By Joshua Hearne
It’s hard to learn to speak another language when you’re walking a tightrope. But, unnoticed by nearly everyone, Sabina, Yazan and Maira were doing their best.
As refugees in Barcelona fleeing religious persecution in Pakistan, the family was on a precarious path between the world they knew and the world for which they hoped. But the end of a tightrope can look terribly far when you’re still standing in the middle of it.
Yazan was working ample hours for too little money; there just wasn’t time to learn Spanish let alone Catalan. Food and shelter were far more pressing priorities. Yazan’s job wasn’t enough to meet all his family’s needs, but it was better than nothing; so he poured a little bit more of his life into it every day. Isolated from his peers and most of his community by language, Yazan kept taking small steps forward with hope that there was rest and comfort somewhere ahead along this tenuous journey.
Sabina was doing better in Spanish, but, as any language learner can tell you, misunderstandings and miscommunications were still a regular occurrence. While, for some of us, these mistakes might make for a cute, amusing story at some dinner party years hence, they can make for substantial missteps in the tightrope life of refugees. Every little mistake of word choice or conjugation threatened Sabina’s family’s already-meager security. While navigating the steady stream of forms and appointments necessary to maintain their refugee status and receive the support they’d need to rebuild their lives, Sabina also cared for her and Yazan’s daughter, Maira.
This family’s story isn’t an unfamiliar one to people around the world who make their home, and mark their vocation, among refugees. Refugees like Sabina, Yazan and Maira are daily and silently walking their tightrope before the eyes of people who are too often unwilling to pay attention. Without attention and with only the vague promises of natural human rights, they do it all “without a net,” perhaps wondering if anyone would even notice if they fell.
Cooperative Baptist Fellowship field personnel Michelle and Matt Norman are watching, though, to make sure the family doesn’t fall.
The Normans are listening to the needs of their neighbors and responding in ways that empower the community and preserve dignity, building not only a better safety net, but also a life-giving community. They’re working among local congregations in Barcelona to help them reach out with the promises of God’s love and the great mystery of atonement into an especially secular community. They’re leading classes and Bible studies that invite neighbors, friends and acquaintances to encounter the God who is already at work in the neighborhood. But none of that is the reason they’d notice if Sabina and Yazan fell or started to slip through the cracks. They’d notice because the lifestyle they’ve adopted—an attentive and loving way of sharing life with their neighbors that is at the root of all their good work—won’t let them look away from their friends as they take steps toward hope and security.
When the region locked down to curb the spread of COVID-19, Yazan lost his job. He’d been working in a restaurant where lockdowns meant layoffs. Soon, the family was subsisting on an allotment of food from the local Baptist food bank. The allotment is variable in quantity and contents and meant to be a supplement to a family’s food supply at the most. Subsisting on a supplement is just another feature of the precarious lives of refugees.
Because of the years the Normans had already spent building relationships and being consistently present to their neighbors, Yazan and Sabina reached out to them for help. Sabina messaged Michelle, her need traveling by technology while feet could not bridge the distance in lockdown.
“Michelle,” Sabina wrote, “we need help. We have no money. We need to pay rent.” This was only March of 2020; months of instability would follow. The Normans were able to help in part thanks to the generosity of donors and partners. In fact, they were able to help three separate times so that Sabina, Yazan and Maira could remain safe in shelter while they continued to appeal for aid from the Spanish government. The aid system was seemingly jammed by the surplus needs and the quickly spreading tragedy. This was only one family, so they may as well have been invisible to an enormous aid enterprise that must, by virtue of seemingly insurmountable need alone, focus on efficiency and numbers. But they were not invisible to the Normans or to their sisters and brothers at the Baptist Church of Cerdanyola.
Years spent building a relationship and having conversations about a hundred different small things laid the groundwork for the substantial and sometimes-scary conversations of lockdown. Trust built by little measures of hospitality—chai and Pakistani delicacies every time Michelle visited—became the foundation for working together on necessary and complicated paperwork in both Spanish and Catalan.
A life together built by many small moments of connection is unknowingly making the way straight for sisters and brothers to care for each other.
Those bonds of relationship, ever constant but invisible to those who measure impact in hundreds of thousands, resisted the insistent isolation of a pandemic and consequent safety measures. When Yazan got a new job, they celebrated; when he lost the job with new lockdowns, they grieved it and renewed their promises. His family didn’t have to walk alone; they shouldn’t have to walk alone.
“Why do we never eat out?” nine-year-old Maira asked her mother one afternoon after stewing on the question for a little while. She had seen a favorite fast food restaurant while out for a walk with Sabina and had been eager to get one of her favorite meals. Lost somewhere between familiarity and hope, there can be quite a bit of comfort in a favorite meal. Sabina had regrettably said they couldn’t afford it. “Are we poor, Mama?” Maira asked on the heels of her first question. There must be a dozen different ways to answer a question like that. In that moment, it must have been hard for Sabina to discern what feeling motivated the question, and she must have wanted to provide the answer that addressed that hidden and vulnerable motivation. Was Maira feeling embarrassed? Sad? Scared about the future? Frustrated?
“No, my dear,” Sabina started, scanning her darling daughter’s eyes for some hint of how these words were received, before continuing. “We are not poor. We are rich in the love of God. We have each other, and we have God. We are rich.”
Yazan, Sabina and Maira continue walking the tightrope life of being refugees, but they do it together, and they do it with their faith in the God who will never leave nor forsake them. They walk the tightrope holding the hand of Jesus who knows that precarious path by personal experience, and they hold the hands of the Normans who will not look away.
All the while, the Normans wait and watch and prepare to catch them if they should fall. There are yet so many more caught on a tightrope somewhere between what was and what may yet be; may God call each of us to make our home and life among those who walk a tightrope of their own. May we all have the eyes to see our sisters and brothers on a precarious path and may we have the honor and joy to build the relationships we need both now and later.
This article appeared in the Spring 2021 issue of fellowship! magazine, the quarterly publication of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Read online here and subscribe for free to fellowship! and CBF’s weekly e-newsletter fellowship! weekly at www.cbf.net/subscribe.