Some say refugees. I say friends.

I spend nearly every day of the week hanging out at the houses of refugees or having them over my place. On weekends many of us attend church together, all weekend long. On weekdays others of us eat lunch together; I always look forward to 12:30. Several of us practice music together, all of us converse together and call out the ways we appreciate each other, and some of my acquaintances who are refugees open up their houses till midnight to share ugali and rice and greens and fish.

Just this Sunday, I visited a Congolese pastor’s house as a stranger and left with an invitation to return anytime. As I left, he made sure to point out his apartment number and floor so I could find it next time. Thank you, Pastor David.

I recently realized that I talk about my friends who are refugees differently than I talk about my native-born American friends, particularly those who are white or monocultural. Sometimes this lends context, but it can also be problematic if lending to an othering effect.

“Reaching out to” or “serving” our refugee neighbors or any marginalized population in order to feel good about ourselves hinders us from fully engaging with the group being “served.” When we do this, we are looking through a lens of power versus powerless. Although we may be doing good deeds and growing in our understanding of particular refugee populations, subconsciously thinking in terms of power dynamics blocks our hearts from receiving love.

We native-born Americans are not the saviors. But we can be good friends.

Here’s an idea: let’s develop deeper friendships so refugees become fully human in our eyes, fully capable of giving while still fully needy, like us native-born American humans. Let’s open our hearts to receive love from the strangers and soon-to-be-friends we seek to welcome.

While the humanity of refugees is not a question, it is important to note that the human experiences of refugees have been shaped by horrors like war and statelessness. Refugees have experienced things most native-born Americans have not. Their experiences will vary by age and country and contingency. The histories of the countries they have fled and lived in have shaped them in significant ways. The color of their skin will also impact their life chances once in the United States. We must consider the systems in place that affect their daily lives.

Refugees in the United States have overcome a lot: less than one percent of refugees worldwide are resettled, and it is common to spend almost two decades in camps or foreign cities before coming to the US, if granted status here.

Yet once they receive this status and move yet again, they come to a land that often treats them poorly.

Several of my Congolese-American friends have told me that Africans do not believe them when they say the United States is not heaven. (I witnessed this over
-admiring attitude firsthand in DRC myself.) But the truth is that when they come to the United States, they can barely make rent. Their living conditions are not necessarily significantly different. They start at the bottom of the workforce. Academic degrees do not always carry over to the American system. In short, life is still quite difficult.

Take pause today to consider these injustices. Do a little research. Sleep on what you discover. Wake up woke.

Now take pause to consider the ways refugees give to your community and the United States, the ways you have seen them serve. Thank them for their contributions. Be creative about it.

Today I stand with countless global citizens to celebrate world refugee day. It has been a truly splendid day full of energy and smiles and even a bit of dancing (see the InTandem – a Flashmob of Empathy video below from Denver’s World Refugee Day rally.) I particularly think of the ways my friends are bettering my life through their hospitality and friendship and food. The main ingredients I have noted are time, love, and ugali, given in generous portions. I am grateful for my friends who are refugees and am incredibly glad to be a part of their lives as they are in mine.

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Ten things I love about Denver

While I’m not a native Coloradan, I lived in Denver during a life-changing summer two years ago. Now I am back for a bit, and I am so happy. Here are ten things I love about this city, culminating with number 10.

  1. Public transportation.

    Riding the bus is inexpensive and provides the opportunity to people watch, rest from a fulfilling day or observe the city itself through discolored windows. I feel independent when I take the RTD, and I learn about social dynamics by observing where people sit and how they speak to each other. If you’re from a city, you can probably relate.

  2. Sunshine.

    If I could define Denver in a word, I would say yellow. Yellow defines the feel of the summer sun on my skin, the invisible color of the air, the feeling I have while living here – due in part to the serotonin-boosting sunshine. As John Denver croons, “Sunshine on my shoulders makes me happy.” Even his name reinforces how the sun connects to this Coloradan city!

  3. Mountains.

    The Rockies awe me with their majesty, the majesty that reflects their Creator. Although I behold them daily, they have not lost their splendor. They always provide me with some metaphor, and they draw me closer to God. In this city, they also help me find my way since I can always know which way is west. As a directionally challenged person, I appreciate that.

