Tuesday, August 2, 2016

The text

Argentine's daughter Rachelle died a year ago. 
This year, on the anniversary of that date,
Argentine sent me a text. 
It came late at night.
As I lay in my own bedroom
with the blankets tossed across my bed.
And my daughter asleep beside me.
The sound woke me,
and I froze there for a minute in darkness
wondering what bad news might await.
Mustering the strength to pick up my phone, 
finally I did.
And there was Argentine's text...
"Sister" (she calls me)
We have finished a year without Rachelle. Pray for us"  
And in my own bedroom
my eyes dance away from those words.
Into the darkness.
My own daughter's face warm beside me
suddenly glowing in the pale yellow light of my phone.
And as I lay there 
I imagine Argentine writing this text.
Sitting in that small shack
in a refugee camp, the dirt rubbing at her feet. 
Her arm raised at an odd angle,
tilting her phone just so.
I can see how that pale yellow light 
would spill out in the darkness... there, too.
Illuminating the face of Argentine's new baby girl,
only a few weeks old, nestled in her arms.
The new baby is called "Asante Mungu"
Her name means Thank God.
I sit in that darkness.
I type my response.
"we remember."
 Baby Asante Mungu
 Baby Rachelle

Friday, June 24, 2016

From a refugee camp in Africa...


The steps for taking a family picture with a toddler.  (Apparently they apply no matter where you live.) 


Step 1:  Parents prepare for the picture


Step 2: Toddler stands still for the picture

Step 3: Parents give up on that

Step 4: Toddler celebrates

This is Mapendo and her husband,along with her 2 sons and the 2 nieces that she cares for.  They have been in this refugee camp for 5 months.  They previously were in another refugee camp in another country.  In fact they have been forced to flee their home in Congo at least 4 different times.  Both Mapendo and her husband wear metal leg braces and walk with crutches.  Can you imagine what it is like to flee for your life and carry these little guys with you...that one who won't even stand still for a photo?  Can you imagine what it is like fleeing with these young nieces through war zones in which rape is far, far too common?  The questions go on...

We have an amazing opportunity.  After years of being refugees, of fleeing in circles, again and again...Mapendo and her family (and Argentine and her family) are being sponsored for resettlement in Canada by Athabasca Interfaith Refugee Sponsorship Society.

It is a long process, involving a lot of documentation and a lot of waiting.  And a lot of friends helping us out along the way.  I have been working on filling out the documentation for months now.  It has been countless hours on the phone with each person, reliving the events that brought them here.  It is a crazy process.  Here is how Argentine and Mapendo described their trip to the refugee camp. 

We took a bus.  When we got on the bus everyone told us "that road is very dangerous.  You might make it or you might not.  All you can do is pray."  While we were riding in the bus we heard shooting up ahead.  Our driver stopped the bus.  He got out and walked ahead in the forest to try and see what was happening.  All the other passengers got out of the bus and hid themselves along the sides of the road.  But not us.  We just sat there in the middle of the bus.  Our disabilities make it hard to get in and our of the bus.  So we knew there was nothing we could do but sit there and pray in that empty bus.  After a while the driver would get back in the bus and drive us forward. We passed by the bus that had gone before us. It had been stopped by bandits and pillaged.  They took everything from those people, even their clothes.  Some people had been hurt.  Some people had been killed.  We drove on.  And then we heard shooting again.  The driver stopped the bus again.  All the people got out of the bus again.  And we just sat there...again.  And prayed...  That is what it was like...the whole way.

This was just one small story, of the road they traveled to get out of Congo.  But the truth is that each one of these 10 people has a million stories like this.  To listen to their stories is to break your heart again and again.  But it is also to marvel...marvel that they have survived.  And it is to understand...understand in an instant... what it would mean for these 10 people to have the chance to live in a place where the word "safe" has meaning...where the bus doesn't stop again and again., listening for the sound of shooting around the next bend in the road. 

 I love this picture of Mapendo's 2 sons. After months spent listening to the stories of war, it brings me back to hope.  You wouldn't know that these little guys are refugees.  They are just little guys.  Filled with lots of giggling and so much promise.

