When Politics are Personal: Joining Strong Beautiful People through Challenging Life Transitions

I recently wrote a post about how politics scare me, but, as a language and culture teacher, a language and culture learner, a mom, a cross-cultural neighbor, and a daughter of immigrants, I mustered up a small amount of courage to share some of my perspective on immigrants and refugee issues.  I’m not trying to take a strong political stance, but I do love the people on my path and the relationships that have enriched my life.


I’ve learned that issues become much less political as they become more personal–when issues have names, faces, stories, and favorite foods.

5 observations about strong people and challenging life transitions:

  1. Leaving home is just plain hard.  My little family of 5 recently relocated after 17 years in our beloved town of Dearborn, MI.  Same language.  Same country.  No emergency. But it was SOOO HARD. Even now my heart tears and my eyes tear up for what we left behind.  Whenever things get challenging in this transition, I think of my brave Syrian Kurdish refugee friend who has relocated with her family 3 times, navigating in 4 languages–Arabic, Kurdish, Turkish, and English, with at least 2 distinct scripts to learn.  Have you ever tried to read the electric bill in a new language–deciphering the issue date, the due date, and the past due date?  Would you be able to tell the difference between tricky junk mail and important official letters written in a script that is oriented in the opposite direction than you’re used to?fullsizeoutput_28cf.jpeg
  2. We all need a little help at times in order to succeed.  In our cross-country move there were countless people who came alongside us in different ways–with food, with gentle reminders about change-of-address forms, with time and muscle to help us carry stuff.  We put our all into our move.  We calculated it for years.  But regardless, it was just bigger than us.

I will never forget the faces of those who have shown up in my difficult times and transitions of life.  Those people have a special place in my life journey.  Have you ever had the privilege of walking alongside someone in their unique ICU experience?  My secret honors include explaining to my English Language class full of moms the important distinction between the Spanish word molestar, which means to bother, and the English word molest, a very different meaning than bother (especially when Google translate has led them astray).  And I’ll forever cherish the joy of being one Muslim friend’s first experience in an American woman’s home.


3. It takes courage and intentionality to show up, everyday.  I have a rule that I have applied as a mom, teacher, and learning coach: when it comes to helping others learn something new, I will only work as hard as they do.  Granted, part of my job is to teach motivation, but if a toddler learning to clean up, puts away two toys, then so will I.  If she puts away 10, I’ll show up for 10.  Fifteen women who show up for my English Language class two mornings a week.  It’s free for them to attend.  Some show up with a baby or two in tow.  Some work 12-hour shifts at Walmart on the loading dock and show up to class sporadically. I have one student who shows up with a smile, a pencil, and a notebook–even though she doesn’t know how to read or write in any language.  They show up with gratitude and grit, ready to take on their new world.  It is my great privilege to show up with them in some small way.


4. My refugee and immigrant friends want the same things I want.  Most of the beautiful people on my path are other women and moms like me.  They want good, safe, happy lives for their children.  They want to contribute to their community.  They want to pay their bills and take good care of their families.  They get emotional around special holidays away from special relatives.  There is always a little bit of grief in their joy when a baby is born who may never get to meet their grandparents or uncles or cousins.  I’m amazed at the simple yet heartfelt constructions my very beginning students communicate with their limited English.  I know that they have experienced loss, that they long for their mothers’ cooking, and that they struggle with their kids spending too much time on their devices.  I have so much respect for their courage and humility to succeed in a new and strange environment. They inspire me daily to dare greatly.

fullsizeoutput_9e05. Families strategize for success.  While I mostly spend time with women, I know that families are doing their best together.  I believe wholeheartedly that my husband deserves his own diploma when I graduated with my MA after 5 1/2 years of intensive studying and juggling.  He showed up with me and for me.  I am also keenly aware that for every married mom who shows up to learn English in my class, there are noble husbands who work tirelessly at blue collar jobs with limited English skills so that their wives can learn English, navigate the needs of their households, and maybe even plan for college.img_4690.jpgMy current adult ESL class is in an elementary school cafeteria.  It’s chaotic and interruptible.  Kids, teachers, administrators, and lunch room staff are always passing through. But we have rules–we ask great questions and we build community together.  We share music and we laugh hard–especially when Lulu is present, because every class needs a class clown.  My life is forever enriched.  I know what it is to sip yerba mate through a special straw, and savor Yemeni sabayah.  And though I have yet to try mofongo, I can’t wait to share my spanakopita recipe with my students.  I love being a part of their safe place–to learn, to take risks, to make mistakes and to grow.  They are courageous and beautiful women.  They show up.  And all our lives are richer for it.IMG_6318




