A reflection on two boys, the sons of immigrants and refugees, from the perspective of a mother and a Lutheran.
Our son, Aidan, is a strapping 16-year-old boy. His hair is thick, brown and curly, his eyes dark and skin olive. We think his swarthy looks come from my side of the family, though his heritage stems from Northern European immigrants (Norwegian, Swede, Scottish, German, and Czech, Bohemian to be exact, according to my mother). I am extremely biased in everyway but Aidan was a beautiful baby, perfect in all the classical ways strangers measure children – cherubic facial structure with big brown eyes like a koala bear. Even now as a skulky 6’1” teenager, he inadvertently maintains a baby face (said his mother).
Six thousand miles to the east, another boy similar in features and name, Aylan, washed up dead on a Turkish beach. At three years old, he drowned with his mother and brother in a desperate attempt to flee by water his war torn homeland Syria. The image of the lifeless child lying in the surf went viral on the Internet and I, like many others, was seared by it. I think it was the boy’s posture that got to me. Aylan’s pre-school body settled in the sand in the same position my son, Aidan, used to sleep, coiled up on his belly, knees bent, posterior up, arms straight to the side, face turned, mouth open.
To see my son’s peaceful child’s pose replicated in another boy’s death scene, a sleeping baby washed up on a beach like a dead fish, was horrifying.
“No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark,” wrote Somali poet Warsan Shire in her piece entitled Home. Along with Aylan’s image, this poem also made the internet rounds last week. It is perhaps the most succinct explanation why people migrate. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugee (UNHCR)[i] the number of people forced to flee their homes across the world has exceeded 50 million for the first time since WWII. Half the world's refugees are children, many travelling alone or in groups, and often falling prey to human traffickers.[ii]
More than 50 million can feel too abstract, if not for the picture of a single drowned child and Shire’s poem to explain: "no one would leave home/unless home chased you to the shore," that "no one puts their children in a boat/unless the water is safer than the land," that all of this happens when "home is the barrel of the gun."
What are the rest of us do?
Yesterday in church the New Testament lesson came from James 2: “If someone is naked and lacks daily food, you say, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” (Paraphrased.) I do not believe in cherry-picking favorite Bible verses but fortunately, our pastor helped us to put the reading in context.
In her sermon she reminded us that Jesus tells us time and again do not be afraid, though we live in a society chronically fearful of scarcity.
Our pastor reminded us that when we help people in need we help Jesus, though other voices warn us there is not enough for all.
Our pastor reminded us that a Christian is obliged to assist the vulnerable (in gratitude only, not to earn favor with God), though some say if someone is needy, it’s their own fault.
Our pastor reminded us that even in this modern day we can “perform miracles” when we work together. As one who has seen the work of our faith-based nonprofit organizations up close, I believe her. Our Lutheran forebears have built robust and reliable infrastructures such as the ELCA World Hunger Appeal, Lutheran Social Services, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, and my former employer of 17 years, Lutheran World Relief. We have the means to assist people across the street and around the world; all we need is the will.
My son Aidan comes from a long line and many strands of migrants – people who packed up and moved for a better life, for more food, for sustainable work. He is the living outcome of his ancestor’s hopes and dreams. The future is his to choose.
Another son, Aylan, who looked and sounded like my Aidan, died a migrant at age three wearing sneakers and shorts. We can be fearful of others like him or we can extend the miracle of Christian hospitality. With upwards of 60 million people in search of home, the future ours to choose.