Good Morning and thank you Dr. Coolidge for inviting me to be here today. A little over a year ago, my husband and I and our three children moved from here to Portland. It is good to be back for a couple of days. To begin, I would like to admit that I cried the first day of English Lit. 101. They weren’t tears of sadness; in fact, I couldn’t believe how lucky I was to be in a class where my homework was reading. I was being asked to write about reading, think about reading and read some more.
It was a Monday. I changed my major that very day from voice performance to English literature. I felt that I had come home, to a tribe, an occupation, and a sanity. I am prone to see the world as a dark and brooding place full of mysterious and phenomenal people. Reading and writing helps me make sense of it all.
A few years ago, I was trying to describe the art of storytelling to a friend of mine. I had used several analogies that weren’t translating, until I said that storytelling is like spelunking the soul. Spelunking, how can you not love that word? What I love about the definition of spelunking is that is says, “to explore caves, especially as a hobby”. As Literature majors, we explore and articulate the caves of human experience. Why? Well, especially as a hobby. In other words, something about Literature is deeply who we are.
That English class my sophomore year changed the direction of my life and has taken me on some adventures. When I graduated from this department, I didn’t realize the nature of the gift I had been given. Over the years, however, it has become clear. I don’t know if you know this already, but the gift of the Lit. Dept. is a big ole’ Mary Poppins carpet bag—you know the one—the bottomless carpet bag that affords perfectly timed help, except in this case it is not a lamp or a plant—it is Literature: a poem that you study, a critique, senior seminar discussions, a highlighted passage in a book, a short story, a character whom you can’t remember life without, a profs words, your own writing, poems of friends, all stories.
I carry my figurative Lit. Dept. carpet bag with me everywhere, and I add to it all of the time. With almost every turn of my life since graduation, I have reached into that bag and found profound life-changing words and stories. In marriage, having children, living overseas, working with refugees, starting a non-profit, starting a business, writing grants, writing stories, literature helps make sense of the human experience.
As a writer, I am always looking for new ways to think about my craft. One of my hurdles is that I try to write about too much. I sit down and try to write everything, instead of something. I heard a great piece of advice on this, which used the image of a small picture frame. Write one thing well. Funnel the universe into a snap shot and write about that. This is a snap shot of how my degree in English Literature has informed both my work with refugees and my ongoing desire to repair the tears in our social fabric.
My husband and I graduated from here a little while ago...a long while ago in fact. My husband majored in Business and Bible and is a man determined to serve the least of these. Before we got married, he pulled a Gandolf on me, saying, “I am looking for someone to share in an adventure that I am arranging, and it's very difficult to find anyone.” My inner response was Bilboesque and I thought, “I should think so—in these parts! We are plain, quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty, disturbing uncomfortable things! Makes you late for dinner!” Nevertheless, a couple of years after graduation, my husband got a job as a relief worker in East Africa. We dove into adventure and moved to Kenya with our nine-month old son and lived in Nairobi, Kenya for 5 years.
One of my first observations when meeting relief workers and field "staffers" is that most relief workers are married to nurses or doctors—people who truly bring life-saving skills to humanity. This observation sat dormant in my mind for a week or two, and then I began to panic. My husband is a relief worker. I am not a nurse. I am an English Lit. major. I can say with some confidence that my brain is not wired for medicine or science. I pondered long and hard about my lack of medical savvy and made a declaration to pursue something of a medical-nursing- doctor-ish nature. The Lord, in his infinite wisdom and love, spared patients the world over from my declaration, and led me down another path—a literal path, dusty and straight, papaya trees on one side and avocado trees on the other —to a community of refugee women. I spent five years working alongside these women at a micro-enterprise that taught them how to sew. I wrote their stories, and I wrote grants.
I found that all of the space in my brain that clearly was not wired for medicine was actually wired to listen to and write stories. I did not have much in common with these refugee women. I had not lost my child, and I had never had to flee for my life. It was difficult for me to make sense of writing such horrific stories. This was one of those moments when I reached in to my big ole carpet bag...
There it was, a poem by Mr. Robert Frost, entitled, Out, Out-. I recalled the very day that I read this poem in Dr. Lundin’s class. The poem is based on a true event. The young son of Frost’s friend and neighbor loses his hand to a buzz saw and bleeds to death. Frost draws the reader into the circumstance. You feel the terror and the panic of the young boy. You want to help. You want to save him. At the end of the poem two strangers pass by—and then the last line. I will never forget the weight of it. It says,
“And they (the strangers), since they were not the one dead, turned to their own affairs.”
I couldn’t believe it. How could they? How could I? That line jolted me then and it jolts me now. I had to stop and listen to the stories of death and pain and feel them. I had to give voice to these stories. I thank Mr. Frost for his words.
