I got a book deal!

It’s been a while since I updated this blog because I’ve been busy working on a book for Viking Books! It’s called AFTER THE LAST BORDER for now and it features the stories of two refugees, one from Myanmar just as she’s resettling in Austin and one from Syria as she becomes a refugee. Their journeys have been so profound for me to experience as a friend and bystander; I’m delighted to partner with these friends to tell these important stories. Because both of their families remain in dangerous situations, their stories will be anonymized in the book, but we will be working closely together to make sure the world hears what they endured.

Here’s the announcement in Publishers Weekly.

And here’s an actual physical copy of the magazine. Still overwhelmed at that part.

I’m so excited to partner with my amazing editor and agent in this process and look forward to sharing much more very soon!

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Eight Days with Kate

 

I met Kate Bowler at an intensive writing workshop in July 2016 at the Collegeville Workshop in Minnesota. She came the day after everyone got to the workshop; I was walking along the sidewalk and she was seated at a table and I stopped to introduce myself. I’m not even sure how it happened: within seven minutes, we had covered cancer; the time her sister astoundingly helped capture an international pedophile; the inappropriate and hilarious comment made by the brother of one of my best friends at their mother’s funeral; my friendship with Burmese refugees; our deepest feelings about academia; the fascinating world of Christian celebrities; and our comfort level with Christians who cuss (it’s high).

By that evening I was holding Kate in an extended hug, both of us crying so hard that we had to get a roll of scratchy industrial toilet paper to deal with the tears puddling under my glasses and our copious amounts of snot. It was not the pretty crying you do in front of a new friend; it was the sob-belching you do only in front of your lifelong friend who saw you in braces with skinned knees and never cares what you look like.

I haven’t made a friend that way since I was 13 at camp. Except it was not like the first days of an adolescent friendship; we had the advantage of knowing ourselves well, so that our friendship carried the heft of adults who can manage emotion, humor, and grief. And anyway, we didn’t have time for the niceties of new friendship. At the time, Kate had been given ten months to live. In July, she was nearing the end of month ten.

*****

We were at Collegeville to write books and we did. Well, Kate wrote an entire book, and I started mine. On the first few days, we gave each other space to write and checked in at night, but soon we were meeting in the afternoons and then spending the entire day together. I don’t usually like to write near people for that long for fear we’ll distract each other, but we didn’t. We became each other’s battery packs. I think, for Kate, that having another person in that space made it bearable to journey into the pain she had set out to survey.

She had written a profound New York Times article a few months earlier and after it, the hurting people of the world—thousands of them—emailed Kate directly and told her: what her piece had meant to them; how sad it is to die; how little they understood of the world; how much they had missed in their long lives; how often they had faced the truth of their existence and found it wanting.

One afternoon, I sat by her at a table in the sun while she went through those emails, organized by her friend Kori into folders. Camille was there, at the next table over, headphones on. Rosa knitted implacably in the chair next to mine.

(Rosa: when I have a hard time facing the difficult things in my own research and book, I sometimes imagine you knitting beside me. The world will be put back together again by faithful women who knit unflappably.)

We stood vigil with Kate as she waded into the infected underbelly of thousands of people’s pain. It was gross and raw and horrific. She wove those letters into Chapter 7, “Certainty.” We bore witness, those who sat beside her.

Kate’s ability to face the topography of pain and to map it for others, like a clear-eyed cartographer, is one of her great gifts to the world.

*****

Writing to me is like Gepetto in the old story of Pinocchio (older even than Disney’s version): an artisan sculpts and whittles and paints and then, miraculously, after a long time, the creation takes on a life of its own.

That was true for me that week. I played. I wrote rough words, fiddling with paragraphs before discarding them, allowing myself the luxury of rabbit holes that might lead me to new places, finding new avenues to approach my story.

That’s not what it was like for Kate.

Kate’s book stepped forth into the world like Athena marching from the mind of Zeus.

There was no time for her to dally, no meandering. She held a muscular, bracing stance as she allowed her book to come forth. It was ready. She wrote it, the entire thing from start to finish, in those eight days.

The birth of Kate’s book was searing. It’s impossible to describe if you weren’t sitting there seeing it happen in real time. The electricity spilled off into me. My body and mind were charged. I wrote with an energy I cannot hope to repeat ever again–I wrote and wrote and wrote, but I still couldn’t keep up with Kate’s pace.

Some days, I gave her energy when she needed it. And the blistering, incandescent light that must, at times, have overwhelmed Kate, cast long shadows in me. It’s not as if she were a guru, or that cancer made her a prophet of some sort–it’s that she stood at the edge of the known world and described the brilliance and the truth of what she found.

And because I’d elected to sit beside her, that light pierced me.

