The thing I like best about the apartments of my Somali friends are the colorful tapestries on the walls. The fabrics, draped everywhere, to give a little comfort and beauty in low-income spaces. Velvet posters and elaborate tea sets and woven mats and faux-persian carpets cover the walls. Low, luxurious couches line the walls. It smells of cooking oil and ginger and meat. There is probably a thermos full of chai, somewhere. There is most likely a TV in the corner, watching either PBS or Jerry Springer or a video of a relative getting married far away.
I have spent countless hours in such apartments. I sort of wrote an entire book about it. Sitting in awkward silence. Getting in the way of the day’s activities. Trying to decipher bills and school memos for people. Going over homework that will never be fully absorbed. Watching Disney channel movies. Eating goat liver while sitting on the floor. Talking about families and relatives and catching up on all the gossip. Calling electricity companies and being put on hold for hours. Trying to sort out problems with money transfers, or helping older folks get onto Facebook, or troubleshooting broken cell phones. I am good at none of these things, but these hours spent being lost and confused and intrigued and welcomed inside these sacred spaces of East African life in the U.S.—they are the hours that changed me. They are the hours that made me who I am today.
Three men plotted to blow up such a space. A 120 unit apartment in Kansas where many Somali families lived. They planned to park trucks at all four corners of the apartment complex, the day after the presidential elections, and kill every man woman and child that lived there. These men were crusaders, they called themselves. The hatred in their hearts seems unthinkable to me, except that is no longer the right word. For Somali refugees, for instance, it is probably within their realm of normal thought that someone would try and harm them, try and ruin their way of life and kill their babies, that someone would want to exert their dominance in such a violent, horrific way. After all, such situations are why so many had to flee Somalia in the first place, so they are not new to this situation. But I am. I have never known before what it feels like when friends of mine are targeted for death, for hatred, like they are bugs to be squashed. I have never known what is feels like to be acutely aware that it is my people, my culture, that wants to eradicate others. Or maybe, just maybe, I have known. I just never wanted to admit it out loud. That white males are one of the most likely terrorist group of our time. And yet they are the ones who I was taught to look up to, to learn theology from, to uphold as the bastions of family virtues and values. And now, all around me, I see the opposite. I see my culture being so vocal in their lust for power, the belittlement of women and immigrants and Muslims and people of color, I see a culture that has betrayed me and just about everyone I love.
Here’s how I move forward:
I think about a few weeks ago. Visiting a friend who is a refugee from Afghanistan. She brings out trays of food to her coffee table, smashed in-between two overstuffed couches. She gives us pistachios and cake and candies wrapped in cellophane paper, dates and large glasses filled to the brim with cranberry juice. My children are ecstatic, eating the sugary items with great joy as I try not mind the inevitable crash I will have to deal with later. My friend has her oldest daughter take a picture of me and her and my children. It’s for my mother, she says, so she will know I have a friend who visited me for Eid. I felt very small in that moment; I hadn’t even remembered that it was the Eid-al-Adha holiday. Technically it was the next day, my friend told me, but she decided to celebrate a day early once I showed up, just so she wouldn’t have to celebrate it alone. I was happy to fellowship with her, to chat and laugh and eat the festive food. But I was also acutely aware that I had just happened to stop by on accident, a whim, to give a reminder about some school related item. What if I hadn’t stopped by? Would she be alone that day, like so many others? Would I be alone in my own house, unaware of the trials of others?
The great wells of cultural isolation, the ocean of loneliness we all swim in—it overwhelms me. So I keep doing the only thing I know how to do: I knock on doors and sit on couches. The apartments of refugees are where I am doing battle for the light. I am fighting for my neighborhood, my community, and ultimately, my country.
If I lived in Garden City Kansas, I might have resided in that very apartment complex. Those are the kinds of spaces I am obsessed with, that I love, that fill me up and open my eyes to so many new experiences. Here in Portland, I lived for years in what was considered to be our own Little Somalia. If these men had lived here, me and my children and my husband might have been blown up. This does not fill me with fear, because it is still just a theoretical. And yet it is turning out to be a much more plausible fear than one that any of my refugee neighbors would ever harm me.
My country was founded on white supremacy, the belief that the white western way of operating in the world is superior to all others. The results of this underlying assumption that undergirds nearly everything of our country ranges from benign naivety to micro-aggressions to men plotting to kill hundreds of people based on their race and religion. If this election season has shown us anything, it is that white supremacy is alive and well in our hearts and minds, and always has been. It’s been jarring and depressing for people like myself, but this season is not without its own silver lining. Only what is brought into the light can be dealt with. And here we are, a blazing light being shown on the ugliness within. It’s time to figure out how to be white in a society which elevates us and denigrates others. It’s time for radical hospitality, empathy, and action. It’s time to give up positions of power and influence and platforms and listen to the voices who have been saying all along that there is another way. It’s time to mourn how oppressive white supremacy is, how anti-gospel and anti-Jesus it is. It’s time to start fearing for our own souls. People say they are scared of refugees, scared of Muslims, scared of foreigners and protestors and immigrants and activists. But these are the ones who have shown me another way. They have taken my fear and my despair and turned it into something else: they have turned it into hope.
Today a storm is hitting Oregon. It is wet and dark and rainy and the winds are starting to pick up. If the power goes out I will be worried about all of my friends in apartment complexes. Do they have water? Will they feel scared? And I realize they have survived so much more than me, they will survive a few days without power, a little bit of flooding, but still—I pick up a few extra gallons of water just in case. They would do the same for me, and more, in a heartbeat. They watch out for me and my family. As I grieve my own community—Christian men defending assault and xenophobia and outright racism—I find comfort in the safe spaces of the apartments of my friends and neighbors.
Survivors teach us. They teach us how to continue on, how to rebuild lives, how to exist in a world where people want you harmed, or worse. They are also the watchmen of our culture, and they are the first to suffer as leaders whip up aggression and fear.
Please keep our refugee and immigrant neighbors in your prayers. If you attend a church, or are a leader in a church, please consider contacting your local mosque and asking how you can support their community in this time of violent words and violent action. Contact your local refugee resettlement program and ask how you can volunteer or help with Muslim refugees, to let them know that we have a greater capacity for welcome than for hate.
Maybe someday, you too will find yourself in a similar apartment, a similar couch. This is the only strategy I have for these days and times, and in the end I think it is the only one that will work.