This phrase, “Once you were a wandering Armenian” will never leave my head.
Now, if you are a Bible Scholar you will already be scratching your head as this phrase that is often repeated in the Hebrew Scriptures is actually written, “Once you were a wandering Aramean.” (The ancient Israelites were also called Aramaeans).
But the phrase is locked in my head as “once you were a wandering Armenian” for a reason.
One Sunday a pastor with whom I served preached a sermon about Hospitality to Strangers and Welcome and how important these principles are to God. Our pastor kept citing this command where God reminds the Jewish people of the time they all had to emigrate to Egypt because of the great famine in their land.
God talks a lot in Exodus and Deuteronomy about being kind to the stranger or alien, because the Jewish people had once been strangers themselves . . . “Do unto others…” and all that.
It was a good sermon, but there was just one thing: every time he said Armenian instead of Aramaen my husband and I would look at each other and try not to giggle.
An Armenian is someone from a country in Western Asia.
Arameans, as I wrote earlier, were the wandering Jews.
And to further clarify, snarky is a frequent attitude that my husband and I can be when we are in church together.
So we’re thinking, “I mean, who doesn’t know the difference between Armenians and Aramaens?!? Right?”
Well, it turns out the joke is on me because decades later I learned that the Armenians themselves did a bit of wandering. While listening to Vigen Guroian in an interview with Krista Tippett for On Being I learned there was an Armenian holocaust during World War I. During this time over a million Armenians were either killed or deported from their homeland. Pockets of Armenians fled to whatever safe country they could find in order to keep their families alive, including many who came to the USA. This is also now known as the Armenian diaspora and is responsible for pockets of Armenian communities still existing around the world.
Wandering Armenian, Wandering Aramean. Not so different after all.
I have never been deported, but I have done my share of wandering. Especially when I was younger, I loved to travel the world. As any traveler knows, sometimes the experiences go great and, sometimes, well sometimes you owe your life to the kindness of strangers.
In 1995 I took a summer trip to Honduras to do some missionary work in a rural orphanage. The agency I was going through sent out most of its young summer missionaries two by two, but I flew to Honduras alone.
As I landed at Tegucigalpa, I wondered what my hosts would be like. I was supposed to meet two missionaries from the orphanage in front of the small airport. After gathering my luggage and clearing customs, I waited on the porch of the airport with my fellow travelers.
Five minutes went by. Then ten. There were only a few of us left waiting for our rides to pick us up. After half an hour it was down to me and a soldier who had flown commercial. Since the porch was full of beggars and my Spanish is no bueno I stuck close to the soldier for comfort.
Finally, the soldier informed me he was getting a taxi and wished me luck.
I pushed back tears as I stood on the porch alone.
I stood there, a lone twenty-two-year-old girl, in a rather dangerous country. I didn’t speak the language, and I had no contact information for the people who were supposed to welcome me. I kept praying for God to send someone to help me, stupid and foolish as I was.
Finally one of the beggars came over to me, a boy a little younger than my 22 years. He spoke to me in English, “It is not good for you to be standing here alone. You are in danger. Let me help you find the people who are coming for you.”
We unsuccessfully tried to make a long distance call to my mission agency back in the US on a Honduran pay phone. Then he took me inside to the airport office. He explained to one of the office workers what was going on. The worker made the long distance call to my mission agency. Soon we had a local number for the guest house in Tegucigalpa. My hosts had gotten confused on what day I was arriving. However, the couple who ran the agency’s guest house in town would be right over.
I cried grateful tears as this young man sat with me until my ride came. I thanked him again and again. He just kept nodding his head as if it was assumed he would help me.
Me, the wander. Me the stranger. Me, the alien who was far from home and in need of a friendly face and helping hand.
I did not travel to China when we adopted my daughter. As fate would have it I was three weeks out from a C-section delivery with our son when it came time for my husband to board the plane to get out daughter. So my first glimpse of her was in the international greeting area of the Atlanta airport.
After months of filling out paperwork, struggling with immigration services, and then finally getting a picture of our daughter in our “matched” packet, I would finally see her face to face.
But I worried that day. For even though she was my daughter and I was her mother, we were strangers. She would not know my face. She would not understand my words. She would have no idea who I was or where she was or what in the world was happening to her.