I searched into parts of myself I’ve long held closed, hidden even from myself. I realized how often I had lied to myself. How hard it was for me to forgive. How easily influenced I was by other people’s ideas for my life. And I saw, with compassion and grace, the good parts of myself too, the parts I sometimes underplayed, the depths of my love for other people, the small things I’d been apart of that are the most valuable to me, the way those things always had and always would be the best sides of me.

Beside Kate, I believed again, in a way I had not since I was young, in a way that maybe I never had before.

*****

By the time our workshop was done, I was so intertwined with Kate’s story, my own book so impacted by her ideas, that I could not begin to remember what book I had been writing before I met her. I continued my slow, Gepetto-like act of writing and found that my creation crackled with her energy. It would be a full year before my own book deal, and I will forever be grateful for the start I had beside Kate.

Kate’s agent sent her manuscript off and they navigated the multiple bids in an auction that ended with her brilliant editor at Random House. The whole process was unimaginably fast, the way no one’s book deal ever is, and when she called—just weeks after our time together—the news was so good. But the good news wasn’t just about Kate’s book deal. The treatments she had started combined with her “magic cancer”…well, I won’t give anything else in her book away.

I remember my response that day: “God is good. All the time.”

“Amen,” Kate said.

And then I had to pause and gulp before I could form words again. There we were, two cynical academics, crying into the phone about the goodness of the Lord.

*****

Today that book releases into the world. I texted Kate after I finished it last week that I feel like her book doula and I couldn’t be prouder if it were my own.

It’s one of my favorite books written by one of my favorite people. It’s hilarious and poignant and whip-smart and insightful and true. It’s not depressing, it’s certainly not schmaltzy, and it’s like nothing you’ve read before.

It’s not just for people with cancer or those who have loved people with cancer, though it will resonate deeply with people who’ve stood on the other side of the invisible curtain with Kate.

It’s for anyone who has come to the end of themselves or who will, at some point, have to come to terms with who they are, and what the world means.

Which means it’s really a book for us all.

*****

Here’s the link to Kate’s book, Everything Happens for a Reason, and Other Lies I’ve Loved.

 

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How NOT to Speak to the Mom of a Special Needs Kid

Ashley and I were the last hangers-on from a fun play date at a popular local playground. The restaurant by the playground is relatively cheap and delicious, so there are always a passel of parents there with kids. And it tends to attract a particularly Austin-y crowd: diverse, hippie-ish, a little granola. Ashley and I were having a good day. We each have spirited children as well as children with special needs. We’re both moms in the trenches and we like to be in the trenches together.

One of the things I love best about Ashley, that I’ve learned the most from her, is her unswerving desire to do what’s best for each of her kids. She is not a helicopter mom in all the best ways—life is hard and she’s committed to helping her children figure out how to face life head on. But that takes a lot of energy and commitment. 99.99% of the time, Ashley lives her life at high alert.

I do too; I can’t even remember what it’s like to walk into a room without scanning for the triggers that will set my kid off. That’s part of what’s refreshing about friends like this. When your kid throws a fit, these are the kinds of friends that say, “But look, that fit only lasted 3 minutes! And your kid with sensory issues just put a wet shoe on her foot like a champ! Let’s celebrate!” It’s a gift to have moms like this in the trenches with you.

We were lingering over lunch and chatting—a rare quiet moment while the kids played—and I went to go check on my little one. She was playing sweetly (a miracle!) and I was headed back to the table when another mom on the playground approached me.

“Do you know this kid’s mom?” She gestured swiftly toward Ashley’s spunky son.

“Yes, my friend Ashley over there.”

“Well, I need to talk to her.” I scooped up Ashley’s spunky son, grabbed the water bottle on the ground, and headed back.

When I got there, the conversation was already over. Here’s what Ashley heard: Your 3-year-old son was spraying water on some other kids. He made my son cry. He sprayed my shirt with water. Your son is a bully. You need to take a moment with him.

Ashley apologized and by the time I stepped up with her spunky son and water bottle in tow just seconds later, she was already gathering our stuff.

She told me what happened and I started shaking I was so angry. This woman on the playground had no idea the mountains that spunky son and unswerving mom climbed together just to arrive on the playground that morning, but I do. And to tell a mom like Ashley—devoted, on her kid’s level, intentional—to ‘take a moment’ with her kid? It was too much.

Ashley said in a text later, “Every time we step out our front door it feels as though we are a nuisance or bad parents or, much of the time, both.”

That is the feeling that I cannot explain if you are not walking in these shoes, that I didn’t expect when we adopted our kid with special needs: the utter humiliation you feel some days.

If modern-day parenting is based on intentional parents, then kids that act up are the result of bad parenting. I saw that view that with my biological daughters, the spirited ones, when people would give me advice or give me looks when they were throwing fits as small kids. But we went to whole new levels when we brought our daughter home, the one whose pain was so high the first few months she could barely function, who didn’t understand us and whose hearing loss was much more profound than we knew. Of COURSE she threw fits. I know what my kid has gone through; believe me, I would throw fits too. Her fits have nothing to do with my parenting, but my parenting is on trial in every public situation in which she responds with a natural inclination to fight the horrifying things the world has done to her.

