Get Close

I’ve been thinking lately about the purpose and the point of learning about big, hard things that I am absolutely impotent to change or fix.  Things like mass incarceration in the United States or the Syrian refugee crisis.  What’s the point?  Why bother if we are unable to help?  And is it possible to learn and educate myself while still “protecting a tender place inside of me,” as I’ve learned to value from David James Duncan.

I’m still sorting it out but I read this line from the book Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson a couple days ago and it gave me more to ponder on the subject.  It’s something he heard from his grandmother growing up.

You can’t understand most of the important things from a distance, Bryan.  You have to get close.”

Our neighborhood has a huge number of refugees.  And thus a significant percentage of the students at the boys’ school come from refugee families.  I saw that image of the 3-year-old Syrian boy a few weeks ago but I just couldn’t.  It was too much.  I turned away.   I’m trying to turn back toward it now– to get close, in small ways, so that I can better understand the experience of the families in our neighborhood and at the school where I’m volunteering in the boys’ classrooms.

These images and small pieces of peoples’ stories featured last month by Brandon with Humans of New York have been a good place to start.    He highlighted the stories of refugees for a few weeks and they were powerful.  And hard.   I’m not sure if I’m better for it but I’m definitely more curious to hear the stories of our neighbors and I do feel achingly drawn to the people in the pictures.

Here are a few that stood out for me:


My husband and I sold everything we had to afford the journey. We worked 15 hours a day in Turkey until we had enough money to leave. The smuggler put 152 of us on a boat. Once we saw the boat, many of us wanted to go back, but he told us that anyone who turned back would not get a refund. We had no choice. Both the lower compartment and the deck were filled with people. Waves began to come into the boat so the captain told everyone to throw their baggage into the sea. In the ocean we hit a rock, but the captain told us not to worry. Water began to come into the boat, but again he told us not to worry. We were in the lower compartment and it began to fill with water. It was too tight to move. Everyone began to scream. We were the last ones to get out alive. My husband pulled me out of the window. In the ocean, he took off his life jacket and gave it to a woman. We swam for as long as possible. After several hours he told me he that he was too tired to swim and that he was going to float on his back and rest. It was so dark we could not see. The waves were high. I could hear him calling me but he got further and further away. Eventually a boat found me. They never found my husband.” (Kos, Greece)


I studied to be a teacher, but I’m young, so I knew I’d be forced to fight. I don’t like fighting. I don’t like blood. But I was the only one working so I couldn’t leave or my family would go hungry. But my mother begged me to leave. She kissed my feet. She said she wouldn’t mind starving if she knew that I was safe. I hired a smuggler but he took all my money and left me at the border. He told me that he’d call me when the passage was safe, but then he turned off his phone. I was all alone and stuck without money. I called my mother and she said that she’d pray for God to send someone to help me. Then I met this man. I told him my story and he loaned me the money I needed to get to Europe. He treated me like one of his family. I’ll pay him back when I get to Germany, but until then I’m trying to return the favor by helping him carry his children.” (Vienna, Austria)


There is no security in Baghdad. We lived in constant fear. We started receiving text messages one day. They said: ‘Give us money, or we will burn down your house. If you tell the police, we will kill you.’ We had nobody to turn to. We are poor people. We have no powerful friends. We don’t know anyone in the government. The text messages continued every day. We were so afraid that we could not sleep. We had no money to give them. We could barely afford to feed ourselves. So we said to ourselves: ‘Maybe they are lying. Maybe they will do nothing.’ Then one night we woke up and our house was on fire. We barely escaped with the children. The next day we received a text message. It said: ‘Give us money, or this time you will die.’ I replied that we’d pay them soon. We sold everything we owned, and we left. We thought we’d rather die in a plastic boat than die there.” (Lesvos, Greece)

If you want to see more, click here to go to the Humans of New York site and scroll to late September / early October.