Answering before listening is both stupid and rude

This nugget of wisdom comes from the book of Proverbs (18:13). In the same chapter you will find that “Fools care nothing for thoughtful discourse; all they do is run off at the mouth.”

I can be both. Stupid and rude. And few other adjectives if you ask people who know me the best. My mom would have probably never admitted to others that she found me arrogant and too opinionated in our conversations. (Simply because she was the kind of mom who always ‘covered my sins’.) And don’t ask my husband. It is a given.

Why the confession? Because it is hard to practice what we preach. There is a general universal lament that we need relearn the basics of good, respectful, well-mannered, thoughtful conversations, dialogue, discussions, debates. Anything that falls under human communication. And the crucial skill of listening and actually hearing what the other person or group are saying and why do they see things differently from us.

Recently I attended a large meeting where the stakes were high and the main goal was to deal with polarization within an church organization and for two groups of opposite views to have a dialogue. I considered myself a neutral observer (since I was not from this church) who came to learn and listen and in the process I realized a few things.  How  I identified with one group or the other and how easy it would be to take sides. How difficult it was to listen respectfully to those who expressed views I did not agree with. Still, being a neutral person has one advantage – it helps to hear better what each side is saying. This is what mediators do – they help each side to be heard and sometimes step in as interpreters.

I also realized that booing and jeering is an understandable emotional response when you feel misrepresented, threatened or attacked (which happened at the church discussion I attended) but it is not a way to communicate effectively. If the goal is dialogue and understanding, booing only communicates “thumbs down” and the speaker will either ‘flee’ or ‘fight’ back more. And how can you listen and hear while booing?

There are too many examples of bad or non-existent communication. The mouths are moving fast, words are spoken but the ears seem closed and the meaning is lost. Just watch some of the talk shows or expert panels on TV. Much of the time there is no dialogue, only opinions. Even when the participants are polite and don’t interrupt. Or read many of our social media threads where you can observe the same thing. Are the people actually interested in understanding the ‘other side’ or do they simply care to win?

That’s just it. Our driving desire is to be “right” and for our “truth” to have the upper hand. We feel that our very identity is threatened if we are somehow “wrong”. The urgent contemporary question each one of us has to answer. Is it more important to be right or to relate rightly and righteously?

Without emphatic listening we cannot relate to others rightly. Full stop.

Latvian:

“Ja kāds atbild, pirms uzklausījis, – tā viņa muļķība, tas viņa negods!”

Šis gudrības grauds atrodams Bībelē, Sakāmvārdu grāmatā (18:13). Turpat ir teikts: “Netīko muļķis pēc saprašanas – ka tik izrādīt savu prātu!”

Man padodas gan muļķība, gan negods. Un vēl daudzas līdzīgas lietas, kuras mani tuvākie cilvēki var viegli raksturot. Mamma drošvien nevienam nebūtu atzinusi, cik augstprātīgi un visgudri es ar viņu bieži vien runāju (jo viņa bija viena no tām mammām, kuras ‘apklāj savu bērnu grēkus’). Un manam vīram var pat neprasīt, jo viņam nebūs ilgi jādomā 😉

Kāpēc šī atzīšanās? Jo ir viegli pamācīt, bet grūti izdarīt. Mani, tāpat kā daudzus,  satrauc zemā sarunu kultūra, it sevišķi tajās jomās, kur darbojas sabiedrībā ievērojami un iecienīti cilvēki, kuriem būtu jārāda piemērs. Acīmredzami mums ir jāatgriežas pie daudzām pamatlietām, lai prastu cieņpilni, pieklājīgi, saprātīgi sarunāties, diskutēt un debatēt.  Un viena no visbiežāk iztrūkstošajām praksēm ir klausīšanās ar mērķi tiešām sadzirdēt savu sarunu biedru, pat ja viņam vai viņai pilnīgi nepiekrīti. Pirms nedēļas piedalījos praktiskā nodarbībā sarunu skolas “LAMPA” ietvaros, un tur tas tika ļoti labi pasvītrots. Lektore Ilze Dzenovska aicināja padomāt, kāds ir labs klausītājs, kāds ir labs stāstītājs, kādas ir mūsu reakcijas sarunās, un kādas ir mūsu vajadzības.

