A Migrant's Story

As we continue our exploration of this month's theme of "Journey," Rev. Peter offers further reflections on his trip to the border last December and examine the human right to migrate.

Sermon: "A Migrant's Story"; Rev. Peter Friedrichs

I would like to read you a poem this morning, written by Warsan Shire. Ms. Shire, who is 30 years old, was born in Kenya to Somali parents and raised in London. This poem, whose title is simply “Home,” speaks to the plight of refugees and migrants in graphic and sometimes violent terms, including use of the n-word and references to sexual assault. I will read an edited version of the poem, but encourage those who are courageous and curious and who won’t be traumatized by the language to read the full text, which will be included in the text of this sermon that will be posted on the church website. You can, of course, also find the full text online on other sites.

"Home" – by Warsan Shire
 
no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well
 
your neighbors running faster than you
breath bloody in their throats
the boy you went to school with
who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory
is holding a gun bigger than his body
you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay.
 
no one leaves home unless home chases you
fire under feet
hot blood in your belly
it’s not something you ever thought of doing
until the blade burnt threats into
your neck
and even then you carried the anthem under
your breath
only tearing up your passport in an airport toilet
sobbing as each mouthful of paper
made it clear that you wouldn’t be going back.
 
you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
no one burns their palms
under trains
beneath carriages
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled
means something more than journey.
no one crawls under fences
no one wants to be beaten
pitied
 
no one chooses refugee camps
or strip searches where your
body is left aching
or prison,
because prison is safer
than a city of fire
and one prison guard
in the night
is better than a truckload
of men who look like your father
no one could take it
no one could stomach it
no one skin would be tough enough
 
the
go home blacks
refugees
dirty immigrants
asylum seekers
sucking our country dry
niggers with their hands out
they smell strange
savage
messed up their country and now they want
to mess ours up
how do the words
the dirty looks
roll off your backs
maybe because the blow is softer
than a limb torn off
 
or the words are more tender
than fourteen men between
your legs
or the insults are easier
to swallow
than rubble
than bone
than your child body
in pieces.
i want to go home,
but home is the mouth of a shark
home is the barrel of the gun
and no one would leave home
unless home chased you to the shore
unless home told you
to quicken your legs
leave your clothes behind
crawl through the desert
wade through the oceans
drown
save
be hunger
beg
forget pride
your survival is more important
 
no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear
saying-
leave,
run away from me now
i dont know what i’ve become
but i know that anywhere is safer than here
 
I cannot read this poem, which I have, over and over since I discovered it, without picturing Maria[i] and her six children. I met Maria and her six children in Tijuana last December. They were huddled in the early-morning cold, standing in a concrete square just outside the metal gates that stand like a monster’s mouth with teeth bared at the San Ysidro port of entry between the United States and Mexico. I passed through those gates with complete impunity for the week I was there, but to Maria and her six children those gates were completely impenetrable.

Maria and her six children, the oldest of whom was just eight and the youngest was an infant in her arms, were scared and confused. They had made the trek to Tijuana from their home country of Honduras as part of the so-called “migrant caravan.” Maria and her six children had walked most of the way, although for parts of the trip they’d been able to cram themselves onto a crowded truck bed with other asylum-seekers. To put their migration journey into perspective, Maria and her six children walked a distance that’s equivalent to walking from here to Los Angeles. Walking. With six children under eight years old.

“no one leaves home unless/home is the mouth of a shark.”

Maria and the two oldest of the six children were carrying tattered plastic shopping bags with the meagre personal belongings they’d brought along with them.

and no one would leave home
unless home chased you to the shore
unless home told you
to quicken your legs
leave your clothes behind
 
Through my translator, Felix, I learned that Maria was confused. She understood that when she got to the border, she would be able to present herself and her six children to the U.S. authorities and ask for asylum. Legally, I explained to her, she was right. But practically she wasn’t. Felix and I explained that the U.S. government was restricting the daily number of asylum-seekers who could apply. And then we explained how other migrants like herself had set up and were administering the process for getting on the list, getting a number, and waiting until that number was called. “There,” we told her, pointing toward a makeshift tent, the kind we use for picnics at the beach. “There is where you wait in line and get your number.” We didn’t bother to tell Maria and her six children that this limitation, and this process, were all in violation of international law, because that didn’t matter to Maria or her six children who had fled from their home in Honduras and walked the distance from here to Los Angeles.
 
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
no one burns their palms
under trains
beneath carriages
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled
means something more than journey.
 
