Imagine the dictator that ruled your country with an iron fist for decades is assassinated as his government is overthrown by a rebellion aided by NATO air raids. Your country then descends into chaos (a/k/a civil war) as tribal factions begin to clash for power and control; thus, fulfilling the wisdom of Judge Marvin Frankel when he wrote “A nation divided during a repressive regime does not emerge suddenly united when the time of repression has passed.” The absence of the rule of law leads to the easy invasion of organized crime and terror groups. This is the setting in which my brother, Salam, taught at an all boys school in war-ravaged Libya.
Do you know how terror networks are formed? Salam taught me. Terror groups are a lot like gangs, it turns out. They’re not as much about their professed ideology as they are about “belonging” and about a lack of options of their members. The young and naive, the impoversihed and unemployed, the uneducated and downtrodden are among the most vulnerable for recruitment into gangs and terror groups like al-Qaeda, ISIS, and the like. Post-revolution Libya has proven to be a hotbed for terrorist and criminal recruitment. Fundamentalist recruiters go to the places where these vulnerable young men frequent, the schools and mosques, and then seek to use poor religious interpretation and promised benefits to their struggling famliies if they join in this ‘heroic’ lifestyle of extremism.
Salam and his wife, Amal, fought hard in Libya. Their weapons were not guns that bring death, but they sought to use their hands, feet, and minds to bring life. They waged peace in ways we rarely hear of and risked the ultimate cost. Amal worked in a hospital and saw impossible needs all around her each day–gun shots, dismemberment, and similar sequalae of war. She endured threats and attacks by warring tribes who sought to control the hospital. Amal couldn’t be controlled; her mission was to heal others, whatever their affiliation. So she often found herself fighting for the health of both victims and perpetrators.
Brother Salam contended for the lives of the country’s youth. Most of his students were extremely vulnerable to recruitment tactics of ISIS and al-Qaeda. These young boys needed to find ways to support their families and these terrorist syndicates promised to care for the families of all those who entered their war and promised honor and purpose for those who joined their ranks. Salam is a man of peace, as his pseudonym indicates. He is a devout Muslim and believes in the peace of his faith. He sought daily to prevent his students from the evil influence of those at the mosques recruiting on behalf of violence. But the vulnerability was so great, he had to engage with the source of the conflict. So he went to the mosques. He tried to inform the speakers and recruiters that they were misrepresenting his faith and misinterpreting the Koran. He was beaten in the streets outside the mosque. Bloodied and bruised, he returned to the mosque and challenged the alleged religious fanatics to a debate before all the youth. They would let the youth decide based on a presentation of both sides of the debate. At this suggestion, he was chased out of the building again and beaten in the streets again.
With the people who we’ve been so blessed to meet over the years, we’re inspired often. Secondary trauma is a real thing that we suffer with at times, but secondary resilience is a thing too. And rarely have we been so inspired by two individuals, fighting for the health and peace of others than by Salam and Amal.
Shortly after Salam’s beatings, Amal was directly warned by tribal leaders that her name was on a list of those who were targeted for assassination along with anyone protecting her. Amal was pregnant. Her and Salam felt they needed to leave for a time to seek protection from this persecution. A year earlier, Amal had rejected a scholarship offer to study in the U.S. (she was committed to the fight for good in Libya). She now inquired if the scholarship offer remained open and was able to arrange for a student visa to the U.S. for her, accompanied by her husband, Salam. They separated themselves from their beloved families to save all their lives. (Since their departrure, one of Amal’s brothers has disappeared and the other was forced to flee to Egypt.)
