Commissioned for Involvement

April 15, 2016 by

Here’s an experiment: find an article about the plight of refugees fleeing the Middle East. Scroll to the comments section and, aside from a few customary lines like “God bless and protect them,” you’ll invariably see acrimonious comments extending down your screen almost endlessly. It’s thoroughly predictable, and enough to discourage anyone from touching the refugee subject anymore. But I’m writing about refugees because last week I was commissioned:

I would ask you to share whatever you have learned from me with other people, because raising awareness and spreading the word is a very important way to welcome refugees. In order for those who will come to feel at home, to feel supported, and to feel love, education matters. People should learn more about our circumstances so they can welcome and love us. You can be part of this.

And I am part of this. So post your visceral comments if you must.

I was at the Parkview Bruderhof in Albany, NY, on Wednesday evening last week to hear Sana Mustafa tell her story. A Syrian by birth, Sana was aware of and concerned for the injustice and corruption within her country’s leadership. Along with her older sister, Sana was among the first in 2011 to take to the streets in nonviolent protest against Assad. Words were their only weapons; the sequence of events they saw in Egypt and Tunisia, by which plebian protests led to bloodless deposition, was their model.

Sana speaking at the Parkview Bruderhof House in Albany
Sana speaking at the Parkview Bruderhof House in Albany, NY

As a result of their activism, Sana and her father and older sister were detained by the government. Detainment under these conditions is not a legal process. You do not go to prison. It is the equivalent of abduction. Detainees live – if they live, Sana added dryly – in integration facilities where they are subjected to harassment, torture, and the possibility of imminent death. If you die, no one will hear about it.

Luckily, their abductors, thinking they had scared the girls from any future political activism, released them and – sometime later – their father. But after their release they were even more determined to protest: “We experienced everything we fought against. We had read about all the atrocities going on, and fought against the regime because of that, but then we lived it ourselves and knew that everything we were fighting for was worth it and that we should not stop.”

During their detention, comments were made to her mom by those in favor of Assad’s regime: “We told you so.” “Why would you let your girls participate in the protests?” “You could have expected this to happen.” But her mother, firmly believing in their cause, replied, “My daughters are not more important than other people’s daughters, than those others who have already been detained, tortured, raped, and killed. They are not more important, so what happened to others has happened to my daughters.”

“When you hear your own mother talk like this, you know you are willing to completely give your life for this cause,” Sana told us, “And I believe that is what I did. I am still alive, but I gave my life for this.”

In 2013 Sana was accepted for a six-week academic program in the United States. It never occurred to her that she would never return to her home and family. But ten days after her arrival in America, Sana received the shattering news, via Facebook, that her father had once again been abducted. As I write this, it has been more than 1,000 days since they have heard from him. The family knows nothing of where he is – or whether he is alive or dead.

“I wish I could say this is only my dad’s situation, but it is the situation of thousands in my country,” Sana said. “I would guess there are at least 100,000 detainees. That means 100,000 families: women, daughters, sons, waiting for people.”

In Syria, women are frequently used as political weapons against detained men. Women – daughters or wives – are raped and tortured in front of their men to make them confess and say whatever they want them to say. Knowing this, Sana’s mother soon fled to Turkey with Sana’s older and younger sister, and Sana was left stranded in the United States where she knew no one, could barely speak the language, had no place to stay, no papers, no money, nothing. And she, while in this terrible and emotional situation, had to decide whether to join her sisters and mother in Turkey or stay on in America as a destitute refugee.

“For about the first two years that I was here, no one cared and no one asked, and it really hurts when you struggle by yourself and on your own,” Sana said. Her eventual choice to stay in the United States was based largely on her realization that in this country she could continue to be able to do something – to talk to people and share her story, and pass on her commission to them as she did to me.

Sana with several girls her age at the Parkview Bruderhof House
Sana (center) and some of us who came to hear her story

“We’re all busy surviving and do not really have the time to process what has happened, and I’m not really sure we will ever have the time and ability to process what we have been through,” Sana told those of us gathered in Albany. Our commissioned role, then, as privileged citizens, is to offer a listening and an understanding ear. To offer our support by simply showing we care, and doing what we can to help. To make every Sana feel welcome. Now that the refugee crisis is in the news daily, simply knowing that it is happening is not really the issue anymore. We have to do more.

I’ve intentionally left out many details of Sana’s story. Instead, I challenge you to hear the details for yourself: if not directly from Sana, then from one of the many other Sana’s in your neighborhood or your country; any refugee can tell you the rest of the story.

We ended our evening together by singing a song based on the words of a poem by John Donne:

No man is an island,
Entire of itself;
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main;...
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind;
And therefore never send to know
For whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.

So stay involved, or get involved, in mankind. As Sana concluded, “When we leave, it’s not over. No. We are still living it. Our family is still there and my dad is still there, and it’s still our country and the conflict is not over. There’s no end to this story.”


About the author

Melinda Goodwin

Melinda Goodwin

Melinda is the current webmaster of, social media manager, and a weekly vlogger.

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