I’d had a rough day. I was tired, kids had demanded much of my attention, and then to top it all off, a toilet overflowed, requiring me to cancel a meeting. When a friend messaged me, I told her some of the story, but the whining that I wanted to do just didn’t seem like a good idea. Why? Well, this friend’s uncle had been burned alive in his house by government troops. This friend had dealt with more trauma than I could imagine. This friend, you see, is a refugee from Myanmar.
I’m one of the co-founders of Make Welcome Refugee Sewing School (www.makewelcome.org), a community development project here in Charlotte that provides sewing classes for refugee women, as well as opportunities to work with projects like Persona Grata Goods that allow them to earn income. But in the process of setting up this venture, I’ve also become a student, learning life lessons from these amazing women.
Here are four truths that my refugee friends have shared with me:
Moms are moms. I remember the first refugee mom I met. I was nervous about the encounter. Would it be awkward, strange? I didn’t have to worry. When I timidly entered her apartment, she greeted me warmly. I didn’t understand a word she said, and I’m sure, she didn’t understand me either! Yet we could connect based on our concern and care for our children.
There’s something about motherhood that transcends culture and language. We can play with each other’s children, sympathize with parenting challenges, talk about potty training…and all with very limited vocabulary! When my refugee mom friends talk about struggles of life here in America, they often add, “But my children, they are now safe.” And I understand, knowing that if I was in their place, almost any sacrifice would be worth it to make sure my children had a future.
Family is a gift. One refugee I know lost his entire family because of the violence in the Congo. Another mourns the fact that she’ll probably never again see her aging mother, who is struggling to survive in Burma. Yet another lost her husband in the conflict and has had to raise six kids on her own.
Being with them, I’ve realized that every day I have with my family is a gift. I no longer take this gift lightly. Every day, I pause to give thanks for the nearness of my loved ones. As a family, we are now more mindful of our togetherness and frequently tell each other, “I’m so glad you’re here!”
Be content. One of my refugee friends recently remarked, “In America, life is easygoing.” This made me smile because I know that for most Americans, her life would be considered anything but easygoing. Her family struggles to make ends meet. They live in a rundown apartment complex. Because of lack of transportation, she almost never gets to go anywhere. Vacations are unheard of. My house, small by American standards, is considered a mansion to her.
And yet, as she sees it, life IS easygoing, at least in comparison to her home country of Myanmar. Her family now has food to eat. They live in safety. Her children can go to school. Her husband has a job. They have a roof over their heads. Hanging out with her and my other refugee friend moms, I’ve realized how little we really need to be happy. Or to word it another way, we should be content with safety, food and work. So much of the world doesn’t even have that.
Share freely. There’s a Bible story about a very poor widow who gives just one coin – all that she has – while the rich around her are giving large donations that are just a fraction of their total income. The small gift from this widow ends up being worth much more than all the other lavish gifts because it is given from a heart of overflowing love and generosity.
I’ve seen this principle lived out among my refugee mom friends. Most own few possessions, yet share freely. They live with open hands, ready to help out those in their community who are in worse straits. They frequently invite guests over and are willing to put up with cramped quarters in order to bless others. When I visit, they always share food, drink, time. These gifts are beautiful and often overwhelming to me because of how much is being given from those who have so little.
I’ve been challenged by my friends’ hearts of love that view others as more important than themselves. I want to live like that. And while my refugee friends seek to integrate into their new country, I hope they never embrace our self-focused, American view of possessions and time. Instead, I’m want my family to become more like theirs!
These refugee women are heroes. They may wear different clothes, eat different foods, speak different languages, but honestly, they’re my inspiration. They have taught me so many lessons, humbling me by their fortitude and courage. It’s an honor to know them and to count them as my friends. Because of them, I’m a better mom.