Fasting and Feasting: Looking in on Ramadan

Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. (From the Tawrah)

Last month, my husband and I joined our good friends at a beautiful Islamic wedding reception. He went with the men, and I with the women. It was an incredible celebration of dancing, drums, exquisite dresses, and incredible cuisine. It was a time to usher in something new and something beautiful—the union of a husband and wife in their new life together. I admired the abundant display of fruit platters and little cakes and cannolis that donned the back table. They were a vision of sweet, delicious things to IMG_1711come. And though I didn’t understand much of the Arabic conversations going on amongst the ladies at my table, I understood the topic of Ramadan on the lips of many. It seemed as though everyone was anticipating this month of fasting and all that it entails.

Growing up in a Greek Orthodox Christian home, my family practiced 40 days of Lent—a vegan diet, abstaining from meat, dairy and other animal products, in anticipation for the celebration of Easter. Easter is the focal point of the Christian calendar. It is a time to celebrate new life, new hope, redemption, and forgiveness as we 2010 04 04 Easter – Version 2reflect on the path of suffering and victory of Jesus the Messiah. The joy of Easter is intertwined with the fasting that comes before it. As a child, my favorite Easter treats were little chocolate eggs in a colored
candy shell. I remember trying to sneak around the kitchen to curb my chocolate craving during Lent, leading up to a grand resurrection celebration. Then, on the Saturday evening before Easter, we would dress in our best celebratory garb and attend worship services long past midnight. All I could think about was arriving home to feast on all the delicacies and choice foods we had abstained from for forty days. How sweet those treats tasted after waiting so long to eat them!

The guests abstained from celebrating until the bride and groom showed up.

When I lived on my own, away from the community aspect of this Greek Orthodox Lenten practice, I realized quickly that the little chocolate eggs didn’t taste as delectable as they did when I had abstained from them and anticipated them for 40 days. There is a time for fasting and a time for celebrating. Both are important. Jesus the Messiah used the example of a wedding feast when he described fasting to his followers. He explained that when the bridegroom enters the wedding, this is a time for celebrating. How true it was at the wedding we attended last month. We eagerly anticipated the arrival of the bride and groom. We all abstained from celebrating until they showed up.

Fasting brings to the surface our inner reality.  S. Sohaib

Sometimes I fast privately, abstaining from all food and drink, day and night, for a specified amount of time, in order to focus on prayer and listening to God. The growls in my stomach are a reminder to pray. Fasting forces me to depend on God, even before food. After all, Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. Fasting teaches me to listen more carefully to the words of God. Fasting is both a spiritual discipline and a physical detox. It is a time to rid our bodies of unhealthy toxins and also expose the dark places in our spirits. According to Qur’an scholar Sohaib Saeed of the Bayyinah Institute, “fasting brings to the surface our inner reality.” This is so true. When we are weak, our true nature comes out.

Version 2I have studied other languages prior to Arabic, and it never occurred to me before to learn the vocabulary to talk about fasting. But in Arabic, and among my Muslim neighbors, fasting is an important topic of conversation. Living in a primarily Muslim community for the last 15 years, I have learned other valuable lessons on fasting. I appreciate the power and joy of fasting in community and breaking fast in community. My family anticipates the month of Ramadan, and not just because we are on the receiving end of the mandate to generously share with one’s neighbors. We, as part of a Muslim community, are impacted greatly by the month of fasting at our kids’ school, at the local places of business, and among friends. During this month, I am grateful to live in a community that pushes me to teach my children about this spiritual discipline at an early age. I love that kids have discussions about fasting on the playground!

