Why I Stand with Refugees (and How You Can Too)

I don’t know about you, but all the political changes and news headlines about refugees in the last few months have given me a serious headache. But let’s set politics aside for a moment. Can we remember who exactly we harm when we succumb to misplaced fear? The refugees our world is arguing over are not monsters, pawns, nor mere political “annoyances.” They are real people with dreams, passions, skills, fears, and hopes–just like you and me. The one major difference being that they are fleeing war and persecution.

Exactly one year ago I traveled through seven European countries alongside the people photographed below to learn the truth behind this crisis. I discovered the names and stories of every person you see here, and in doing so I learned to see each of them as friends and allies. These are the faces and characteristics of individuals who forever changed the way I view refugee/immigration policy. Their stories taught me the importance of how we treat one another, especially those who are heartsick from long and painful journeys to find peace.

I pray that when you look into the faces of these refugees you will see yourself reflected in their eyes. I certainly do. Read on, or scroll to the bottom to learn how you can practically respond (this includes a 2017 letter-writing initiative for local refugees that you can participate in)!

These are the reasons I stand with refugees.

1.) They are families who love deeply and want the best for their children.

2.) They are daughters, sons, sisters, brothers, mothers, and fathers.

3.) They are men and women who ask, seek, and pray for a safer future.

4.) They are children who can still find a common language through laughter and play.

5.) They are future scientists, writers, architects, mathematicians, heroes or oppressors. It all depends on the opportunity they are given to thrive.

6.) They are future advocates for peace, and defenders of the downtrodden.

7.) They are warm and hospitable to any who cross their path.

8.) They are fierce protectors of their family and children.

9.) They have remarkable stories to tell of resilience and defiance against violence.

10.) They have senses of humor like you and me (duh!), and make silly faces that could melt even the toughest of hearts.

11.) They laugh and cry, the same as you and I (again, duh).

12.) They long for people to look them in the eye and see them once again as human.

13.) They are ready to reach the end of their long journey toward peace.

14.) They are tired and lonely, and in many cases feel forgotten.

15.) They are mourning the loss of their children’s childhoods.

16.) They desperately long for stability, especially for their children.

17.) They carry sorrow in their hearts, yet courageously push forward for the sake of future generations.

18.) They are fearfully and wonderfully made, just like you and I.

19.) They are worthy of our love, and not our fear.

20.) They are people I will continue to speak up for, because I know they would do the same for me.

If loving refugees matters to you too, get involved! Here are three practical steps you can take right now:

  1. Call your representatives! It’s ridiculously easy. Text your ZIP code to (520) 200-2223 and you will immediately receive a list of your local representatives and their phone numbers. Give them a call, say your zip code, and express your concern to welcome and support refugees (there’s an example of what to say here). It takes 60 seconds and it’s pretty much pain free. BONUS: If you’re weirded out by phone calls, you can Tweet directly to your representatives (way to go, #worldchanger)!
  2. Give! Whether you give to an organization working in the midst of conflict zones, along the refugee route, or on the American side (or all of the above!), let your spending reflect your heart. Need some ideas? Check out these organizations I love and trust: Preemptive Love Coalition, World Relief, World Vision.
  3. Write a letter! After the tremendous response from last year’s #NotForgotten campaign, I’ve partnered with World Relief this year to bring your letters of encouragement and love to local refugees. We’re joining the broader conversation and calling it #RefugeesWelcome. So write a letter welcoming refugees who have recently settled in the United States and I’ll get them to my friends at World Relief Seattle to distribute. It can be a few sentences or a few pages. Get your kids involved too and allow them to get crafty! Share this idea online with the hashtag, #RefugeesWelcome.

Email your letters to:
giselle.gonzales7@gmail.com
Subject Line: #RefugeesWelcome

Mail your letters to:
World Relief Seattle
ATTN: Meredith Seversen
841 Central Ave. N. Suite C-106
Kent, WA 98032

A Lesson on Exploration from a Canadian Fjord

 “A ship is safe in harbor. But then again that’s not what ships are for.”

—Admiral Grace Hopper

So far in 2017 I have escaped to Canada three times. Retreating from the loony American politics and the gloomy Seattle weather, a few close friends and I have gone to a little cabin north of Vancouver, located in a mountain-rimmed fjord. It’s only accessibly by boat, so there are no cars making noise or people walking around. Just the sea, mountains, and us—in a word: perfection.

Most of our mornings were spent blissfully caffeinated with a cozy fire at our backs, marveling at the view outside. However, one morning I decided to not just gaze at the mountains and sea, but to get in the midst of them on a kayaking trip to the northern part of the inlet with our Canadian friend, James. The water was abnormally choppy that day as the wind had kicked up, but we were determined to at least give it a try. So I dressed in layers, grabbed a life jacket, and met James at the dock.

The start of our journey was effortless as we kayaked out of the cabin’s sheltered cove. However, once we got beyond the protective rocks we were hit full force with wind gusts and waves. The water was almost indistinguishable from its usual glassy calm. For over an hour we hugged the cliffs along the edge of the fjord in an attempt to avoid the brunt force of the wind. Though eventually we had two options, either cross open water to reach the other shore or to turn back.