Ashley’s son has different mountains than my daughter does, but he is a climber and a fighter and one heck of a kid. Every sentence he utters—five and six words in a ROW while he shares his feelings! Every direct look he gives—engaging in the world and making contact with the people around him! Every transition he makes—doing something he needs to even if he doesn’t want to! All of these are nothing short of a miracle. The last six months have been outstanding for this kid. He’s doing it, doing all the things he needs to.

He’s three. For heaven’s sake, he’s not a bully. He’s a courageous peanut of a fighter. He has spiky hair that would make any rock star jealous. His little body is jam-packed with energy and he knows how to use it to run fast and climb high and jump up up up.

Ashley and I packed up the kiddos and took them to the duck pond. As we walked, I saw the woman who had confronted Ashley sitting alone beside the playground. I asked Ashley if she was OK with me sitting down and visiting with that mom.

(That poor woman. She had no idea.)

I plopped myself down in the grass in front of her, hands clasped, face turned in a friendly, non—threatening way. I know this because Ashley snapped a picture of me.

 

“Hi, I’m Jessica. I just wanted to meet you and chat for a minute. Do you mind?”

Her guard was up. It was never going to go well, but I tried. I told her about our family first, how our daughter’s special needs and developmental delays mean that she can often be the source of mayhem in any situation. I told her about my friend’s spunky son and his communication skills. I agreed that no one should have water sprayed on them without their permission—of course! (Though secretly I laughed a bit—I mean, it was water. Also, it was hot. Water sounded kind of good.) I continued to push: no matter what, no 3-year-old is a bully. But in this situation, this particular tenacious, intentional mom is a great one and she missed one moment that she took care of immediately. To tell her that her son was a bully was hurtful; maybe a different choice of words in the future would help.

This woman wasn’t having it. (And let me be clear–I have a lot of compassion for her too. I have no idea what she was facing that day as well.) But her son was crying, her shirt was wet, and therefore, that spunky son was a bully. And then she said the clencher, the line that made me get up and walk away abruptly: “If her kid has special needs, then that mom needs to do even more—she needs to watch him all the time.”

I can’t even remember what I said, something like, “This isn’t going to end well. Thanks for your time.”

But I cannot, and I will not, agree with that statement.

***

We literally had a checklist of special needs before we adopted our daughter. When I told one of my friends whose daughter had severe medical issues in her early years, she laughingly asked, “Where was my checklist?”

I mention the checklist to say, we came into this kind of parenting with our eyes wide open. Our daughter’s most critical issues to this day are not her special needs but the lack of a parent in her life for three years. We don’t know what healing looks like, but we are committed to this path.

(And the checklist was a way for adoption agencies to make sure parents have thought everything through well in advance; it’s a questionable tool—I can both defend and condemn the checklist—but I’m a fan of adoptive parents having access to information in advance because this road is hard enough.)

I have several friends in my life who have never had a choice in their path. This was not what they thought their lives would look like. But they get up every day and turn themselves inside out for their kids. They research conditions and interview therapists and become experts for their kids. They advocate and advocate and advocate.

It is exhausting, the part of it that is mine, more exhausting than I could ever have known. But I watch the women and men in the trenches with me, some of whom will spend their entire lives advocating for kids, and I admire them more than I can say.

They watch and help and listen to and communicate with their kids with every fiber of their being all day, all the time. There is no down time. There is only go.

These kids are not objects of pity nor are they moral lessons for typical folks. They’re people. In Ashley’s and my case, they’re very small, very adorable people. And while some people get up, put their clothes on and walk out the door, our little people get up and face a bewildering set of obstacles between their bed and the door or between the door and the rest of the world. The obstacles might be emotional—losing everything before the age of three is not something you ever get past. The obstacles might be sensory-related—raspy fabric and loud noises and bright lights trigger some of these little ones beyond their capacity to cope. The obstacles might be physical—moving your body in the right direction is hard, staying on task is hard, not being distracted is hard, all harder for some people than others.

I can’t tell you all the obstacles my girls climbs every day, or the ones faced by Ashley’s spunky son, but I will tell you—a mother who stays on the mountain with her kid, who teaches him how to face the thousands of obstacles typical kids don’t face, deserves better than being told how to parent her kid.

She deserves a friend who sits down with a woman and gently corrects the label from ‘bully’ to ‘child.’

She deserves to know that her children are not a problem but a cause for celebration, that their hard work is paying off, that they are perfect exactly the way they are, and that even if they occasionally throw water on a playground, they’re still pretty great.

And occasionally, she deserves a stiff drink and a massage.

