Community Conversation

I have a story to tell you about boots.

A few weeks ago, I was cleaning out my basement and had twice tripped on a pair of size nine men’s work boots. My husband had needed them for a short while when he was the in-flight physician on a Life Flight helicopter service. I was pondering what we’d ever do with these boots (not quite right for hiking, not insulated enough for snow) when I opened my email and saw a message from a friend asking about boots.

There is a new family in my town who have been assisted in their transition from Syria to the U.S. by a committee of generous folks in my faith community. (You may remember me mentioning taking cookies to this family in my musings on Guerrilla Kindness.) I’ve enjoyed getting to know them more through events such as dinner where my family and I enjoyed a traditional Syrian meal. (Best baba ghanoush I’ve ever had, and that’s saying something because I’ve had a lot of baba ghanoush.)

The email was from resettlement committee member saying they had found an employment opportunity for Zeyad (the father), but he needed work boots in order to be on the construction sight (the next day). Specifically, he needed size nine men’s work boots. I know coincidences happen all the time, but this one made my arm hair prickle. I said I’d bring them right over.

When I got to their home, Zeyad and his wife were just sitting down to coffee, and invited me in. It was 2:00 in the afternoon of a spring cleaning day, and yes, I needed coffee! We talked about many things and specifically about the possibility of Ezdahar (mom) starting a catering business and Zeyad’s desire to find steady work. His older boys have been lucky to find good part time jobs, “and the parents just sit and drink coffee,” he joked.

The coffee was dark and rich and amazing. When we parted, they told me, to “come again every time” (meaning anytime), and I said “Sure! I will come every time you’re having coffee.”

The next time I saw Zeyad, he was speaking on a panel regarding the Muslim Ban. The panel was part of an ongoing series of Community Conversations sponsored by the Glastonbury MLK Community Initiative. This is a non-profit group that works to foster the teachings of Martin Luther King, Jr., specifically to encourage “an inclusive community” and provide “opportunities to satisfy basic societal needs of belonging and acceptance, through a commitment to listening to all, appreciating differences, celebrating the positive contributions from all of its citizens, and increasing the level of trust, connectedness and civic participation in community.”

They certainly accomplished this goal last Thursday through their panel discussion titled The Muslim Ban: An Examination of the Underlying Factual, Legal, Religious, Humanitarian, Policy, and Economic Considerations. 

The panel was moderated by Dean Alfred Carter, and participants included:

-Rev. Dr. David Grafton, a professor at Hartford Seminary, who spoke about how Christianity, Judaism, and Islam all have scriptural references to “welcoming the stranger.” He explained that faith communities actually have a  compulsion to behave ethically based on these teachings. He also shared a fun and important fact that the word hospitality actually comes from the Greek words philo (love) zenos (the foreigner).

-Dennis Wilson, a caseworker at Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services reminded us that “refugee status” means your family’s lives are in danger. He explained how the “extreme vetting” process can take up to two years, and fewer than 1% of refuges who start the process are eventually resettled into the U.S.  A fun fact he shared was that the rate of entrepreneurship among refugees was studied and seen to be double that of other Americans. Also, refugees routinely contribute back twice to society what it cost to resettle them.

-Dr. Abigail Williamson, professor at Trinity College gave us a great reminder of specific times in history (Anti-Immigration policies go back as far as 1830) when Americans opposed other ‘strangers’ – Catholics, Germans, etc. She pointed out there have always been periodic swings to greater restriction, despite often seamless transitions of immigrants once they get here. A ‘not fun’ fact she shared was how ‘integrating well’ can be bad for immigrants’ health. Families typically come to the U.S. with baseline healthier lifestyles than ours, but by the second generation, their health has typically decreased to our level.

-Anna Cabot, professor at UCONN Law School spoke about the legal issues with the current executive order that blocks immigration from six countries (The “Muslim Ban”).  The two main arguments are that the ban violates due process, and violates first amendment rights regarding religious guidelines. I did not realize that the ban is actually scheduled to go into effect today. But, the legal community has continued to fight it’s implementation with ongoing injunctions.

-Rev. Richard Allen, Pastor at South Church (Glastonbury) spoke about his church’s outreach in helping resettle the Albukaai family from Syria. He pointed out that in getting to know and love this family, “an intellectual text now becomes a personal narrative.” He shared how quickly he became attached to the family, and how loved they are by himself and his parishioners.