And like all of us, they deserve a future where they don't have to listen for shooting around the next bend in the road.  And the great news is that we have a good chance of giving them that.

*SHOP:    Argentine and Mapendo (along with 2 other disabled women who have remained in Congo) sew beautiful handcrafted bags.  Each purchase is an affirmation of their dignity, beauty and talent.  

 *Resettlement FundYou can donate to this fund on our website.  Donations here help us prove that our Canadian friends at AIRSS will have enough money to care for Mapendo and Argentine and their families when they arrive in Canada.

*Refugee Fund:  This fund helps care for the women and their families while they are still refugees in Africa.  It is a long waiting process until the group can get resettled in Canada and in the meantime emergencies happen and life is hard.  We are currently working on moving the women from the refugee camp to a safer place closer to a hospital so Argentine can give birth in a safe environment and so that they all can get better medical care. 


Sunday, April 10, 2016

On what it means to be a "mother"

Mother's Day is exactly one month from today.  So now is the perfect time to stock up on SHONA bags to give to all the amazing women in your life.
 Because we are all in this together.

Do you remember when this picture of European parliament member taking her daughter to work went viral a few years ago?  When I saw it I thought immediately of this picture of Solange sewing.
What struck me wasn't the difference between these 2 mothers.  It was the similarity.  The way that across countries...across languages, cultures and economic differences... so very much remains the same.

And then I thought of this picture.

That is Solange again.  With a baby on her back again.  She is in the process of delivering SHONA stock to the post office.  But wait... it is different..that is Mapendo's son on her back.  Yet what strikes me again, is not the difference but the similarity.  Can you tell the difference between the photo where she is carrying her own child and the photo where she is carrying a friend's baby?  I can't. 

And then I thought of this picture.

Of the arms wrapped around Baby Marlaine.  Whose mama died in childbirth.  Whose family couldn't care for her, but who found the loving arms of Mama Sifa wrapped around her at Family Bethlehem.  And who grew up into this adorable little girl.  In part, thanks to many of you, who helped get her there.  Because they are all our children.

And then I think of Argentine, and her daughter Rachelle.

When Argentine lost her daughter Rachelle, I can't count how many of you wrote with stories of you own, of the loss of your own child, or the suffering of a friend who had been through something similar.  Because they are all our stories. 

And that is precisely why I want to share this picture with you today.

That is Argentine, in a photo from a few weeks ago. I am happy to announce that she is pregnant again.  That is one of the reasons why she needed to flee to the refugee camps again, she needed safety for herself and for the new life growing inside her.   It is why we are incredibly thankful to our friends in a refugee sponsorship group, who are working so hard to sponsor her for resettlement in Canada.  It is why we pray that will happen miraculously fast.  And why we continue to ask for donations to our Refugee Help Fund, in case that doesn't happen fast and we need to look for emergency medical care for her while she is still in the refugee camps.

But mostly it is why our heart breaks with Argentine, for all that she has lost, and soars again, for all that is still possible.

I have learned that this is what it means to be a "mother".  To love fiercely in the midst of whatever world we find ourselves in.  To offer our hearts to another, fearlessly in the midst of a fearful world.

 We love our own children, or the children we find next door, or down the street, or across the world.   We love the children we carry on our backs and we love equally those we carry only in our hearts.

Because, in truth, we are all mothers to someone.  And we are all in this together.

Shop SHONA and share the story of 4 incredible mothers this Mother's Day.  And remember that 100% of the profit from every bag goes back to the woman who made it...and the children she supports.

Mother's Day Sale: SHOP this week and get an amazing 25% off all your purchases.  Do you need another reason?  
Use code: mother in the discount box at the end of checkout. 


Saturday, February 6, 2016

And the journey goes on...

Sometimes it seems as if life is forever muddy and complicated. 

And then there is this.  

A photo I could look at forever.

A photo taken a few days ago, with Argentine smiling.  After losing her daughter last year I wondered if we would ever see this beautiful smile again. 

 But here is Argentine smiling again.

