Have You Ever Met a Refugee?

This morning I had the opportunity to drive three little girls to their dance lessons.  They happened to be Syrian refugees who live in my neighborhood. Two of the girls are sisters and while we waited for the third girl to get to the car, they told me their stories, totally unsolicited, and with joy and laughter.

The sisters are in Kindergarten and 4th grade. We giggled that all of our names start with the letters “Sh.”  The 4th grader loves school, but her sister finds it boring and wants to switch to the school her friends go to because it is more fun.  They looked a lot like twins, despite having a few years between them.

The younger sister told me they have lived in Chicago for two years and before that, they lived in five other countries after leaving Syria. Their father died when the girls were one and five. They miss him. The older girl, who was four when her dad died does “not really remember him.” They knew that he had eyes that turned green in the sun. They wished their brown eyes did the same.

A few minutes later, the other girl came down with her mom who didn’t speak a lot of English, but gave Chicago a thumbs up. This little girl recently relapsed with cancer.  I wanted to explain to her mother, the woman sitting next to me with the kind face and gentle eyes wearing the hijab, that I understood, that I, too, once mothered a daughter with cancer, but I didn’t. I couldn’t.  Her English was much better than my Arabic, but it still wasn’t enough for us to share such specific intimacies.

I dropped them off at the dance studio where my own daughter danced so many years ago.  Officially, the main studio has been named after our girl, and there is a plaque and photo of Donna above the door as you walk through.  After the girls went in, I pointed to the photo and said, “My daughter,” to the mom I had just met.  She smiled and said, “Oh.”

I left and returned as the class was ending.  The teacher invited me in saying the dancers needed to get used to having an audience. Would I mind watching?  I was honored.

The music started and within moments I felt tears welling up.  There were a dozen dancers, probably eight to ten years old.  Some had blond hair, some had black hair, all were beautiful.  The choreography was gorgeous and involved the dancers huddled together at times, protective and nurturing.  Other times they danced in formation, powerful and graceful.


These girls, in their pink and purple lycra, were bonded.  It didn’t matter that some have fled war across oceans, or others were born not three miles from where they still lived.  It didn’t matter that some worship in a church and others in a mosque.  None of that mattered to any of them.

As we were leaving, the girls laughing again and holding hands, happy to get outside where they could run along the sidewalk, I noticed another photo of my daughter in the lobby of the studio.  In this one, Donna is bald and concentrating on her dancing, focused.  I pointed again, to my fellow mother and said, “My daughter.”  Again, she smiled.  Did she make the connection?

In the car riding home, the three girls laughing and going in and out of English and Arabic, I asked the mom if she had other children. Two other daughters, she said, one ten and one nine months.  It struck me in that moment that she was the mother of an American citizen. She asked me the same, “You?  How many children?”

Answering this question is complicated on the best of days, but today, with the language barrier and the bond of cancer between us, it was especially hard.  “I have two boys,” I said, “Eight and three years old.”  “And your daughter?,” she asked.  “She died,” I offered, “She is gone.”  I think she got it.  I don’t know.  Does it even matter?

A lot of people want you to believe that we should fear Syrian refugees, that they are somehow a danger to our way of life here in America.  I am not afraid.  I refuse to fear three little girls giggling in my back seat.  I refuse to fear a child that carries a purple backpack with colorful cats on it.  I refuse to fear a nine year old in the midst of a cancer relapse.  I refuse to fear a mother who left her home in search of something better for her children, one of whom is an American citizen.  I refuse to fear another mother who lost her husband in civil war and fled with a young child and infant, hoping for safety and peace.

Fear is a powerful tool.  It can easily be leveraged and manipulated, exploited for political gain.  It is easy to fear that which you don’t know or understand. Today I met four Syrian refugees.  There was nothing fearful about them.  They were lovely and sweet and very much like our own daughters.

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