    Denver blog view from LFS office

    The view from my office, PC: KSB

  4. My internship.

    I could write blogs upon blogs about my internship. I work with refugees who are resettling in the United States, and I love showing up to work every morning. My coworkers are caring, relational, hard-working and fun, and I relish being surrounded by their many languages. I hear a lot of Arabic in particular, and one of the case managers is teaching me Kiswahili since I am on my way to the Democratic Republic of Congo. This is my second time interning here, and each time I’ve been thrown into learning and doing. I could go on forever about how amazing my internship is, but I’ll move on from describing my amazing weekdays to the event that makes my weekends so fabulous.

  5. Jazz in the Park.

    For ten consecutive Sundays each summer, thousands of people gather in City Park to hear live jazz and consume cuisine from the food trucks. Elderly couples and children dance together by the gazebo, and families hold picnics by the algae-covered lake. Whether chatting with friends or vibing to the music alone, I love the atmosphere.

    Denver blog leaving Jazz in the Park

    Leaving Jazz in the Park, PC: KSB

  6. Old friends.

    Since I lived here two years ago, I have been able to reconnect with people whom I met during a formative time in my life. I have enjoyed catching up with old friends, having fun in community and being near people who can build me up in my faith. These friends vary in age from children to people more than twice my age, and some even call me family.

  7. Walking.

    I appreciate the calf muscles I have been able to sustain by walking; I like feeling strong. While walking is obviously a good way to travel from place to place, exercise or release stress, it is also conducive to exploring. Immersing oneself in Denver’s shops and neighborhoods is easier by foot than by car since it allows for more spontaneity and closeness to the details that characterize Denver. What you discover will depend on where you walk and how open you keep your eyes and heart.

    Denver blog Izzy and me at Juneteenth 2016

    Izzy and I at the Juneteenth Festival, PC: KSB

  8. Festivals every weekend.

    There’s always something to do in the city. With many of these events free and public transportation so easily accessible, Denverites have no reason to be bored. Although I am a bit of a homebody, I also find it healthy to get out of the apartment and explore. I particularly enjoy the cultural festivals such as the one in Five Points celebrating Juneteenth Independence Day. Participating with friends makes the deal even better.

  9. 16th Street Mall.

    Street musicians fill the air with sweet melodies, and public pianos beckon from the center of every block; it is basically the dream. The street is always crowded, which makes it a great place to observe or potentially make connections. (I once met a man who works for the Denver Voice, the homeless newspaper based in my building, while heading toward the movie theater there.) For consumers, 16th Street Mall is the place to satisfy physical hunger, find any item one may desire or simply browse the windows. The mall bus is free and can take you closer to your destination if you’re not in the mood to walk.

    Denver blog 16th St Mall

    A group of activists on 16th Street Mall, PC: KSB

  10. Diversity of people.

    This plays into almost all my previous points in some way. Living with a family of another race and nationality, learning about my friends’ religions in a setting where we all respect each other and can make civil and genuine conversation, appreciating global cultures daily through my friends’ food and the city’s festivals, the buzz during Pridefest when rainbow flags decorated all of Colfax and hundreds of thousands of people from around the country came to celebrate – I do not experience most of these things in my wealthy, white suburban college town, but in Denver I am surrounded by diversity of all forms.

    I am learning so much in this city, and I am thriving off the diversity in which I live. Even if you do not live in a city, I encourage you to seek this out. A trip to Denver won’t hurt either.

What are some things you love about Denver? Comment below!

Three things TCKs taught me not to take for granted

If you know international students or have friends who are third culture kids (TCKs), you know you can’t take anything for granted—not the terms or phrases you use, not your understanding of geographical knowledge and especially not your time spent together.

Language.

Catchphrases are cultural, so you may have to ask questions about what an offhand comment means. Recently a friend I’ve known for a couple years asked, “Do you want more to eat?” I replied something along the lines of, “It’s okay.” She nodded silently and then asked a moment later, “Does that mean you don’t want more?” Oops! That is what I meant, but I can see how my language could be confusing (a) perhaps in general and (b) especially to someone whose second language is English.

Even after years of knowing someone, language differences can interfere with communication. However, this causes you to engage constantly in order to deepen your relationships. You also grow accustomed to hearing or using terms from different languages, expanding your vocabulary and thus your world.

Geographical knowledge.

Next, your international or TCK friends might not know where Montana is, but that’s only because they grew up overseas and probably know where a lot more countries are than you do! And let’s reverse the scenario for a moment: you probably don’t know the names or locations for the provinces in China, Mexican states or other geographical subdivisions in all your international/TCK friends’ countries! I’ll admit I do not. Living in the United States, I’ve never had to know.

