June 20 is designated by the United Nations as World Refugee Day. Communities around the world are celebrating in different ways — honoring refugees’ journeys, and celebrating survival and life.
Perhaps the first thought people have regarding refugees’ experience of violence and persecution is “It’s terrible this happened to them” and then “I’m so lucky it didn’t happen to me.”
In my opinion, the concepts of “them” and “me” are what determine social and political decisions. It all goes back to our perception of the distance between the “them” and the “me”.
I grew up as a Druze in a small town in Mount Lebanon. Most people are not familiar with the Druze faith mainly because there are less than a million Druze worldwide, most residing in Lebanon, Syria and Israel. Perhaps another reason the faith remains obscure is that you have to be born a Druze, you cannot convert into one or shed your Druzism, no matter where or what you choose to worship.
The six holy books are hand copied and have never been printed. They are closely coveted by handfuls of devout faith leaders, and lay members of the faith are not encouraged to read or even own the books. There are no public places of worship. Secular Druze are not required to pray, fast or do any faith-related rituals or rites. Mainly because of geography and because historically when the faith was created in the 11th Century, the first Druze were Muslims, so Islamic prayers are used at weddings and funerals.
My knowledge of my faith was mostly what I learned growing up. The main belief all Druze share and openly discuss is reincarnation. When we die we are born again into this world to learn new lessons and find our path to truth. My childhood was filled with stories of kids coming back to their past families, solving problems or revealing hidden valuables. Young children’s tales of having families with unfamiliar names are taken seriously. My own cousin is said to have recognized a migrant panhandler as a neighbor of his old self back when he lived and then died in Syria. Children’s imaginary tales and the concepts of life and death mesh seamlessly and are taken in stride.
One lasting lesson from this deep belief in reincarnation is that we don’t know where or who we’ve been in past lives, and we don’t know where we are going from here- except that this life and the next are connected. Therefore you should always treat people kindly and sympathetically. One reason is that this person could be your grandfather or your mother, who is back in your life for a lesson you both need to learn. Also your treatment of that person could determine where you go next. If you are not compassionate, the world might decide that you need to come close and personal with the issue that you disregarded.
The Druze have put their finger on the best reason to treat each other with dignity and kindness. If any stranger you encounter could be a long lost relative then there is nothing to fear. If every experience could be yours one day, you must be clear-eyed and attentive when you encounter it. This leaves very little space between the “them” and the “me”.
When I moved to Austin in 2001 I didn’t expect that my life would bring me full circle and that the lessons of my childhood will be the basis of my work. I started working with refugees at Interfaith Action of Central Texas in 2002 and learned very fast that though the work is important it is the care and attentiveness you show people that stays with them. It reaffirms their humanity and cushions their transition to a new life. My grandmother’s old Druze prayer always echoes “God deliver me to a gentle mother and a loving father.” To me that means that when we are uncertain about all else — our fate, our future, our next life — the most important thing we can wish for is kindness and love.
In Austin we are celebrating World Refugee Day on June 15 at the Bullock Museum and on June 23 at Zilker Park. It is a chance to celebrate the strong, resilient people who are now our neighbors. It is a chance to have a glimpse of who we were or could be. It is a chance to share kindness and love.
Lubna Zeidan is a Lebanese American Druze and the refugee program director of Interfaith Action of Central Texas, which compiles the Doing Good Together column, interfaithtexas.org.