What Love Does

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I wish I could tell you her name. For her safety, I cannot utter it publicly. She fled Pakistan with her husband and three children in the middle of the night. They made it as far as Bangkok and have been living in a tiny one-room apartment ever since. Their lives are in danger every single day.

She told me in slow, careful English that back in Pakistan they had been very wealthy. She said, “We had homes and cars and servants.” Then, quietly, she told me that one morning the Taliban came and kidnapped her nine-year-old son and demanded a ransom. She glanced around nervously before continuing, “We gave everything we had to get him back. It wasn’t enough. They still demanded that our son join the Taliban army. We fled that night. We gathered the children and ran.”

Bangkok, and the refugees I met during my visit, reminds me that safety is not the same as love. The children I met in Bangkok have a deep understanding of their parents’ love and sacrifice for them. They’ve risked their lives for a better, healthier, safer, more prosperous life. Whatever hardships they are facing now are actually far easier than the danger, torment, and poverty they left behind.

This year, I traveled to Bangkok for the first time with a team of eight other volunteers for Speak Up For the Poor, a non-profit organization that works to help free people from modern day slavery. My suburban, American, white girl problems can’t hold a candle to the hell these refugees are facing. I’ve found some perspective in all this and my battles have come to include those of the refugees I’ve met on the other side of the world. Every time I tell this story, I am keeping my promise to never forget and make sure that everyone knows these people’s struggle for safety and a home country.

When I got home and returned to work, my co-workers kept asking how my Bangkok vacation was. I think they expected pictures of beautiful beaches and amazing shopping. Instead, all I could talk about were the people I met. Mainly refugees, men and women and their families who fled their own countries because their lives were on the line and they are currently stuck in a city that does not recognize the U.N.’s refugee designation. Legally, they cannot work, go to school, or receive healthcare, and they live with the constant fear of being jailed and deported.

Before I left, I had no idea what to expect from this ancient city, half a world away. Before I left, I thought I understood what love was. When I finally met these people, my reaction surprised me. It was clear these parents loved their children enough to risk everything they had, to make sure their children had a better life.

My first question was always, “What brought you here?” Followed immediately with, “What can I do?” I felt so inept, our communication halted by language barriers. Maybe the only thing I could do is tell everyone I know, about the people I’ve met.

Camera in hand, I watched a Somali refugee, dressed in her robes and head covering, play basketball in the park with a few of her friends. Her laughter was contagious. I chatted with her when the game ended and it was time for her family to get home so they might not get stopped by the police after dark. I told her how lovely her English was and asked, “What is your life like now that you are in Bangkok?”

“I am afraid at every moment. Every time I step outside my door and every time I enter it again. The police have raided our room while we were out many times and taken everything.” Her smile vanished. 

“I am so sorry this is happening.” Was all I could think to say.

“It’s an improvement from Somalia. I’m thankful that we escaped.”

“I hope you find a home and a country soon.” My words felt lame as soon as I said them so I pulled out my camera.

“I took a picture of you playing basketball.” I showed her and we both laughed. “This is the best picture I’ve taken, maybe ever. Meeting you has been such an honor. You are so brave and strong.” I wished her a safe walk home and promised to tell her story and keep her in my prayers.

I wondered if her life would be any easier if she’d just lose the robes and head covering. It seems like her clothes only make her an easier target for the police. Later, brushing my teeth and staring into the bathroom mirror, I realized how much the clothes I choose to wear are an expression of who I am. Her robes were an expression of her deeply held beliefs and might even be a large part of why she was forced to flee her home country in the first place. She doesn’t need new clothes. She needs the safety and covering of a country that will fight to defend her right to live, work, worship, and dress as the person she truly is.

What does love do? Love speaks up. Love speaks the truth and does not live a lie. Love stands in the gap and fights when we cannot go on any longer.

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