‘Never Again’ is Upon us During Advent Season

{This article was first published in Sojourners on Dec 19, 2017.}

It’s a cold November day in Amsterdam, and I’m realizing my 18-month-old daughter is not prepared for the biting wind. My “Bangkok baby” has only known hot, humid air, and so I do my best to wrap my scarf around the umbrella stroller, swaddling her arms and icy fingers tightly like an Egyptian mummy on wheels. As mothers do, we use whatever resources available to care for our children.

We’re en route back to our home in Thailand from a visit to our families in America, and we’ve decided to divide up the lengthy journey by staying a couple of days in Amsterdam. It’s the morning of our departure and we decide to visit the Anne Frank House Museum before our flight.

It’s every bit as sobering as I imagined. Visitors walk through dimly lit corridors that are part museum and part sacred space, leading to the secret annex where Anne wrote her famous diary while hiding in Nazi-occupied Holland.

I do my best to keep my daughter quiet — she’s already gotten addicted to Dum Dums on this visit home, so I oblige and spend most of my time wrestling her and managing meltdowns. Just as I’m blocking her sticky fingers from wiping the walls, I’m stopped in my tracks when I see hash marks on the wall. It looks so much like the penciled lines on bare walls that are in my son’s bedroom at home. It’s a makeshift growth chart, documenting Anne and her older sister Margot’s maturity during their 25 months of hiding before being found and captured by the Gestapo. It’s a relic of their humanity, an insistence of their own dignity. And hauntingly preserved for millions to see. In the early 1940s, Anne and her family applied for, and were denied entry in the U.S. as refugees. After their capture, one by one, they died in a German concentration camp.

We conclude our tour with a video that includes famous quotes about the Holocaust from different scholars, theologians, and celebrities. Nobel laureate Elie Weisel wrote, “I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

Modern-day Anne Franks

Miles away, in Bangkok, something terrible has happened and I still haven’t figured out the details.

I’ve been texting my Somali friend *Lolly to see how she and her kids are, and I haven’t gotten a response. Lolly is a Somali refugee widow who was brought to Thailand with her four children by the U.N. and Jesuit Refugee Service after her whole family was slaughtered by Al-Shabaab terrorists.

It’s unlikely for Lolly to ignore me for so long. I’ve texted Bishaaro too — a Somali teen Lolly took under her wing, a victim of the black market organ trade. No response from Bisharro either. I’ve reached out to the sisters at the Jesuit Refugee Service to find out if anyone knows of their whereabouts. Everyone seems to know Lolly — she’s a pillar of strength in her community, often acting as a translator and taking on other people’s burdens, despite having her own impossible circumstances. Nobody knows where they are, but we all fear the worst: they’ve been imprisoned.

The day I get back to Bangkok, Lolly calls me under a blanket on a secret phone. She tells me about the massive raids, how they went into hiding, how it didn’t last long — they were still found and taken to the Immigration Detention Center (IDC).

Even though the UNHCR helped to rescue and bring them to Bangkok, giving them asylum-seeker status with the U.N., they still have no legal protection and are still jailed if they are caught without visas. They will stay locked up indefinitely, along with their children, until their case is individually accepted for resettlement to another country.

Pope Francis has compared these types of detention centers to concentration camps. No, the prison doesn’t kill detainees or perform experimental treatments on them. But they are kept like animals, packed with more than 100 people to a room that doesn’t get enough natural sunlight. There is no door on the bathroom. Lolly tucks her kids into bed on a hard floor in a room where the lights never go off. They receive three bowls of rice a day, drink unclean water, and sometimes the water is shut off completely. Some detainees have contracted diseases and die before ever having their freedom.

The news sends a shockwave of anger. The possibility of Lolly and other friends getting detained was always looming, but I have so many regrets. I regret not insisting that they stay at my house while I was away. I regret not taking portrait photographs of Lolly’s kids to remember their childhood. Will they even be children by the time they get out? I am so angry they are being punished for surviving. My friend who has taught me so much about motherhood, strength, grace, and resilience after surviving hell on earth, will now have to endure even more hell while raising children to witness it all. I am angry to have to tell my son that he won’t be seeing his buddy Omar anymore — how do you tell a 5-year-old that his friend is in jail?

