What Wichita’s Refugee Mothers Taught Me About Resilience

I grew up in a pretty vanilla, east-side Wichita bubble. Almost everyone I knew looked like me, voted like me, worshiped like me, and lived in identical Wichita suburbs. I don’t mean to down-talk this way of life; I always felt safe, loved and happy. But around my thirties, I started to long for something more. Things in my life were feeling a bit lifeless and stale, and I wondered why I was still governed by so much fear for myself, my husband and my children, even though my life had been relatively easy and pain-free. Where was my courage? Where was my resilience? I began to wonder if my easy life had made a soft person out of me. Even scarier, was the idyllic childhood I attempted to provide for my children going to make them too soft for this world? How was I to teach my children resilience when I knew so little about it myself?

I decided I needed to learn from other resilient mothers, and I knew just where to find them. I had already met a few refugees who had resettled in Wichita, and just being around them had inspired me and filled me with such courage, faith and joy. I started volunteering at the International Rescue Committee, where I taught English as a Second Language to refugees resettling in Wichita. Though I know I was providing a service they needed, I felt like I was the student, and I received a college education in resilience from friends hailing from all over the world. Here are some of the lessons they taught me.

First, I learned I take for granted a couple thousand square feet of  space in which my children can safely sleep, play, eat, learn and find shelter from Kansas weather. I know this is a no-brainer, but considering the world is experiencing a refugee crisis unlike any we’ve seen since World War 2, a safe home should be at the top of all our gratitude lists. I’ve seen the dire living conditions for Syrian refugees on the news and heard firsthand about life in refugee camps from my friends from many different countries in Africa. 2600 square feet of safe, air-conditioned space is not a given for the majority of the world, and I try to remember how lucky I am.

Secondly, refugee mothers proved to me again that no matter where you’re from, a mother’s love is so fierce, it gives us courage to do things we never thought we could do. We mothers love our children relentlessly and would do anything for them, even if it means risking our lives in escaping to save them. One of my dearest ESL friends told me a story about how the little girl she was friends with in her village in Somalia was brutally murdered; everyone knew who did it but no justice could be sought because the government was too corrupt. Her mother, knowing it was not a safe place to raise her daughter, bravely hid in a cattle car with my friend when she was just eight years old, so they could escape. At every checkpoint, they knew execution was a possibility, but somehow they made it to Egypt alive, spending years in a refugee camp before they came to Wichita and became hard-working, kind and intelligent additions to our community. Seeing their beautiful, smiling faces today, you would never know the trouble they’ve seen in the past.

Refugee mothers taught me that I can stop micro-managing my children’s lives so that everything is as perfect as possible. The hardships my children face in their lives really can make them stronger, and I should instead spend my energy helping to facilitate that. It’s actually not my job to keep all the trouble of this world away from my kids – instead I need to focus on helping them rise up to the suffering life throws at them and turn those occasions into invitations to become stronger, kinder, more competent people, instead of weaker, jaded, cynical ones. The refugee children I know have grown up to be some of the most intelligent, strong, hard-working human beings I’ve ever known. I am continually inspired by them. Knowing them has changed my life, and hopefully my parenting as well.

These women are the heroes emerging from war-torn countries, not the victims. Their courage and sense of purpose is breath-taking. They are a strong matriarchy, leading the way for the rest of us, showing us that we have our own deep wells of strength available to tap into, because all mothers are stronger than we think. We can do hard things and our children can do hard things, too. We can bring triumph from life’s tragedies.

If you would like to get to know some of the strong refugee women resettling in our city, contact the International Rescue Committee of Wichita and find out how you can volunteer.

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