Giving Up Historical Fiction for the Current Reality: Being a Refugee Advocate and Accidental Activist

When this popped up on my Facebook page today, I felt two years collapse in a blink.

August 22, 2015

Research begins in earnest for my next book, an historical novel — first in a series of six– this first one spanning several generations of one family across three countries: Norway, Denmark and the USA. Here’s a little nugget you might not have known. But now you do.

“Viking king Harald Blåtand [Bluetooth] … had an uncanny ability to bring people together in non-violent negotiations. His way with words and communication went so far as uniting Denmark and Norway as a single territory. … The name stuck, and Bluetooth’s modern day symbol depicts Blåtand’s initials inscribed in Runic symbols.”

      That morning, as I recall, I had snuggled up to my writing desk here in our new home of Frankfurt where, a year before we had moved from Geneva. We’d never targeted moving here, but followed an unlikely job offer and clear spiritual nudges to do so, and were now watching for that invisible ink of God’s signature on the bottom line of this deal to slowly appear. Why Frankfurt? Why now?

To finally write my novels, of course. So, I spread out my notes, my six-generation timeline, my character sketches, and my stacks of Ibsen and Undset. Cradling my Bluetooth device in my palm, I mused about a certain Viking leader with a blue tooth and a legendary gift for diplomacy. This was no clichéd mouth-frothing marauder smashing open skulls with an axe, but a radical unifier, a Viking Dr. King or a Gandhi Norseman, if you will.

(Strange mental picture, I know, but stick with me here.)

Bluetooth the Negotiator, I decided, who unified warring factions, who brought peace not through sword but through words was going to be a governing spirit in my first novel. And so I announced it on Facebook.

I set seriously forth.

For 48 hours.

Until August 24’s headline:

Germany Opens its Gates. Berlin Says All Syrian Asylum Seekers Are Welcome

headlineImage.adapt.1460.high.germany_refugees_090715.1441692478178

(Image: America.AlJazeera.Com)

With those words, the world tilted on its side. Germany—and especially my new home of Frankfurt—became a sort of Grand Central Station for the refugee crisis, a clearing house for the hundreds of thousands (and over a year 1.6 million) desperate souls streaming to the west for safety from extremist terror. Busloads, in fact, arrived right in my little town of Bad Homburg, where a high school gym was turned overnight to emergency refugee center and where beleaguered men, women and children from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran sat on the bleachers while I taught them (cheer-led them) German.

Only a few months of intensive volunteering later, six friends and I had formed Their Story is Our Story (TSOS), a nonprofit dedicated to collecting and disseminating refugee stories in photograph, painting, film, and in word. We stood not in front of bleachers full of Middle Easterners, but in front of western audiences giving presentations hoping to humanize a situation that had split the West into fierce pro and con camps. In the US media especially, we noted, blared inflammatory, fear-stoking messaging, messaging that did not match the reality we volunteers were experiencing in the camps every day. Loud voices fostered fear about these refugees, people we knew as peaceful and faith-filled, people who were becoming our friends. This is an invasion, the voices cried. Think of our fair daughters. They will take them, then our jobs, then our liberty, then us all. They will impose sharia law. This will mean cultural extinction. This is the Islamification of the West. Christianity will die. We will all die.

Undaunted, we wrote and spoke everywhere. People listened. We became refugee advocates.

Since 2015/2016, more good and beautiful has happened than I can possibly tell here. I have been trying to tell it in person and in writing elsewhere, however, just not here. Which explains my eight-month absence on the blog.

Much has also happened that has driven even wider those cultural and political divisions that pit humankind in an endless war against itself. Countries threw up walls. Greece clamped down. And TSOS witnessed hot turbulence that gained momentum from the blistering updraft rising from a raging US presidential campaign.

In the heart of that vortex stood a peculiar candidate.  Describing him, one Muslim refugee friend, a refined and reserved former translator for the US military who had seen footage of a rally speech, said the man looked and sounded “Very American,” as he called it, “but not the good kind.” It goes without saying that this candidate was no Harald Bluetooth. Indeed, he seemed to delight in stirring up division. He swung poisonous rhetoric like a hand-hewn axe. Like a Viking from your corniest junior high school documentary, this man seemed to gloat and gurgle, his face flushing with smugness as some of his most ardent tribesmen barked hatred. Hatred of the Other. Hatred, even, of their own.

That campaign was a crucible. Throughout it, I taught my refugee students the German words for “dangerous”, “corrupt”, “artificial”, “deceitful”, “reality TV”, “adultery”, “racism”, and assured them (while reassuring myself) that, in spite of his overblown persona, this man lacked all qualifications, self- control, intelligence, or basic morals to ascend to office. His fire and brimstone notwithstanding, this man was not the Savior he peddled himself as being. On the contrary. He did not represent America, and good, decent Americans would give him zero chance of sitting in the most powerful office on earth.

On the morning of November 8th, I drove weary and dumbstruck through a slate gray drizzle to the refugee camp. Huddled in a tent, a group of us — volunteers and Afghan and Syrian women alike — sat wrapped in coats and blankets at a picnic table. No one spoke. From an old transistor radio, someone played Afghan music. Its wailing lament swirled above us like the tendriled mandalas we painted on donated canvas. Elbow-to-elbow I sat next to an elegantly mannered young woman. I had sworn to her that this Muslim-hater and woman abuser would never be elected leader of the free world.

She was silent.

I was burning.

We dipped our brushes in red, blue, aqua, ochre acrylics, painting twin petals on the same big flower. Her hands were younger and more slender than mine, and steadier. She’d seen far worse in her life than the likes of this election. Still, I knew this morning she had fresh worries.  Would the politics in the US—the prejudices of this man — set a precedent for politics everywhere? Would he set in motion a wave that would wash over Germany and send her to Afghanistan? Would she be deported back home?