Nesen apmeklēju arī šobrīd aktuālo diskusiju LELB vidē, kura tika rīkota Lutera draudzē Torņakalnā. Saruna, kurā ir sajūta, ka daudz ‘likts uz kārts’, un uzstādījums divām (vai vairākām) pusēm uzklausīt vienam otru, patiesi sadzirdēt un atrast veidu, kā būt labākās, draudzīgās, cieņpilnās attiecībās. Es neesmu LELB draudžu locekle, un varētu uzskatīt sevi par neitrālu novērotāju, kura vēlas labāk izprast kaut kādus šībrīža procesus sabiedrībā. Tovakar es atzīmēju sev dažas lietas, piemēram, cik normāli ir identificēties ar runātājiem un cik viegli nostāties vienā vai otrā pusē. Cik grūti ir klausīties ar cieņu cilvēkos, kuri liekas nosodoši vai agresīvi. Cik ļoti šī saruna jeb sarunas nepieciešamība nav par LELB, bet par Latvijas (un ne tikai Latvijas) sabiedrībai svarīgiem jautājumiem kopumā. (Vērtīgu komentāru uzrakstījusi Bella Briška, Lutera draudzes locekle. Lasīt šeit)

Tajā diskusijā man bija tikai viena priekšrocība. Tā kā mani tas neskar tik personīgi kā LELB draudžu locekļus, arī manas emocijas bija mazāk iesaistītas. Žurnālists Aidis Tomsons godam pildīja savus moderatora pienākumus. (Jā, moderatoriem/mediatoriem parasti ir iespēja sadzirdēt labāk, ko abas puses vēlas pateikt, un palīdzēt veidot komunikācijas tiltu.)

Par emocijām karstās sarunās runājot ir saprotama cilvēciskā vēlme izrādīt neapmierinātību ūjinot, utt, kad jūties nesaprasts un/vai apdraudēts, bet tas neder un nepalīdz. Ja vēlēšanās ir tiešām saprasties, tad ūjināšana vienkārši apzīmē ‘īkšķi uz leju’, un runātājs vai nu padosies un apklusīs, vai vēl vairāk centīsies aizstāvēties un cīnīties. Ūjināšana der, ja vispār nevēlamies uzklausīt kāda viedokli. Ja esam tik dusmīgi, ka “aizbāžam ausis”.  Jo kā cilvēks var vienlaicīgi ūjināt un klausīties?

Šodien vardarbīga komunikācija nav tālu jāmeklē. Var uzgriezt kādu TV raidījumu, kur tiek aicināti pretēju viedokļu pārstāvji. Var palasīt (vai labāk nelasīt) komentāru palagus Facebook, kur neuzklausīšanu un nedzirdēšanu var redzēt ik uz soļa. Tāda kārtīga virtuāla klope! Mēs pārāk bieži esam kā Sākamvārdos minētais muļķis.

Nāk prātā trāpīgie M. Lutera Kinga Jr. vārdi: “Mums jāiemācās dzīvot kopā kā brāļiem, vai arī iesim bojā kopā kā muļķi.”

Tā ir viena no iezīmēm mūsu nesaprašanās un konfliktu problēmām. Vēlamies, lai mums būtu taisnība, lai tā uzvarētu, un attiecību kvalitāte tiek nostumta zemāk. Mums liekas, ka mūsu dziļākā būtība un identitāte ir apdraudēta, ja neuzvarēsim vai ja mūsu uzskati izrādīsies ‘kļūdaini’ vai, pasarg Dievs, ‘nepareizi’. (Par idenitāti reliģioziem cilvēkiem vispār vajadzētu uztraukties vismazāk. Galu galā kristiešu identitāte ir Kristus, nevis pareizība.)

