What the Retreat Meant: Leaving Pompanuck Farms
I think the refugee children's retreat at Pompanuck Farms, which ended about 2 p.m. Thursday afternoon, was about freedom. There is the freedom associated with coming to America, of course, but there is another, more personal kind of freedom that I saw over these last few days.
I came to know these children well, and I saw their shock and joy at simply being free for a few days – to swim, play basketball, sing, play Capture The Flag, soccer, to hike and ask about nature, to sit by a campfire late into the night, to knock some applies off of trees, to listen to their music, to tell stories and hear stories, to eat fresh and beautifully prepared food, to run around with three dogs that loved them, to be completely free, of the challenges in their own lives, and of the raging debate and anger over refugees and immigration in our country.
Today, we sat around a table in the Round House building, the centerpiece of the Pompanuck Farm Institute, and we each talked about what the retreat meant for each of us.
The kids -there were 14 young men plus Ali, Maya the goalie of their soccer team, was sick and the other women came just for the day Wednesday – talked about being so carefree, about their love for Ali and for one another, about the good food Scott and Lisa Carrino prepared for them, about the beautiful woods around them.
The children all attend some classes at RISSE, the refugee and immigration center based in Albany. This group – now in the process of naming themselves the Bedlam Farm Warriors Soccer Team – is mostly from Southeast Asia and Africa, the other students coming to visit Bedlam Farm this summer are from all over the world.
They said they were grateful. They all slept on sleeping bags in the big Pompanuck Yurt, and wore every adult down to the bone with their energy and drive.
I spoke at the last circle gathering. I said I was grateful for their presence, happy to get to know them. I said I had come to love them and also my brother, Ali (Amjad Abdullah Mohammed), I said Maria and I were so happy to be a part of this, to help wash dishes and clean up and serve food and tell stories and walk in the woods with them.
I told them I love the songs they sang of courage and connection whenever they faced a difficult or strange situation. They have beautiful voices and open hearts. I told them I was the grandson of immigrants and refugees, much of my family did not make it over to the other side and perished.
I said I was committed to supporting them in their difficult transition, and I promised I would not go away. I told them Ali and I were plotting all of the time to help them, I told them about the new scholarship program we were funding to get them help with their passions and interests and needs. I told them I loved them, and was surprised to hear the words come out of my mouth.
Then they packed up, cleaned up and left. They gave me a group hug that nearly knocked me over. I was thrilled with the retreat, exhausted from the work involved, drained by their amazing energy, moved by their sweetness and good hearts. They will make wonderful citizens for our country, and I am proud to know them.
I meant what I said. I do love them, and I will not abandon them, Ali and I are magic together, we call one another "brother," a term I don't throw around lightly.
Fate and Red and Gus were an integral part of the retreat, the kids just loved them, and Fate ran herself into the ground keeping up with them, I think she wanted to get on the van and go home with them. Gus loved playing with them and racing around with them outside, he was happy to be picked up and cuddled. And he was cuddled.
These dogs do a lot of good.
They asked me if there is any way they could return to Pompanuck – the safest place many had yet known – again, and I said I would talk to Scott and Lisa about arranging for some day trips, one day retreats that did not involve cooking or overnight stay and other costs. We'll see what we can do and how much it will cost. I'm thinking of two or three one-day visits. The trip was sponsored by the Children's Refugee Fund, a new project with its own bank account I've opened.
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This was one of the best things I have ever been involved with, I think these children got something important, something they needed. I tried to tell them what a great gift this is to me, but I'm not sure they grasped it.
They also learned – thanks to the generosity of a woman named Helen – that the real America, a generous country where people care for other people apart from themselves, is alive and well, and welcomes them here.
It is a great gift to give, it feels so rich and deep and satisfying. Thanks again to the Army Of Good, we don't just argue about what is good, we do good.