Today it is Syrians. In days past, it was Iraqis, Central Americans, and Cubans. I’ve meet some from Burma and Sudan in my hometown. They are refugees, asylum seekers. Even with the sound turned down on my screen, pictures of families making long, harsh journeys across continents is jarring – whatever they are fleeing must be horrible to go through that.
And it is.
By the time we meet them (in the media or in real life) refugees are far from home, disoriented, disheveled, and desperate. But once, they were people with families, jobs, and hope. They don’t come here because they want to leave home – they come because they are fleeing for their lives. This story from Morning Edition on September 21 puts it in perspective – when your persecutors come for your children, staying home is not an option.
As I’ve listened to stories of the newest waves of refugees and asylum seekers, I think not only of their journeys, but of their prospects once they arrive. And thanks to my friend Susan Yarbrough’s wonderful book Bench-Pressed, I have a better understanding – and a softer heart – for persistence and faith it takes to both seek and provide safe haven.
For nearly 18 years, Susan Yarbrough was a United States Immigration Judge and heard thousands of asylum cases each year. The five cases she describes in the book – one for each of the statutory grounds upon which she could grant asylum – are heartrending and as a reader you can begin to understand why she says the work “changed the course of my emotional and spiritual life.” When I met Susan, I was immediately struck by her commitment to radical hospitality, welcoming the stranger, which is something she both brought to her service on the bench and also something that developed as she encountered the people who came before her.
The name of the book – Bench-Pressed – has a wonderful double meaning. She describes her years of training with weights and the vulnerability one feels lying on a narrow bench lifting a heavy metal bar straight up above your body. The work of hearing asylum cases is like that, a heavy burden that makes one feel vulnerable under its crushing weight. Yet she recalls that the Yiddish word bentch, which means “blessing,” is also an apt description of that work. Reflecting on her time as an immigration judge she writes, “all the people into whose faces I had looked as they sat on the witness stand near me had indeed blessed me in some way or another.”
And so she tells the stories of Esteban, Josué, Khalid, Elena, and Daniel. Their struggles are particular, yet they have happened and are still happening to thousands of people around the world. People crossing the Rio Grande and the Atlantic Ocean – and streaming into Europe from Syria – today are also fleeing persecution on of account of race, religion, nationality, social group, and political opinion.
Bench-Pressed is moving because of the individual stories, and also because of the compassion we see in the way the cases are handled. I don’t always have a sense that the slow-moving systems that “process” immigrants and refugees have any humanity to them, but these stories and Susan Yarbrough’s witness of her own experience teach me otherwise. Get this book. Read it. And then go out and offer some radical hospitality of your own to the strangers among us.