Tātad… vai mums svarīgāka ir ‘mūsu patiesība’ un ‘mūsu pareizība’, vai taisnīgas, labas un mierpilnas attiecības ar līdzcilvēkiem?

Bez ieklausīšanās un sadzirdēšanas nu nekādi. Punkts.

 

European and grateful? Let’s see…

We are getting better and better at the blame-game, anxiety, complaints and arguments. Those pointing fingers are growing longer and longer. “It is Germany’s fault… it is Brussels’s fault… it is those Eastern Europeans who want the benefits of EU, but not sharing its burdens…”

As a European, who spends a lot of time outside of Europe, I have noticed that outsider’s  perception of Europe is changing. Our reputation as the region of stability, peace, hospitality,  solidarity, compassion, rule of law, social justice, humanitarian values is suffering. Here I am addressing the failures of Thailand and other Southeast Asian nations in their treatment of refugees and asylum seekers, and now the spotlight is on my own nation and region.

Not that I am worried about our “moral high ground”. All of us have fallen short in so many ways. Still, I am privileged and blessed to be a European and I do not take for granted the good life we can enjoy. I have been to too many places around the world where people just cannot understand how Europeans can be so ungrateful for what they have.

We, Europeans, are very very privileged and one of our big problems is trying to deny, ignore or downplay it. We are the ‘rich club’ of the world. I remember some of the conversations in my own family. My mom who was definitely in the category of ‘lower social status’, would say, “I am ‘poor’ compared to rich Latvians, but I am very rich compared to people you visit and help.” And she was not talking about money and things only. She was talking about safety, security, healthcare, roof over her head, beautiful country, loving family around her… ‘Man does not live on bread alone’, right?

Another personal example – I received a last-minute invitation to attend a conference in Germany next week. I had to make a decision very fast and within one hour I had an airline ticket, registration for the conference, information about train times to get me from Lubeck to Hannover… As I was falling asleep last night, I was thinking to myself, “This is incredible. I don’t need a visa for Germany; I just had the money for this trip; I speak English and even some German and will not feel lost traveling by trains. This will be a good trip.” How many people around the world would love to be in my shoes!

But there are problems with this good life and too often it comes at the expense of others. “The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.” Wise words by Gandhi. I could say a lot but another time.

I want to encourage those of us who feel like we don’t have enough or feel threatened that those ‘immigrants’ or someone else from outside will take this good life away. That we will have share our goods and privileges with someone. We have more than enough, but we act like we don’t. Many of my friends around the world feel ‘poor’ compared to Latvians. Latvians feel ‘poor’ compared to British. British may feel ‘poor’ compared to Norwegians. Hmm, who can Norwegians compare themselves with?

I guess, Norwegians are the most grateful and therefore the most generous and welcoming people in the world! Are they? Are we?

Klaipeda 10

Latvians and our blind sides

Mahatma Gandhi famously said, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world”. The more I reflect and the more I try to practice it, my experience tells me that these words are very true. I cannot change situations and attitudes around me if I am not willing to do some deep soul-searching first. How can I help someone or even confront someone if I have ‘a log in my own eye’.

This comes out in our conversations – opinions, arguments, discussions… Every ‘hot topic’ reveals our prejudices and preconceived ideas (an opinion formed beforehand without adequate evidence) that have not been challenged. For example, the current discussions about receiving asylum seekers or even economic migrants in Latvia. One objection I hear is that ‘those people just want to come here to get our government’s support. They do not want to work and have no work ethic. They are lazy or just seeking an easy life.”

Few thoughts on this. First of all, it is totally untrue. Yes, there are always some people who take advantage of anything they can get for ‘free’. The vast majority of the people I meet around the world want to work because work gives dignity. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 23) says “Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.” Work is not a privilege; work is a right!