And cuddling a child in her arms.

And joy, simply... inexplicably, seems possible again.  Surely this is the miracle of life..that however muddy and complicated and full of heartbreak the way gets, joy still makes appearances.  Hope still exists.  

Here is the news: Argentine and Mapendo have left Congo and fled to a refugee camp again. But wait...before you heave a sigh and your heart breaks for them again...know this. Despite the fact that they are sleeping in a refugee camp on the cold hard grown, under a tarp, they are counting their blessings.  Because for the first time in what seems like a year, they are able to sleep in peace again.  I received a message just today telling me "we are thanking God so much, so much, because we are not afraid here."

Argentine has fled with her boyfriend and his young daughter (in Argentine's arms above), along with Argentine's younger sister (above left). 

Mapendo fled with her husband, her 2 sons, and the 2 nieces she cares for Neema and Ziada (you will remember them from their journey to the refugee camp in Burundi a few years ago).  

Both Argentine and Mapendo were living in fear in Goma, with thieves often trying to break into Mapendo's home and Argentine facing personal threats on her life and safety.  The situation, ever since Argentine's daughter died, has escalated.  

But to flee and return to a refugee camp is no small thing.  We tried again and again to imagine a way that life could be better in Goma.  Was there a safer neighborhood or a safer way for them to work?  But for these women, with all that they have been through and all they are facing, they concluded that there was no other way forward.  So they fled.  Miraculously they made it, finding a way across the border and to a refugee camp, 4 adults (3 of them on crutches) and 6 children.  Just making it there safely is a cause for celebration.

They are in a transit camp and have been assigned to a tarp covered structure.  They made their beds by stretching out a thin mat on the cold hard ground and covering it with cloth.  And there on that ground, they smiled.  Because there was no sound of thieves at the door and there was no one threatening to hurt them.  They slept in peace.  And they woke up to a new day, and a new path on their journey.  Thank you for joining this journey with us.

Please keep supporting these amazing and courageous women by buying their beautiful, handcrafted work.

 There will be more news coming soon about what this new journey may hold for them but in the meantime thank you for sharing this journey with us.  We truly could not do it without all our friends.  And also, Riziki and Solange are both doing well in Congo and are still sewing so your purchases matter to all 4 women and the 12 children (or more) they care for!



Friday, September 11, 2015

The Risk of Loving

“Every time we make the decision to love someone, we open ourselves to great suffering.... The greatest pain comes from leaving. When the child leaves home, when the husband or wife leaves for a long period of time or for good, when the beloved friend departs to another country or dies … the pain of the leaving can tear us apart.
Still, if we want to avoid the suffering of leaving, we will never experience the joy of loving. And love is stronger than fear, life stronger than death, hope stronger than despair. We have to trust that the risk of loving is always worth taking.”
Henri J.M. Nouwen

The Risk of Loving:

(This reflection is based on the previous post.  Please see here for more info

Recently my husband was in Goma for work and was able to visit with Argentine. He said that she is sad, but that she seems to be doing OK. He taught her to use a smart phone to send email and photos. It is something she has always longed to do. Sharing photos of her life, joining the global community. But it has always been a step beyond her capacity for one reason or another. The technology or the logistics were always just a little too complicated. But this time it seems she has got it. And so I have gotten a bunch of emails and photos from her recently. 

Her most recent message read "Don't tire of praying for me...because my head hurts and at night I can't find sleep. I hope in God alone. I will be well."

When she dreamed of learning to send an email, this is probably not the message she imagined sending. I am sure she had imagined sending happy messages and joyful photos. Or at least that is what I always imagined receiving.

It seemed ironic to me, that now, in this time of struggle, is when she finally, miraculously, learns to send an email. How can she have space in her head for that right now?

But maybe now is the perfect time. Maybe there is an urgency to sending messages urgency you find more in moments of struggle than you find in moments of triumph. After all, when is it that we need our friends and family the most?

I have to say, it is not easy from me. To be connected. I am always happy to hear from Argentine. But I am always also heartbroken. Immediately carried back into her loss, and into my own powerlessness to take away that pain.