***

If you are around a mom whose kid climbed a mountain of obstacles to walk out the door, never give her advice (unless she asks and you know what you’re talking about). NEVER label her baby a bully (in fact, in my opinion, bullying is not a term for the preschool set).

You tell your friend she’s the queen of the world. Give her kids fist bumps if they’re up for it. Praise their fantastic behavior—even breathing in an even-keel is a big deal some days. Bring her coffee and chocolate and delicious snacks. Plan play dates and yes, sometimes, confront the other moms on the playground who don’t get what she is dealing with on a daily basis. I’m not saying it’s easy; I could never have had that conversation on my behalf.

But for my fabulous friend whose parenting is the standard I strive to follow? It was easy. The world needs to know the kind of mom Ashley is, what I learn from her, what she has to teach others. And on the off chance that another person has the gall to assume she knows what kind of parenting tools Ashley and other moms like her need to use, well, someone needs to let them know what’s what, kindly but firmly.

Refugees 101

Because of my experiences working with refugees, and the fact that I keep ranting with love on social media, several people have asked me questions that I thought I might best bring together in one post.

To the best of my ability, I’ve linked to neutral and/or reputable sites to back up my statements below. This is an opinion piece, but my opinions are based on years of loving and learning from refugees. If you want to know more about an issue or disagree with me on something or want to continue the discussion with links of your own, leave a comment below. I’ll probably keep adding to this post with time as new issues come up, but these are the big ones I keep hearing about.

WHY SHOULD WE SUPPORT REFUGEES?

Because there are 65+ million displaced people in the world, 51% of whom are children. The humanitarian crisis is worse than it has even been in recorded history.

(For more information, you can Google the wars in the regions where refugees are being created every day. I can’t bear to do any more of that research than I’m already doing, but it’s readily available. The BBC always has good overviews of political upheaval; their Syrian coverage is outstanding.)

BUT WHY SHOULD THE UNITED STATES RESETTLE REFUGEES?

Because our  country promised in 1948, 1951, 1980, and every year since that we would support refugees who can prove that to return to their home country means losing their basic human rights.

  • In 1948, after World War II, the United States and several other countries signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which said that all people in the world have basic human rights because we are all “members of the human family.” That core belief is the basis for refugee resettlement.
  • Three years later, the US signed the 1951 Refugee Convention, which states we will help protect people whose rights were threatened; we agreed as a country we would take in people who fit the definition of the word ‘refugee.’
  • That convention defined refugees as people who would be persecuted or killed because of their “race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.” These are people who will literally die if they go home.
  • In 1980, Congress passed a refugee act creating the Federal Refugee Resettlement Program (FRRP), which creates a permanent way to bring over refugees of “special humanitarian concern.” This should be a humanitarian issue, not a partisan one.

On the off chance that there MIGHT be one terrorist out of thousands, we are denying entry to thousands of people who have DEFINITELY lost their basic human rights in their home country under a regime which systematically targets its own citizens.

And by turning refugees away, we are breaking our national commitment.

WHAT ARE THE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN ASYLUM-SEEKERS, ECONOMIC MIGRANTS, AND REFUGEES?

This vetting process by UNHCR and other agencies separates the refugees who are offered resettlement in the United States and other countries from asylum-seekers and economic migrants. We cannot confuse the tension about economic migration with the debate raging right now about people coming to the US through the Federal Refugee Resettlement Program.

BUT I KEEP HEARING THAT TERRORISTS ARE POURING INTO OUR COUNTRY AS REFUGEES. IS THAT TRUE?

No. Well, I guess no one can say NO for sure, and honestly, I’m a little tired of trying to pretend like we can since no one has (as far as I know) invented a Truth-O-Meter where we can tell what everyone’s intentions are. But the chances are so slim they’re laughable.

In fact, there are all kinds of figures to show how slim that chance is: Despite the fact that safety is the number one reason given by people who support Trump’s Executive Order, you’re significantly more likely to be struck by lightning, shot by a gun-wielding toddler, die by vending machine, or be killed by a lawn mower, than to be hurt by a refugee. If that’s not enough, through his racist language and blunt foreign policy against Muslims, Trump is making us more susceptible to attack by terrorists, as well as putting our troops in the Middle East at increased risk.

Also, it’s so much easier for terrorists to come over as tourists or students that no terrorist would begin to come to the US through the Syrian refugee resettlement program (This has been written about so much, I’m not even going to bother to link to every article–Google “Are refugees terrorists?” and read the first 200 articles are so, while considering your sources.)

I know I just said this a minute ago, but I’m going to say it again anyway: On the off chance that there MIGHT be one terrorist out of thousands, we are denying entry to thousands of people who have DEFINITELY lost their basic human rights in their home country under a regime which systematically targets its own citizens.

