What I’ve Seen

I can’t sleep. I’m supposed to get up in 4.5 hours to take the long, 9 hour drive to Bidi Bidi Refugee Settlement, but JET LAG. 

Usually I try to calm my brain. I use a sleep meditation podcast,or I find a mantra (I like “It’s ok to just rest. It’s ok to just rest. No, really, it’s ok to just rest.”).

Tonight I tried walking through my house in my mind. My husband and I bought our first house a year and a half ago, and I’ve never loved a house more. I love the sunlight in our bedroom in the morning, and the way the moon passed through each window of that room every night in the summer we got married. 

I love the dining room full of plants in the winter, the way the ivies we bought to decorate our first apartment cascade now down the dining room windows. I love that you can see out over the city from the window in the attic. I love the sound of people milling about in the mornings in our guest room. I love the sound of baths being drawn, and the way the whole house smells when we open the windows on the first warm days of spring. 

I love where we live. I left it behind yesterday, boarded a plane and met my teammates in Uganda. 

Tomorrow, I’ll sit in a car and ride across Uganda to Bidi Bidi Refugee Settlement, a place where 250,000 people fled where they lived for safety in a foreign land. 

Tomorrow, I’ll travel to a place where 250,000 arrived after fleeing their homes, the homes where they got married, where they woke up every day to the smell of parents cooking, where they saw their babies’ first steps. 

Tomorrow I’ll travel to a place where 250,000 people ran across the border, leaving behind the seeds they planted, the walls they built, the tables they sat around with their friends. 

Tomorrow I’ll travel to a place where my teammates have helped build villages where nothing stood before, meeting thousands and thousands of newly arrived refugees every day for the last months, trying to help them cope with this running, this screaming on their way out of a place ripped apart by fear. 

Tomorrow I’ll travel to a place where the tiniest unknown villages with the tiniest unknown communities are suddenly surrounded by thousands of unknown neighbors, knocking on their doors asking, “Where is the hospital? Where is the water? Where is anyone who can help with anything?”

I am not scared. I am not anxious. This is not because I have a spiritual gift, unless it is that of keeping my eyes open. Because with my own eyes I have seen other refugee settlements in Uganda, those now decades old, where refugees are business owners, environmental activists, and volunteers leading support groups for women and youth, leading soccer teams and building homes for new refugees, new neighbors, new friends. With my own eyes I have seen communities welcoming refugees, showing up at the border or the airport or the office with clothes and smiles and money and bags of food and hugs and backs to carry loads for people they have described as mothers and brothers and sisters and fathers without ever meeting them before. 

With my own eyes I have seen a 12 year old girl, sick with a fainting disease that keeps her from school. I have seen the bloody rakes on her face from her last fall, and I have seen her stand on a podium with a first place prize after running a 12 kilometer race through her refugee settlement. 

With my own eyes I have seen refugee women in Thailand holding scissors in the air, dedicated eyes watching American hair dressers teach them American hair dressing on a volunteer trip going so unexpectedly well. With my own eyes I have seen them all weep on their last day together, teachers and students, all overwhelmed that they have found a couple dozen people brave enough to act out a belief that their world could be better, that they have everything they need to make it so. 

With my own eyes I have seen Syrian women gathered in a refugee camp to do aerobics. They extended a welcoming wave to me in between exercises, their hands on their hips, smiling in between heavy breaths. I have seen the library next door in the Youth Center built by refugee volunteers. I have seen Syrian kids play volleyball, passing the ball to each other, laughing, trying to feel alive, full of joy to see each other living. 

With my own eyes I have seen an old man in Eastern Congo, hands full of seeds, standing in front of a field full of vegetables, the sound of his family chattering as I take his photo in a place where gunshots and mortar shells once peppered the air. 

With my own eyes I have seen the bright white moon against the blue sky of the early morning, there in the window of my bedroom in the house I love in a state that stands for peace in a country full of dreams and the possibility of more every day. 

All of these things are part of the same world. I have seen them. And tomorrow when I see Bidi Bidi I will carry the belief, hold on to it with dogged determination, this belief given to me by so many, that the world I love exists – the one where my home stands and seeds grow and refugees do aerobics and build houses for each other – and that this world is full of people who make it better.

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