When Strangers Seek the Safety of Home

“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”

The first thing I noticed when I arrived at the Expo center was that a side doorway was open and it was loud with the sound of kids, lots of kids. As I walked to the locked front entrance a city police officer opened the door and asked who I was and why I was there. When I informed him I was a volunteer he directed me to a large table with a woman working on a computer. There was a variety of sign in materials ready for volunteers. As I signed in, another woman was signing out. She had just finished her breakfast shift. I got there about an hour early. I wanted to be sure I understood what I was suppose to do. My name didn’t show up on the computer. “Are you sure you’re approved to be here?” the woman asked. I took out my phone and showed her an email saying my background check had been approved. She apologized profusely saying how overwhelming it all has been. I can only imagine. After signing up and putting on a name tag I hesitantly walked into the huge room filled with noise, florescent lights, kids running around, cots, tables, and adults working with other adults or on cellphones. The noise was dizzying. The kids were wild. I mean really wild. A group of very young boys were engaged in a play that you or I would probably not allow our children to participate in. It was very physical. “They are bored,” I told the woman volunteer standing next to me with the same,”What do we do?” look on her face. It was clear we needed to do something. I spotted a stack of paper and took out my phone and looked up how to make a paper airplane. I couldn’t believe I forgot the folds. I quickly made one and flew it right into the group of boys going at each other. That thankfully got their attention. Within seconds I had a bunch of little boys grabbing at me and the paper, directing my hands to make them one. Most couldn’t follow along but one boy, maybe about 10 years old, followed my every fold as he built his own. After making a bunch of these I wondered where they all went. I didn’t see them flying around. A woman who had been volunteering pretty steady said they take them and hide them in their belongings. In other words, they horde them because they don’t want to lose them or have them taken away. Within minutes of our arrival we were witnessing massive trauma induced play and behavior. My heart broke so wide open. These poor kids was all I could think of.

“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.”

Finally, it was time to prepare and serve lunch. A van pulled up and we all took turns bringing in the hot trays of chicken, a spinach dish that smelled amazing, bread, and rice. We put on our gloves, organized the food on the long tables, and got ready to serve. That’s when something rather astounding happened. We looked up and men were in line but they were not next to the table. I wondered what was up with that. Then I found out. The women and children filled in the open space. The women and children were served first. To be honest I nearly lost it at this small and genuine act of compassion and respect. I found myself thinking how our society demonizes black men. And here they were teaching us how it’s done.

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.

Another woman and I were in charge of dishing out the spinach, onion, and tomato dish. After those who were waiting patiently in line took their paper plates and were served generous helping of rice and a chicken leg they came to us for the spinach dish. I don’t know what spices were in it but it smelled unbelievably delicious! The women took a generous helping. The kids…no! The kids did not want the spinach! Just like American kids. So I did what we did for taste testings in our school. I pantomimed eating it and rubbing my belly saying, “Yum.” The kids laughed which was rather wonderful. Most still shock their heads no. But a few, when I showed my fingers symbolizing “a little bit” said yes. I applauded each child who bravely tried a little, which they seemed to like.

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

There was one man who stood out to me. He looked dignified and when I accidentally spilled some spinach on his finger he looked like he had just had enough. He was very upset. Not angry. Just deflated. I tried to imagine what it must be like to be independent in my life and then having it all taken away as I fled possibly the only home I knew, with my family, and traveled 1/2 way across the world, through jungles, dangerous lands, and then to an unfamiliar stadium. I felt sorry for him. As I gave him a napkin to clean up the drips of spinach he was not appreciative. He still looked deflated and upset. It was heart breaking. I noticed that the majority of women who came through the line didn’t give a lot of eye contact or say much. The trauma written all over their faces. Like I said, it was incredibly sad.

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

One man had 4 kids with him. He was trying to juggle 5 plates. I offered to help and he accepted my offer. He and his family didn’t sit with the rest at the tables. He guided us back to what appeared to be his cot area. I noticed toys and food all hidden under the cots. If you wonder how many times a human heart can break open. Let me tell you, a lot because that’s what happened all over again. He looked at me with a frightened look on his face, like he thought I’d report him or take it all. I just smiled and put the plates on the floor next to his children and walked away.

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

We then cleaned up tables, which a few girls liked helping with . They liked spraying the bottle of soapy water and wiping the table with me. And then we served yogurt and fresh berries. People loved that especially with a ton of sugar on it. We had to moderate the sugar carefully. Children and adults alike wanted a lot of sugar, just like many Americans do.

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’s 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

After all was done, cleared away, and cleaned up, I left. I signed out and walked into Portland’s rain. And then I cried. I cried because of the kindness I witnessed inside. I cried because of the silent traumas these people will carry with them forever. I cried because I knew not everyone outside cared about them and actually felt deep anger and resentment for them and their presence in this fabulous little city. I already look forward to returning next week with donated jump ropes in hand.

“no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear
saying — 
run away from me now
i dont know what i’ve become
but i know that anywhere
is safer than here”

Poem, Home, written by Warsan Shire (a British-Somali poet)

Think of this poem, that has been interwoven though my text, when you think of all those seeking asylum in our country. Remember no one would choose to leave home “unless home was the mouth of a shark”. Please, remember that. And also, dig deep and find the empathy and compassion I know we are all capable of to greet and welcome these folks as they come to our towns seeking safety and our help.

Much love and wishes of a continued safe journey to those who have found their way to our state.



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