From Afghanistan to My Hand

Afghan embroidery called Khamak.

A new friend is a refugee from Afghanistan, warm and gracious despite all she and her young family have been through. On my most recent visit, Maryam shows me a rare package she received from back home. She takes out each thing slowly and with care — beautiful embroidered cloth, herbs and spices, plus packets of henna to create celebratory mehndi designs on women’s hands.

The language barrier between us is considerable. For example, I know her mother is still in Afghanistan and they talk on the phone, but I don’t know if her father is alive. When I ask, she pulls her hands over her eyes and makes an explosion sound. My eyes fill with tears in response, but I don’t know if she meant to convey he had been blinded or killed. She’s lost so much in her 29 years.

Maryam offers to paint my hand with her new henna. I want to acknowledge her kindness, but don’t want her to waste any of it on me. So with a smile I say, no, no thank you, along with the head shake and palms up signals indicating no across many cultures.

Our language barrier isn’t the problem now, she is simply determined to share what she has with me. In moments she mixes henna with water in a tea cup and takes my hand. It is too late, I realize, the potion is mixed for me. I’m not much for personal adornment but this is a meaningful juncture between us. Hospitality is ingrained in Afghan culture. Although a guest’s refusal is a sign of politeness, repeatedly insisting a guest take what is offered is what a good host does. Even if it leaves the host with nothing, generosity is paramount. I have a horror of accepting a favor when I think it might cause anyone a moment’s extra work or take something they might use, so Maryam is also teaching me an important lesson about receiving.

She carefully pulls each of my fingertips through a hole she bites into plastic, uses her finger to coat my fingertips with henna, then wraps and ties the plastic around each finger. Next she coats part of my palm with henna. Finally she gets out a toothpick to draw designs. Unfortunately the mixture is very wet and her designs keep blurring, making them blocky. She wraps my hand in plastic and tells me not to wash it until later that afternoon.

Other than ceremonially serving tea, often pouring it from one cup to another to cool it so it doesn’t burn her guest’s lips, she hasn’t found many opportunities to share her traditions with me. Henna gives her that. The whole time we sat close together on the rug as she held my hand in hers and coated my fingers. Her one-year-old and three-year-old, who normally wheel around like galaxies, stood watching quietly. The natural henna filled the room with an exquisite sweet aroma that smelled exotic to me and surely familiar to her,  likely reminding her of her mother, aunts, and friends back home. As the dark design on my hand fades, I hope our friendship deepens.

Additional notes:

Maryam’s husband speaks multiple languages and in Afghanistan was a bank manager in charge of five branches. As the war’s devastation worsened, however, he began working for the U.S. Army both as interpreter and language teacher. This was a necessary but dangerous way to support his family, as interpreters were being killed daily by the Taliban.  Eventually he and he family had to flee.

They spent several years in a refugee camp before qualifying through the  Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program for translators to come to the U.S.  (The Trump administration stymied this program’s effectiveness for four long years.) Refugees, who have endured horrifying violence and the loss of a homeland, bravely face settling into a new country. Everything is different: language, clothing, food, customs. They are expected to master the nuances of transportation, rent, taxes, employment, and language. And they owe the U.S. government for the airline tickets from the refugee camp to their new homes.

They also face prejudice, stoked by cruel falsehoods. In actuality, compared to native-born Americans, immigrants commit far fewer crimes, reach higher educational levels, are more than twice as likely to start new businesses and improve the economy.

I can’t imagine what Maryam and her family have been through, or how they are adjusting with such grace and dignity to their new lives here. Maryam’s husband works two jobs and tirelessly helps out others in their neighborhood. I’m glad to have people of their courage and character join us in this country.

We Have Room


refugee children, host border children, welcome the stranger, angels unaware,

All images thanks to wikimedia commons.

There may be no more powerful image in art, no more important message in scripture, than open arms. Welcoming the stranger is a basis of civilization, especially if that stranger is a refugee and always if that stranger is a child.