Home? I knew the secret she had told only a German judge and a few witnesses. Home was where she had been abducted in broad daylight by a band of Taliban devils who had tied a grain bag over her head before dragging her into an abandoned hovel where all eight of them raped and tortured her around the clock for four days straight. Home was where, were they to ever lay eyes on her again, her village elders who were outraged that her rape had “dishonored” them, would publicly stone her to death.

On January 25th, the man who had boasted of sexually assaulting women assumed the sacred office of President of the United States of America. His first executive order was also an assault, an act of prejudicial dissection. He called for a ban against all Muslims.

And on January 26th, this refugee advocate became a political activist. Together with some of my closest friends, we founded a nonpartisan nonprofit committed, (in good Bluetooth fashion), to the principles of non-violence for the healing of our government, our communities, and our very selves. Mormon Women for Ethical Government (MWEG), is dedicated to challenging the unethical, illegal, indecent and the corrupt in government, while also identifying and rewarding government’s ethical, honest, and noble.  Though we launched as a couple of dozen women watch-dogging the fallout of those first two unethical executive orders, we have grown in number, (MWEG now numbers in the thousands), and scope, (we are 38 committees covering everything from Refugees and Immigrants to Health Care, Education, Discrimination, Conflict of Interest, Environment, etc.), and vision, (we are not a temporary resistance to any single administration, but a movement that will be around for generations to school women in civic engagement and for public office.)

We have been working doggedly alongside several other advocacy and activist groups under the hammering downpour of unethical practices issuing from this particular oval office.  There has not been a single week of calm. (You’ve noticed?) So, while it’s been eight months of soundproofed crickets here on the blog, it’s been nothing but Sturm und Drang turbo boosters everywhere else.

You might ask when I will return to writing things besides letters to politicians, news releases, OpEds, media pieces, explanations of policy, or blog posts on ethics in politics and refugees in their ongoing plight? I can’t say exactly. But when my inward Harald Bluetooth has sufficiently used her words to sow peace and sew together the factions warring in her world, when I am convinced I have accomplished with my simple words the most I can to make of current realities a history my children and their children and all children can live with, then I will snuggle up to my desk. I will pull out my reams of notes. I will breathe in my many peaceful (and some not-so-peaceful) Viking ancestors. And I will write fiction that rings, I pray, with relevance, depth, dignity, love and above all, truth.

***

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2017.  This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

24 thoughts on “Giving Up Historical Fiction for the Current Reality: Being a Refugee Advocate and Accidental Activist

  1. So glad to hear your words on your blog! Though, of course, I understand the reason for the hiatus. Thank you for your articulate voice on behalf of those who cannot find the words.

  2. Bravo and thank you for doing what you are doing, Melissa. It lifts me up and restores my spirit of advocacy just to read what you have written about it. Let us know if there is more we can read about your activism. With love and encouragement from a kindred spirit, a fellow traveler, and a woman of Scandinavian ancestors, Leslie

      • Dear Melissa, I know that you must have meant to say “from the Northwest,” right? Not that I don’t love (visiting) the Northeast (and my son), but it is (usually) much less humid here in Oregon in the summer, and there are a few more open spaces and fir trees. With every best wish, Leslie

  3. This reminds me of the recent biography of Emmeline B. Wells (by Carol Cornwall Madsen) I just read, and her somewhat surprising turn to politics and suffrage and public life in her middle age. May you continue to carry on in her footsteps: inspiring, articulate, passionate, and faithful. You are a beacon to many throughout the world.

    • Anita-
      This sent chills through my whole being. And I have to admit, even tears. I am a humble, ardent fan of Sister Emmeline B Wells (and a great big fan of gracious Carol Cornwall Madsen), and have thought of both those women particularly and the faithful way they used words and spirit to stir others to action toward the good. I certainly could have never seen this turn in my life coming. But then, who could have ever seen the current political mess coming?

  4. As always, in deep admiration of the work you do Melissa! The world needs more people like you and how lucky for us that you are there as a guiding light to show us the way. Sending loving support your way.

  5. Melissa, you’ve summed up these many months of wrenching dismay (but ever-present hope) perfectly. I feel what you’re feeling. You speak for so many of us. Thank you!

    • Twila-
      You are an enormous inspiration to me! Truly, there are few words I can find that would ever fairly summarize what working specifically with you at TSOS has meant to me, and how you have led and championed and work-horsed unflaggingly for the voiceless. I am the one who needs to thank YOU.

  6. What you are doing is so important. I support you in prayer and thought. Is it possible for me to join in your movement?

  7. Thank you for this. Almost two years have passed since my life completely changed in response to the refugee crisis, it’s so interesting to hear others stories and the incredible impact volunteering had on your path. Wishing you love and strength in these ever challenging times x

  8. Bless you, my friend and my sister in arms. May that day when you can snuggle back up to your writing desk to write novels rather than op-eds come soon. In the meantime, onward into battle!

  9. Good to have your voice back on this network, particularly the passion you bring. The more voices brought to the fore against injustices, the greater the hope that we can indeed make a difference. Our new president is an embarrassment but only the tip of a very ugly iceberg that could wreck the U.S. ship of state.

    • Thank you. And I am convinced the current, but failing, president is a symptom of profound, far-reaching and calcified ills in our society that we are only now seeing for what they are. Economic inequality, racism, escalating violence on screens and streets, failure of our educational system, Superpac powers, and so very much more…We have great work to do. It’s not too late.

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