A reminder about who refugees actually are: According to figures I received from SARA, half of the Syrian refugees recently resettled in Austin have disabilities or other major health issues. And they are mostly families: 64% of the total Syrian refugees in Austin are children. They meet the US criteria for “special humanitarian concerns.”

In summary: We do not need a sledgehammer of an executive order to keep out refugees who have already met the requirements in the 2-year-long, extensive vetting process, many of whom are the most vulnerable of the most vulnerable people caught in the largest humanitarian crisis in history. 

 

 

Notes on Nadia

If you haven’t been following me on Facebook or Twitter this week, you may have missed my as-told-to piece with ‘Nadia Al Moualem’ for Vox.com. I wrote the story following an interview that lasted for several hours with Nadia and her family in early December (the names ‘Nadia and Mohamad Al Moualem’ are pseudonyms–the family has every reason to be afraid for their own safety, as well as their kids’ and grandkids’ in refugee camps in various countries near Syria.)

I left Nadia’s home feeling physically sick, which as far as I can remember has never happened in all of the years I’ve known, been friends with, and interviewed refugees.

I was in Nadia’s apartment with a friend, a translator who wants to remain nameless; he has stepped into the enormous whole left by the loss of this family’s older children.

Because he trusts me, they trusted me.

Within minutes of meeting, Nadia and I were gazing eye to eye in one of the most intense interviews I’ve ever experienced. I could see the quick way that Nadia’s mind worked, her impatience with ridiculous questions, the deep grief that rides just beneath the surface of her life every day.

She spoke about her lovely home back in Syria, the way she planted jasmine around the courtyard so it would fill the air when they ate dinner in the evenings; I pictured my own lovely home, about the same size, full of the memories of my daughters planting vegetables in our garden, our large family coming over to eat and play.

She spoke about her neighborhood in Daraa and I saw my own generous, warm neighbors who stand in the street and chat while our children play.

She talked about her children and I saw my own girls, growing into strong women like Nadia’s second daughter who studied religious studies and planned to use her education in a career that was just beginning.

And then “the event” happened. When Nadia and Mohamad spoke, they kept saying, “the event.” I asked our translator what “the event” was and they taught me the Arabic word: “thawra” (ثورة).

Revolution.

It was the revolution that swept through with chaotic maliciousness and took all of it, the life they had lived and the place they had been and the country they have loved for generations, as far back as anyone’s ancestors could remember.

They told me war story after war story, details of which I have researched and confirmed and dug into for weeks, but I cannot bring myself to say the words today. (My ability to turn away from the destruction of their country is a luxury I get by being born in a time of peace in a rich country where my skin and religion are in the majority. I feel that privilege deeply, but I also know that I have to pace myself these days.)

Nadia said several times, “There is no Syria. It is only war.”

***

I wrote about the war in Nadia’s voice because I wanted to capture the raw emotion I felt listening to her tell the story and because it was the only way I could get the words to come.

But I want to be clear: She did not, as many people keep saying, need me to give her a voice because she is voiceless.

Nadia Al Moualem has a voice. It is a lovely contralto voice. There is steel in her voice—it is the voice of a woman who stood in front of a solder and told him that if he killed her son, she would kill him (“Did you have a gun?” I asked. She looked at me with tender impatience, “Of course not. But still, I would have killed him. I would have done anything to protect my son.”)

Nadia’s voice is the persistent, competent voice of the matriarch who is confident you are turning down more cake only to be polite and she will not accept that, not in her house. I drank a cup of tea, three cups of coffee, and a bottle of water while we talked. I ate a gigantic piece of tres leches cake topped with hand-chopped pistachios; she bought the cake at HEB and decided pistachios would make it better (she was right). I tried to put my fork down several times and she would stop talking to gesture at the cake; I force fed myself at the end. At several points in my recording of our interview, I could hear the steady rhythm of her knife on cheap ceramic chopping up bananas which she slipped unbidden onto my plate. There were heaping plates of strawberries, grapes, and bananas. The coffee was so rich I could have left my spoon upright in the cup—in other words, perfect.

War has not dulled Nadia’s love of a well-laid table, even if that table is no longer the long one where her children gathered, but instead an inexpensive square coffee table hiding dingy carpet in an anonymous apartment in Austin, Texas.

Nadia’s voice broke only when she described her children and grandchildren. Again, I saw my own babies in the pictures she showed me on her phone: the spiky haired granddaughter with the chipmunk cheeks made me remember what it felt to hold my own middle daughter at that age. I felt again the spidery tickle of her pigtails on my cheeks while I tied her shoes. I remembered kissing those full cheeks after her bath, the smell of lavender baby lotion clinging to the folds of her neck.

Nadia poured her story into me while she talked.