Set aside a time to seek God, to embrace our weakness, and to anticipate the sweet celebrating that follows.

Whether fasting is for 30 days, breaking fast each evening, or whether it is for three days and nights straight, or a restricted diet for 40 days, what matters is the spiritual lessons that come from it: to set aside a time to seek God, to embrace our weakness, and to anticipate our breaking of fast, and the sweet celebrating that follows—like when the bride and groom show up to the wedding feast!

Published in the Yemeni American News, June 2017


An Unintended “We”

We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility… promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity… 

Preamble to the Constitution of the United States

I can usually spot negative and hate speech coming from one group against another by the signature word they. “They don’t belong here.” “They do things differently.” “Why do they ________ like that?”

For Spring Break my Greek Immigrant parents came from sunny Colorado to visit my home in soggy Michigan. They did all the fun spoiling that any Yiayia and Papou would do with their grandkids. Amidst all the excitement, I invited my parents to come with me to spend some time with Zuzu, my Kurdish-Syrian New American friend. I had met her last October, at a free community event sponsored by Sabeel Media at the local library, discussing the responsibility of the media to share the experiences and needs of refugees. That event inspired me to scooch over, and make a little room in my life for the refugee crisis that faces us all as human beings.  I am regularly challenged by the command of Jesus the Messiah to love God with all my heart, soul, mind and strength; and to love my neighbors as myself. I have been visiting with Zuzu weekly for the last six months and she has taught me so much about friendship and hardship and Arabic and Kurdish. In turn, I have taught her about American systems, and phone systems, and English words. She calls me her teacher, but I call her my friend. Through it all we have become tied to each other.

There is so much political rhetoric for and against the topic of refugees, but to actually sit and sip tea with a neighbor who happens to be one seemed like a novel idea.

My parents were eager to meet Zuzu and her family. There is so much political rhetoric for and against the topic of refugees, but to actually sit and sip tea with a neighbor who happens to fit that category seemed like an interesting and novel idea. Before our visit, I prepped my parents on who to shake hands with or not shake hands with, where to put shoes, and how to sit on low couches—even with my dad’s recently replaced knees.fullsizeoutput_cc5

Zuzu warmly opened her modest upper flat to my parents and my three kids on a rainy March afternoon. We sipped little cups of rich black tea with as much sugar as my kids wanted. We touched on topics of politics, dictators, and dialects as we observed Kurdish television rattling on in the background. We shared a lot in common. Our little visit brought back some nostalgic memories for my mom, of the way visits used to be for her as a child growing up in a Greek immigrant community, where people shared simple but special moments together in each other’s homes. And the TV rattling in the background was normal for my dad—only his gets all the best Greek news stations.

Version 3There was a pause in our conversation, which gave Zuzu a moment to form a question in English. She asked my father if he left Greece because he was a refugee. He shook his head “No,” but then proceeded to explain in short sentences that his Greek village was ravaged in World War II, and that his parents were killed. Years later, he immigrated to the U.S. in search of a better life. The look on Zuzu’s face was full of compassion and understanding as she responded to the look of great loss on my dad’s face. Different generations. Different countries. Different wars. Different dictators. But for a moment, Zuzu and my dad were ushered into the same horrible club of loss, tragedy and destruction by war. It’s a large club that no one wants to join, but many are forced into its membership. As I sat and observed this unintended “we” moment between my father and Zuzu, I said a silent prayer for her young children. I am a product of my dad’s hope for a better life in a new land. Maybe our family gives Zuzu perspective on what things might look like for her young children as they grow up to call this new land their home. At least for now. I know deep down, Zuzu really hopes to take her children back to her home country of Syria in better times, Inshallah, God-willing.

As we said our good-byes, I thanked God for this incredible moment to share with my family and my friend. We were blessed. We enjoyed each other’s company. Our human hearts beat the same, and by unintended circumstances, we had more in common than we imagined. We, the people, who long for justice and tranquility in a more perfect Union.

We had more in common than we imagined. We, the people, who long for justice and tranquility in a more perfect Union.

Published in the Yemeni American News, May, 2017