The jail allows visitors to bring food and toiletries. I visit Lolly and her kids. Two metal fences separate us, and it’s hard to understand them among the 100 other visitors who are shouting across the divide, but I can hear 6-year-old Omar asking for a soccer ball, dinosaurs, and bubbles. Lolly’s 8 and 10-year-old daughters ask for food and puzzles. Lolly is holding a Rohingya refugee baby. Always the nurturer, she introduces me to her “neighbor.” She also gives me the names and detainee numbers of two Ugandan girls who have been detained for six months and haven’t had a visitor. “Nobody knows they’re in here, can you please ask your friends to visit them too?” she tells me.

It’s absurd that they are being criminalized and the thing that keeps me on the right side of the fence is my American passport.

Lolly’s children are modern-day Anne Franks. Their best hope is for a country to accept their case for resettlement. It’s simply inconceivable that a child has to sleep in jail while waiting for a new country. And it’s inconceivable that so many Americans are unbothered by the Trump administration’s travel bans and shutting our borders to refugees. The U.S. used to be a haven for Somali refugees in places like Texas, Michigan, and Washington, D.C. But since the annual refugee ceiling has been reduced by more than half, this option could take years longer. Just like the Frank family who was turned away from immigrating to the U.S., it’s unlikely that my friends will ever make it to America.

How Did We Get Here?

I ask myself how we got here, why the American church has hardened its hearts to refugees when one of the major themes of the Bible is welcoming the stranger. How did we lose trust in a vetting system that has worked for decades? How did we begin to see refugees as dangerous when there is no statistical evidence to back it up? How did we forget that so many of us are descendants of people who were oppressed and looking for a better life? How did we stop seeing the beauty of American culture as coming from a collision of cultures? How did we lose our way — did it happen overnight or has it been slowly brewing for a long time?

The nineteenth century English preacher Charles Spurgeon once declared, “If you want truth to go around the world, you must hire an express train to pull it; but if you want a lie to go around the world, it will fly: it is as light as a feather, and a breath will carry it. It is well said in the old Proverb, ‘a lie will go around the world while truth is pulling its boots on.’”

For me, my train is dismantling the lie that refugees are dangerous. Despite extensive research, a successful extreme-vetting system, and an extensive faith-based resettlement network, the majority of white American evangelicals are still in favor of closing our borders to refugees. How has the church swallowed the puff of air that says, “These people are dangerous, we don’t want them here, they don’t have value, they are not welcomed”?

The suggestion that refugees are anything other than people created in the image of God who need our shelter and protection is a lie. The rate at which this lie has seeped into our global consciousness is astounding. This lie was told in language that dehumanized refugees during the first travel ban, where our president called refugees from the seven banned countries snakes.

The lie is a little more overt in other parts of the globe. On Nov. 11, in Warsaw, Poland, 60,000 far-right protesters showed up to march for a ‘White Europe’ with banners reading, “Pray for an Islamic Holocaust.”

Anne Frank is famous today because of her diary. But the sad reality is the existence of thousands of Anne Franks who never wrote down their stories. And today, there are thousands of Anne Franks around the world, and El Roi, the God who sees, cares for each one of them.

It matters very much what the American church believes. Trump won 81 percent of the white evangelical vote and his administration continues to cater to this base. There are lives at stake and prolonged suffering when we continue to shut out the people who need our help the most. Often, we pray and claim that we are waiting on Jesus to move, but what if we are the ones supposed to do the moving, as the hands and feet of Jesus?

When we think of Anne Frank and the Holocaust, we feel compelled to quote Weisel’s “never again” and believe we are loving our neighbor as ourselves, since there hasn’t been a second holocaust. But if we are doing nothing about the world refugee crisis and believing the lie that Muslims are our enemy, we are complicit in the suffering of millions.

As we celebrate Advent and Christmas with our families, lighting candles, trimming trees, and singing carols, let us remember Christ the refugee and the Matthew 25 call to welcome the stranger:

God of the watching ones,
Give us your benediction.
God of the waiting ones,
Give us Your good word for our souls.

God of the watching ones,
The waiting ones,
The slow and suffering ones,
Give us Your benediction,
Your good word for our souls,
That we might rest.

God of the watching ones,
The waiting ones,
The slow and suffering ones,
And of the angels in heaven,
And of the child in the womb,
Give us Your benediction,
Your good word for our souls,
That we might rest and rise
In the kindness of Your company.

— Celtic Daily Prayer, evening prayer for blessing during Advent

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Colleen Dobbs says:


    We will be in Bangkok in March and were wondering if we could do some volunteer work for a day? Thanks, Colleen >

    1. Natalie says:

      Colleen! Goodness, I am so sorry- terrible about checking my messages and just now seeing this. Are you by chance still in town? I hope you found a volunteer opportunity. There are so many. Blessings and Happy Easter.

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