The Stories We Need
In a post last week I reflected a bit on having the “heart of a stranger” when it comes to how we think about the present Syrian refugee crisis. I wondered if some of our unwillingness to welcome the stranger might be due to the fact that many of us have never actually been strangers in any meaningful sense. I ended with a discussion of the twin biblical injunctions to remember and imagine well—to welcome the stranger either because we remember being strangers ourselves or because we can imagine what it would feel like to be one and how we would want to be welcomed.
Remembering is probably easier than imagining. Personal experience is worth a lot. But imagining is a lot easier when you are thinking not of abstract “refugees” or “immigrants” or “victims” out there but real human beings with names and faces. Imagining has not been difficult for me these last two days, mainly because of two conversations.
The first conversation took place yesterday. I read the news about the bombs dropping in the city of Homs and my heart sank. The two families that we are bringing to Lethbridge are from this city, even though they are currently living in Lebanon. And the contacts that we made with a few Syrian Christians back in spring (I wrote about them here) are still there. I quickly sent a text message to the one that I have been in communication with about the situation over there. I happened to be sitting in a tractor on my dad’s farm, helping with the harvest at the time. How are you? I asked my friend. I read the news today. Are you ok? Yes, he was fine, he said. For now. He proceeded to tell me about the bombs falling in his city, about the destruction and chaos all around him. He thanked God for his safety, and asked us to pray for him and for his church.
It felt surreal. There I was, on a glorious fall day, sitting in a tractor pouring messages into my phone while a world away my friend and brother was navigating a war zone. I would go home that night and take my kids to volleyball, youth group, etc. And he would go home to his wife and two small children while planes flew overhead and bombs fell, while all the competing rebel groups and superpowers clashed and collided in the shell of a nation that he stubbornly continued to call home.
Then, today, I sat in a college cafeteria with a young Muslim woman and her two small boys who had reached out to our local group to see if we might help her get her family to Canada. She told us stories of a brother who had been arrested and never seen since. About family members who had made the three-month harrowing journey from Syria to Libya to Greece to Italy to Sweden. About having to send money to bribe officials to let her brother and his family pass through certain areas. About not being able to work or sleep because she was so sick with worry about her sisters, brothers, and parents. About pounding on countless doors to try to get help and about nobody opening them. At one point, her eyes clouded over as she told us that she hasn’t seen her siblings for over six years, that her kids had never met their grandparents.
This, too, felt surreal. I looked around at all the students, coming and going, laughing and talking. I thought about the meetings I had attended earlier in the day where we had talked about mundane things… This, that, the other thing. How can all of this maddening normalcy exist when all around things are falling apart?
How desperately we need this memory and imagination in this world where things are falling apart. Especially the imagination.
And the thing is, it’s not as hard to imagine well when you talk to people that you know who are suffering, when you sit across the table from someone and hear their pain. It’s not as hard to imagine your own siblings a world away, struggling with young kids across treacherous routes when the story is right there in front of you. It’s not as hard to imagine yourself trying to survive a bombed out city when the words are staring back at you and you can visualize a face, a name, a future. It’s not hard to put yourself in your neighbour’s shoes when your neighbour’s words are showing up on your screen or when they’re sitting across the table from you with tears forming in their eyes.
I read yesterday that Donald Trump said that if he were elected president of the USA that he would send all the Syrians back immediately because they might be terrorists. A few weeks ago, I would have laughed this off as a bit of ridiculous American political theatre. But these last few weeks have reminded me that these sentiments aren’t as uncommon as we might expect (or hope). And the two conversations this week have me thinking that one of the best way to counter this kind of ignorant fear-mongering probably isn’t to respond with an avalanche of argumentative words, but to simply point people toward stories that fire our memories and imaginations in good and hospitable ways.
That’s why I write posts like this one. I’m convinced that we need stories like these—stories with people and faces and places and names and fragments of personal narratives. We need these stories to counteract all the abstraction that can drown out the basic humanity that exists at the heart of all of these massive global problems that can leave us feeling helpless and overwhelmed. We need these stories to keep us moving when we’re tired or feeling all used up or out of ideas. We need these stories because stories are the key to the memory and imagination we so desperately need.
We need stories because stories change things. Stories change us. If we let them.