Of course, a few TCKS may know more American geography than born-and-raised Americans because of the educational curriculum they’ve used overseas or the places they’ve visited when they’ve come to the States. It’s excusable for international students and TCKs not to know where the state of Connecticut is since they might not have spent much if any time in the States, but when they do-bravo! I’ve met countless American college students who do not know. (In case you’re one of those people, Connecticut is in New England. It’s east of New York and above Long Island Sound, south of Massachusetts and next to Rhode Island. It’s in the northeast United States.)

Time together.

This overarches the daily interactions and conversations with international students and TCKS. Although they may hate goodbyes, third culture kids are used to having people come in and out of their lives, and they’ve been those transient people for others. They know how to value time with their friends.

As college students we have about four years we can expect to be together. After that, who knows where we’ll move on this small, round planet? Nevertheless, as TCKs and Disney fans know, we live in a small world. With international connections and often a penchant for travel, you never know when you may meet again! Years down the road when you bump into your friends in Colorado or Kenya, treasure those moments—as well as the ones you’re living now. We honestly can’t take time for granted.

 

My international and TCK friends have blessed me in countless ways, not the least of which is vicariously showing me more of God’s world. They’ve opened my eyes to see things from different cultural perspectives and have taught me how to count time as a blessing.

What have your international or TCK friends taught you?

Surprise Thanksgiving trip through New England: a photo account

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At 3:30 a.m. Wednesday morning, I left my house in Wheaton. At 6 a.m., I flew from Chicago O’Hare to New England for a surprise trip home.

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Besides my parents, my cousin Jonathan was the only one outside of Wheaton who knew I had no way home. I’d tried all semester to find a ride to CT for Thanksgiving, but everyone from CT was either flying back or staying around campus. A week before break, I still had no way home. Because I couldn’t afford a plane ticket, Jonathan let many of my other cousins, aunts and uncles know so they could chip in to buy me one. “It wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without you,” he told me when I thanked him. I told my dad about God’s provision before another cousin asked me to keep it a surprise, but my mom and sister had no idea I was going to Thanksgiving with them.

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My Aunt Carol and cousin Becky picked me up from the Providence airport, and we visited a park in Rhode Island that Wednesday. Here I pretended to be queen of the castle.

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Becky and I ran up hills and climbed trees. I loved seeing hills, rock faces, and tunnels of trees again! New England is beautiful–especially Connecticut! 😉

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Rhode Island has a unique beauty, though. It’s quaint, with lots of little streets. We had fun adventuring around the city (a.k.a. being lost on the way to the park).

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Then I visited a tropical island for a minute…I mean, we stopped at a smoothie place in Massachusetts since I hadn’t eaten. Next we continued on to my aunt’s house in New Bedford, MA, where I played with a three year old the family nannies, ate lunch, and napped for eight straight hours. (Oops. I had meant to play family games, but apparently two hours of sleep before a red eye flight exhausts a girl.) I woke up for a couple hours to eat dinner at 10:30 p.m. and wrap presents, and then I slept for another six or seven hours until the morning!

 

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We proceeded on to Connecticut, my beautiful old home, for the family picnic in Cochester.

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At the family picnic, I met some soon-to-be relatives, baby London and cousin Matt’s fiance N’Gella. I also surprised mom by being there. It took forever to get her attention, but she finally turned around and saw me. Becky Bailey captured her initial reaction on camera. Mom’s words upon seeing me? “Oh now that’s not even fair.” (She didn’t like that I had deceived her.)

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But mom was happy I was there!

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*mom hugs*

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My sister Hannah was excited, too. She exclaimed, “WHAT?!” and then did a jig.

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While my dad made mashed potatoes for most of the 52 people in attendance, I mashed a small bowl for the dairy free among us.

Bennett family photo Thanksgiving 2015

After eating, we played football. I made a touchdown at the start of the first game! We ended up losing that game, but my team was 2-1 in the end. Typically those who play football shovel coal afterwards since that’s how Aunt Penni and Uncle Rick heat their house for the winter, but they had already done that, so we went straight to the pie eating, conversing and hymn singing. I spent 10 hours total at their house this Thanksgiving Day!

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On the way to the house in which I was staying overnight, my subconscious dream came true: we went through Hubbard Park and saw the lights!! I hadn’t seen them for two or three years!

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The lit globe has always been my favorite.

