Sunday, June 3, 2012

I can't see the forest through all the trees

Suddenly I could feel, even while speaking words I had spoken a half dozen times before, that familiar tightness in my throat. My eyes began to burn as I tried to keep my cool and finish my sentence but the welling up in my throat wouldn’t allow it and somehow the muscles attaching my chin and lower lip were colluding with my vocal chords as both started to tremble.

Yep. I was crying. And the feeling is familiar because I actually cry quite often. I don’t know what it is, but I find myself touched in profound ways by other people’s stories, even if they are fictional. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (the book and movie) had me in tears multiple times, as did Up, The Intouchables, the wedding I was at this weekend (well, if I’m being honest, pretty much every wedding I go to), and countless other times throughout my young adult life.

This particular moment I was sitting across from my dad at my favorite breakfast place in Buena Vista; the Evergreen Café. I had ordered the eggs St. Elmo, named after a deserted 19th century mining town nestled in the Chalk Creek canyon between Mt. Princeton and Mt. Antero just Southwest of BV, the dish was home potato fries covered in melted cheese, two eggs any style (sunnyside up for me), and wheat toast. The coffee aroma wafting from my cup came from beans carefully roasted just down on main street at BV Roastery. Yet all this took a backseat as I tried to figure out my own overpowering reaction to the words I had just said.

I was talking about the work of Revision International, which I often do. I was telling my dad about an exciting new partnership we’re entering into with the Denver Foundation and members of the Somali Bantu refugee population living in Denver. We’re helping forty Somali Bantu families start farming a one-acre vacant lot in Southwest Denver. Not only is this going to provide fresh, healthy food for their families and the surrounding community, it is also reconnecting the Somalis to their culture – their heritage.

The Bantu people in Somalia were an especially persecuted group of people, having been brought as slaves to that country from mainly Southeast Africa in the 18th century, but having chosen to try to retain their unique language and culture instead of assimilating. After spending years and years in refugee camps in Kenya, some were offered asylum in the US.

Since coming to Denver, these families (trickling in over the past ten or so years, now there are about 400 refugee families in the Denver-metro area) have been struggling to get their feet under them, and find their own way in this foreign society. On a walking tour of the vacant plot about a month ago with Revision’s ED, Eric Kornacki, one elder started to cry as he stood looking at the land. Eric asked him, through another Bantu named Rasulo who speaks excellent English, why he was crying. The words came back from Rasulo’s lips saying the man had the same feeling at that moment – gazing upon land which he might be able to start farming – that he had first had the moment he heard he would be able to bring his family to the United States from the refugee camp.

I’ve been processing this ever since Eric told me of the exchange the next day. It takes immense imagination to try and place myself in a refugee camp in Kenya, forced into exile from the land which had persecuted him. Then held there, in that camp, for a decade before hearing that there was hope for a different future. I try to ask myself; would he have lost hope at that point? What did he do in his time in the camps? Were his children born in the camps? Had he any reason to think they might have a better future than that he had had? Then to hear that there was an end in sight. How immense the excitement must have been. How tangible the hope and how incredible the joy on his face and in his heart when he told his family the news.

I can’t imagine.

Nor can I comprehend how important farming and growing food must be to him and the Somali Bantu culture to have those same feelings standing on an overgrown acre of land surrounded by the cityscape as when his life changed and he moved continents. We take so much for granted as a culture here in the US, as “Americans”. We don’t give a second thought to food. Perhaps we enjoy cooking, or maybe gardening, but it can’t be said it’s a part of who we are as a people. In fact I struggle to think of anything aside from technology that defines the American culture. Do we have something, anything connected to nature or the Earth that sustains us which we feel anything close to these emotions when we think about it?

How amazing to be a part of this opportunity for these families, this beautiful sub-culture of human beings. I feel honored to have met them. To have the possibility of getting to know them deeper and hear more of their stories.

Perhaps I was crying this particular time of recounting the story because I had lost sight of why I was working so hard. Maybe I couldn’t see the beauty of the forest because I was stuck wading through the thicket of trees. But I feel for some reason in that moment I had stumbled onto a hilltop or broke out of the dense trees and had to squint my eyes and reset my paradigm as I took in the awe-inspiring landscape surrounding me. The forest and its immensity couldn’t be more breath taking.

And yet I feel the awe precisely because I know the forest wouldn’t exist without each tree. Each tree is every act of kindness. Every action toward justice. Every person who decides to honor someone else before fulfilling their own instant desires. Gratitude overwhelms me realizing that I am simply one tree in this forest of humanity. My roots draw life from the same soil as the Somali Bantu; my leaves stretch toward the same sunlight which bathes the Hispanic/Latino families of Southwest Denver; the rain which stimulates my growth also falls on the refugees still in camps in Kenya and drenches those who are struggling with fear of deportation from the States or living with loved ones who are stuck in the middle of drug wars back home or those who are dying from famine in the Republic of Niger or living repressed by Israeli settlements or fighting for justice in the streets of Cairo or working grueling hours in sweatshops with no chance for a brighter future let-alone a vacation.

We are all human. The forest wouldn’t exist without each one of us, and yet alone, we’d wither and die under the scorching heat of the sun. 

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