DSCN2220

Secondly, such statements imply that we, Latvians, are always hard working; that we never take advantage of our government and social welfare system; for sure we don’t take advantage of benefits in other wealthier EU countries like Ireland and UK and Sweden; we never seek ‘easy life’ and we would never take anything for ‘free’.

When someone mentions our own tragic history when after WWII thousands of Latvians were forced to live in exile, we are quick to think or say, “Yes, Latvians needed international help but we were always so good to our host countries. We were very good immigrants – never causing any trouble, hard working, integrating into out host cultures, speaking the language, etc. Plus, we were white, church going and cultured.”

Sorry for the sarcasm but doesn’t this smell of self-righteousness? I am not speaking on behalf of the generation that suffered during the war. I have no right to do that and I cannot be in their shoes. Still, I had two uncles who lived in exile in Ireland and Sweden. And I know that there were tensions and prejudices between the asylum seekers/immigrants and the local people.

What about stories of Latvians currently living and working in UK and Ireland, etc? If I was to base my opinions on some of the media stories, I would think that British people are hosting lots of ‘drunks, murderers, trouble makers, drain on social benefits’ and so on.

And then there is the talk about the drug smugglers and criminals who will try to disguise as ‘refugees’. Nice to know that I am from a small country that has no drug dealers, no crime, no illegal trade, no smuggling, no human trafficking, no corruption, no alcoholism…

I will let Martin Luther King Jr. say the final words on this topic. “Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”
Protest against immigration in Latvia

Image by © VALDA KALNINA/epa/Corbis

Latviski:
Latvieši un mūsu paškritikas trūkums
Gandijs teica slavenos vārdus: “Tev pašam jābūt tām izmaiņām, ko vēlies redzēt pasaulē.” Jo vairāk es to pārdomāju un jo vairāk cenšos tā dzīvot, es piedzīvoju šo vārdu patiesumu. Es nevaru izmainīt situācijas un apkārtējo attieksmi, ja neesmu gatava pārbaudīt pati savu sirdi. Nevaru palīdzēt citiem, kur nu vēl kaut ko aizrādīt, ja man pašai ir ‘baļķis acīs”.
Tas atklājas mūsu sarunās – uzskatos, argumentos, diskusijās… Katra ‘karstā tēma’ izgaismo mūsu aizspriedumus un nepamatotus uzskatus, kas nav tikuši izaicināti vai apšaubīti. Piemēram, patreizējās diskusijas par patvēruma meklētājiem Latvijā, vai arī runājot par ekonomiskajiem imigrantiem. Viena no pretenzijām, ko dzirdu, ir šāda: “Tie cilvēki grib vienkārši dzīvot uz mūsu valsts rēķina. Viņi negrib strādāt; viņiem nav darba ētikas. Viņi ir slinki un laimes meklētāji.”

Dažas domas šajā sakarā. Pirmkārt, šis apgalvojums ir galīgi nepatiess. Jā, protams, vienmēr būs kādi cilvēki, kas izmantos visas iespējas dabūt kaut ko par ‘velti’. Taču lielākā daļa cilvēku, kurus satieku pasaulē, grib strādāt, jo darbs piešķir cilvēkam cieņu. Vispārējās cilvēktiesību deklarācijas 23. pantā ir teikts: “Katram cilvēkam ir tiesības uz darbu, uz brīvu darba izvēli, uz taisnīgiem un labvēlīgiem darba apstākļiem un uz aizsardzību pret bezdarbu.” Darbs nav privilēģija; darbs ir mūsu tiesības!

Otrkārt, no malas tas izklausās apmēram tā: “Mēs, Latvijas iedzīvotāji, visi esam ļoti strādīgi. Mums ir vislabākā darba ētika. Mēs nekad neizmantojam savu valsti vai kādus sociālus pabalstus ļaunprātīgi. Mēs nekādā veidā neizmantojam ES bagātākās valstis, piemēram, Lielbritāniju, Zviedriju, Īriju, jo mēs neesam nekādi laimes meklētāji, un mēs nekad negribam neko par ‘velti’.”

