Radical Like Me

“Children look out at the sunset over the Bamarne IDP camp in northern Iraq” © Andrew McConnell/Panos for DFID, CC BY-NC 2.0, via Flickr (with modifications)

Speech delivered for the International Speech Contest at Essex Toastmasters on February 23, 2017:

Are you radical? Probably not. Neither was I. I have a nice life, and I enjoy enjoying it. I had always supported expanding rights and opportunities for the vulnerable and less fortunate, but I had been happy to let my donations to social justice causes speak for me. Nothing too radical there.

I used to work with radicals at the U.S. Fund for UNICEF in New York City. While I was swamped with writing human rights curriculum, with a long commute, and with family obligations, my young idealistic colleagues were leading demonstrations and candlelight vigils and training volunteers. Though I could not join them, I knew why they tried to shake things up. The state of the world’s children is alarming. Due to poverty, conflict, and crisis, families worldwide struggle to provide their children with basic health care, nutrition, education, and protection. I wrote teaching and learning materials on all of these issues, most notably focusing on the fallout from the civil war in Syria. I had empathy for the children enduring these challenges, but they were distant, allowing me to approach my work rather clinically. I thought I could make a difference and not have to be radical.

Until I became the driver of the Azmeh* family from Syria. (NOTE: All names have been changed to protect the family’s privacy.)

Since leaving my job, I had been trying for months to continue my work on behalf of vulnerable children. This month, I got my chance: driving this family of Syrian refugees that I had never met before, to their first cultural orientation appointment at Church World Service in Jersey City. On a rainy morning, I arrived at the Azmeh’s rented house with my driving partner. He loaded up the three boys. The father, Abdullah, the only one who knew a few words of English, climbed in next to me, while the mother, Amena, and their daughter, 15-year-old Zeynah, sat in the back.

I didn’t know what to expect. Despite working for UNICEF, I had never interacted with families in need before. I wanted to make my passengers feel at ease. We set off and soon passed a diner, at which point I tried to convey the abundance of choices at this distinctly New Jersey institution. “Ah … restaurant? Food, lots of food. Anything you want. Um … pizza, hamburgers …:” Abdullah seemed to get it, but then I thought about how such luxury had probably been out of reach for his family for years. Behind his smile, was he judging America, with all its wealth, for not doing more to help his country?

As we drove past a high school, I thought about the Azmeh children. Did they get school in a refugee camp, or had they not been in a classroom since the war reached them in Syria? I looked in the rear-view mirror at Zeynah sitting next to her mother, both in hijabs. Instead of going to school, did Zeynah have to earn money as a domestic worker in a scary foreign city? Was she harmed in the process?

What was their journey like? We crossed the bridge through the Meadowlands, and I wondered if their bridge out of the Middle East consisted of a rubber raft plying the choppy waters of the Mediterranean. Their hometown might yield a clue as to when they left and how they got here. Abdullah said, “Aleppo.” Good God. All I could effectively communicate were the words “I’m glad you’re here now,” but even if their English were better, I’m not sure I could have composed a more sophisticated response. What can you say to someone who has experienced such trauma?

I began discovering the answer to that question while the Azmehs were in their orientation. Learning about America with another family from Iraq, they felt more at ease. Meanwhile, volunteers worked with the three smallest children on their English skills in the waiting room. The older ones smiled at each little achievement, but the youngest, a five-year-old Iraqi girl, wasn’t game to try. I couldn’t let her not feel as good as the boys, so I opened my heart and began to play with her. I let her turn the pages of a picture book and taught her on her level. “Look, cake! Mmmmm …” “Elmo’s waving hello! Hello, Elmo!” She trusted me more. We played with a toy castle, and she moved my hand to the play figures she wanted me to pick up and give voice to. “I love you,” the little cow said to her, giving her a kiss. She laughed. And I loved.

And there was the answer to my question. When in doubt, speak the language of love to a refugee child, or to her flight-weary father. Even if they say nothing in return, speak love. With your words or your deeds. Even if children and families are on the run nowhere near you, speak love for them to those around you. Though far away, they will hear you.

Speak as Americans, who share the bond of providing refuge for those escaping shackles of many kinds in search of a new birth of freedom. Your ancestors from abroad made America stronger; so will they.

Speak love in spite of your fear of the different, of the sinister. There is but a narrow bridge of access to America for refugees; it is essential not to fear stepping onto its creaky planks to help them cross. There will be missteps, but there are always missteps, because danger in the world is unavoidable. Speak love; sing love, as Leonard Cohen did:

And even when it all goes wrong

I will stand before the Lord of Song

With nothing on my tongue but halleluyah.

Praise the mystery that made us human with your love of your many brothers and sisters. Even though it could all go wrong. Reject your fear of the different, the other, the unknown. Change, change radically. Love radically. Be a radical, like me.