-Muhammad Albuakaai & Zeyad Al Abas, fathers of two recently resettled Syrian families, spoke with the aid of an interpreter and shared heartbreaking stories of why they had to leave the country that they loved. Muhammad told of the distress of watching fellow human beings be killed as ‘easily and as often as you would kill a mosquito.’ Zeyad spoke of living with his family in a swath of forest for 15 days as before making their way to a refugee camp in Jordan. He noted that all they wanted in Syria was freedom and democracy, and that speaking out for these two things is what people are being killed for.

Both men also shared their strong desire to become self-sufficient as quickly as possible, and promised not to be a burden on our society. They conveyed deep gratitude for the welcome they had received. When an audience member asked the two fathers what their opinion was on the Muslim Ban, Zeyad responded for both by saying, ‘in Syria, we had been living peacefully for centuries with Christians and Jews. So maybe this is a better question for you here in this country.’

Another audience member asked what we should be/could be doing to help others going forward. It was pointed out that despite what happens with “the ban,” a significant number of refugees will still be barred from entering the U.S. (the number allowed is down from 110,000 to 50, 000). I believe it was Dennis Wilson from IRIS who encouraged us to contact our representatives and mention specific names of people who will now be left behind. Families just like the ones there that night, fathers who shared stories, mothers who cooked treats, and children who ran back and forth and crawled under the table during the program.

At the very end of the evening, four children (three from the Albukaai family and one from the Al Abas family) took over the mic. The three little girls sang what sounded like a playful folk song, while the littlest boy just giggled into the microphone. Their beautiful voices, set against the backdrop of the stories we’d just heard of unrest, fear, homelessness, and despair created a poignant juxtaposition. Four gorgeous, healthy kids – singing and laughing – surrounded by a group of smiling strangers in their new home.

It is a good start.

Author Stacy Mozer finds THE SWEET SPOT

First Base: Welcome today to author Stacy Mozer, and a big “outta the park” congratulations on her middle grade novel THE SWEET SPOT, which debuts 3/25/16! Stacy doesn’t know this but she was one of the first people I met in SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators). She was giving a talk on critique techniques/critique groups at a conference. I remember thinking, “I don’t even know if I belong here.” Six years later, I’m still a part of the same critique group that I joined based on her encouragement.
Second Base: Let’s turn our attention to THE SWEET SPOT!

When thirteen-year-old Sam Barrette’s baseball coach tells her that her attitude’s holding her back, she wants to hit him in the head with a line drive. Why shouldn’t she have an attitude? As the only girl playing in the 13U league, she’s had to listen to boys and people in the stands screaming things like “Go play softball,” all season, just because she’s a girl. Her coach barely lets her play, even though she’s one of the best hitters on the team.

All stakes now rest on Sam’s performance at baseball training camp. But the moment she arrives, miscommunication sets the week up for potential disaster. Placed at the bottom with the weaker players, she will have to work her way up to A league, not just to show Coach that she can be the best team player possible, but to prove to herself that she can hold a bat with the All-Star boys.

 
Third Base: Stacy kindly answered my questions about herself, her writing, and THE SWEET SPOT.
NT: How did your writing career begin? What other kinds of hats have you worn in your professional life?
SBM: My writing career began when a group of third grade students told me that there was no way a real author who wrote real books could possibly revise as much as I asked them to revise. I told them that I would write a book to find out. That book is still in revision. It’s been over ten years. In my professional life I have only been an elementary teacher but that has always come with many hats; teacher, mentor, curriculum writer, therapist, counselor, reader, mathematician, scientist…you name it, elementary school teachers do it every day.
NT: What were you like as a kid? Were you sporty like Sam? Would you have been friends with her?
SBM: I was a pretty quiet kid. The smart, bookish, teacher’s pet type. I was not an athlete. I loved baseball, but as a Mets fan, not a player. I admired the sporty athletic girls and would go to their games, but was never one myself. So I might have wanted to be friends with Sam, but unless she was also a singer or an drama geek, I may not have had a chance to have met her.
NT: What kind of books did you like as a 13-year-old?
SBM: My main genre to read has always been high fantasy. I loved getting whisked away in imagined worlds full of adventure. At 14 I think I also loved The Sweet Valley High books and other books about girls who were in high school.
NT:  What are you working on next?
SBM: Right now I’m working on book 2 in The Sweet Spot series, which is called The Perfect Trip. It will be releasing from Spellbound River this time next year. I am also still revising the middle grade high fantasy book I wrote those many years ago when my class challenged me.
NT: Any advice for other writers and creative types?
SBM: It will sound cliche, but make sure to never give up on this dream. It is so easy to want to give up. Publishing is a business full of rejection and it moves as fast as a snail. Try to write because you love it and the rest will come — it just might take a long time. As the critique group coordinator for NESCBWI I also have to remind your readers of how important it is to find your tribe as you move forward. Whether it’s people you meet with to discuss your work or just a supportive group of writer friends, no one gets this the way other writers do.
 