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On Friday morning I went to Cheshire Coffee with my friend Jared. It was SO good to catch up with him!! He was the only friend I’d told about my visit since I thought I wouldn’t have time to see anybody. I also thought I wouldn’t be able to visit my old towns, Cheshire and North Haven, but both expectations were surpassed: we drove through both towns, and since Jared had to work at 9:30 a.m., I had the rest of the day to see other people. First I had the pleasure of visiting my old hangout, Music Center of North Haven. I even saw Mark, Mary and Donna Minotti!

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Then, since I was free until 2:30 p.m., Daddy Vecchio picked me up from Music Center and brought me to East Haven, where I saw the whole family–including cousin RiRi. Tyler was even home from Niger, which was a surprise to me!

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I loved being back with my second family, the Vecchios! We’ve all grown, but some things definitely stayed the same. 😉

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Mia and I played our original song, “I Like Cats,” as well as “Safe and Sound,” “Oceans ” and others on guitar, just like we used to do every weekend in high school. Although I hadn’t seen nor sung with her since May 2014, we remembered our harmonies! Then Mama and I dropped her off at work because she’s an adult now! (Side note: I feel so old when I say how much time has passed since I saw my old friends and family!)

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Silas practiced blowing bubbles–he just learned on Tuesday–and Mama fed me. She and I talked with her for an hour or so. I can’t express how happy I am to have seen them! Then several other cousins tag-teamed to get me back to the Providence airport that Friday night, and by 10p.m. I had landed in Chicago again. What a beautiful whirlwind of a break!

 

 

Words of wisdom from my Connecticut graduation

“Life has many blessings; cherish them. Maintaining loving relationships and enjoying the basic things of life are more important than wealth.” -Ms. Cookie Yopp

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Lately I’ve been missing Connecticut, the state in which I was socialized, and some dear people there such as my second family, the Vecchios. While enjoying the warming temperatures at Wheaton, I’ve been reminiscing on sunny Saturday mornings spent at the Cheshire High School track cheering for Dad’s long distance runners. I’ve also been remembering the importance of some things I learned more recently in another place that shaped me: Denver, where I learned the importance of introspection and rest.

Today I am enforcing those disciplines for the few hours I have free. After church and brunch, I returned to my room to relax and do some crafts, exhausted from being with so many people all week and having to talk every hour. While delving into my craft supplies, I found old cards from my high school graduation.

“We’re proud of you,” my friends, cousins, aunts and uncles wrote. They told me they loved me and that I am welcomed and amazing. They also encouraged me to keep pursuing Jesus.

I do not repeat their comments out of pride but rather out of a deep sense of amazement that I could be so loved. I thrive on words of affirmation and also need to keep hearing them to remember the truth about who I am. Someone saying “I’m proud of you” has a crazy impact on me. Reading my friends’ notes about my talents encouraged me, and nearly everybody brought their point back to God: Follow His ways. Trust Him. Love Him.

I’d like to share from these graduation cards some words of wisdom similar to the proverb at the top. Please be encouraged and amazed at how mighty God is.

“As long as you remember to keep God a vital part in your life, you really can’t go wrong.” -Rachel Wittman

“The enemy trembles at your advance, because you and Jesus are one, and your love for Him is greater than all else…Keep your lion-like boldness and let your dreams know no boundaries, because you have seen that with God, nothing is impossible.” -Erica Kyne

“(The Lord) has a plan and a path for your life. Be sensitive to His leading.” -Mr. and Mrs. Harris

“(God) will never let you down!” -cousins Kelly and Mike Heckman

“Hold on to your faith and you will go far in life.” -Jessica Bennett (my French prez)

“This is an exciting time for you, and God will guide you every step of the way.” -Aunt Theresa Boyes

“But as for you, be strong and do not give up, for your work will be rewarded.” -2 Chronicles 15:7 (from Aunt Sue and Uncle Tom Gerace)

“Just remember that you don’t have to have it all figured out and you’ll never be alone with God by your side. Don’t get overwhelmed; let God handle the decisions. And HAVE FUN! Enjoy life and remember it only comes once (on earth!)” -Sarah Bennett (the friend, not cousin)

With this in mind, have a restful Sunday and a Spirit-led rest of the year! (I say that as a college student nearing the end of my second undergraduate year, unsure of what comes next.)

In God’s grace,

Skye

“But the beauty of grace is that it makes life not fair.” -Relient K