That day, along with the cake and coffee and tea, I ingested whole every detail Nadia told me. I stuffed the details into every available part of my head and heart. I was full with it. I dreamed about it that night, the missile bursting into my house while my own husband slept, my own children scattered around the country, my own raw sobbing-desperation to have my babies around me again.

I couldn’t find any distance. I couldn’t figure out how to write about it. Normally I write quickly, the result of years of crafting graduate school papers during babies’ naptimes and short preschool days.

But this time I could not. For weeks I could not. I tried to describe myself walking in the apartment—how it felt, what I saw—but I collapsed under the weight of this story every time.

Nadia’s story clung heavily to my arms and legs. It blocked my mouth so that the words could not come.

Finally, in desperation, I just started typing what she told me, transcribing the recording more than writing. I edited it for clarity, but it’s her voice, through translation, from our interview. It came out, all at once, one morning in January.

I did not give Nadia a voice, I carried her voice inside of me with all of its fire and energy and force.

It is an intimacy I’ve never really shared with another person, a sense of letting her sit inside my skin and use my hands, use my English, use my connections, to tell the world what happened to her.

I’m not sure if that experience can or will ever happen again.

All I know after weeks of listening to that interview over and over until I have it all but memorized, after looking into her hazel eyes while she spoke, after witnessing the love she shares with her husband and the only daughter who is left, is this—Nadia and her family are not a political issue. They are people. She is a mother like I am a mother. She is the kind of fierce woman I want to be.

Her daughter and granddaughters are worthy of jobs where they will thrive and homes where they can put down roots. Her sons and grandsons are not frightening terrorists, they are good providers and tender fathers who only want to find a place where they and their families can be safe.

They are the victims of a brutal war by their own government, the victims of anti-Syrian rage in the countries where they jostle with millions of other asylum-seekers for any scrap to feed their families, and now the victims of an executive order that targets them because they are Syrian, because they are Muslim.

Nadia Al Moualem does not need me to give her a voice, she needs the world to stop and listen to her rich voice speak about happened to her and what’s at stake now.

The refugee debate has raged around us, a ceiling of noise, and I remain seated in that living room, one Christian woman from the US listening to four Muslims from Syria. We drink coffee and eat cake and look at pictures. And I think—if only people could sit with me, if only they could hear Nadia, if only they could feel that palpable love and determination and grit in the lilting rise of her strong, strong voice, everything would change.

Everything would change.

***

Many of you have been asking how to help. In addition to supporting SARA (which is helping to pay for the Al Moualems’ rent right now), I wanted to give you a chance to communicate directly with the Al Moualem family.

Leave notes in the comments below or on my Facebook page for Nadia and Mohamad Al Moualem under the status update for this post (you can private message me as well—I’ll see that it gets to the right place). I’m going to gather them into a scrapbook to give Nadia, along with the story I wrote with her, in the weeks to come.

The Al Moualem family and the other Syrian refugees in Austin have been floored by your support this week. Keep it up. They need to know that in this moment of extreme grief—the knowledge that the indefinite ban on Syrian refugees means her family cannot and will not be able to come over, maybe ever—they have people who love and stand with them.

Thank you.

Team Reasonable Roundup #1

It’s been a week since our new president took office. The sheer pace of this last week exhausts me. The number of things that are threatened are so varied, so concerning, I’m not even sure where to start.

I’m someone who has friends from a variety of backgrounds; I’m always intrigued by people who are different from me. I’m going to write more about that next week, but one of the things I’ve realized in that time is that there are reasonable people everywhere.

We’re letting the extreme voices win right now and frankly, I’m tired of it and deeply concerned about it. I’m so done with Republicans and Democrats whom I love being cast by other people as evil, malicious, amoral, or unhealthy. To be honest, I think one of there reasons we got here as a country is because we spend too much time in our own tribes without listening to people whose opinions, beliefs, experiences, and politics differ from our own (I’m going to explore this in the weeks to come, so I’m just going to leave that large statement there for now and move on).

But I’m moving forward on the assumption that there are good people everywhere and that, even if things are about to get much worse, Team Reasonable will triumph eventually.

Today I’m launching the first Team Reasonable Roundup. On Fridays, I want to highlight people whose reasonable voices helped me to think more deeply about a topic or who spoke truth to power in an important, thoughtful way. Some of these are strangers and some of them are people I know. I think it’s helpful to identify personal moments too–not only is the political personal, but I think the small conversations and discussions over lunch or in the school pickup line or at the grocery store will be where things really change for our country.

