A Dusty Syrian Boy Presents Me with Questions

Dear America,

My God, we’re all so sad, enraged, and perplexed, at least those of us not inclined to strap on explosive vests. I’m not talking about people directly traumatized in Paris or, on this morning of November 20, 2015, victims in Bamako, Mali. Their suffering is beyond our poor power to add or detract.

But I probably shouldn’t speak for you, only for myself, an American who will have to try not to eat too much for supper tonight. I’m not worried about bullets and bombs in my nonchalant town, though shrapnel is far more likely to come my way than lottery winnings. And nobody on the shores of Lake Erie has grumbled lately about a swarm of Syrian migrants.

In short, the Coleman family is viewing developments from the bleachers, which is plenty close. Last evening wife Kathy and I watched a video of a rubber boat full of refugees from Syria via Turkey landing on Greece’s Lesbos Island. Folks from Samaritans Purse, a Christian organization run by Franklin Graham, waited to receive them. Of course, like UNICEF and the Red Cross, SP will gladly take checks or credit cards, so I get that.

But you can’t stage the tears of cold, soaked toddlers. And they were lucky, unlike Aylan Kurdi and his brother and mother, whose boat overturned on September 2, 2015.

Sobbing live kids and dead ones facedown on the sand get my attention. I ache for the adults, but babies make me get real. You might be able to get pissed at Abdelhamid Abaaoud, but not at the boy I saw shouting, “Asma! Karima!” This dusty little Syrian wailing his dead sisters’ names presents me with questions. Maybe they’re your questions, too. My rants and lamentations are bottomless, but they call forth only anger and grief.

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A dusty Syrian boy (Credit: YouTube)

Asma and Karima deserve more from this American in the stands. The least I can do is wonder about myself.

I wonder . . .

  • what it means to say that I’m a Christian. How high up in the nosebleed seats can a follower of Jesus sit? At what point am I compelled to move down closer to the action, to risk my own wellbeing for a child? When do little ones falling off of rubber rafts make me take the baby step of believing—not acting, mind you, only thinking—that imperiled foreigners have a claim on my safety?
  • if ISIS is my lion. The historical accuracy of Christians being torn apart by beasts is now in question, but the story remains instructive for contemporary believers. Certain moments in history decisive for followers of Jesus. For at least some early Christians, sacrificing to Jupiter and Juno was a line they refused to cross. German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer climbed the gallows because he realized that a church cooperating with Nazis was no church at all. He used the term status confessionis to label a situation that forces a Christian’s hand. On a personal level I summarize the discernment as a question: Can I call myself a Christian if I agree that it’s okay to refuse sanctuary to refugee children? From my safe seat, I acknowledge that my soul can be devoured even if my flesh is intact.
  • how long anger and fear should voice my convictions. On the evening of the Paris attacks I paced and said to Kathy, “I won’t think this tomorrow, but I can understand people who say we should bomb the hell out of terrorists. Tell them if anybody else gets killed, that’s on them.” But that was my reptile brain talking, the one that creates faint pilgrims and lonely brothers. What kind of American am I if negative human emotions clog my heart? Regardless of my beliefs, shouldn’t courage and compassion have my last word?
  • how to respond to a question from my son Micah, who actually is on my side. In just a few words, he took all remaining slack out of my deliberations. No way to finesse myself out of the bottom line. “You’re for letting in refugees,” he said, “but are you willing to risk [grandson] Cole’s life?” Well played, son. It took days to work out my answer—or rather, my question. I should say that in a week the Coleman family will celebrate Cole’s second birthday. He has turned me into a complete bore. He is practically all I talk and write about. I’d dive on a bucket of live grenades for the kid. So my question is devastating: “If I were a grandfather in a rubber boat, trying to comfort a soaked and sobbing Cole, wouldn’t I want a nation to risk welcoming me in for his sake?”
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My grandson: Is he worth risking your life for? And if him, why not the dusty Syrian boy? (Credit: Rachel Kaye)

There’s no joy in my questions, much less my answers, which are probably clear enough to thoughtful fellow Americans. But a man in the bleachers eating his fill of ballpark franks and sipping draft beer shouldn’t complain.

Syrian refugees are only in my thoughts, not much of an inconvenience, really. As a spectator I am a passable American and a legitimate Christian.

Peace and love,

John

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Lament for Aylan Kurdi

Sadness Alert! This post will be painful to read. 

He stood there biting his lower lip. “It is very difficult,” he said. “I cannot resign myself.”

He looked straight past me and out through the window. Then he began to cry. “I am utterly unable to resign myself.”

(from “In Another Country” by Ernest Hemingway)

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Citrus Photobomb of Pinot Noir

Close day in Erie, Pennsylvania, but central air pacifies me. So does a Smoking Loon pinot noir. A soprano (Callas, Sutherland, Caballe?) sings something from Madame Butterfly—I think. When hunger intrudes, I’ll walk a few feet to the kitchen, open the refrigerator, and decide what not to eat. That’s how stifling my life is. I have to eliminate meal options.

I’m inexcusably comfortable but for one trifle: Aylan Kurdi drowned. A photograph of a police officer carrying him from a Turkish beach appeared on the evening news. I recognized the boy immediately, his toddler legs. He was my grandson Cole. The tender calves, the tiny sneakers!

Two hours ago, he said, “Pop, come.” He had a tennis ball that he wanted me to toss high into the air. Into the humidity, above the young tree in his front yard, the yellow globe flew, then fell to the grass. Cole bounced. Or was it Aylan?

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Aylan Kurdi. Forgive me, friends, but can you make out your child here? Do you recognize the sneakers? (Credit: Reuters)

Now, as Jussi Bjorling kills some high notes from La Boheme, I comprehend: Aylan = Cole.

If my son-in-law fled bombs with my daughter and grandchildren and lost them to water, I would want nothing more than to join him, to sit beside their graves until merciful death arrived.

I cannot resign myself. I am utterly unable to resign myself.

Or as Aylan’s father Abdullah said, “I don’t want anything else from this world. Everything I was dreaming of is gone. I want to bury my children and sit beside them until I die.”

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Cole with Pop. Do you see Aylan’s hands? His little legs?

Hemingway’s Senior Maggiore grieved the unexpected death of his young wife from pneumonia after he had survived war, hand maimed but otherwise viable—the absurdity, the affront.

Syria is a hemisphere away, but geography is a rationalization. Aylan in the wet sand is Cole in the wet sand. To hell with similes. Any other conclusion is bullshit, for me and for the world. Our best hope is for Aylan to be my own grandson–and your very own, too. You feel this with me, don’t you?

I want to pick that boy up off the beach and love him back to life so badly my throat burns. You, too?

The Smoking Loon is gone, and I’m hungry.

Damn it!