When they entered the U.S., they asked me to help them apply for political and religous asylum because of their fear of persecution in lawless Libya. And thus began our journey alongside these two amazing Muslims and their two beautiful daughters. We have been so blessed by their presence in our journey. We’ve each had a baby during our time as family. But there would always be a huge difference between us, we enjoy the comfort and security of being U.S. citizens, and they suffered daily under the uncertainty of their pending asylum cases. And with the backlog of the asylum and immigration systems in our country, they waited nearly two years for just an asylum interview which never came. (I recently concluded an asylum case for a sister from Sudan who waited in this country, in utter distress, for four years to receive the refugee protection to which she is entitled.) Because of many burdens and much stress in living here with such uncertainty, our dear Salam and Amal made the difficult decision to abandon their asylum claims and depart. They plan to spend a month in Libya on a remote farm where they can hide without being seen and enjoy their families. Then they will travel to India to continue their education. They’ll have no long-term protection in India, but they will be able to stay to study for some years in a place they can afford to live.
We said farewell to them last night. Salam wouldn’t depart without delivering to us a parting message. Did I mention he doesn’t speak English? It’s telling how deep is his purity that we have always understood him to be a wise, authentic, and kind peace warrior only ever speaking to us through his wife or an interpreter. His parting message was about Islam. He made us promise to not believe people who say they are Muslim, because they are not. He said, “When someone bombs your country in the name of Islam, count them as a liar. They are not Muslim. When someone hates or discriminates in the name of Islam, he is not Muslim.” Revealing the bond of our brotherhood, I responded, “Ditto about Christians.”
In the end, I’m discouraged as a lawyer that I was helpless to bring about the justice this family deserved within a reasonable time period. And I’m embarrassed as an American for my country’s failure to provide protection to those who require it–or at least to delay it long enough to extinguish all hope within a person. But if I’m honest, my tears really come from the separation. I don’t know if I’ll ever see my amazing big brother again. No one has taught me so much about waging peace. After a long embrace, he’s gone.
I hate separation. When I cry, it’s sometimes due to separation. One of my earliest memories of wrestling with the emotions of separation was when I was in the 8th grade. The untimely death of a dear family friend, my “uncle,” forced me to deal with the feeling of permanance found in death’s separation (I cried then). Whether it’s death or divorce, moving away or saying farewell to loved ones, or even just hearing about our friends’ agony from the separation from their families, separation makes my eyes water.
Now I know why my conversation with Hung (written about earlier here) had such an impact on me–separation. We’re learning why presence is such an important theme in our lives.
Maybe you noticed, but we haven’t written much this year. Things have been packed full and fast-paced. If you weren’t living it with us, in the moment, you probably weren’t going to find out about what was happening with Saudi Aurora. From growing community in the community garden to cultivating leaders among Burma’s youth, from fighting it out against the US government in court to “total war” with an army of bed bugs (shout out to our dear friends who slept in our bedroom at the height of that invasion…sorry!), from camping with family by the lakeside to dealing with mutiny at work, from balancing two jobs (both of which would easily consume all my time, if possible) to dealing with a flooded kitchen, an exploded toilet, and a nasty bout of vomiting. We also became proud parents of the world’s most beautiful baby boy, accompanied by a blessed stream of visitors. It has been a busy year and maybe we’ve been too swept up in the activity to have space to remember the holy moments we’ve encountered.
But the whirlwind came to a halt this week. Separation struck once more. And I cried. For the first time in months, I felt my spirit grinding to a stop. It was almost comforting to know you can’t rush through the pain of separation. So we just sat there in silence, resting in this stunned state as the separation became a reality. Gravity got the better of my tears when I stared at my blissfully sleeping child, silently praying and hoping that he might become a relentless man of peace like the one I had just embraced and that he would find a wife like Amal, who would not back down from her convictions no matter the cost.
Given my feelings about separation, it should come as no surprise that I have separation anxiety. I don’t think it’s some diagnosed disorder, but sometimes I reach the brink of tears over even hypothetical separation. So why would God place on our hearts this vision to separate from our cherished families and friends to move overseas? Why would we subject ourselves to the Agony of Separation with which our friends in Saudi Aurora suffer when remembering their long lost loved ones? I can’t articulate a clear answer to these questions, but I think it has to do with presence.