One year I organized an art class for a bunch of Somali Bantu kids who were desperately bored during spring break. Because those years were full of well-meaning but chaotic programs and events, I can’t remember all the details. Never one to pursue hard work or organization or responsibility, I strangely found myself becoming a party planner for refugee kids, filling in the holes left by a school system that wasn’t equipped to deal with pre-literate, traumatized children. I put together art classes, homework clubs, field trips, and basketball camps, anything to get them out of their apartments, where they watched dreary PBS cartoons almost nonstop.
Over seventeen Somali Bantu families had migrated to a specific low-income apartment complex in Portland. It smelled of goat liver, oil, and ginger. Around every corner you found women buying colorful dresses out of the trunks of cars, men smoking and laughing on the steps, children shrieking and running and pulling on your legs. They had created their own world in the midst of modernity; and I was happy to spend my free time in Little Somalia.
During that particular spring break I decided the art class would be a sort of free-form “process” kind of event (i.e. throwing a few crayons and pieces of paper around and calling it good if nobody lost an eye). I was an expert on guilting fellow Bible college students into volunteering to help me, capitalizing on the inter-cultural studies majors and various boys who half-heartedly had crushes on me. We all met in the community room of the apartment complex, and I wandered around, keeping my eye on the most squirrelly of the boys and reveling in the din of non-bored children.
I came upon one small boy, age 6 or 7 or 8 (it can be so hard to tell, especially as the U.S. government made up most of their birthdates by eyeballing the child). While most of the kids were drawing typical square houses with smiling suns and weird, squat stick figures, this little boy had drawn a lion dragging something in the dirt. Nonchalantly I asked, “Nabin, is that a lion?”
“What is that?” I asked, pointing to the smudge in the lion’s mouth. Nabin didn’t look up.
“That’s a boy.” The din of the room was suddenly replaced with a static stillness, the sound of my joy being swallowed up in horror.
“Nabin, did you see this happen?” He remained stoic, intent on finishing the picture. Coloring in some more dirt, a few tufts of grass, a sun with no smiley face. He nodded his head. A few kids gathered around, interested in my stricken face. They snatched the picture out of Nabin’s hands.
“Oooo, yeah,” they said. “I remember when the boy got eaten.” The older ones sense the drama of the moment, the littler ones are confused and quiet.
“I remember when the boy got eaten by a lion. My mother would not let us play outside for a week. We just sat inside all day, so boring.” They let the paper drop, it floated to the floor. Another volunteer picked it up and we taped it to the wall along with the rest of them, the square houses, the four-petal flowers, and mermaid families. One true story, framed by copies of other stories.
Around that same time I took a handful of the kids to see a movie in the theater for the first time. I am the first to admit that my ideas aren’t always the brightest. I hadn’t considered things such as movie theatre etiquette being a learned cultural behavior. We saw Charlotte’s Web, and the kids shrieked and shouted and giggled and talked loudly to each other and to the characters on the screen and I almost died of mortification. There came a scene where the crow is talking to somebody (a pig? or Charlotte? or some girl? I was too busy shushing children to pay attention) and all the kids got real quiet. Like, weirdly quiet. I shrugged it off and enjoyed the peace until I noticed the little girl next to me, Duni, was crying.
“What’s wrong?” I whispered. She just pointed at the bird on the screen and cried silently. I rubbed her little back and then crept down the aisle until I found Hali, the oldest girl.
“Why is Duni crying?” I asked. Hali was looking pretty freaked out herself.
“It’s the bird,” she said, motioning to the crow. “That’s the bird that eats the eyes of the dead people.” Silence. Crouching awkwardly in the aisle, my mind is racing.
“Is that something your mom told you? About the bird?” Hali looked at me strangely. “My mother didn’t tell us,” she said. “We all see it.”
I told the kids to cover their eyes until the crow flew away, and then we watched a movie about spiders dying and how tragic it is. I can’t stop thinking that this movie; a story designed to introduce children to the circle of life concept in an uplifting manner, but only succeeded in reminding the refugee kids of their own, much more harsh realities.