Diskusijā tiek pieminēti arī Latvijas cilvēki, kuri devas bēgļu gaitās pēc Otrā Pasaules kara. Tad mēs ātri iebilstam gan domās, gan vārdos: “Jā, latviešiem bija nepieciešama starptautiska palīdzība, bet mēs vienmēr un visur bijām par svētību. Mēs bijām ļoti labi imigranti – nekad neradījām problēmas, smagi strādājām, uzreiz integrējāmies mītnes zemēs, iemācījāmies valodu, utt. Turklāt mēs bijām baltie, kulturālie un kristīgie.”

Atvainojos par sarkasmu, bet vai tas neož pēc paštaisnības? Es nerunāju trimdas latviešu vārdā. Šī paaudze gāja cauri lielām ciešanām. Man nav tiesību viņus vērtēt. Bet manai vecmammai arī bija divi brāļi, kuri nonāca Īrijā un Zviedrijā. Un es zinu no viņu stāstiem, ka bija sava veida spriedze un pat aizspriedumi starp patvēruma meklētājiem un vietējiem iedzīvotājiem.

Un kā ar mūsu tautiešiem, kuri dzīvo un strādā Lielbritānijā un Īrijā un citur? Ja es vadītos tikai no ziņām masu mēdijos, es domātu, ka britiem jāpacieš “dzērāji, kaušļi, slepkavas, laimes meklētāji, pabalstu izmantotāji” un tā tālāk.

Vēl tiek argumentēts, ka starp patvēruma meklētājiem ielavīsies narkotiku un ieroču pārvadātāji. Cik jauki, ka es esmu no mazas valsts, kur šobrīd nav ne narkotiku dīleru, ne noziedznieku, ne kontrabandas, ne cilvēku tirdzniecibas, ne alkoholisma…

Beigšu ar Martina Lutera Kinga, Jr. citātu: “Nekas pasaulē nav tik bīstams, kā patiesa nezināšana vai apzināta muļķība”.

Asylum seekers should know us by our love, not our fear

To begin with I want to tell my friends who are of different faith or no faith; this blog is mostly directed to those of us who claim to follow Jesus Christ. Some parts may feel like an internal family debate, but in reality these are crucial questions for everyone.

Also, as I write this, Europe is on my mind. Again, I welcome everyone else to join the discussion because this topic is truly a global issue and a global challenge. It is the same ‘hot topic’ in Asia, Australia, Africa, Europe, North America and South America. Except maybe in some small islands in South Pacific… (no, I have not been to all these places but I do travel a lot for work and have lived in three continents)

And don’t worry; I will keep this blog short even though there is much to say. As we know, the issues are very complicated. There is already lots written and said in media, government, workplaces, family… One of my friends in Latvia commented, “On this issue everyone in my family has an opinion.” This is truly a debate that involves the society as a whole. Many of the opinions and arguments are thoughtful and respectful and helpful, while many others are simply xenophobic and unhelpful and very very fearful.

What I want to focus on this time is FEAR! People express many views and emotions when they talk about immigration, refugees, asylum seekers. Common ones is anxiety and fear. I can relate to it very well because I have struggled with many fears in my own life. Some of them are now gone; others are still lingering. So, I try not to judge other people but I can be a judge of myself. And I can speak as a Christian who is called and commanded to follow a higher law.

Jesus was constantly opposed by people who did not like his way of building God’s Kingdom or the people He included. They had their own ideas of what it means to be a godly person and what it means to have their national identity and morality and religious authority. Keep everything ‘impure’, ‘unknown’ and those ‘others’ as far away as possible. Wash your hands after you come home from a public place because who knows what or whom you have been touching.

Once Jesus answered them like this, “You have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. (…) You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.” Harsh words but how many times I have felt that this is exactly what I have done; I have focused on many important things but have gotten completely blindsided but missing the main point.

