BELONGING

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

I remember a timid little boy walking into my second period math class. He would shuffle his feet slowly, head bowed down as he slunk across the room into a chair. He would pull out his homework, always done, always correct, always on time. His defeated voice would answer my questions, but seldom offered ideas up to the class. He suffered from the chronic pain of Crohn's disease, you could see the grimace etched into the lines on his face. He often missed school as a result, but he never complained.

In all honesty, I'm not sure who would have listened if he had complained. I don't think his classmates realized the severity of his condition. I don't think most of them even recognized his existence. He was an outsider.

As a teacher, these are the kids that break your heart. You want so badly to help them find a friend, but at the end of the day, you're not a magician. I would move his seat around, give him opportunities to shine, check in with him when he was sick- but that was all I could do.

A few months ago I received an email from a colleague with a link to an article. Immediately I recognized the face. Ali. Hair just the same, but the jaw of a man replaced the chin of the soft boy I knew. His eyes still mysterious, like there are stories and secrets behind them. Waiting to be told, waiting for someone to listen. Waiting for someone to validate his existence and tell him that he belongs.



As my eyes wandered past the photo to the headlines, my heart sank.

VIRGINIA TEEN GETS 11 YEARS FOR SUPPORTING ISIS.

ISIS. The little boy from my class. In federal prison.

He created a twitter handle to encourage his 4,000 followers to donate anonymously to ISIS via bitcoin. He even got into a twitter war with the state department account, Think Again Turn Away. He aided a friend in traveling to Syria to fight for ISIS. Those are just the things they knew to charge him with.

While all that is shocking, his response gripped me.

"For the first time I was not only being taken seriously about a very important and weighty [topic], but was actually being asked for guidance," Amin wrote. "I became lost and caught up in something that takes the greatest and most profound teachings of Islam and turns them into justifications for violence and death."

He was disillusioned. He didn't belong. ISIS gave him a place to belong.




I had another student that same year. Different period, similar complexion. His family immigrated from the same region of the world. And I saw his face in the news recently as well. 


Dagim. As a sixth grader, he wasn't too different from Ali. But as the years passed, he found his way. He found a place to belong and a country that embraced him. A country that gave him opportunity and freedom to grow and flourish. To express his ideas and explore his potential.

I could write many more paragraphs about friends and students who came to this country as immigrants and refugees. A student that founded a free medical clinic to support fellow Egyptian refugees. An Iranian friend became a doctor. Ethiopian families who have shown me undying gratitude for educating their children, and the children working their tails off to make the sacrifice of their parents worth it. Latina mamas who have made me tamales for supporting their children when they've surpassed the level of education their parents received.  Vietnamese families, Pakistani families, Afghan families. Families from war torn Africa. Students who have gone to college and earned degrees. Students who have given back to their communities out of gratitude for all they have been given.

As I've followed the news and scrolled through facebook the past few days, I've been overwhelmed by the response of my fellow Americans toward the Syrian refugees. I still don't know how to put it all into words. I wonder if people have forgotten how this country was founded, by a bunch of people seeking freedom from oppression. I wonder how Christians have forgotten the Christmas story, a middle eastern family seeking shelter and relief. I wonder if we remember that FDR declined to accept Jewish refugees during WWII. That Hitler warned he would exterminate them but we said no, we don't want them. It is inconvenient to us. It is too expensive. I wonder if people would actually speak their Facebook comments out loud? If they would say we have enough homeless people to worry about as they drive past the guy on the corner holding a cardboard sign. If they would actually give their $5 to a relief organization instead of buying a coffee. 

God have mercy if these refugees can't find respite in America. 
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