When I saw my husband coming up the airport escalator with my one-year-old daughter perched on his arm like a little Chinese bird, I began to cry. Here was a year of prayers for our child fulfilled. A year where I not only prayed for a child, but for MY child as she lay in her crib in the orphanage.
Was she cold? Scared? Hungry? Safe?
Her nannies cared for her as best as they could, but there were so many children to care for and not enough people or money to do it the way they surely wished they could. Her paperwork gave us indications that she was underweight and way behind in her development. Would she be okay?
My daughter didn’t cry the day we met. But neither did she come to me. She clung to her new adoptive father. He was the one thing that bridged her old life in China and her new life with us. As she processed a million new smells and sounds and sights she clung to him for dear life.
It took about six months for my daughter to acclimatize to her new life. After a month she began to let her father leave the room she was in without crying. After two months she was cured of giardia and anemia. After three months she started walking. After six months she began to call me “mama”.
Fourteen years later, my daughter is the first person to think of how to make a new person feel welcome or how to be kind to someone in need.
For once she was a wandering Asian, far from home.
There are not a lot of Asians in our town, so our daughter is often mistaken for Hispanic. When Trump was elected, some mean boys in her class told her she was going to be deported back to Mexico. Never mind she is a citizen of the USA and has never once laid eyes on Mexico.
But when I saw the picture of the little girl at the border crying, I could almost understand those boys confusion.
Because all I could see when I looked at this little girl’s face is the face of my daughter.
I know the reasons I connect the two are more than just the black hair and brown skin.
This little girl was born into a country in crisis where not all children are safe, just like my daughter was.
The little girl is about to be separated from her birth parents, just like my daughter was.
She will be in a strange country where she does not know the language, just like my daughter was.
She will have no idea why this has happened, much like my daughter.
Unlike my daughter, this little girl’s entry into the USA is a continuation of her problems and not a beginning of healing story.
I can imagine how those tears would continue when the child was placed in her new “home” where she would be surrounded by strangers and not speak the language. At least my daughter had her adoptive father as an anchor between her old country and her new. For this little girl, there will be no anchor.
I can imagine how the little girl will wake up with night terrors like my daughter did.
I can imagine how she will start failing to thrive like my daughter did.
Institutional living is not kind to a child under the best of circumstances. And this child will not be living in the best of circumstances.
Seeing photos and hearing stories of the crisis of the children at the border has felt like one long bad dream to me.
I cannot understand how my country can be committing such atrocities.
We are supposed to be the people who welcome the stranger. For we were all once wandering strangers who received welcome ourselves.
I have been doing a lot of praying about how to respond to this crisis. Even after the initial edicts creating the crisis at the border have eased, the problem has not been solved. Is far from being solved. There are still hundreds if not thousands of children who are separated from their parents. How will they be reunited?
And even when they are all reunited, what will they then do?
So many of them have come from countries like Honduras where the conditions have gone from bad to worse. Poverty and violence and the tyranny of gangs and government corruption have led to people fleeing their homeland in search of a better life.
Just as the Israelites fled to Egypt during the famine.
Just as Joseph, Mary, and Jesus fled to Egypt when Herod massacred the firstborn sons of Israel.
Just as the Armenians fled during World War I and so many fled during World War II.
Just like thousands of Korean and Chinese and Russian and African orphans have been moved from lives of poverty and sickness in their orphanages to lives where they have a chance.
People trying to find a life of safety and health and happiness for their family is nothing new.
But our current reaction to the strangers in our midst, specifically those seeking asylum as refugees is new.
My husband asked me why now? Why write this article now? I think it is because other people have stopped talking about the crisis at the border. We have moved on to the next crisis in the news. But the people in the midst of this crisis have not moved on. How can they?
If you like me, are heartbroken by our current border crisis, here are some concrete things you can do:
- Call the people who represent you and remind them you have not forgotten about the children who have been separated from their parents and ask them to vote on legislation regarding refugee children that leads to their reunification with their family.
- Donate to Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande. This organization is running a respite center where refugees can go once they are freed from detention centers and get the basics the basics they need to start over.
- Donate to TogetherRising. Glennon Doyle, Brene Brown, and Elizabeth Gilbert have teamed up to fundraise money for groups that help refugees have legal representation. Their actions are already making a difference in reuniting families. Read more on their website or social media pages.
- Don’t forget and don’t give up.