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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Their Story is Our Story: Giving Refugees a Voice

With our friends at Limburg refugee camp, central Germany

With our friends at Limburg refugee camp

How do a hard-working, visionary refugee liaison, an award-winning videographer, an award-winning photographer, award-winning portrait painter, and an award-winning author who have never all met each other,  (they live in four different time zones), find one another and combine their gifts to bless the displaced, distressed and desperate?

Divine choreography.

And what are the results?

A great deal of 3:00 a.m. cross-global texting. Plus some moments of humbled amazement.

IMG_1868 IMG_1870 IMG_1873

Their Story is Our Story: Giving Voice to Refugees

The five of us involved in this project have watched as our connections––simply too far-flung to happen without reliable WIFI, and too far-fetched to happen without a steady dose of heavenly intervention –– have seemed to slide into place. Really, it’s been like liquid lightning. The electricity has flowed and flowed.

Trisha with Leyla, whose story will send thunder through your bones.

Trisha with Leyla, whose story, which we will soon share, will send thunder through your bones. She is a survivor multiple times over.

So let me first hand over the page to Trisha, my friend and inspiration in doing refugee work here in Germany. She can explain to you how Their Story is Our Story (TSOS) evolved.

And then I will share three brief refugee profiles with you. They are but a foretaste of what TSOS is about.

Finally, I’d like you to meet the team, including Garrett Gibbons, Elizabeth Benson Thayer, and Lindsay Allen Silsby, who in under five minutes will surely ignite a desire in you to lean in, step forward, and reach out with compassion to our refugee sisters and brothers.

13227049_232821943757137_5924601930215658515_n

Trisha recently wrote the following to her circle of friends who have been involved in refugee work here in Germany:

Some of you might be interested in a project that has fallen from the cosmos and into my life.

A few weeks ago, I received an email from a dear American artist friend who used to live here in Frankfurt, and on the same day a message was forwarded to me from a complete stranger in London who does high-end portraits. Both of these women have been feeling strong impressions to put their talents to work for the refugees here in Europe. Meanwhile, I had been having strong impressions about putting together a media project to share these beautiful people and their incredible stories with others. I am certain this was not by chance that the Spirit was working on all of us at the same time…it is very simply Divine Choreography!

In the two weeks since then, things have just fallen into place. A group of five people with amazing gifts has formed and we are planning for them to travel from Seattle, Washington, northern Utah, and from London to sketch, photograph and film refugees here in the Frankfurt area and then, hopefully, in the camps in Greece. Some of the stories we hope to tell are people you may know. Adib and his son, Hasan. Tahmina, Daniel, Hangama and their family. Others we’ve grown so close to, whose stories inspire and

Our plan is to create first a video and then a book and eventually a traveling exhibit. We want to tell these stories and change hearts! I feel so strongly the hand of Diety in this project! As you each have felt, I feel the special attention our Father in Heaven is paying these people at this time. And I know that this project is His project.

13335740_10207800390220300_4874249294123488661_n12891103_10153959043257400_4883086522637115882_o12496170_10153839631417400_3749131219188433999_o

Now, for three brief profiles of people who have become far more than “refugees” to us. In fact, we don’t like the word “refugee” very much, as it generalizes (and neutralizes) the poignancy and sacredness of each human story.

ADIB

13340537_10154089370982400_89874660_o

Adib, a true gentleman.

Adib, a true gentleman.

Adib is a Palestinian Syrian from Damascus, whose thriving business as a master mason and ceramic tile layer was laid to rubble when war ravaged his world. With his son and business partner, Hasan, Adib made luxurious baths and kitchens in his home country, but most of them, like his own home, are now no more than a crater. Father and son made the perilous winter journey to Germany where both have been living for months in a tented barrack outside the town of Limburg. In spite of having lost virtually every material thing, Adib seems to maintain a perpetually sunny outlook. He is often found sitting with his head bent over his German lesson book, piecing together this new language the way he used to place tiles; meticulously, with patience, and always with the end result, integration, in mind. With these new reading glasses which he was given by a camp volunteer, Adib looks toward a bright and peaceful future.

VAHID

13348882_10207792750789319_1462631316_n 13329801_10207792639626540_1003446145_n (1)

Elizabeth Benson Thayer's sketch of Vahid

Elizabeth Benson Thayer’s sketch of Vahid

Vahid is Iranian, and arrived in Germany with the first wave of refugees in the early autumn of 2015. He was barely in his 20s. That journey meant leaving behind everything that was familiar and of value to him, including his home with his entire extended family and a mother he adores, his culture with its poetic language and fragrant food, his lifelong friends, and the plans they’d all made for the future. All this to launch into the complete unknown and in order to escape encroaching religious persecution and civil unrest. Vahid is a musician, and finds refuge in composing as well as singing while accompanying himself on a guitar. But you can’t easily make music in a cramped refugee camp. And of course among the few things he could carry over his shoulder, a guitar was not included. Already, he’s sung publicly in German, one of the many steps he’s taking toward integration in this new world.

TAHMINA

Daniel, Tahmina and Hangama Ahmadi

Daniel, Tahmina and Hangama Ahmadi

Tahmina is Afghani, the eldest of four siblings, and made it to Germany almost entirely by foot. Like her younger brother Daniel, who is a whizz at chess (and beats every last refugee camp volunteer who challenges him to a set), Tahmina is obviously bright and ambitious. Her English reflects a solid education and an eager mind. She hesitates to give too many details of the perilous trek from her homeland to Europe, (“So dangerous. So frightening. So sad,” she says), and doesn’t dwell on her innumerable losses. No stranger to hazard, Tahmina lived all her eighteen years with war and terror as a daily backdrop, since Afghanistan has been the stage for constant insurrections, coups, unrest, and destruction for 35 years. With Hangama, her younger sister, and Muri, her baby brother, she and her parents have one hope: to escape fear and live together in peace.

Please watch. Please share.

 

***

 

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2016.  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.