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Refuge

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The irony that I was coming from an Immigrants Rights March the day I met Gabriel Stauring at an educational mock refugee camp twelve years ago is not lost on me. Immigration and the plight of Refugees are intimately linked. The core of these two issues feels beyond policy and politics and more akin to the human longing for safety and belonging. Less than a year after that day, I was headed to the refugee camps on the Chad/Darfur border because, as I have witnessed in the years and with countless volunteers since, that is what happens on our little “iACT team that could.”

STACEY MARTINO


I had to take time away from a volunteer class I was sharing with women transitioning out of homelessness, and the head of the organization remarked that my work with those affected by homelessness was continuing in the camps. I quickly corrected him with a reminder that they were “refugees” in the camps not homeless. He just stared at me with a mix of compassion and humor. “You do know that refugees are homeless, right?” It was in that moment that I understood the work on the deepest heart level. The simple human needs for belonging and safety that beat beneath the heart of the big issues such as homelessness, immigration, and the plight of refugees suddenly felt so simple and clear. The word “refugees” felt so big and global and “other” to me.

When Gabriel and I arrived in Chad, it was my first time in a predominantly Muslim region. There had been many images in the media at that time in history associated with fear and otherness. I noticed my own unconscious fear of a particular way of dressing which I found both shameful and shocking. Over the next three weeks, I learned more about my own biases and ability to connect beyond my own culture than I ever could have imagined. The mothers with whom we wept and laughed and the children with whom we played each day erased any sense of otherness. The babies we held and the stories of family we shared were so similar to our own experiences at home. We spent time with a group of men, women, and children who had just escaped the violence in Darfur. They were consumed with loss, exhausted, hungry, and frightened as they waited on the ground to be processed into camp and yet they greeted us with hope, openness, and kindness. We shared a video with them of then-Senator Obama and Senator McCain promising that we in the U.S. had not forgotten them. Their eyes filled with tears and their lips formed hopeful smiles because they believed the promise of what we all long for the U.S. to be: a land of possibility and refuge and compassion. The friends we made on that long-ago trip have remained in our hearts and our lives. They have taught us about the dignity, strength, and mutuality of humanity. They were not in any way “other.” They were, and remain, fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters driven to find safety, possibility, and belonging for those they love. I cannot imagine a country, in this day and age with all we have learned, where were do not work to the best of our ability to be a place of compassion and refuge. I am proud to call the families we met there our friends eleven years later and I am humbled by the sense of strength, dignity, and belonging they so willingly shared with each of us.

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