Love in a Time of Refugees

Thursday, September 24, 2015 - 5:58am
Photo by Istvan Zsiros

Love in a Time of Refugees

It was the black and white photo that grabbed my heart.

In the midst of a sea of humanity, 
refugees in tents
Sleeping on bags and blankets:
a tent.

In the background, a mother
wearing hijab
perhaps praying
Next to her child

In another corner
A young man 
In the sun
Staring out into the abyss
how people who are somebody
                        from somewhere
                   Came to be 

My eyes gravitated 
to the center of the picture:

Inside a tent
A couple
Oh so tenderly. 
His arms wrapped 
    around her.
Her arm resting 
   on his shoulder.

A moment of affection, tenderness, and love, in the midst of months of chaos. On seeing István Zsíros's image, photographer Yannis Androulidakis noted simply:

“The refugees will win. Life will win!”

The refugee crisis has been weighing on me for a while. We live in an age where ideas travel around the world at the click of a button. The goods we consume, from our soap and coffee to our clothing, come from all over the world. Whereas we might enjoy Sumatran or Kenyan coffee or a Chinese-manufactured smart phone, the movement of people is usually for far less pleasant reasons. We welcome ideas and goods, but not so much the people who are attached to those ideas and goods.

Whether looking at the creation of four million stateless Palestinian refugees (homeless since 1948) or the creation of more than nine million Syrian refugees and internally displaced people (since 2011), the combination of political strife, extremism, militarism, geopolitics, and environmental desecration has created millions of refugees. This is likely to be one of the stories of the 21st century.

In some cases they are homeless, with no home for them to go back to. In other cases a new people are now living in what used to be their home. If Jesus said that the poor would always be with us, in this century it’s perhaps the refugee, the stateless, the dispossessed who are with us.

I come back to the couple in the tent. And that tender kiss. Yes, they are refugees. Yes, they are refugees not because they ever stopped loving their home, but because they loved their children more. Because they loved life more. And they clung to the stubborn hope of a better life, of life itself.

I come back to that kiss. There is love, and tenderness, and hope in that kiss. In their love, their tenderness, and their hope, there is hope for all of us.

It reminds me of the beautiful words of the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish:

We Palestinians suffer from an incurable disease called “hope”.
Hope for liberation and independence. 
Hope for a normal life where we shall be neither heroes nor victims. 
Hope to see our children go to school without danger. 
Hope for a pregnant woman to give birth to a living baby, in a hospital, 
          and not to a dead child in front of a military control post. 
Hope that our poets will see the beauty of the colour red in roses, rather than in blood. 
Hope that this land will recover its original name: "land of hope and peace." 
Thank you for carrying with us this banner of hope.

The refugees are not merely a “problem” for Europe. This is not merely a “demographic” or economic crisis. They are human beings with their own lives, their own hopes, their own dreams and aspirations. There, right in the middle of the refugee camps, there is love, there is life, there is mourning, there is loss. There are weddings and funerals, children being born, courtship and poetry.

Their lives have already been drastically altered. Their homes and homelands erased. I will not erase their humanity by turning a people into a “problem.”

How powerful it is to listen, to amplify the voice of such a people. It is as the Somali-born poet Warsan Shire has said:

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 neighbours 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 toilets
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
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
go home blacks
dirty immigrants
asylum seekers
sucking our country dry
niggers with their hands out
they smell strange
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
be hunger
forget pride
your survival is more important
no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear
run away from me now
i dont know what i've become
but i know that anywhere
is safer than here.

Shire is right. Her powerful words deserve a second look:

you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land

I come back to the couple in the tent. Yes, they are refugees. Yes, they are homeless. But life goes on. Love goes on.

There is a love that shines in the darkest places of suffering. There is a love where what is human mingles with what is divine.

There is a love that stands in the midst of turmoil, 
      stands up, 
           and declares with a kiss
              that tenderness, kindness, and affection shall have the victory. 

There is a love that says:  we are human.
There is a love that says:  
        we love, 
     therefore we are.

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Omid Safi

is a columnist for On Being. His column appears every Thursday.

He is Director of Duke University's Islamic Studies Center. He is the past Chair for the Study of Islam, and the current Chair for Islamic Mysticism Group at the American Academy of Religion. In 2009, he was recognized by the University of North Carolina for mentoring minority students in 2009, and won the Sitterson Teaching Award for Professor of the Year in April of 2010.

Omid is the editor of the volume Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism, which offered an understanding of Islam rooted in social justice, gender equality, and religious and ethnic pluralism. His works Politics of Knowledge in Premodern Islam, dealing with medieval Islamic history and politics, and Voices of Islam: Voices of Change were published 2006. His last book, Memories of Muhammad, deals with the biography and legacy of the Prophet Muhammad. He has forthcoming volumes on the famed mystic Rumi, contemporary Islamic debates in Iran, and American Islam.