I am reminded of the words of Henri Nouwen...

...Still, if we want to avoid the suffering of leaving we will never experience the joy of loving. And love is stronger than fear, life stronger than death, hope stronger than despair, we have to trust that the risk of loving is always worth taking."

Sometimes that risk, the risk of loving, seems astronomically high. Especially in Congo. Suddenly I find myself counting the number of times that every one of the SHONA women's children have been sick. Promese, Prince, Daniel, Daniella, Jonathan, Joashe, Rachelle. They have all been sick far too often. And I can feel myself calculate the cost of loving women whose lives are a world away from mine, and who face countless challenges that I will never be able to make disappear.

But then I think of the risk they take to love. Right there in the midst of it. They love children, and parents and friends in a world that they know is terribly unstable. And they continue to hope. What kind of risk does it take for Argentine to conclude her message with "I will be well"?

And come to think of it, what kind of risk does it take for her to send that message in the first place, to reach out and say "don't tire of praying for me"... to people halfway across the world, who have a million other things calling out for their attention. The risk of loving me, of loving you, when we might just as easily disappear from her life, or just never get the message.

But the messages keep coming. From both sides. When I sent out our last newsletter, explaining Argentine's loss, I got a lot of personal responses from many of you. Sharing your love, and for many of you, sharing a story of your own loss as well. I've gotten countless messages on Facebook asking how Argentine is doing, or saying that you are praying. Many you have also generously donated to the fund in memory of Rachelle. With those donations Argentine is putting a monument on Rachelle's grave, and she is having a closing ceremony, to mark the end of 40 days of mourning. She is also using the funds to contribute back to the community where she has been staying and which has supported her.

But what I want to say is this: thank you. Thank you for taking the risk of loving. I often use the phrase "it makes all the difference in the world". I use that phrase when you buy something from SHONA, and it is true. Your purchase does make all the difference in the world to these women. It puts food on their table, buys medicine when they are sick, and builds homes to keep them warm. So thank you for shopping.

But thank you, for not just shopping, but for giving your hearts as well. For taking the risk to love. Because that too makes all the difference in the world. It doesn't so much change the world, but it changes each of us. It strengthens us, so that together we can conclude every message as Argentine did. We can say to each other... "I will be well".

Friday, July 31, 2015

Being there

Argentine's daughter, Rachelle, died.  She was 2 and a half years old.  It seems impossibly unfair.

It seems so unfair because Rachelle had made it through so much.  Born a refugee, she survived infancy in a refugee camp.  On her way home to Congo a few months ago, she survived gunfire and a riot.  And she made it home to Congo.  And things were going well.  We were building her and Argentine a house.

And it seems unfair because Argentine has been through so much.  More than anyone else I know.  And that was before losing her only child.

But mostly it seems impossibly unfair because Argentine is the most hopeful person I know.  Hope, in the deepest sense of the world.

But what becomes of the most hopeful person you know when they lose it all?

I've been mourning Rachelle all week.  But I've also been mourning Argentine.  It felt like there would simply be nothing left of her after this loss.  Argentine and Rachelle were a pair, just the two of them making their way through this world.  And Rachelle was the light of Argentine's life.

Indeed, I couldn't even talk to Argentine the first few days after Rachelle death.  She has been out of her head with grief, unable to hold a conversation.

But I spoke to her today.

And as I talked to her my heart felt a little lighter. Because I found that she was still there.  Still Argentine.

Her voice was faint and she couldn't talk for long, but she took the phone and did exactly what Argentine always does.  She launched into a litany of thanks.  Thanking me for calling, thanking you for praying for her, thanking Mapendo, Riziki and Solange for being at her side for every minute since Rachelle's death... and the list went on.

Vintage Argentine.

And she ended exactly the way she always ends a conversation.  Asking us to pray for her.

How amazing is that?  To talk to a person in the midst of the deepest grief imaginable, and find a seed of hope still lives.  To find that they somehow, miraculously, still remain...

She encouraged me and strengthened me, just by still being there.  By still being Argentine.