A beautiful and old abandoned power station from the early 1900’s sat on the other side. I had been itching to visit it since my first trip to the area and it taunted me, as if waiting to be explored. So after checking our energy levels (and gumption), we decided to make the most dangerous part of our journey. We would cut across the wind and waves, all coming at us sideways, to reach the power station.

While the other photos are mine, I snagged this one from google because I couldn’t stop to take a picture from the water.

Though the sky was blue and cloudless, it was bitterly cold and the wind relentless. The sea was so riled-up that 2-3ft tall waves slammed against our kayaks as soon as we abandoned the safety of the rocks. Those waves might not sound large, but try sitting half submerged in a little plastic tube sometime, with nothing but the lip of a kayak to keep water from leaping a few inches up and over that ledge and inside with you.

It didn’t help that after we hit the first few whitecaps James called to me across the waves, “You know, we would only last about five minutes in the water at this temperature… so don’t fall in!”

Real comforting, James. Especially when every incoming wave is a non-stop battle to keep your kayak right-side-up.

Trepidation in my heart or not, I had decided to go through with this and I certainly wasn’t about to back down now. Stubbornness: 1, Caution: 0, and so we continued. The wind bit at my skin and each crashing wave sprayed me with water in a struggle to yank my kayak off-course. And yet it was there, between the wave troughs and peaks that could toss me into freezing water, that something stirred inside my heart. I knew in that moment that a greater truth was trying to capture my attention. And as I focused on that quiet voice in my soul with renewed clarity, I realized this journey was offering me a glimpse into how God leads us.

I believe wholeheartedly that we follow a God who sends us out on great adventures. He gives us a dream to start, and it may be something as vague as kayaking out of our little sea cove and turning north. But as we begin our journey He reveals something worth fighting for—even if it’s far off in the distance. Sometimes the path before us is as smooth as silk, but other times it can be fraught with waves that threaten to sink us. When God stirs our hearts to reach that other side, He doesn’t promise us a journey without danger. We can still take on water, curse in frustration as the waves try to yank us off course, or worse, toss us into the sea. Yet these problems don’t necessarily mean we’re on the wrong path. They might just mean the course we have chosen is one worth fighting for.

An hour later the waves began to subside and the sea relinquished its hold on my kayak. Thank God, because I was exhausted. Once James and I slipped into the shadow of the mountain on the inlet’s opposite shore the change in the sea was instantaneous, from chaos to calm.

As we skirted around the rocky bend from shade to sunshine, something rippled in the water before us. My eyes took a moment to adjust, and then I saw the gleaming head and body of a seal only 10-feet away. It peered at us curiously before smoothly slipping under water as we approached. Finally, with one last turn along the rocks, we were met with the faded baroque architecture of the power station and the massive stones at its base that gently sloped into the water—all bathed in glorious sunshine and protected from the wind.

We laid out our jackets to dry in the warm sun as we shared a lunch of muffins, apples, and a thermos of gloriously hot tea. If you doubted how truly Canadian this moment was, we even had a little tub of maple syrup to sweeten the tea. Seriously.

On the heels of our struggle to reach this point, I can hardly describe how wonderful it felt to sit in peace and gaze over this view of the Canadian wilderness; one we had fought so hard reach. The sun danced along the water’s surface, the trees bowed over the cliffs as if to catch their beauty reflected in the sea below, and the water was so clear near the shore that you could see the pebbled sea floor. We sat and talked for nearly an hour, and even when we didn’t speak there was a comfortable silence, won only after a hard battle faced in community. Eventually the opposite shore called us home and we said goodbye to what now felt like our powerhouse.

Like that famous rule, “what goes up… must come down,” we learned that “kayakers who go across a stormy inlet… must return.” Though it was every bit as dangerous, wave-ridden, and difficult to paddle our little kayaks, for some reason the journey back didn’t seem as difficult. Perhaps it was because we had done it once before and had proven to ourselves the strength we didn’t know we had.

We fought the wind and the waves one last time before reaching the cabin’s safe little cove relatively dry, four hours after we had begun. I hadn’t realized it before, but that cabin’s cove was truly a gift with its smooth-as-glass water compared to the chaos we had experienced.

Upon returning to the dock, I looked out on the cove and the choppy sea beyond, and that quiet voice stirred again in my heart as if to say,

Look at where I’ve taken you. Look at how much strength you have. I didn’t reveal the entire plan at the start, but with unstoppable faith you kept pushing for more—and now look at how far you’ve come.

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What Adventure Does

“Most great adventures work that way. You don’t plan them, you don’t get all the details right, you just do them.” -Bob Goff, Love Does

Think about a book you love. A story treasured from one generation to the next; one so powerful it offers readers insight each year it’s read.

Stories like those have a funny way of sticking to your heart, like snow on frozen ground. Yet it often seems hard to decipher what qualities connect them all to greatness. Is it a complex prose? Captivating dialogue? Or, a meticulously planned storyline?