After many years in Kenya, I said tear-laden good-byes and left on the same dusty path that had brought me there. I promised the women that their chaos would count, that I would carry their stories with me. We moved back to Wheaton in 2007 with two little boys and our daughter on the way. Kenya was always on my mind and I could not make sense of my new beginnings in America.
One January night, I drove to Target to get some diapers. It was snowing, surprise! I was in a foul mood and wrestled out loud with God as to why he had brought us to this place. I remember getting in my car and grumbling and asking Him why he had brought us back. Still huffing, I left the parking lot and turned onto Roosevelt Rd. Through my snowy windshield, I saw someone walking on the side of the road. As I got closer, I saw that she was wrapped in African Kitenge cloth, and that she was wearing flip-flops. She turned into an apartment complex and I followed her and knocked on her door. I was greeted by the smell of familiar spices, the sound of lots of children, and a smiling woman, called Mwambe. Mwambe invited me in and we talked in Swahili and English and laughed quite a bit. After a while, I decided to go, and I gave her a hug.
As I turned to leave, she said, “You can give me job?”
I fumbled through a sentence of strange words that really meant nothing and left, closing the door behind me. Pause. No, really, I paused for a long time outside her door, snow accumulating on my head. That night God spun me like a top on a table, round and round. For months, I thought of Mwambe. Her story echoed the stories that I had promised to tell. I had to keep my promise. I couldn’t walk away from the refugee story.
Mwambe is one of many refugees living in DuPage County. She lives here because she could not stay in Somalia. In fact, she walked 373 miles with her children from Mogadishu, Somalia to Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, one of the most populated refugee camps in the world, where she lived for 15 years, until being resettled here in Wheaton. Mwambe had a story to tell and she needed a job.
Six years ago, I founded The Re:new Project out of a desire to create a space, a physical space, for refugees to tell their story and to gain employment. Re:new started in a small room with five sewing machines, five volunteers and five refugee women. While we stitched stories together, we also stitched fabric, teaching basic sewing skills. We started the process of obtaining a 501-C3 to register as a non-profit and then registered as a business. We spent dozens and dozens of hours as wordsmiths, defining, arranging and rearranging what would become our mission, our vision, our values and our by-laws.
As Re:new grew, women from other countries, Sudan, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Bhutan, Syria, Iraq and Burma came to learn to sew. We added new sewing machines, moved into a larger space and brought dozens more volunteers and staff on board. The women spoke very little English. Teaching them to sew included a lot of charades and a lot of laughter. One day, as some teachers were acting out how to construct a bag, some of the Somali woman also started doing charades. After a while we realized that they weren’t acting out sewing...they were acting out their story, their escape from Somalia, walking through the bush with little children to the refugee camp. They walked around the room holding pretend baskets on their heads with one hand and holding their pretend pregnant bellies with the other. They started shoving things in their children’s mouths. We learned that in the bush they had to stuff their baby’s mouths with dirt in order that they would not cry for fear of the nearby lions. I will never forget that day. After that the stories poured out. Some women came to sit and have tea. Some needed immediate employment. Some simply wanted to talk.
I remember one day, a new student came to register. She was our first student from Syria. She had been in the States for just several months. We sat at a table and had some tea. She looked at me with uncertainty and repositioned herself in her chair several times. I put my hand on her shoulder and said, “If you ever want to tell your story, I am here listen.” She left. But a few days later, she came back and we sat down again with some tea. Her sad eyes puffed with tears. “In my village in Syria, the militants put tanks in a circle. They put hundreds of my people in the middle and killed them, all of them, even the children. My Syria has been destroyed. When the bombs got too close, I took my daughter and we fled. I left everything. My beautiful Syria is gone. I will never see my husband again. He is too sick to come here. I had a life there, a home, my friends and work to do every day. My life is a nightmare, but I have come here to dream.”
We had another student from Somalia. She was 72 years old and spoke no English. She has been in America for 12 years. She wasn’t very adept at sewing, but she loved being at Re:new and forged ahead in making small things. When I gave her first paycheck, she did not understand. The women told her what this was. Finally, she buried her head in my shoulder and wept. Her check was for $66.00... The next day she was the first person at the door for class. She sat at her machine with a huge smile. Another student shared with me what had unfolded with her paycheck. She cashed it and gathered 14 of her great-grandchildren and gave them each $5. She had never received a paycheck before. Her story was unfolding before my eyes and it was radiant.
One woman at Re:new was from Sierra Leone. She spoke very little English and mumbled a lot, mixing several languages together. One hot summer day, she rolled up her long sleeves revealing horrific scars. She flashed her eyes at mine and in a trance said, “Machete”. Her eyes were as deep as an abyss. She had seen the Devil with those eyes and the Devil had seen her. From that day on, every time I saw her, I looked in her eyes and wrapped my arms around her. Most of the time this woman’s story stays hidden underneath her sleeves, but, at Re:new she felt safe to tell part of her story...even with just one word.
