Step outside your bubble

It’s only been about a month since the inauguration, but some days, it feels like it’s been a year.

Maybe it’s because many of our fears about what a Trump presidency could mean for the country are coming to fruition.

Reinterpreting Title IX to exclude students who are transgendered. Actively hunting down illegal aliens. Working to take away healthcare from millions of Americans.

It’s overwhelming. Disheartening. Frightening.

And much of the time, I feel somewhat alone in my fear bubble. It’s just me, a handful of friends and family and Rachel Maddow.

bubbles

At least that’s my perception.

Except we’re not alone. There are lots of us out there – I mean, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by 3 million votes. So why do some of us feel lonely?

Personally, I think it’s because I am living in a kind of echo chamber, despite my best efforts. Sure, I’m making my daily calls, thanks to Daily Action. I’m in the process of getting vetted to volunteer for Jewish Vocational Services’ refugee relocation program. Yet it generally feels like I’m doing these things without benefit of ever seeing a familiar face.

And then, within the last two weeks, my bubble burst in a good way.

First, a friend I’ve known for several years mentioned she’d been at a local Progressive Social Network meeting. I didn’t realize she was involved. She’d never mentioned it, and I hadn’t asked.

Then a couple weeks ago, I got an e-mail asking for last-minute volunteers at JVS.

With the stay keeping the immigration ban at bay for a bit, JVS learned that more than 40 refugees would be arriving in Kansas City the week of Feb. 13. They needed people who could help put together basic supplies to help the refugees get set up in their new homes.

So early on a Monday morning, I headed to a warehouse in Midtown to bundle together donated sheets, towels, kitchen supplies and toiletries.

I didn’t know a soul there. I was a little late (because I usually am,) so I joined two women who were just getting started. One was in her 20s, and the other in her late 40s. They’re friends who work together at Southwest Airlines. I asked how they found JVS. I thought maybe Southwest had a volunteer program such as Kohl’s Care for Kids.

Nope, they said. They were working the Sunday that folks gathered at the airport to protest against Trump’s executive order effectively banning travelers from seven predominantly Muslim nations. They decided that day they wanted to do something to help refugees, so the older woman found out about JVS’s work through her church.

They never spoke of politics or the election or even mentioned Donald Trump’s name. They just wanted to help other humans. We worked together for two hours, counting sheets and blankets and pots and pans and toothbrushes.

Then on Wednesday, after a long day at work, I stopped by the local meeting of the Greater Kansas City Women’s Political Caucus. I was late, this time because of work, so I slipped in, signed in and headed for a seat. I tried to make myself smaller so as not to draw attention to myself.

But I felt eyes on me, so I looked over at the next table. There was a woman I knew through my job, smiling at me knowingly. I flashed her a grin.

Just then, the door to the room opened, and another woman walked in late. After a few minutes, I realized it was a woman I see at my gym. After the meeting, I reminded her that we take Zumba together.

I was starting to feel like part of a club.

And on Thursday after work, I stopped by Jo-Ann Fabrics to pick up something. As I grabbed a cart, a woman came up to me.

“Excuse me,” she said, leaning in.

She looked around and lowered her voice.

“I like your bumper sticker,” she said.

I paused.

“My Clinton-Kaine sticker?” I asked.

“Yep!” she said. “I just had to say something to you. I feel so alone that when I see people I know feel the same way I do, I have to reach out.”

I smiled and offered my hand. Then I told her about the Progressive Social Network group and the women’s political caucus meeting. She didn’t know about either. I told her about Daily Action – she’d been trying to make calls on her own.

I dug in my purse and pulled out a business card and wrote all that on the back.

She thanked me, and I thanked her for stopping me. And then we went on our ways.

And the world felt a little smaller.

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#ThanksObama #ThanksTrump

hate-cannot-drive-out-hate-only-love-can

We’re almost through our third week without a president named Barack Obama.