And then later, when I cajoled one of those poor Bible college boys into marrying me and moving into the apartment complexes where all my Somali Bantu friends lived, we had Hali and her two sisters, Manoi and Abey over for dinner. They stared at the pictures of Jesus on the wall and shrieked at our cat, an extremely ill-tempered beast named Huckleberry (whom they called Taco Bell, for reasons still unclear). After they got over their initial fright at seeing a cat inside, the girls got down on the floor and whistled and snapped their fingers at the kitty, and they started to tell me that they had a cat too, way back when they lived in the refugee camps in Kenya.
I had tried asking them about Kakuma, the refugee camp where I knew the youngest two were born and raised. Laid out in the middle of the desert, Kakuma was a barren place for devastated people, a holding zone for the desperate. Whenever I asked them what they remembered about life in the camps, they would just look at me and shrug, unable to describe what to them was their old life. But now, sprawled out on the floor and cooing at my cat, they started to talk. “We had a cat, back in Africa” said Abey.
“Yeah,” Manoi chimed in. “The cat was so cute and so nice. It would come by every day and we would give it the food.”
They were silent for a minute, and then Abey said, “And then one day the cat went away.”
Hali looked up. “Yeah, my father said we had no more food, so we didn’t have the food to give to the cat, and so it went away. My father said it went away.” The girls tentatively stroked Taco Bell, and they didn’t talk about their cat anymore. My face was tight with the effort of looking normal, but inside I could have burst with sadness at the answers to all the questions I wanted to ask but couldn’t bear to.
There were clear gaps between us. My tiny childhood traumas lost all perspective. Once, my parents took my cat (named Bruce Springsteen, by my dad) to the pound. They told me he went to live in the country, which made my sisters and I wild with excitement whenever we went out of town. “Maybe we’ll see Bruce!” we would scream, noses pressed to glass. When the inevitable truth came out, years later, I fancied myself traumatized. But my parents had only told a white lie and took our troublesome cat away. The Somali girls had their cat die of starvation, another grim reminder that there was no margin in their childhoods, no buffers to keep the unimaginable at bay.
Looking back, it is clear that although I was eager to help them—spiritually, logistically, socially—I was completely unprepared to work with the levels of atrocities, the horror show of slavery, war, rape, famine, and death that was their collective history. I was ignorant, enthusiastic, naïve, and eventually heartbroken. Art classes and basketball camps and homework clubs are laughable when viewed through the history of the Somali Bantu. But in my own small way, I was trying to ease their burdens.
At some point, all truly living people must ask why such terrible things happen to people, to children, to babies, to kitties. I myself worked this out in Bible college (see: free will, righteousness, the fall of man, sin, judgment, justice). But my bigger question is this: why did so many good things happen to me? How did I win the lottery of being white, American, lower-middle class, born with the knowledge of Jesus seemingly flowing in my veins, assuring me of grace and love and forgiveness from the start?
I just don’t know.
If you read the Bible you will find that Jesus, all anti-establishment and promoting social justice and advocating for the others, lived his life blurring the lines between those with buffers and those without. He hung out with women, prostitutes, tax collectors, gluttons, religious right-wingers and crude fishermen. To the religious, those smug in their own righteousness, he warned of coming judgment time and time again. To the weary and heavy-laden, he offered grace, peace, rest. “For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” [Matthew 11:30]
But then he left. Jesus left us all, to sit at the right hand of God the Father. And when he left, he told his few followers to be his literal body, the church, to take on the job of proclaiming rest to the bone tired and soul-sick. There was no contingency plan; Jesus placed his kingdom in the hands of a bunch of screw-ups. And as you know, it’s been something of a complicated story from that point on.
One thing is clear: there are still many of those who are heavy laden, those poor and tired and huddled masses seemingly beckoned here and then left to fend for themselves once again, the exiles among us. Who will befriend, who will sit in silence, who will listen to the stories? Who will write for those who were denied access to education? The burdened are here, all around us.
We who are certain of our own rightness, our busy pursuits of life, should be wary. Jesus, himself a refugee with no place to rest his head, would himself love to shoulder the burdens of the world. But he isn’t here. If you and I don’t do it, then no one will.
There is no contingency plan.