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Sunday, April 3, 2016

From Mother To Mother--Iraq, Kurdistan, Isis, and a Seder

Today, I attended a community action seder. Those of you who aren't Jewish, and don't get to have seders, oh, my heart goes out to you. Passover is the best holiday and the seder is filled with the most amazing metaphors--the very heart of Jewish faith--as we leave Egypt (literally 'the narrow place,') and come to the Promised Land, moving from slavery to freedom, and all that we must do within ourselves to become free.  Everything means something--the food, the drink, the way we eat the food, the questions we ask, and every detail of the Exodus story is taken apart for meaning. 

Passover also teaches us, year after year, that We were once slaves in Egypt. Not our ancestors. We. Us. And therefore whoever is enslaved today--that's us.  

We sat at a table with strangers. Even my children know that the first question I ask anybody is, "Where are you from?" "Why do you always ask that?" my youngest asked me today. "I guess," I said, "I really want to know where they're from. Where they're from in their hearts." 

The man next to me was from Iraq. So was his wife, but it was a mixed marriage--she is Kurdish. This is a huge barrier in Iraq, like a mixed-race marriage might be in the deep South. Throughout the seder, when there were breaks, I asked more and learned more. She has a masters in Chemistry. He has two engineering degrees.  The language, though, is a barrier. They are studying at a local community literacy center. Their teacher, a Jew, brought them to the seder. His mother's family was Jewish. He has Jewish cousins in Egypt. (!) Her great-grandfather was Jewish. I wanted to hear more. 

Then came the news that they have a daughter who's birthday was yesterday. My daughter's birthday is coming up soon. The same age. They showed me photos. She looks like my little girl. They have traveled a lot for another child, born with a disability. The first time, they had to leave their daughter behind while they came to the Shriners Children's hospital in the US. 

The next four operations were in Egypt. When they left her this time, the war intervened. Now, they can't get her out of Iraq. They can't go into Iraq until they have American citizenship or they can never leave. They have paid thousands of dollars to people who claimed they could get the girl a passport. So far, no luck. 

At this point, I had to take my new friend by the hand and lead her out of the room so she could cry. Her family, who are caring for her daughter, have had to flee the Mosul area. This baby keeps talking about her mommy and daddy in the U.S. It used to be that ISIS was underground. Now, they are aboveground. Today,  a little girl talking about America could get the whole family killed. So So the family has had to flee to the Kurdish section of Iraq--that yellow up top--where they are at least a little bit safer. The little girl is angry. "Why did you leave me here?" She calls her aunt Mommy. My new friend cried. She wants her daughter safe. She wants her daughter here. She wants to be at the next birthday and not just send a picture of a cake. She wants to hold her little girl close. She wants the girl to know her brother. She wants the girl to know her mother. She wants--she wants an ordinary life, a life we take for granted. 

Her story is the story of our family, put back a generation or two. "My last memory of my mother," says our uncle, "is at the gate of Auschwitz when they put her in the other line. She took offen her sweater, the one she had knit, the warm one. She said, 'Come, take it.' I ran to her and I took the sweater. They hit me to get back in line. And she was gone." His voice catches. 

A family child was in the hospital when his siblings and parents were caught in the Vel D'hiver round up. His relatives on the other side smuggled him out of the hospital before the French could "reunite him with his family," i.e. send him alone on a subsequent cattle train.  Everyone but his father was gassed. He remembers his mother as a smell and a lullaby.  What did our cousin feel, when, at age seven--after four years--he saw his father again? 

The Vel D'hiver Raffle, or Round-up. 
I am so glad I could be there and let this woman cry. I'm so glad that I've had enough loss in my life that I know how to let people cry. I'm so glad that I could come home and stroke my child's face and hug her tonight. When she got a soccer ball to the stomach, I could take her on my lap and hold her. My new friend does not have that luxury. "We count the days until January, when we can take our citizenship exam," she said. "I love to learn about this--the constitution, the laws." 

These are the immigrants our politicians denigrate, the ones they tell us to fear. She held me and cried, and said, "We are sisters of the heart." 

We are sisters of the heart. 

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