Sometimes it seems like I never learn that there are only 12 months in a year. Every year around this time I realize that Christmas is just around the corner and I’m completely unprepared, as if it’s a surprise that November is here again. All of a sudden there is scrambling to decide on holiday plans and work out logistics, to make good on vague gift ideas, to find extra pockets of time and money for end of year concerts, conferences, parties, and writing Christmas cards. And I haven’t even made my Thanksgiving pies yet.
In my better moments, however, I know that so much of what we think we want is a mirage. What is real and important so often is already within reach. Working with refugees is a good reminder to keep things in perspective.
When I ask refugees what they want, they don’t say “I’d love a new 32-inch flatscreen TV,” or “J. Crew has a new pair of suede ankle-strap heels that are super cute.” Even though they have so little, they know what’s really important and what to reach for. They want to be with their loved ones and have the essentials: a home, food and water, and education. These are the needs that are real and important.
This is not to say they don’t have material wants. Mostaba, age 7, asked for a toy car. A single toy car would be tremendous. Erfan wants a stuffed animal in the shape of a large minion. Kimya wants butterfly stickers and paper. Mostafa wants a scientific calculator. But these material desires are so small.
Americans and Canadians have a special tradition of looking for ways to be thankful in November with the holiday of Thanksgiving. In this spirit, some teachers and I asked our refugee students what they are thankful for right now. Here are some of their answers:
“I am thankful to have a friend here.”
“I am thankful to all this school’s teachers who teach our kids and interact with them with patience and kindness.”
“I am thankful to find this opportunity to improve my English and thankful for my teachers trying their best although we have different languages.”
“I am thankful to all the people who help us to rent a home monthly.”
“I am thankful for giving the parents the opportunity to attend English classes which is excellent and is appreciated.”
“I am thankful for the discipline and enthusiasm [at school].”
“I am thankful to be safe here.”
“Thank you for books.”
“Thank you for the doll, I love it. Thank you for the food. Thank you guys. I love it.”
When I think about what I’m most thankful for, it’s my family and my community. It’s Thanksgiving tomorrow in the U.S. and I would be lying if I said I’m not homesick for Diane’s green bean casserole and Craig’s apple pie and watching other people watch football on TV. Yes, I even miss watching other people watch football. I miss the camaraderie of people comparing stuffing recipes and gearing up for the road trip to see family. I miss watching kids kick up piles of golden red leaves on the sidewalk.
But I don’t feel forgotten or left out; quite the opposite. I feel how much love people are pouring into us at Roshan. I feel the encouragement with every donation of hard-earned money that could be spent elsewhere. I feel the shared joy when loved ones cheer for us to reach the next milestone at the learning center. I feel the concern when a friend who moved back to New Zealand asks me about people she once knew at the learning center. I feel the connection when a former refugee now in Paris raises money at her school for us. I feel the sense of community when a church back home puts together money to help us pay for next year’s books.
I am so thankful to be part of this diverse, global community. I love it. It’s a joy and a privilege to be part of something this good–so far from perfect, but somehow perfectly good. I am thankful for every single person who has cheered for us, donated to us, raised money for us, visited us, and encouraged us. We couldn’t run the learning center without every one of you creating this net with us. Thank you.