The question of receiving asylum seekers is a matter of Justice, Mercy and Faithfulness! The fair treatment of the immigrant and the host community is primarily a Justice issue. Having compassion and empathy for asylum seekers is Mercy. Believing and trusting God when He talks about the love toward our fellow human being is Faithfulness. There is so much to say about each of these but I will leave that for other blogs.

What are we afraid of? Let us think about our fears and anxieties! Let us deal with them! One of my teachers said, “Holiness is moving towards darkness.”  Those fearful corners of our hearts are truly dark but everything brought in His light becomes light. And then we can love anyone who becomes our neighbor freely and practically and sacrificially!

We Care 17

Latviski:

Iesākumā es gribu pateikt saviem draugiem, kuriem ir cita reliģija vai arī nav nekādas ticības, ka šis raksts ir vairāk domāts tiem no mums, kuri sauc sevi par Jēzus Kristus sekotājiem. Tāpēc manis teiktais daļēji izklausīsies kā ģimenes saruna, bet patiesībā tas attiecas uz jebkuru.

Vēl, man rakstot, prātā ir Eiropa. Protams, visi var piedalīties diskusijā, jo šī tēma un problēmas ir patiešām globālas. Tā pati ‘karstā tēma’ Āzijā, Austrālijā, Āfrikā, Eiropā, Amerikā. Varbūt vienīgi kādās mazās Klusā Okeāna salās par to nedomā…

Un neuztraucieties; šis raksts nebūs pārāk garš, kaut gan teikt var daudz. Mēs jau zinām, ka šie jautājumi ir sarežģīti. Daudz jau ir rakstīts un pateikts gan plašsaziņas līdzekļos, gan no valdības puses, gan darba vietās, gan ģimenē… Viens mans draugs no Latvijas ieminējās: “Par šo jautājumu katram manā ģimenē ir savs viedoklis.” Šīs diskusijas iesaista visu sabiedrību. Daudzas domas un argumenti ir pārdomāti, cieņas pilni un palīdz domāt un rīkoties, bet citi ir vienkārši noskaņoti pret svešiniekiem, nepalīdz meklēt risinājumu un veicina arvien lielākas bailes.

Par to es arī gribu šoreiz parunāt – par BAILĒM! Cilvēki izpauž savus uzskatus un emocijas, kad runā par imigrāciju, bēgļiem, patvēruma meklētājiem. Bieži redzama reakcija ir uztraukums un bailes. Es to varu saprast, jo man pašai dzīvē ir bijušas daudz un dažādas bailes. Dažas no tām ir izgaisušas, dažas vēl mēgina turēties. Tāpēc es cenšos nenosodīt citus, bet pati sev gan varu būt soģe. Turklāt es varu paust savas domas kā kristiete, jo mēs esam aicināti sekot augstākai pavēlei un likumam.

Jēzum vienmēr nostājās pretī tie, kuriem nepatika Viņa pieeja Dieva Valstības celšanai, vai arī tas, kādi cilvēki tiek aicināti šajā Valstībā. Šiem kritiķiem bija savas idejas, ko nozīmē dievbijība, vai ko nozīmē nacionālā identitāte un tikumība un reliģiska autoritāte. Turēt visu “nešķīsto”, “nepazīstamo” un “citādo” tālu tālu prom. Atnākot mājās mazgāt rokas, jo nevar taču zināt, kam vai kādiem cilvēkiem tās pieskārušās.

