These first few months of 2014 have been a blur. Recovering from surgery, avoiding sunburn during a vacation in paradise, attempting to spread a little Valentine’s Day love to many friends in our community while at the same time breaking up a late-night, teenage sexual-rendezvous (quite literally), sharing many delicious meals with great friends, preparing for the community garden to open, and witnessing the happy-side of the reunification of several refugee families separated from each other for years preparing for gardening season are a few of the highlights and bloopers of the year so far.
For some reason, these first few months have seen many of our friends and some of my (Derek’s) clients finally, at long last, reunited with their loved ones. This is the fun part about the refugee journey–after being separated for years due to war, disaster, or other family circumstances, being able to embrace your loved one after struggling to survive apart. It’s a beautiful feeling. In my work, I don’t always get to deal with the ‘happy’ parts in peoples’ lives. You usually only go to lawyers when something has gotten very messy. But when I get a call from a mother celebrating the arrival of her three young sons, or a picture message on my phone from a client who is now able to start his family with his newly arrived wife, it helps me to withstand the frustrations of dealing daily with the U.S. government and trying to manage my clients’ expectations about the slowness of U.S. consulates. It’s hard to beg a mother to be patient when her young children call her every day asking when they can join her in America. It’s a long and grueling process for families, but with those “Love Actually” moments at the airport, the struggle becomes bearable.
It was a particularly special occasion to welcome Noela to Denver this month. She was a Rwandan refugee living in Malawi. She’s also the elder sister of Christele, our former foster child. Noela has been separated from her sister and mother, Josephine (our dear friend), for the past nine years. Josephine has an old nickname from childhood, Joyeuse (‘joyful’ in French). Despite so many difficulties adjusting to life in the U.S., dealing with the fallout of a traumatic past, and raising a troubled teenage daughter, Josephine has found a way to infect us with her joy. Her laugh is contagious and her smile will knock down whatever bad mood the day might have given you. Josephine’s joy could not have been greater last week when she embraced her long lost daughter. It was a great honor to be a part of that homecoming. The main terminal of DIA was filled with screams as mother and daughter saw each other for the first time and embraced with tears of joy forming in their eyes. (It was also a pleasant experience to see Christele turn into a shy, timid child instead of the teen with attitude she usually shows us.)
We know some of you have experienced similar homecomings. Now we can relate all the more. If you haven’t tried walking alongside someone who has been separated from their loved ones by circumstances beyond their control, do it. It’s hard, it can cause secondary trauma to you as you begin to empathize with their pain; but it also comes with secondary joy as you get to celebrate alongside them as they wait anxiously for the plane carrying a loved one to arrive or pass the driving test or start college. It’s a great privilege to be adopted “loved ones,” to be family to the family-less, both before and after reunification occurs. Alicia and I know that our greatest gift is the gift of our family and friends. We’re trying to pass that gift forward to those who haven’t received such an awesome, undeserved present. And we hope you will do likewise.