Maybe.

But when I think of my all-time favorite stories (like Harry Potter, The Alchemist, or the Narnia series), the common theme I find is the unexpected adventure their characters find themselves in.

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From Greece to Germany: 5 Lessons from the Refugee Route

A few months ago I wrote an article for Nations Foundation about my experience traveling Europe’s refugee route. In light of the tragic events that continue to unfold in Syria, I am reposting this as a reminder of what I learned, why it matters, and why we should be paying attention. The Advent season is one of hope and peace, so read on and discover why I believe refugees are worthy of both–and learn how you can respond.


Imagine this: you are in a massive white tent with 200 people crammed together in rows of shaky bunk beds. The air rings with the sound of multiple languages from men, women, and children all waiting to hear what their futures hold. You walk through the tent’s single pathway and all eyes turn toward you, a young woman with a journal in hand, a camera over your shoulder, and a weight upon your heart. As you head toward a family at the back of the tent one father stops you by placing his child in your way, insisting that you take his son’s photo. He points to the dry cracker in the boy’s hand and cries, “This is all my child has eaten in three days. Please, tell the world what is happening to us!

Now snap back to reality. The scene I just described seems more like something from The Hunger Games than a moment from real life, doesn’t it?

That, however, was exactly what I encountered in a refugee camp in Serbia. And that father’s plea was why I was there in the first place—to hear and tell those stories.

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Let’s Respond: #NotForgotten Initiative

For those of you who have been wondering how you can help refugees in a tangible way, my team and I from the Syrian Circle have a unique opportunity for you! Read on for details.

(UPDATE: See the results from this initiative at the very bottom of this post!)

#NotForgotten

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Story Feature: A Tale of Two Sisters

“I had a dream to be in school. Then school was bombed—that dream is now gone.”

Meet 19-year-old Malak (left) and 23-year-old Hana (right), two sisters from Yemen who have lived as refugees for nearly half their lives. Malak was only 12 when the sisters lost both of their parents in Yemen… and they have been traveling on their own ever since. From Yemen the two girls went to Syria where they stayed under the care of UNICEF for 5 years as minors. But when the war in Syria forced them to leave, they decided to search for their future in Europe. Continue reading

Let’s Respond: Letters for Refugees

Are you ready to get involved? A small team from California will be traveling to the Greek-Macedonian border this week and we want to send them with hand-written letters for refugees FROM YOU!

I am asking you to join us in writing letters that this team will give to some of the 13,000 currently trapped at the border in Idomeni, Greece. In these letters you can offer encouragement, prayers, or maybe a picture or two (recruit your kids!). Write to show that they are loved. Write to show that they are not forgotten. Continue reading

Story Feature: Beyond the Stereotype of Young Refugee Men

Meet Muhammad Ali and Fahad, two individuals who may help you break the stereotype you have of young refugee men in Europe. They were both students from a small Kurdish town in Syria before they fled the war, and have found themselves unable to get farther north than Slovenia on their journey into Europe.

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When I asked them about their hopes for the future, Muhammad responded, “I cannot think of the future I want—I need to go back to school, I need an education for my future. I like to learn and need to learn new languages. We left because of the war and fled through Turkey’s mountains with no food and no water for three days trying to get to Europe. And now we are stuck here. No, I cannot think about the future.

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Story Feature: Refugee Life Through A Boy’s Eyes

Meet Ali, an Iraqi boy who radiates kindness and intelligence, but whose life as a refugee is quickly turning from bad to worse.

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When our team arrived at the Šid refugee camp in Serbia, we met Ali and quickly became friends through broken English, a few words in Serbian, and a lot of pantomiming as he explained what was happening in the camp. Here’s the cliff-notes version: two days before we arrived, hundreds of people started to fill the camp as borders to the EU (primarily in Slovenia and Croatia) began refusing entry to large numbers of refugees, including nationalities that had previously been allowed through as asylum-seekers.

Try to picture it all: an overflowing refugee camp (built with large white tents in the shadow of an old butcher/meat factory) with people who are upset and confused — and in the midst of it all, this sweet boy (probably between the age of 14 or 15) who eagerly engages us with the little English and Serbian he knows.

After talking for a few minutes and watching yet another busload of refugees enter the camp, Ali noticed the camera slung over my shoulder and so I gestured for him to come closer. I put the strap around his neck, gave him a 2-minute photography lesson, and then watched as he became my “photography assistant” for the day. The following photos are what he took while we walked around the camp.

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Story Feature: A Fragile Escape to Europe

Today at the Greek-Macedonian border we met one Kurdish family with a story so full of emotion that it took mere seconds to cross from laughter to tears. This may not be an easy story to read.

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Back in their town in Iran, life as they knew it came crashing down with the arrival of ISIS. According to the mother of three (two little boys and one 9 year old girl), ISIS was beheading as many men and little boys as they could in order to take the women and little girls as slaves. ISIS took all of this family’s documents before they could flee, but as the mother explained through laughter and tears, she was simply thankful they got out alive.

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