It strikes me that is all any of us really have to offer in life.  To still be there.  To still offer ourselves to eachother.

It is what Mapendo, Riziki and Solange have been doing all week.  Being there.  When Argentine fainted again and again, and couldn't bear it, they were still there.  Even with their own hearts breaking inside, they were there.  And I have no doubt that encouraged Argentine.

To be present in mourning is something Congolese culture does well.  Family and friends arrive...and they don't leave.  For days and days.  In fact it is a part of the culture that I have sometimes been frustrated by.  It can be an economic hardship on a mourning family when suddenly dozens of people need to be welcomed and fed.

But perhaps they understand grief better than I.  Perhaps they understand the power of simply sitting with the midst of grief and in the midst of life.

When I posted on Facebook the other day about Rachelle's death I was encouraged by all of our SHONA friends responses.  All the love.  But what struck me was that out of 38 comments, only 2 or 3 were people that know me, friends or family of mine (I didn't post it on my personal page).  Everyone else was people that I have never met...but people that have come to love Argentine through her sewing with SHONA.  I was particularly struck by one comment that said "I remember how joyful we were when Rachelle was born. What a celebration..."

Something about that seemed beautiful to me...that there was all of you... this intangible "we" who had celebrated with Argentine and who now mourn with her.  Who know her.  It strikes me that there is this whole collection of people spread across the world who can stand with Argentine in her loss, because they have traveled her joys with her as well.  It means more... to know that the person who stands with you in that darkness, also remembers the life and the joy.  

Thank you to all Argentine's friends, for being there, in celebration and in mourning.

Saturday, Argentine will go back to the Center for People with Disabilities in Goma.  It is the place I first met her, and a strong community for those with disabilities.   They will have a special prayer service in honor of Rachelle.  I am encouraged by the way the community has rallied around Argentine.  It will be a large turnout and that will mean a lot to her.    The prayer service will be at 10 in Goma which is 4 in the morning on the East Coast of the US.  And still I mention it because I know that Argentine has no shortage of friends who might want to wake up at that time to pray for her.  

Also, if you would like to help defray the cost of welcoming and feeding all those who have come out in support of Argentine, here is the link.  Argentine's mother and siblings will remain in Goma for several more weeks to continue to be with her. 

Monday, June 15, 2015

A Bag from Home

Last month Argentine, her daughter Rachael and her little sister Aline returned to Goma.  We are so thankful.  She is the last of the SHONA Congo ladies to return home.

 Argentine fled Goma when over 2 years ago, when she was about 5 months pregnant, and very, very scared.  She made it to a refugee camp and give birth in a foreign country.  

She often wondered how she could survive on her own, so far from family.  

She wondered how she could provide for her little girl.

 But she kept sewing and your purchases kept her going.   

A month ago, as war threatened to break out in Burundi, Argentine decided to flee again.  But this time she was fleeing from the refugee camps, back home to Congo.  On her own, with her baby girl, and her younger sister Aline (a little girl of 9 years old) she packed up all work that she had been sewing for the past 2 months.

And Aline carried it on her head...along with Baby Rachel.


While Argentine made her way on crutches behind. 

They hoped to mail the finished SHONA bags as they passed through the capital of Burundi.  But by the time they made it there, tensions had escalated and everything in the capital was shut down in fear of war.  

They found a bus to carry them over the border to Congo, and piled their parcels on the rooftop of the bus for safekeeping.
But on that bus journey, they ran into a riot.  The population had barracaded the street, and was looting the possessions of everyone on the bus.  Argentine listened to the chaos and held the little girls tight. 

She thought they would die. 

But somehow, just as the angry crowd started to unload the luggage from the roof of the bus, police arrived shooting in the air and sending the population fleeing.
  (Does this sound like an amazing story?  Read the full story here.)

And these 3 little ladies continued their journey home.  

Carrying these bags all the way back to Goma.

And now they are here.  In the SHONA shop.  

They are lovely bags.  I wish I had better photos of them, but maybe the photos below paint the best picture of all.

Ever wanted a bag with a story?  This is it.