Thursday, May 7, 2015

Mama, You're A Superhero

"Well, what did you guys think of The New Family?," I asked when all four of us were buckled up and on the road again.

"Gooood," said my two-year-old softly, clearly fatigued from the three hours we had just spent in such a new, noisy environment.

"They were nice, huh?!" I said cheerfully, trying to prod a response out of my three-year-old.

Apparently needing no further encouragement, he enthusiastically chimed in, his voice full of awe, 
"Yeah, and their mama was a superhero!"

I sat in the dark of our car for a moment, completely confused by this comment. I raise an eyebrow, glance at my husband for clarity and then, still confused, asked, "What do you mean, buddy?"

"That Mama is a superhero! Didn't you see?!"

It's then that it dawns on me that Kyler is referring to the traditional black burqa the mother of "The New Family" (as the kids would call this family throughout our relationship) was wearing for most of the evening. When she had first walked into the living room, with only a tiny slit of her eyes showing, I looked cautiously at the kids, hoping our earlier conversations had prepared them for this moment. They smiled as she greeted them in Arabic, seeming to sense the warmth behind the garb.

But wait, I'm getting ahead of myself! Let me back up for a minute and give some context for how we found ourselves in the living room of The New Family. 

Last Fall, we decided to get involved with a local organization that serves the refugee population here in our city. Having gotten a small taste of what it feels like to be a foreigner in a foreign land during our two years living in Thailand, we had become increasingly impassioned about coming alongside one of these refugee families as they made the difficult transition into a new life in the U.S. I knew from experience the anxiety of not knowing where to go for groceries, the discomfort of not being able to communicate at the doctor's or dentist's office and the anguish of knowing that I would always be seen as a foreigner just because of my appearance. And all this, after having chosen to move, with a stable home country to return to as needed, with plenty of financial and emotional resources at our disposal to ease the transition - in stark contrast to the desperate situation these families find themselves in. 

Shortly after signing up, we were linked with an Iraqi refugee family of eight - a mother, a father, and six children. We would soon learn that the sixth child was born only hours after the family arrived on American soil, the Iraqi mother being rushed to the hospital during a layover in New York City. We were invited for our first visit into the Iraqi family's home when the baby was four weeks old. 
I had done my best to prepare the kids for what they were about to experience, without over-emphasizing our families' differences. I wanted them to know that this family didn't speak the same language as us, that they probably had different customs and behaviors and attire. But I also wanted them to know and really embrace the fact that they were a family just like us, that they were intelligent, kind, courageous people, that we were intrinsically the same, despite any observable differences. 
And so we showed up for our first meeting around six in the evening, to a bottom-floor, corner apartment smelling of tea and spices. The kids had been eager all day to finally get to meet The New Family. We were welcomed with the kindest smiles and the warmest embraces, as though we had known each other for years. We did not know any Arabic and the family members knew minimal English, the youngest children and the mother knowing none at all. 

So we conversed with smiles and finger-pointing and a mutual understanding that life is a gift and the fact that this meeting between our two families was taking place at all, was a miracle. We stayed for three hours, pointing and smiling, watching the children interact and falling in love with the joy and courage of The New Family. When we finally leave, exhausted yet exhilarated, it is then that my son says: 

"That mama is a superhero. Didn't you see?!"

I told him at the time, "You're right buddy. She is! Can you imagine how much courage it took for her to bring her whole family all the way across the ocean to a country where she doesn't know anyone, doesn't understand what people are saying, doesn't know where to buy groceries or go to the doctor? And then to have a new baby just a couple hours after getting of the plane?! Yes, you're right. That mama is a superhero."

And now, with Mother's Day this weekend, I cannot help but think - not in any way to minimize the extraordinary courage and resilience of the Iraqi mother - that in some way, every mama is a superhero. 

I know it may sound a little too kum ba yah, a little too hand-holding and chirpy to be real. And I will be the first to admit that there are many moments, many days, when I do not see other mamas as superheroes. I judge them for their disengagement or their over-protection, for their lack of follow through or their strict discipline. I size up meals and outfits as though I'm a leading nutritionist and the world's most renowned fashion leader. I am not above any of that. 

And yet, I also believe with all my being that every mama has her story, her moments of rising above, of giving her all. Her days of unmatched courage and resilience, of sacrifice and love. I believe we are on this adventure of mothering together, and that esteeming one another as intrinsically the same, despite any observable differences, is the the greatest gift we can give one another this Mother's Day. 
And so, from me to you, Happy Mother's Day! You're a superhero, Mama!

More background: If, like I was, you're unfamiliar with the refugee population, these are families or individuals who have been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster. Often they have lived for years in refugee camps before finally becoming among the 1-2% of people who actually receive refugee status and are resettled. They have typically witnessed unfathomable violence - many watching their own family members perish - have missed out on standard education, have struggled for survival in inhumane conditions. 

As I started thinking about Mamas & Superheroes, my creative juices went wild with images of a mama in the midst of her mundane, attired in full superhero attire. As amateurs, we were only able to partially capture these mental images, but still had a lot of fun trying! Here are a few more bloopers, because there were LOTS to choose from! :)

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  1. Love the photos! Seriously! And so very true. What a rewarding perspective from your little one.

    1. Thanks, Melanie! My kids tend to be my biggest teachers these days! :)

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