Here they are, the winners of Team Reasonable this week:

  1. The #NeverTrump Republicans in my life. I have several friends who work in the Texas government; they are fiscally conservative, avidly in favor of state’s rights, devoutly Christian. They are deeply concerned right now with the direction of their party both in our state and in our country. They are doing everything they can in subversive ways to alter the direction–theirs are the voices that can get behind the closed doors and argue vehemently against the most extreme positions, whether it be on women’s health care, education, immigration, or refugee resettlement. They are not winning right now, but they are digging in and looking for opportunities to turn heads. I am placing most of my money on them–they are smart, determined, perceptive, nuanced, and very, very reasonable. I wish I could name them publicly, but they are like secret spies for Team Reasonable right now, so I’m only going to tell them: you are fighting the good fight and we are cheering you on. In fact, you might be our only hope. Keep it up. Come over for wine and maybe a nap when you need it. (And if you know Republicans in the government right now who are members of Team Reasonable, send them flowers and chocolate and maybe a massage–we need them more now than ever.)
  2. The Alt accounts on Twitter: Twitter, which seemed to be waning in popularity for awhile, is suddenly the site of all of our political battles (this concerns me more than almost anything now–140 characters allows for fun haikus and punchy rants, but zero nuance–Sad!). But as the president limits the official communication from government agencies, a fascinating group of alt accounts have cropped up on Twitter. There was Badlands National Park, the bad boy of park tweeters who sent out climate change facts before the account was shut down. Rogue NASA is amazing; even George Takei likes it. The most concerning has to be White House Leaks, the anonymous, brave Republican who is keeping the world posted on what is actually going on in there. There are too many to name, but keep it up, rogue tweeters! There are no alternatives to truth!
  3. The Marchers. I had the loveliest day I’ve had in awhile last Saturday at the Women’s March. We were thoughtfully determined. We felt joy while we walked. We found joy in each other. My big girls who went with me had never been so encouraged by total strangers; they thought it was a ticker tape parade just for them. I was deeply grateful to have experienced that day–so much humor, so much love, so many delightful people all united against hatred and misogyny and racism and unreasonableness. Now I can imagine all of us, back in our lives and in our situations, doing our part to turn the tide. It helps when I get worried about our lives. And I know that several people in my own life do not see the marchers as reasonable, but I will point out that millions of people gathered in peaceful protests against policies we disagree with and had no major incidents of violence or mayhem. We stood next to people with whom we don’t see eye to eye in many cases and yet we were able to overcome our differences in service to our larger concerns. If that’s not reasonable, I don’t know what is.
  4. Dan Rather: I crave Dan Rather’s take on our lives right now. While I’m flustered and stunned by the speed with which the government is moving on so many issues, Dan Rather’s Facebook feed for News and Guts (I hate that title, but there you are) has been one of the sources I’ve turned to to make sense of everything. Rather’s experiences give the kind of insider perspective I want–he’s interviewed presidents, he’s known these people–but he’s also able to do big picture work quickly. He’s the newscaster of the resistance and I’m so appreciative for his take.
  5. Madeleine Albright, former refugee: I’ve always loved the former Secretary of State but did not realize she fled the Czech Republic as a child. Her Facebook post about what it means to be a refugee did such a marvelous job of outlining the issues and identifying who “these people” are (clue: most of our grandparents and ancestors and many of us, in this nation of immigrants and refugees). Albright did a great job this week of laying it out and I wish more than anything else we had voices like hers near our president.

I’ll be taking nominations all week for next Friday’s Team Reasonable Roundup: Tweet me suggestions at @jessica_goudeau, write them on my Facebook page, or leave a comment on this post.

You Are a Syrian Refugee

You grew up in the city of Daraa, where everyone knows everyone. You and your wife moved in a few blocks away from your parents after the first baby was born. During the day, your mom helped with your son and the tiny scrap of a daughter who came next.

As a Sunni Muslim in a country where all the good jobs go to the Alawites, you didn’t expect to work in your field after graduating with a degree in electrical engineering. You started working as a manager at your father’s large plumbing company; you weren’t willing to pay a bribe for an engineering job. Still, it’s not bad.

Most evenings, you and your wife went over to your parents’ house after work for dinner. Your little sister hung strings of twinkly lights over the long table in your parents’ courtyard. The whole family gathered outside to eat, the lights blending in with the stars.

You would hold your baby daughter and watch everyone talking and laughing. There was nothing else you could ever want.

***

It’s spring 2011 and you’re leaving the Omari Mosque on a Friday night with your dad and your brothers like you have since you were a boy; it felt good to pray with them. When you get outside, you see the streets full of people. You wonder what is going on, but don’t join in.

Over the next few days, everything falls apart.

The men outside the mosque are protesting the government forces who came and arrested a group of little kids. You aren’t sure you believe the rumors—they were little boys, after all. Maybe it’s a mistake.

The protests get worse. You stay away because you have babies, but your friends go.

And then the rumors spike—government forces are shooting people in the suburbs.

Your best friend calls. He’s talking too fast and you can tell he’s nervous: We’re headed to the mosque to pray, want to come?

No, you say. Be safe.

It’s the last time you talk to him.

