“There is nothing that one human being will not do to another.” I heard Carolyn Forché read those words in the early 80’s when she visited Vanderbilt University, and I have never forgotten them. The actual line, from her poem, “The Visitor”, is this: “There is nothing one man will not do to another.” Today, we might also say, with horror and sadness, “There is nothing one man will not say about another…” or “there is nothing one human being will not say about another person’s country.”
President Trump’s words come, ironically, on the week of Martin Luther King Day. My sermon for Sunday is based upon Galatians 3:26-29: “There is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave or free, male or female”…how shall we paraphrase that for this week? “There is neither disparaged country (for I refuse to use the word) nor privileged country”. We are all created in God’s image. We are all beloved children of God.
On the way home from a conference yesterday, I read a book a parishioner loaned me. tells the story of Doaa Al Zamel, a young woman who was forced to leave her beloved homeland of Syria when the situation became too dangerous. She and her family tried to stay. But when there was no longer food, when her father’s place of employment was bombed, when their lives were threatened numerous times, they finally found a way to escape to Egypt, where they were at first welcomed. Shortly after they arrived, though, the political situation there shifted and Doaa’s family and many other Syrian refugees were barely able to survive.
The youngest member of the family, Doaa’s brother Hamudi, was nine years old when the family arrived in Egypt. As children often do, he adjusted easily to a new school in a new country. But after the Morsi government was ousted, the Egyptian kids who used to be Hamudi’s friends started to bully him. Next, the school announced they would no longer admit Syrian children. The Syrian parents protested so vehemently that the school relented, but the Syrian students were no longer allowed to sit at desks and had to sit on the floor. Finally one day, a menacing-looking man on a moped pulled up in the square outside the hotel where Doaa’s family was staying and began shouting, at the top of his lungs, “If any of you parents send your children to our schools, they will be returned back to you cut into pieces.” He shouted this threat over and over. And so Hamudi, a once bright and happy child, an eager student, spent the rest of his days in Egypt sulking at home. Is there anything one human being will not do to another?
Doaa and her fiance decide to pay a smuggler to get them out of Egypt and into Europe. Every refugee in their situation did the same thing: scrape together everything they could to have enough money to pay the smuggler, then wait for word, then watch as the smugglers steal from them, beat them, move them from one inadequate boat to another. Doaa and her group were nineteen hours from Italy, their destination, and starting to relax and think they had made it when a double-decker fishing boat approached their boat at full speed. Doaa could see about ten men on board, all looking at them with hatred. “You dogs,” they shouted to the refugee boat. “Where do you think you’re going? You should have stayed in your own country.” Then these men began hurling planks of wood at the passengers on the refugee boat while the fishing boat sped toward them, intending to collide at full speed and “send these filthy dogs to the bottom of the sea.” Is there anything one human being won’t say to another?
The cruelty is almost unimaginable.
Yet Doaa survives. I won’t ruin the book for you, because I hope you read it; her tale of courage and resilience is riveting. And she is assisted along the way by many kind people, including a family who takes her in temporarily in Greece, doctors who help her heal physically, and many people associated with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Melissa Fleming, who works for UNHCR, is the author of the book. Because of Sweden’s generous policies and people, Doaa and her family have a new homeland.
I’m left with renewed empathy for the plight of refugees, and also this. The words we say matter. The way we extend ourselves to offer kindness – it matters, too. If you are someone who has been belittled by words or acts of cruelty, kindness helps you maintain your hope, your faith in humanity. What can each of us do for our brothers and sisters who are suffering? What words can we say? When cruelty is abounding, kindness will have to abound all the more.