After Maria and her six children waited in line with other migrants from Honduras and Guatemala and Nicaragua and Cameroon and Kenya and even a few from Russia, after Maria and her six children had been handed a scrap of paper with a four-digit number scrawled on it, Felix and I explained to Maria that she and her six children would need to come to the plaza by the metal gates that stood gaping like the mouth of the monster to wait for her number to be called, but that could take weeks or months. We told her that if she missed her number being called, she and her six children would have to get a new number and wait even longer. Then Felix and I told Maria and her six children about Al Otro Lado. We told her that there were people there who could help her understand what would happen when her number was called. What happened when she passed through the mouth of the monster and entered the asylum process. And we told her about how there were people at Al Otro Lado who prepared two meals a day that were free for anyone who needed them, no questions asked. We gave Maria a hand-drawn map that showed her how to get to Al Otro Lado. “Across from the Wax Museum” we told her. And then we told her that lunch was served at 11:30 and dinner at 5:30. Maria took my hand in hers and shook it. “Gracias,” she said, holding my hand in hers. “Muchas gracias.” And Felix didn’t need to translate that for me. And I felt like I had helped but more than that I felt angry and ashamed that my country, so full of freedom and opportunity, refused to take in Maria and her six children who had walked the distance from here to Los Angeles because they feared for their lives. And after Maria shook my hand and thanked me for the meager help I had offered, Maria and her six children turned away. The children grabbed each others’ hands, as they no doubt had done for the miles that are the same as between here and Los Angeles, holding each others’ hands for safety and for security, forming a chain of love and desperation, a chain of hunger and hope that had remained unbroken for the distance that is the same as from here to Los Angeles, and they disappeared into the streets of Tijuana.
 
no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear
saying-
leave,
run away from me now
i dont know what i’ve become
but i know that anywhere is safer than here
 

Bryan Stevenson, an attorney who has dedicated his career to helping death row inmates, tells us that, to work for justice, we need to be prepared to do four things: We need to “get proximate.” We need to “change the narrative.” We need to “hold onto hope.” And we need to “do things that are inconvenient and uncomfortable.” By getting proximate, by stepping outside our own communities of comfort, by getting physically close to those who are oppressed, those who suffer, those whose lives are at risk, we enter into a different kind of relationship with them. Justice-making becomes more than an intellectual exercise. It becomes personal, intimate.

Changing the narrative invites us to open ourselves to a new way of seeing those who suffer. Not as enemy. Not as other. But as fellow human beings, each with a story of their own. The dominant narrative with asylum-seekers is about their criminality. Their violence. Their being a drain on our society and our limited resources. There is another story to be told, about the fact that immigrants commit crimes at far lower rates than our natural-born citizens. That they pay billions of dollars a year in taxes, even those who are undocumented. That there is no “invasion” at our southern border, but a steady stream of women and children whose lives are at risk. We need to change the narrative.

Bryan Stevenson reminds us that we cannot afford to feel hopeless. He tells us that we’re either hopeful or we’re part of the problem. “Injustice prevails where hopelessness persists,” he tells us.[1] He doesn’t have a prescription for inoculating us against hopelessness, but he tells us that being hopeful is our “superpower.” I would suggest that we stay hopeful by being in community with other justice seekers. That we find and join communities of hope and courage and compassion, where we can add our voice to the chorus singing for justice.

And, finally, we need to do things that are inconvenient and uncomfortable. We need to stretch, to push the edge of our envelope of our ease and comfort. It doesn’t mean we need to put ourselves at unreasonable risk, but it means we need to be willing, at least temporarily, to leave the safety and security of what we know to find out what we can learn and what we can do. When I went to the border in December, I didn’t go live in a shelter with asylum-seekers. Each night, I crossed back into the safe and comfortable bosom of the United States. I didn’t dodge gunshots in Tijuana at night. I ate dinner at a Smashburger. But I did cross that border every morning, traveling back in time almost, into an underdeveloped country where poverty and violence are rampant. It was inconvenient and it was uncomfortable, and it changed me.

I desperately want to know where Maria and her six children are at this very moment. Are they still in Tijuana, waiting? Was their number called, and they’re together in detention awaiting an asylum hearing? Are they even still together, or have Maria’s children been taken from her? Does anyone know where those children are, or how to reunite them with Maria? Have they, under a cruel new policy of this Administration, applied for asylum in this country and then been returned to Tijuana, spit back out through the mouth of the monster, to await a verdict on their asylum claim? Are they, in the name of “migrant protection,” sitting in a shelter or living on the streets of the murder capital of Mexico, where more than 2,500 people were killed last year? Do they huddle in the fragile safety of a tent city full of other migrants, hoping to avoid the sex-traffickers, the gangs, the drug-runners who own the streets of Tijuana at night? I pray that they are among the lucky few who have been affixed with an ankle monitor and released, dropped off at the San Diego Greyhound terminal without so much as a dime to make a phone call. I pray that Maria and her six children have been taken in by the dedicated and overworked volunteers with the San Diego Rapid Response Network, which provides temporary housing, meals and clothing to asylum seekers, helps them locate family members or sponsors in the U.S., and even helps with their transportation. Because neither state, nor local, nor Federal assistance is offered to people like Maria and her six children.

Let us all pray for Maria and her six children, and for the thousands of men, women and children like her, whose fate is in the hands of our government. But let’s not stop with prayer. Let’s get proximate. Let’s change the narrative. Let’s always be hopeful, and let’s choose to do something inconvenient or uncomfortable. Because “no one leaves home unless/home is the mouth of a shark.”

May it be so.


[i] Not her real name