One day a volunteer came to Re:new for her normal volunteer hours. She was sad and quiet. One of the refugees asked her if she was okay. The volunteer explained that she had recently miscarried her baby. One by one, the sewing machines stopped buzzing and the women got up and pulled their chairs around her. They nodded in understanding. They had miscarried babies and lost babies in childbirth. This was a time to mourn. And we did. We mourned for babies not born, for babies born who didn’t live long and for babies that didn’t make the refugee journey.
Re:new grew at such a pace, that I found myself writing grants on a monthly basis and speaking all over the city. I spoke about the vision of a society that values and seeks flourishing relationships with its refugee neighbors. Days at Re:new were often long, and there were many times when I felt ill-equipped and incapable of coming alongside women who were so brave and courageous. Some days, I wanted heaven to be on earth, to claim no more tears, no pain, no suffering. I wanted to disappear. I wanted to forget it all. Again...I reached into my carpet bag. This time Mr. Tolkien and I had a chat. Bilbo and Thorin may have been involved.
In The Hobbit, Thorin asks Bilbo, “Why did you come back?” Bilbo replies, “Well, you were right. I do miss my home. I miss my bed and my hearth. I often think of Bag End, I miss my books, and my armchair, and my garden. See, that's where I belong, that's my home. That's why I came back—‘cause you don't have one, a home. It was taken from you, but I will help.”
I first read the Hobbit on a bench in Oxford, a bench dedicated to Tolkien in fact. It was a Saturday morning the summer I went on Wheaton in England. At the time, Tolkien’s story was endearing and I thought it quite lovely. But in moment of discouragement, it was life-giving. Great literature does that. It comes around again with new meaning. Thank you, Mr. Tolkien.
So while the work at Re:new was hard, I knew what Home stood for and I knew that the homes of refugees had been taken from them and I wanted to help. Re:new continues to be a place where stories are told and where women sew beautiful products. In fact, tomorrow, Re:new is moving to a brand new store front location in Glen Ellyn—a dream come true. I miss the women of Re:new now that I have moved. But, I will carry their stories and I will share them.
At the top of my big ole carpet bag are two words that I reach for often, “and yet”. These two words are found in Scripture over and over again and remind me that God is sovereign. I often ask why. Why do I live here? Why did I get to go to college? Why evil? Why this and why that. The phrase “and yet...” gives me hope in all of these questions and courage to live one small picture frame at a time.
The human experience is at once beautiful and grotesque, peaceful and disturbing. It is a marvel how each person’s story is grafted into another’s, intersecting and weaving in a certain time period and setting. The story of the person next to you, for instance, what a journey they have had. And you...what is your story...and how will it unfold?
The other day, I was writing in a coffee shop. I couldn’t help but notice the 40 or so people seated all around me. An elderly woman in particular caught my eye. She sat alone for a little while, a cup of tea steaming in front of her. The bell on the front door jingled and a young man walked in. He went directly to the woman.
“Hello, grandma,” he said.
He kissed her on the head and sat down then reached into his leather satchel and pulled out a pad of paper and a pen.
“It’s story time, grandma. Where were we...”
It’s story time. It’s always story time. I will continue to reach into my Lit. Dept. carpet bag until I am old and grey putting new stories in and taking learned stories out. Who knows, maybe I will find one of your stories there in the future. Be excellent at your craft as English Literature majors. Go spelunking and open the eyes of the world with words.
Today we face the most significant humanitarian crisis since WWII and the greatest number of refugees ever on record in human history. I will close with one more reach into my carpet bag. This is a portion of a poem written eighty years ago by W.H. Auden called Refugee Blues.
Say this city has ten million souls,
Some are living in mansions, some are living in holes:
Yet there's no place for us, my dear, yet there's no place for us.
Once we had a country and we thought it fair,
Look in the atlas and you'll find it there:
We cannot go there now, my dear, we cannot go there now.
In the village churchyard there grows an old yew,
Every spring it blossoms anew:
Old passports can't do that, my dear, old passports can't do that.
The consul banged the table and said,
"If you've got no passport you're officially dead":
But we are still alive, my dear, but we are still alive.
Went to a committee; they offered me a chair;
Asked me politely to return next year:
But where shall we go to-day, my dear, but where shall we go to-day?
Came to a public meeting; the speaker got up and said;
"If we let them in, they will steal our daily bread":
He was talking of you and me, my dear, he was talking of you and me.
Went down the harbour and stood upon the quay,
Saw the fish swimming as if they were free:
Only ten feet away, my dear, only ten feet away.
Walked through a wood, saw the birds in the trees;
They had no politicians and sang at their ease:
They weren't the human race, my dear, they weren't the human race.
Dreamed I saw a building with a thousand floors,
A thousand windows and a thousand doors:
Not one of them was ours, my dear, not one of them was ours.