The last time I wrote to you, I told you about the first time I attempted an airport pick-up for new refugees. I told you about how the the family didn’t show up, but how much it lifted and broke me when they did show up the next day.
This time, I want to tell you a story about the second time I did an airport pick-up. It’s a story of how I relished every second of it because I knew it would most likely be my last. Weeks in hindsight, I can assure you: it was my last.
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It was a Wednesday evening, and we prepared nearly all day for a Congolese family of 8 who had travelled through Tanzania to come to us. We went through the arrival routine— purchased culturally appropriate food, checked the apartment to make sure it’s clean, safe, and decent, etc. and yada yada. And then, we sat at the airport to wait. Part of me wished I had brought a book to read, but the other part of me enjoyed the sitting and people-watching. We had planned for a 30 minute wait— but remember, the greatest lesson to learn in this line of work is plans. Change. Often. We realized that the flight was running over an hour behind, so we set up camp beside the Starbucks and watched through the glass window at the gate as people from all different places, skin tones, luggage colors, and accents walked by us.
These moments of waiting were precious. You see, this was only days after the travel ban had been put in place. It was honestly of God’s grace that we even had this opportunity. Every day I’d ask my supervisor when arrivals were going to be finished, and she’d just say, “Just one more. Just one more.” These moments were precious because they were coming to a quick close, and I didn’t know where I’d be lost in it. Although I kept checking my watch, my mind wandered back to the same thought: what an honor it is to be here. What an honor it is to welcome them.
Finally, we saw them. Because again: you don’t sit in the heart of the heart of the Bible-reading and country-music-playing South and miss a foreign African family of 8 very easily.
“Eden, they’re here,” I said and jumped up. I ran to the opening at the gate, just before the “Do Not Enter” signs. I started waving frantically at them, and they nearly walked right past us. Thank God for our Swahili translator though— otherwise they would have no way to hear us say hello and welcome. And I think I said it to each member of the family at least twice. They had no clue what I was saying, I think my heart was just glad to voice those words. I grinned from ear to ear, as I shook their hand in sweet, sweet Congolese fashion.
We walked to the baggage claim, and grabbed just the three bags they had for the entire family of 8. As they sat, I realized how tired they looked. Their faces sat still and their eyes blinked slowly. I thought back to my summer traveling across the country, and then the ocean. My oh my, were those days wonderful and exhausting all in one. I just wanted to hug them, and tuck them into a bed. Honestly, it’d probably be the first one they’ve slept in for some time.
As we stood to make our way to the van, and then to their new home, I grabbed a little one to carry. “Hi, baby,” I smiled at her. Honestly, she smelled. She smelled of a long travel, too-few bathroom stops, and of countries much less clean than the high standard of the States. I didn’t care though. I walked and baby-talked to her in a language she doesn’t know yet. I watched her tired eyes blink, and I could tell that she felt awkward in the large puffer coat she wore. She watched the faces that walked past us, and I thought for a minute that I could count her eyelashes. “No, I cannot. But God can. He did,” I thought, blinking away tears. In my heart, I begged for every face I pass to look at the face of the baby I held and to have compassion.
As we walked to the van— a baby in my arms, her 5 brothers and sisters trailing behind, her parents carrying bags, my Ethiopian supervisor, and our recently resettled refugee translator— my heart filled with pride. So much pride for this family’s journey, and for the opportunity coming ahead of them too. I dared anyone who walked past to give a look or to say a word, because I was ready to defend this family and their story I had yet to hear.
And just as planned, we took them home, showed them how to use their dishwasher, lock the door, open the curtains, and all the other little things you and I take for granted. We gave them the first little bit of pocket money from their funding, and promised them someone would come by tomorrow to visit. We left, and just as I always do when we leave client homes, I wondered when I’d see them again and hoped this wasn’t a hello / goodbye.
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As it turns out, I’m the one who came to visit them later. I brought another resettled refugee, teenage client with me to watch the kids while I brought the parents to sign the lease at their apartment office. Something about my teenage friend is different, and I’m so eager for the day when she and I can converse. But for today, we talked about her favorite color, food, and animals in her small and broken English. It was enough.
