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A lesson in welcoming the stranger

A lesson in welcoming the stranger

Helping a Syrian refugee family resettle in the United States provided a valuable lesson for my daughter–and for me

By Alison Stankus (JD '08, MSW '09)

 

My daughter has been on this earth for two and a half years, unbelievably already closer to being three years old than to that tiny infant who came home from the hospital on a cool, rainy early summer day. One of her qualities that has emerged in that time is her empathy: She is acutely attuned to other children in restaurants, at the park, or in the airport terminal, who are upset and crying. Verbal from an early age, she acknowledges them and often is not able to continue with whatever activity we have been doing until we can assuage her concerns, for example, by pointing out the child’s parents or rationalizing that the child is crying because she may be tired or hungry.

Though this empathy seems organic to her being, it is a quality that fits with the values that my husband and I have sought to teach her, or those that we hope we are modeling for her in our daily lives for her to learn in time. I have little doubt that the election and the events that have followed since November 2016 would have sat heavy with me no matter my stage in life. Yet experiencing it as a parent has stung even deeper–not only as an endorsement of so many values and qualities that are the antithesis to my beliefs and work for justice but as an antithesis to the values and morals I hope to instill in my daughter. 

As I struggled with how to react, it ultimately was my role as a parent that first pulled me up and forced me to be hopeful when at times I did not feel much hope. It started out as a simple affirmative response to a post in an online neighborhood mom’s group by another mom seeking others who were interested in becoming sponsors for a refugee family. We were matched with a Syrian couple with a toddler, a family composition that mirrored many of ours. Over the course of barely a few months, we worked to collect monetary donations, fully furnish an apartment, commit to a schedule of weekly mentoring visits to provide support once they arrived, and, as it got closer to the date in late January, stock the family’s kitchen in anticipation of their arrival.

But then, on January 27, 2017, the family’s travel plans to arrive in Chicago just three days later were halted by the executive order suspending the U.S. refugee resettlement program. Instead of welcoming the “strangers” we had been preparing for, the apartment remained empty while the family remained in limbo. Due to the reach of social media, the family’s story quickly spread, most notably through a post by our group’s leader reproaching the executive order accompanied by a photo of an empty crib and stuffed bunny intended for the toddler in the family. It was that image of the empty crib that resonated with so many. For me, there was no way of not thinking of my own daughter, who slept warm and safe in a crib just like that one, while not knowing the conditions in which their daughter slept near a refugee camp in Turkey. Nationality and circumstances seemed the only difference between my family and the family we were co-sponsoring.

Through the hard work of many and the grace of the TROs, the family arrived a little over a week later to the embrace of their extended family, to cheers–and some tears–from the resettlement organization and our co-sponsorship group (and also to the flashes and crush of media who had been following their journey). Since then, our group has had the privilege of not just assisting them with settling in the Chicago area but getting to know them and their extended family over coffee and tea, learning more about Syrian culture, and enjoying the gift of their delicious cooking. Our visits often center around playdates between the family’s toddler and our own children. The formal co-sponsorship relationship with the family was for six months, but we continue to walk with them as they navigate creating a new life here, including finding a job and choosing their own space to live. This fall, we celebrated their daughter’s second birthday–her first birthday in the U.S.–with singing and cupcakes.

Each encounter with the family is a reminder, especially when I have had moments of losing hope in the last year and a half, that the tenets of my Jesuit education will continue to provide guidance and light through this seemingly dark time. How could I not recognize the value of another, no matter their faith or background? It is also is a reminder for me to continue to take a cue from my daughter’s concern for the crying child at the park. While my goal is to teach her through my words and actions to stand up for the rights of others, she is already modeling an understanding that in fact we are all interrelated and interconnected.

Thankfully, my daughter–like many of the children of the other members of our co-sponsorship group–is too young to understand the current political climate or that anything has significantly changed about the world since November 8, 2016. Despite that fact, the very reason I felt a pull to join my neighbors in sponsoring a refugee family was to set an example of love, kindness, and inclusivity for her. Welcoming immigrants and refugees, and seeing others we meet as a gift, is precisely what I hope to instill in her already empathetic being. At least a few times a week, I read my worries for the future, and concern for what I can possibly do in response, echoed in the posts of the many online parenting communities of which I am a member.

While I don’t have any more of an answer than I did after the election, I am certain that the experiences and lessons of the Jesuit tradition have prepared me for this moment, no matter what turns our culture takes in the next few years. It is precisely because of my daughter that I must continue to advocate for the marginalized as a “woman for others.”

A version of this article first appeared in May 2017 on Ignatian Solidarity Network's "Just Parenting" blog. 

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About the author

Alison Stankus is a proud resident of the Northcenter/Lincoln Square neighborhood of Chicago, where she lives with her husband, Jeff, and daughter Zinnia. Since 2009, she has worked as an attorney and guardian ad litem representing children in abuse and neglect cases. Alison, a graduate of Boston College (2000) and Loyola University Chicago Schools of Law and Social Work (2008 and 2009), credits her Jesuit higher education with igniting her passion for social justice and inspiring her to live that passion in her everyday life.

 

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