Home Run: THE SWEET SPOT ebook is available for pre-order on Kindle at http://www.amazon.com/dp/B01D8VYWK6 and in iBooks

Or, in paperback (tomorrow) from Spellbound River Press  http://www.SpellboundRiver.com
For signed paperback copies, contact Diane’s Books in Greenwich 203-869-1515. Ask for Maria or Theresa.
 
Extra Innings: You can enter below to win your own copy of THE SWEET SPOT. Just click on the Rafflecopter link to enter!
 
Rafflecopter Giveaway:
Stacy Barnett Mozer is a third grade teacher and a mom. She started writing books when a class of students told her that there was no way that a real author who wrote real books could possibly revise their work as much as she asked them to revise. She’s been revising her own work ever since. 
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PeRsPeCtIvE

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It took me quite some time after graduate school to find my first paid position as a speech pathologist. What didn’t take long was figuring out why my employer, an inner-city rehabilitation center, had used the word “unique” in their help-wanted ad. The majority of patients there were under 50, and missing at least one limb (due to complications from untreated diabetes). An overpowering stench permeated the building. But what really stood out was the volatility that hovered over every interaction. Outbursts were common, and the whole atmosphere was loud and unsettled. Early on, I was charged by a screaming, arm-flailing man because I had turned down his television set (never did that again!).

One day I sat across from a middle-aged, toothless man. We were working on his expressive language skills, including speech intelligibility, after a mugging had left him brain damaged. Just before our session, I had learned he would be heading to his mother’s house the next day.

“Are you excited about getting out of here?” I asked him. After all, I cried in my car every morning before walking into work, and assumed that actually having to stay there would be a horrible experience. But his answer surprised me.

“Oh, I hate to leave,” he told me. “The bed is so soft and clean. And the food is so good. I’ll be back on the streets soon, and I’ll be hungry again now.”

After we finished, I wished him well and then escaped into the dark back staircase, one of my regular hiding spots. I stood on my tip-toes so I could see out the cinder-block sized window, and I cried. But this time it was not because I was scared and overwhelmed, but because I hadn’t seen any goodness in this place before that. I had assumed this was the bottom – the worst case scenario. And that man’s words showed me how naive I was, and how much worse things could be.

IMG_1130Years later, I was teaching an introductory speech and language course at The University of Connecticut. I was my first college teaching experience, and I was very anxious for everything to go smoothly. When I walked into the building on the first day, I noticed a large group of students standing outside the classroom I’d been assigned to. I immediately panicked. It was an 8:00 a.m. class, and I didn’t have a key. I had no plan B! Then, I noticed a second door to the room, further down the hallway. I walked over to it, opened it, and went inside. The students followed behind me and the class proceeded. On the way home I laughed at how thin the line can be between student and teacher: the teacher is sometimes just the person who tries the second door!

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It seems that where we are on life’s journey often determines our perspective. Don’t we all, at some point, feel like we’re at the bottom of the heap? During those times, all we can do is look up, and see others who have achieved what we had hoped to by now. But don’t forget, there are people behind you, wishing they were as far along as you are. Reach back with encouragement, and look forward in hope. Take some time to adjust your perspective: maybe where you are right now is where you are supposed to be.

So, appreciate what you have. But, don’t forget to look for that second door. It’s probably sitting there, unlocked, waiting for you.