Once we arrived to the large family’s home, my friend stayed with the 6 little ones while the parents and I made our way to the apartment office. Honestly, you never realize how much passion you can put into such a simple thing like signing an apartment lease until you are the mediator between refugee clients and the apartment office–
I never thought I’d have to call a Swahili interpreter three times before realizing my iPhone speaker wouldn’t work for the first time in forever.
I never thought we’d get him on a speaker phone in an office, so the entire building would hear our signing process.
I also never thought the fat office cat would step right on the phone cord in the middle of the call, and disconnect the interpreter. Again, we called him back. And after 45 or so minutes, he asked how much longer it would take. I chuckled and said we were almost done, hoping that I was right.
Afterwards, I showed the parents the mailbox and drove them back to the apartment where they told me they needed baby soap. So I ran to Kroger. Bought a bottle of Johnson’s. And came back just to pick up my friend, and leave.
On our way back to my friend’s apartment on the other side of town, I gave her a chocolate bar I picked up with the baby shampoo. Her face lit up, and in her little English she said, “Oh, very good! I like chocolate!”
I tell you. You don’t go through things that like for a person you don’t love, or at least like little bit.
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Three weeks later, and things have slowed down significantly at the office. I’m sent on an assignment for another case worker that leads me back to that apartment with the family of 8. Eager to see them, I load up in the large World Relief van and turn the key. Heading to the other side of town, I walk to that door I stood at just a few weeks ago and knock.
The dad answers, and I’m grinning from ear to ear. I reach out my hand, and he invites me inside as the kids like to stare at me– like they usually do. I step in as the whole family is still scrambling to get ready. “We must hurry, hurry,” I tell them waving my arms— again, as usual. Half of this job is motivation, honestly.
While I wait just inside the doorway, I play with the kids who are ready. They keep grinning at me, and I do too as I watch them. I watched as one rolled his socks up to his knees over his pants legs, and then chuckled when his dad responded in their language and (I assume) told him to put his socks under his pants. I helped a big sister dress the baby I held that night we left the airport, as she attempted to put the pants on backwards. You think getting kids ready is difficult— imagine doing it in a place where you’re still learning how to live.
At some point, I knelt down to shake the hands of the little ones. The toddler wearing floral shoes, a denim skirt, and a boy polo, came over to me grinning from ear to ear. She just stood in front of me smiling, and I thought back to that night at the airport. Oh, how good it was to see her rested and closer to being restored.
She moved closer to me, and we were eye to eye. Her arms wrapped around my neck and I giggled as she hugged me. As she moved away, she reached her hand to the necklace that sat on my neck. Her fingers grabbed the gold, world-map donned on a chain that I almost forgot I was wearing. She gazed at it, and touched it. She pulled at it, as most toddlers would, and I wrapped my hands around hers so that she wouldn’t pull it off my neck.
As we sat like this for a few minutes— her playing with the gold, shiny world map on my neck, and me just watching her— I wondered what she was thinking. My thoughts ran poetically, as they usually do in these precious, precious moments when reality feels so vulnerable and unexplainable–
How wonderful to kneel in the presence of a toddler, and hand in hand gaze at a world map. What an act of grace that even as our stories began in different places and have taken different paths, we could still both meet in this living room in Hermitage, Tennessee on an ordinary day in February– even as innumerable others would say she belonged on the other side of the world. What a moment to live in.
Even as my legs began to feel the weight of kneeling for so long, I didn’t stand. It was a moment of victory and love that I don’t quite understand. And I knew that’s what this line of work is about: kneeling in the presence of the weak, and speaking the truth to them that these moments are no accident. I wanted to show her–
“My friend, you are from here and I am from here. We look different, we talk different, we have a different story. But we are the same. We are both made and loved by a God who cares about us so much. You’re not here by accident, little one. You are a gift and a treasure. This world is not so big and far away as we make it out to be— after all, look, you’re here.”
I watched her blink and fiddle with that map for just a few moments. And then, just like that, it was time to go and make it to Nolensville Pike for our appointment that we were already late for. We loaded up in the van– the entire family of 8 and me– and the youngest baby screamed the entire drive there. But I didn’t mind, because just sharing this presence with this family was worth it.
Oh, what an honor it is to welcome them. What an honor.