“Just a world that we all must share,
It’s not enough just to stand and stare.
Is it only a dream that there’ll be
No more turning away.
~ Pink Floyd, “On the Turning Away”
The words of this song still haunt me 31 years after it was first written and released.
During the past three decades, I question if we have become a more compassionate society, or if the haze of indifference still blinds us from reaching out and helping one another?
A year ago, I set foot on a new journey. I accepted a position as a Spanish bilingual teacher at an Unaccompanied Children Shelter for refugee youths from Central America. Each day I walk into the classroom, I am humbled by their undying faith. I am inspired by their strength, their perseverance, and their profound gratitude for what little they have. Each day I learn more than I teach.
Currently, all of my students are young girls between the ages of 13 and 17, who have lived more in their teenage years than most of us will experience in our lifetimes. Some of these children have survived kidnapping, rape, and attempted murder. Some have survived the loss of parents due to drug lords’ vengeance and have been abandoned or orphaned. Some have been threatened or attacked by ruthless gang members and have miraculously escaped alive.
Yes, each girl has a story to tell. She vividly recalls crossing the raging rivers along the fronteras of Guatemala and Mexico. She relives the scorching heat while walking and hitchhiking across the more than 2,000 kilometers of Mexican desert and mountain terrain to reach the land of opportunity, our beloved United States. She breaks down in tears and is overwhelmed with panic, as memories of being torn apart from her loved ones upon crossing the United States border flash through her mind. She lives in fear of not knowing where her father or mother or siblings have been taken or if they are alright.
The crime they committed? Being over 18 years old and fighting for a better life—a life filled with hope. But, being an immigrant over 18 years of age means her loved ones will be placed in prison, while she is brought to one of the many shelters for unaccompanied youth around the country.
And what happens to the children who are already 17 years old and only a month or two away from reaching their 18th birthday upon arrival? If their sponsors cannot be found within this short time, they dread another unjust nightmare. Immigration officers will arrive on their birthday to handcuff them and haul them away to prison.
Having to watch an 18-year-old child, who has battled impossible obstacles in her pursuit of education—in her pursuit of a better life—will forever plague my dreams. I will never forget the helpless, pleading look in her eyes as she searched the depths of her strength to accept such fate. I will never forget the tears streaming down her face, as I had to tell her, “It is time to start packing your things.” I will never forget the tightness of the hugs, as she said goodbye, desperately holding on for one more moment before she was led away.
Her words are forever etched in my memory, “Gracias, maestra, por todo. Gracias por su paciencia y por su amor. Nunca voy a olvidarle.” (Thank you for everything, teacher. Thank you for your patience and for your love. I will never forget you.) And I will never forget the tears that flowed down my cheeks and the helplessness I felt sending her off to jail for wanting the life I know everyday.
We hear these stories and feel sympathy for our brothers and sisters going through such hardships, but falsely tell ourselves that they are worlds away. We believe these problems are too big for us to solve on our own and that it is impossible to help everyone. We wonder: If the world governments cannot figure out a practical solution, what hope do we have?
But, the truth is we are all one family, one humanity. Even if it is difficult to recognize our oneness in this vast world, we are all connected. We each carry the responsibility to respect and care for those who are suffering as well as the world around us. We are all human beings first, regardless of our color, nationality, religion, gender, or any other secondary superficial boundary that we create to divide us.
His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama explains this message further in his most recent book, A Call for Revolution: An Appeal to the Young People of the World:
“You are first are foremost a human being, before you were an American, European, African, or a member of a particular religious group. These characteristics are secondary; do not let them dominate; these are subordinate realities to the fact that I am above all a human being…being human is fundamental. Having been born human will remain a fact until the day you die.”
Too often, we allow our fears of the unknown and our tendency toward indifference trump our instinct to care. We turn away from the hurting, the innocent victims of poverty, gang violence, and war. We forget that these fears are not part of our human nature.
Children are not born fearing or hating those who are different. Children are born curious. They want to explore and learn and ask questions about everything they see. It is in our response to their questions, in our everyday attitudes and interactions with others, that children learn to fear and to hate. Then, these fears and attitudes emerge as their political views and religious beliefs.
Thus, the change must begin with our own thinking. When our views and beliefs tell us to turn away from our fellow human brothers and sisters who are suffering, we need to reflect and redefine them. We need to open our ears and hear the stories they have lived. We need to feel the desperation behind the mother’s tears, who cannot feed her children’s empty tummies.
We need to see the strength and the passion in the eyes of the immigrants and refugees who have risked their lives to escape the violence and devastation of war, rather than view them as “illegal” criminals for wanting a better life. We need to voice the lasting tragedy of tearing apart innocent families whose only crime is pursuing the happiness we already enjoy. We need to change our own thinking.
If we want better for the humanity to which we all belong, we each must recognize our role in creating a more compassionate world. The change must start with you and with me. Only you and I can choose to open our eyes rather than turn away from the weak and the weary. Only you and I can choose to open our hearts and light the flame of compassion if we want to end the turning away.
Stril-Rever, Sofia: The Dalai Lama, A Call for Revolution: An Appeal to the Young People of the World; Rider, an imprint of Ebury Publishing, London, 2017
On the Turning Away; Songwriters: Dave Gilmour/Anthony Moore; lyrics © Imagem U.S. LLC
Author: Stephanie Mueller
Editor: Yoli Ramazzina
**About the author:
Stephanie Mueller is a certified elementary school teacher in bilingual and bicultural education. She recently left the classroom to explore her passion for writing. In addition to journaling and blogging, she loves reading, gardening, and creating new recipes for her family. She has a deep connection with the peacefulness of nature and enjoys spending time exploring the outdoors with her husband and her curious and imaginative little girl.
Being an introvert and highly-sensitive soul, she has been influenced by the teachings of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Pema Chödrön, the Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and the writings of Jeff Brown and Susan Frybort. As she continues to fulfill her life’s calling, she hopes to inspire kindness and compassion for all living beings. To connect with Stephanie, please visit her blog or her Facebook page.Browse Front PageShare Your Idea
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