"For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me." – Matthew 25:35.
Shopping at Wal-Mart yesterday with Ali and Lisa and Mudasir and Baseer, I felt in many ways that the refugees define me. I feel they define the true soul and spirit of our country as well.
I am close to the refugee experience, my grandparents were all refugees and I saw the devastating consequences of leaving home, family, and all of one's possessions to enter a whole new world.
Refugees by definition have lost everything.
My grandparents did it for their children, as Lisa did it for hers. After her husband was killing for helping the Americans, she said she could no longer bear raising her children in such a violent and dangerous culture, she and her boys were targets also.
I saw the refugee mentality close-up, in my grandparents, in my relatives and neighbors. I see it every week in Albany. Work hard, be brave, never give the pursuit of a better life for children or for the American dream.
Our county was built and continues to prosper off of the sweat and blood and backs of immigrants and refugees. They come to us seeking asylum, dignity, freed and a chance just to breathe and live.
Do we really wish to become a country that slams its doors and refuses to let them in, or turns our back son them when they most need our help?
I don't want to live in that country.
I recognize myself in those who are not like me and not like you. I see myself reflected in the struggles of those who flee the mouths of sharks. Every time I help another, I help myself.
Lisa did not know, of course, that she and her sons would be walking into a firestorm of a different culture by coming to America, culturally violent and divisive in its own way. She is bewildered by the raging controversy about refugees and their place.
She does not understand it or know what to say about it, or the harassment and taunting felt by her sons.
You either feel for the refugees or you don't, I suppose it is as simple as that. No one can be argued into compassion.
I see myself in her and I see the person I wish to be, and am proud to be. Nothing is more selfish than helping someone else, nothing feels better. I do it for me, for my grandmother, for the refugees of the world, too numerous for me to even think of helping.
One at a time. One day at a time. One family at a time.
Lisa has some money now for personal things. Her sons have new clothes and toys now so they don't look so different from their classmates. Soon, she will be moving to a safe and clean apartment. In a month or so, she will have completed her English language training, she is speaking English haltingly but well.
She will then be able to look for work and find a good job. We will help her. She is very close.
I don't argue the plight of the refugees with others. I can only say how I feel and do what I can. When this madness is over, and it will one day be over, I want it to be said that I did what i could for as long as I could.
You either empathize with these people or you don't. I consider my own humanity to be at stake. I am sorry to see our country turn so selfish and cold.
Every political or spiritual leader I have ever followed or admired described caring for the poor and the vulnerable as a sacred act, a test of our humanity, of our faith and self-respect.
"When a foreigner resides among you in your land," says Leviticus 19:33-34, "do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself…"
My friend Ali knows this. His faith is not just evoked, it is lived.
I see the sadness and struggle in Lisa's face, she is a sweet and shy woman, used to a culture that embraced a certain life for women. She was protected all of the time.
That culture is gone, and she is in a very different space now, she is awakening to the very American call of feminism and independence, she misses her husband dearly but is rising up to find a her place in this new world. She is happy to be here, she appreciates being free. She accepts the challenge of living here and never, ever complains.
I see the courage and sacrifice in her through the eyes and faces of her sons, they are strong, loving, content. She has done a wonderful job with them, I cannot really even imagine the toll on her, I see it in her eyes.
The great challenge in Lisa's life now is poverty. She was not poor in Afghanistan, she is poor now. She lost everything to make this great leap. This is the help she needs until she can organize herself, finish her English language training, find work and a safe place to live for she and her sons. Not a lot of money, but enough money every month so she can go forward and build her life.
I am committed, along with Ali, to guiding her on the path to independence. In America, poverty is a brutal cycle of need, fear and struggle. We do not have enough money to erase her poverty, or to support her life, only to hold her hand, bring some light and ease to her life and the life of her sons. To begin life anew, for just a few hundred dollars a month, and then, just until September.
Next week, back to Wal-Mart to spend the other $400 we raised for her last week, and thanks for that.
If you wish, you can help us get her to the open field, you can contribute to her by sending a donation to the Gus Fund, Jon Katz. P.O. Box 205, Cambridge N.Y., or via Paypal, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can mark it "LIsa" if you wish.
We will stand with her and her sons and do whatever we can to life Lisa up until she can care for herself. She has no wish to be dependent on anyone. She is close.