I miss his calm demeanor, self-deprecating humor and general air of respect.
But if there’s one thing President Obama left behind for Americans as he vacated the Oval Office, it was hope.

That was a theme President Obama never strayed from.

He spoke of it in 2004, when he addressed the Democratic convention. He led with that theme in 2008, when he first ran for president. And during his last speech to the nation, just days before Donald Trump assumed the office of president, President Obama spoke of the optimism he still harbors that the United States will continue to be a beacon of welcome and refuge and innovation and leadership for the rest of the world.

Like others, I was distraught as Jan. 20, 2017, drew near and we faced the reality of a Trump presidency. Ugly things were happening. Reports of hate crimes against immigrants and minorities peppered the news. Meanness and vulgarity abounded on social media. It felt like the progress of the last 50 years was quickly slipping away, like water down a drain.

But since Jan. 21, I’ve got to say, the Trump presidency has stimulated hope.

What’s she talking about? you’re wondering. Is she hitting the scotch again?

My friends, I’m merely choosing to look at the last three weeks with a different perspective.

I believe the hate-filled tweets and executive orders have led many folks not to fall into lockstep with our authoritarian leaders or to cower in fear, but to become empowered. They’ve inspired hope.

Consider this. The executive order that restricts immigration and halts the resettlement of refugees was signed on a Friday. By Saturday, there were massive protests all over the country. Attorneys descended on airports to offer services to immigrants legally trying to gain access to our country, many of them green-card holders who were swept up in the confusion over the order.

That night, a judge ordered a temporary stay, followed later in the week by another ruling against the order.

That’s hope – a desire for a particular outcome to happen.

Last week, as I watched and read about the immigration executive order, I thought of all the immigrants and refugees I know. Surprisingly, for a white girl living the middle of the country in a heavily white town, I know quite a few.

And I wanted to do something to help. But I’m not an attorney. I couldn’t do anything tangible by going to the airport. I’m not an interpreter. I’m wasn’t sure what I could do.

But I’m not one for hand-wringing, so I decided to find a way to use whatever skills I have to help immigrants and refugees.

So I did that Wednesday night when I attended a volunteer orientation at Jewish Vocational Services in Kansas City. And so did more than 20 other Kansas Citians.

There were so many folks there to learn about how they could help refugees that the JVS employees had to bring in extra chairs and copy more volunteer applications.

Martin Okpareke, the outreach manager, gave an overview of how the agency helps refugees. JVS began in the late 1940s to help resettle Holocaust survivors and WWII vets returning home. Since 2004, in Kansas City, the agency has worked with one of nine national volunteer agencies charged by the United Nations with resettling refugees.

Refugees are people who can no longer live in their homelands because of persecution or real or perceived threats of bodily harm. They don’t leave their homes because they want to – they have no choice, said Okpareke, himself a former refugee from Nigeria.

Eighty percent of refugees are women and children – often the men in their families have been killed. Close to 70 percent of refugees have spent about 17 years in United Nations refugee camps, waiting either to return to their homes or to get lucky in the lottery that chooses who gets to the leave the camp for a home in a safer country.

JVS aims to engage refugees in becoming integrated into the United States, educate them about their new home and empower them to take control of their futures by finding jobs and becoming settled.

It’s difficult, Okpareke said. Many suffer post-traumatic stress from what they have been through. Others find the cultural differences between their countries and the United States difficult to overcome. Most worry about their families pulling apart as everyone works toward building a new life in a foreign land.

JVS uses volunteers to mentor newly arrived families and to help others who have been here longer study for the citizenship exam, for example. There were many more volunteer opportunities before the executive order halted everything.

Now the future is uncertain, Okpareke said. Last year, JVS resettled 518 refugees in the Kansas City area. Since January, they’ve welcomed two families.

Still, Okpareke said as he surveyed the potential volunteers, he has hope. Because the people gathered in that room had compassion.

And that gives me hope, too.

In my despair at the ugliness that has been a staple of American life for the last year, I had to do something to help. And so did all the others sitting in the room with me.