Omid has been among the most frequently sought speakers on Islam in popular media, appearing in The New York Times, Newsweek, Washington Post, PBS, NPR, NBC, CNN and other international media. He leads an educational tour every summer to Turkey, to study the rich multiple religious traditions there. The trip is open to everyone, from every country. More information at Illuminated Tours.

Share Your Reflection



Mr. Safi, there is a hypothetical question that I've seen floating around the internet that asks something like, "If you could have dinner with one person today, living or dead, who would that be?" Today that person would be you. Your sensitivity and insight is tangible. May God continue to bless the work of your hands and the words of your mouth.

I love this. Thank you for sharing the reflection. I am mirroring the thought to others today.

Thank you for your extraordinary article about humanity, love and hope! So many forget that we are ALL ONE!

Made me cry, sad, anguished, angry, helpless, thoughtful, touched, inspired, hopeful, prayer
ful . . . .

I too am affected, by the displaced and homeless. Many, including myself would be glad to take in refugees and house them for as long as necessary. Our government needs to make this task available and quickly. With the disgrace involving the Red Cross and their ineffectual response to crises, I no longer feel confident that money donated gets to those most in need.

Dear Omid Safi,
I thank you for sharing your deep,deep seated compassion for humanity in all its suffering.
And for your seeing the love and the hope and the light in A TIME OF REFUGEES!
Your choices of your own words and your choices of the poetry of others are deeply moving for me.

What a week it has been!
The tragedy of 700 or more persons having lost their lives while on Pilgrimage near Mekka breakes my heart.
All of this while I relished,listening to the words of Pope Francis as he spoke in Washington and in New York.
In your words:
" There is a love that shines in the darkest places of suffering.
There is a love where what is human mingles with what is divine."
With much gratitude to you for all you bring into the lives of many.

so glad I found this, this morning

This brings the faceless mass into personal focus better than anything I've read. Thank you! We were all refugees once.

Dear Omid,
Thank you for this very thoughful and beautiful reflcetion. Thank you for calling us to stop, look and see love and hope around us. Thank you for caaling us seeing people as human beings, all of us with love and hope in our hearts. Thank you for calling us back to our humanity and sense of hospitality.
I see in the tent also a desire in all people to have a home where we can be safe with our loved ones, and find fulfillment.
Right on.
Write on.
Inderjit Bhogal

We, all of us, will be diminished if we do not keep an open heart.

I appreciate so much your putting these people in context. Both the horrible backdrop of the war in Syria and the the depiction of hope (as well as desperation) in these our neighbors.

-Thank you again, Omid

Thank you Omid for this excellent report! My question is; When will the human race learn to live together in peace? The nations fought a great war that was supposed to end all wars! Hence, Armistice Day was established and celebrated on the 11th of November in 1918. Armistice in Latin means "arms standing still." Arms have never stood still and they will never stand still. Why thousands of people lost their lives at sea? Why are millions of people on the run from their homes? What has the human race learn from all the sufferings of these people? When will the experts come up with a lasting solution? I'll end with this quote; "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it? (Jeremiah 17-9)

Mr Safi
You share wisdom around the universality of love. There is no greater power. And though it is not solely a human prerogative, it is the quality which we most admire in another. Thank you.

Until Always...

"The refugees are not merely a “problem” for Europe. " Indeed. They should be a "problem" for arab countries as well. Alas, arabs are not interested in helping other arabs. Saudi Arabia - the wealthiest country in the world - has not taken in a single refugee from Syria, never mind Iraq or Afghanistan. Even those arab countries, like Jordania, who take in refugees, offer them nothing and leave it up to the UN and the West to feed and clothe them.

So there you have it. It is, again, up to Europe to save the arabs. God knows the Asians aren't interested. And do the arabs show any gratitude for this? Of course they don't. They see it as they unconditional right to be sustained by the infidels of Europe. They see it as their inalienable right to rob, kill and rape their hosts. They see it as their birthright to change their host societies to ways more to their liking, ie. hostility to anyone not muslim, hostility towards women, hostility towards culture.

As I'm sure the writer of this humanitarian piece understands, this cannot continue for much longer. At the moment Europe is willing to feed the snake on its chest, but the day comes - and it will come - when the peoples of Europe see the error of their ways. And they will force their corrupt politicians to act on the interests of their own people.

I went it on a go.. Touched my heart.. Flash backed this cruel world and kept on thing.. What next..?