“You shall love the stranger, for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.” Christianity, Deuteronomy 10: 19

“Charity—to be moved at the sight of the thirsty, the hungry, and the miserable and to offer relief to them out of pity—is the spring of virtue.” Jainsim/Kundakunda, Pancastikaya 137

“When the Holy One loves a man, He sends him a present in the shape of a poor man, so that he should perform some good deed to him, through the merit of which he may draw a cord of grace.” Judaism. Zohar, Genesis 104a

“One should give even from a scanty store to him who asks.” Buddhism. Dhammapada 224

“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” Christianity. Hebrews 13.1

“Serve Allah, and join not any partners with Him; and do good – to parents, kinsfolk, orphans, those in need, neighbors who are near, neighbors who are strangers, the companion by your side, the wayfarer (ye meet) and what your right hands possess: For Allah loveth not the arrogant, the vainglorious.”  Islam. Quran 4:36

“A traveler through a country would stop at a village and he didn’t have to ask for food or for water. Once he stops, the people give him food, entertain him. That is one aspect of Ubuntu.” Nelson Mandela, discussing the southern Africa tradition of Ubuntu

“See to it that whoever enters your house obtains something to eat, however little you may have. Such food will be a source of death to you if you withhold it.” Native American religions. A Winnebago Father’s Precepts

“`0 Ke aloha Ke Kuleana o kahi malihini. Love is the host in strange lands.”  Hawaiian saying

Relieve people in distress as speedily as you must release a fish from a dry rill [lest he die]. Deliver people from danger as quickly as you must free a sparrow from a tight noose. Be compassionate to orphans and relieve widows. Respect the old and help the poor. Taoism. Tract of the Quiet Way


child 2

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Whether scripture or statue inscription, we all know it’s easier to state our principles than adhere to them. I’m as weak as the next person in actually living up to what I believe.

I’ve vowed to keep politics out of this site, so I won’t be talking about lies fostered by divisive media or shockingly cruel attitudes toward refugees of any age. I’ll only say that it takes an extraordinary act of love to scrape together the coyote fees to send one’s child away in hopes of a safe haven. It takes inestimable courage for that child to walk through deserts, ride the tops of trains, and face down thieves along the way in hopes of real freedom.

My husband and I did some soul-searching. We talked to our kids. And we decided we cannot stand by while refugee children turn themselves in at the border only to be treated like criminals. We have room to host refugee children.

We applied to the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. We were told placements might be for a few months or they might be permanent. So we re-imagined our lives. Now that our kids are college students and young adults we thought we were done raising children, but we can go back to homemade popsicles and toys on the floor and books read aloud. We have our own problems with unemployment and a not-remotely-profitable small farm, but what we have can always stretch. There’s a place in our home and our hearts.

That doesn’t mean we have a greeting card view of this. These children will be traumatized, experience culture shock, and face learning a new language. We’ll have plenty of adapting to do as well.

Lately before falling asleep, I look ahead to rows of family pictures stretching into the future. Those pictures seem to hold two dark-haired faces newly dear to me, and eventually, more of their relatives joining them and becoming part of our extended family, on for generations, with babies in arms growing to stand tall, my husband and me fading into old age and beyond. It’s a good vision.

Right now it looks like that vision won’t come true. I just got an email from Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. It said, in part, 

After exploring the nationwide LIRS foster care program network, I am sorry to share with you that LIRS does not have a foster care program in the geographic area that you are located. If at a future time an opportunity arises, we will reach out to you at that time.

I wrote back, asking if there was some way I could help set up a program in our area. Apparently the only option is applying for a grant through the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement, which I admit is probably past me. So now I’m applying to other agencies.

I only mention our quest in hopes that someone out there may qualify even if we don’t. Here are resources to investigate.

Office of Refugee Resettlement

Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service

United States Conference of Catholic Bishops

Bethany Refugee Care

Texas Interfaith Center
refugees, host border children,