He was in the Omari Mosque when government forces came in with gas canisters and live ammunition and killed 40 of their men, gathered peacefully in a place of prayer. Two years later, they would destroy the whole mosque.

That day, your best friend—the one you used to climb trees with in the empty lot by your houses—was one of the first ones to die.

***

The following months are so painful, so jarring, they’re disconnected images in your mind:

Standing with your fathers and brothers in the courtyard of the police headquarters with the men of Daraa. Everyone’s hands behind their backs. Soldiers screaming. Your sister’s cousin is there: A soldier asks him a question and you can’t hear the answer, but you see the soldier push a gun to the side of his head, shove him to the ground, and shoot him.

hamza

A little boy named Hamza who is arrested at one of the protests. One of the plumbers at your father’s company is Hamza’s uncle; he calls you to tell you he won’t be coming to work because they got Hamza’s body back. Later, you see the pictures: Hamza’s apple cheeks covered in bruises, his fresh-combed hair matted with his own blood from the torture by Syrian secret police.

Soldiers bursting into your parents’ house while everyone is gathered at dinner. They don’t even speak. They rip through mattresses and dig in drawers until they find all of the gold and valuables they can.

Your younger brother—the one with the wicked humor who always has a girlfriend on the side—arrested outside his school. In the weeks he is gone, your mother shrinks into herself. He comes home eventually, but he doesn’t want to talk about it.

Your mother can’t stop jumping at every noise.

You and your wife begin talking to your dad about leaving.

***

The government starts using missiles on their own citizens; they put the missile launcher on the soccer field to reach more places in the city.

Your dad had a competitor for his plumbing business, an Alawite man whose business was shoddy. He hated your dad for years.

Somehow he landed a missile tracker.

The trackers were tiny, the size of your thumb.

You were out on a job when you got the call—your wife was hysterical, you couldn’t understand her, the connection was bad.

By the time you showed up at your parents’ house, it was a massive crater. Your brother was surrounded by your neighbors holding towels to his arms. Your father was being strapped into a stretcher, unconscious.

They are taking them to Jordan, your wife says. I’m sorry about your sister.

You can’t make sense of her words.

She’s gone, your wife says over and over, clutching both babies in her arms. Gone.

Your baby sister with the twinkly lights, not much older than your own son, so well-loved she was always a little spoiled.

Shattered out of the world in her pink ruffled bed because your father’s business competitor got hold of a missile tracker.

***

You run back to your house to pack a bag, but you grab all the wrong things—your son’s favorite truck but no underwear for anyone. You cross through all of the checkpoints—hours’ worth—and find your father and younger brother at the hospital in Jordan.

At some point, you realize your other sister, the next youngest down from you, is still in Syria with her new husband and young son.

***

The days turn into weeks and then months and then years. The Syrian government moves methodically through cities: Daraa, Madaya, Aleppo.

Al-Assad uses chemical warfare on your people in addition to ammunition and missiles. No one comes. No one cares.

There are millions and millions of refugees now. There are no jobs; you had an apartment in Jordan for awhile and your whole extended family—used to your parents’ spacious home, their own houses—lived in three tiny rooms. But the money runs out.

Eventually, you have no option but the camp outside of town.

The separation feels inevitable. Your brother hears things are better in Greece. No one has heard from your sister in Syria, much less your aunts and uncles and cousins and friends still left in the shell of a city that used to be your hometown.

UNHCR approaches your parents and asks them if they want to resettle in the US. Your father’s injuries make him a good candidate. They interview your parents and your next-to-youngest sister—now the baby of the family—again and again for months. UNHCR tells them: If you come, you can bring your children and grandchildren over. It’s called Family Reunification. It’ll take some time, but you can be together again.

Your mother, who has been trying to make the tent floor feel like the long table where she used to preside, clings to that idea. Your father tells you without looking at you that there is no spot for you right now–you are an engineer-turned-plumber who lived by the book and took care of his family, but you cannot prove that you are not a terrorist. The ridiculousness of it wakes you up at night.

Resettlement is the only option any of you can think of; they will go and you will come next.

Your mother cannot keep her hands off her grand babies; she cups your daughter’s toddler cheeks as she chatters.

When the time comes for your parents to go the US, people five tents away can hear your mother wailing. You and your father are not ashamed to cry too.

Go, you tell them. Find us a home. Bring us over.

You hug your sister so tightly when she goes that you are both out of breath.

We’ll see them soon, you tell your wife when you go back to the tent. It won’t be long. You kiss your daughter’s forehead.

The words are sand in your mouth.

***

This fictionalization is based on interviews I conducted with Syrian refugees and others for the book I’m writing about refugees in the throes of resettlement; details have been changed, but the major events in the city of Daraa actually occurred. To support Syrian refugees in Austin, go to saraorg.org and click ‘donate.’ All of the proceeds from SARA go directly to paying for rent, bills, cars, furniture, and other immediate needs.