs. Everyone there needed to get to that one plexiglass window at the front of the room. On the other side were the stamps that would allow us to stay in the country.

We came to Egypt on tourist one-month entry visas in faith that the system would work and we would be allowed to stay. We didn’t act like there was any other option when we signed a two-year lease and enrolled in Arabic classes. But we needed someone on the other side of the mob to take our papers and give us final permission. 

We tell our immigration stories fondly now from the other side. They felt like harrowing experiences while we were in the middle of them though. We hounded the guy at the Bangladeshi Embassy daily. He could have denied our visas because of a changing rule we didn’t know about. Instead, he gave us a call and a chance to make it right. Our entire life was already packed up in ten suitcases and the one-way plane tickets had been purchased. Yet he held the power to deny us entry into the new life we sought. In the end, we got the highly-coveted five-year permission that others told us they were jealous of. “How easy it was for you,” they would say. 

I’ve been an immigrant twice and I’ve served with an organization that worked in relief and development amidst one of the largest refugee crises of our time. I’ve helped bring aid to those who fled. I listened to and wrote stories so that donors would hopefully continue to help. I stood looking over the vast rolling hills of the world’s largest refugee camp and thought I knew something about the vulnerability of a transitory life. I knew nothing.

When I started listening, really listening—I realized how one-sided my knowledge was of why people leave and why people need sanctuary. For years, I volunteered in refugee resettlement in the U.S. and then with the Rohingya camps in Bangladesh. It was sitting in the living room of a Bangladeshi friend that I realized I had closed my eyes to the obstacles to entering the U.S. or other places that offer safety, the realities of immigration, and the ways we make it harder for those already in peril.

I knew our friend’s daughter went to college in the U.S. and asked about her off-handedly. Her mother’s eyes turned red and she looked away. She hadn’t seen her daughter since she left for college and didn’t know when or if she would see her again. Because of their work with the church, their lives had been repeatedly threatened. When her daughter went to the U.S. on a student visa, she claimed and was granted asylum. She could stay because she had proven she feared for her life if she returned. Immigration rules had changed and her family, however, could not get visas to visit her. 

I saw the pain of a mother separated from her daughter, maybe forever. Yet, she chose to do what was best for her child. I didn’t dare ask about her teenage son in the other room and what the future held for him.

That was a turning point for me, and I started listening more intently to what was happening inside our own borders. What were the laws that granted asylum? Who were we keeping out and why? This was about the same time caravans of migrants started showing up at our southern borders and then news erupted of family separation. The divide between two parties widened to what seemed like an abyss impossible to cross. The threats of walls seemed like an insurmountable barrier to climb.

I detest the name-calling, finger-pointing news reporting of our day. It feels like all it does is perpetuate more hate in a world that is dying without love. I can hardly stomach watching it anymore. And yet, I won’t look away. It was right in front of me for years and I still didn’t see it. How many of us are turning away because it doesn’t reach our front doorstep or because we can’t care about another issue?

My attempts feel feeble. I subscribe to a newsletter that keeps me up to date on changes in immigration policy. I join a Facebook group to learn more about what biblical welcome looks like in the face of a country divided over who to trust and who to let in. I breathe deep as I call my governor’s office and ask them to continue allowing refugees to be resettled in our state. I steady shaking hands as I type this. Will I ruffle feathers? I keep returning to the words of Jesus: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matthew 25:35). 

I have little to lose now as I had to lose that day in the Mogamma. Someone might call me a liberal. A friend might unfollow me. I am likely to say the wrong thing. I might feel uncomfortable. 

If we hadn’t gotten our visa that day, it would have made life difficult for a while. Our plans for the future would have drastically changed. We could have been forced to pack up again and return the U.S. a month after moving to Egypt. But we had a home to return to (which we did, indeed, return to within a year after some other unforeseen circumstances). We had safety, family to help us, and some savings to fall back on. 

The stories I hear weekly now in the places where I am intentionally listening remind me that most people leaving home don’t have that. They don’t have the choices or the opportunities we have. 

What does that mean to us, I wonder. 

What does that compel us to do? 

 

Nicole T. Walters

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