Reiz Jēzus atbildēja tā: “Jūs atmetat to, kas svarīgākais bauslībā – taisnīgu tiesu, žēlsirdību un ticību. (…) Aklie ceļa vadoņi! Jūs knišļus izkāšat, bet kamieļus norijat!” Skarbi vārdi, bet neskaitāmas reizes esmu sapratusi, ka tieši tā esmu rīkojusies. Esmu pievērsusi uzmanību labām lietām, bet esmu bijusi gluži akla pret pašu svarīgāko

Jautājums par patvēruma meklētājiem ir Taisnīgas Tiesas, Žēlsirdības un Ticības jautājums. Taisnīga izturēšanās pret imigrantiem un pret vietējo sabiedrību ir Taisnīgums. Spēja just līdzi un sirds, kas iežēlojas par bēgļiem, ir Žēlsirdība. Uzticēšanās Dievam, kad Viņš liek mums mīlēt sev tuvāko cilvēku kā sevi pašu, ir Ticība. Par katru no šīm lietām var daudz teikt, bet tas nākamajiem rakstiem.

No kā mēs baidāmies? Pārdomāsim savas bailes un bažas! Skatīsimies tām acīs, un tiksim ar tām galā! Viens no maniem skolotājiem teica, ka “svētums ir tuvošanās tumsai.” Tie kakti mūsu sirdīs, kas pilni bailēm, ir tiešām tumši, bet viss, ko Viņš ceļ gaismā, top gaišs. Un tad mēs varam mīlēt tos, kuri kļūst par mūsu līdzcilvēkiem, brīvi un aktīvi un upurējoties!

Discovering empathy, hospitality and embrace

When I was 18 years old and left home for the first time, I stayed in Oslo, Norway. I went to help some relatives of mine with childcare and they gave me an opportunity to experience the beautiful Norway and its culture. During the week I went to study Norwegian in a class for immigrants.

This was my first real cross-cultural experience and I still remember many of the life lessons learned. There were many nationalities in our class but two ladies puzzled me. They always seemed sad and looking at them, I could not understand the look in their eyes. I thought to myself, “Why are they so sad? Aren’t they grateful? Aren’t they happy to live in Norway? This is a wonderful country.”

One of the ladies was from Croatia and the other was from Lebanon. We had times during our class to share about our nations and cultures. And for the first time I started to grasp the word ‘refugee’… These women were refugees. One left her home because of the civil war in Lebanon and the other fled because of the Balkan wars. Of course, I had seen it on the news but I had never met anyone from those places. As they talked about the beauty of their home countries on the Mediterranean Sea, the food, the celebrations, I thought about the life they had left behind – home, career, family, and friends… and I started to understand their sorrow and sadness.

There were also three young guys I could not understand. They were Kurdish from either Iran or Iraq. We were about the same age but they struggled in the language class. Even with the alphabet. I started to wonder why they were so slow in learning and even thought that maybe Europeans learn ‘faster’. Until one day I realized that they were illiterate. They told me, “We know a lot about guns and fighting but we did not spend much time in school.” I was shocked and ashamed of my thoughts.

Some years later I met refugees again. This time in Cairo, Egypt and they had come from Sudan. I was with a team involved in literacy training for a teacher’s course. The leader of the teachers was a pastor. His name was Abraham and he was a very tall Sudanese man. What amazed me about the group was the mix of Christians and Muslims. I had never worked with a multi-faith group. They were trying to provide basic education to their children and united in their desires to build better lives. Even while living in exile.

We studied Jesus of Nazareth as one of the greatest examples of teaching through relationship. We prayed together, worked together. Sometimes they would sit in a circle and talk about the “difficult issues”. About the violence and poverty in their country (this was before South Sudan became independent); about the ethnic and religious conflict; about Christianity and Islam; about the challenges to relationships. I would sit and listen and observe their faith. They wrestled with the difficult questions with such grace.

Everyone has a story and every life’s journey is special. Some of the journeys are simply unbelievable. Yes, there are things that are very difficult to hear and to comprehend; there are things that break your heart as you listen, but we must listen. We must give the time and space.

Some people hesitate because they are not sure if you really care. Some people find it too difficult to recall or they want to just forget it. Still, learn about the life they left behind; the people, the culture, the landscape, the food, the smells, the music … and learn to celebrate it with them!

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