He Told Her, “An Absent Mother is Better than a Dead Mother”

photo by Jake Givens via Unsplash

I don’t think I’ve ever received a text like that before.

Today still works for me. I just want to draw your attention to the fact that I don’t shake hands with men. I am sorry to say that.

I wrote back to Miriam and said that I completely understood, and I thanked her for letting me know.

* * * * *

I am doing this because a month ago I read an article in the Lancaster paper about a few Syrian refugee families being relocated to Lancaster, and the comments following that article, written by my fellow Lancastrians, were not welcoming. The comments were not kind.

I am doing this because Donald Trump, the leading candidate in one of two major political parties in this country, said in a recent speech that if he was elected president he would send all the Syrian refugees back to their war-torn country.

“If I win,” he said. “They’re going back.”

I am doing this because our wonderful country, the United States, has a long and lovely history of welcoming in people from around the world. Maybe if we hear their stories, we’ll remember why.

* * * * *

We picked her up from the house where she was staying and for the first time in the history of our family, all the kids sat in the truck completely silent. I wondered if it was Miriam’s covering that was throwing them off; it had a nice floral design, set off against her all-black robe. It is not something they are used to seeing. She had dark, quiet eyes and when she smiled there was kindness there, and sadness, and strength. And maybe a little hope.

I sat in the middle seat and let Maile drive – I thought Miriam might be more comfortable in the front with another woman. Maile and I occasionally asked her questions about her life, how things are going for her here in the States, how people are treating her.

“I love Americans,” she said quietly. “Of course, my greatest wish is to go home. But that is no longer an option.”

After seeking asylum, she recently received approval to stay, which means a green card. She was very happy about this. She might be able to start a new life here. Her family might finally be able to join her, if they can get out.


It took about fifteen minutes to get to the park. The drive consisted of questions, answers, and long periods of silence. I wondered if she would trust us enough to tell her story. To be honest, I couldn’t imagine why she would.

* * * * *

Can I tell you how surreal it was to sit at a wooden picnic table at a nice park in middle America across from a woman telling us harrowing stories of being threatened, beaten, and nearly killed? The weather was unseasonably warm for November. In the background our children laughed and played tag while she told Maile and I how she had to say good-bye to her own husband, her own small children.

Just before she fled, she asked her husband, “What kind of a mother leaves her children and goes to another country?”

“The children would be better off having a mother in another country than a mother who is dead,” he said quietly.

* * * * *

There were two things she struggled to talk about, two things that made her speech slow, her eyes well up with tears. The first was when she told us about the beatings she received. She was passionate about free speech and women’s rights, and these things got her into trouble. A lot of trouble.

The second thing that made her tear up was speaking of her family, her children.

I glanced over at Maile in those moments and she was crying, too. Maile, the blond-haired American with her nose ring, sitting across from Miriam, a Middle Eastern Muslim with her hair hidden under her hijab, the dark folds of her clothing hiding everything except her face and hands.

I think that if anything can overcome the evil in this world, it’s the transformation that comes when we sit and listen to the pain of those we have been told are our enemies.

* * * * *

On the way home, we asked her what kind of food she likes.

“What do you eat in your country?” we asked her, and she laughed, told us her favorite dishes, described them in detail.

“Could we have you over for dinner sometime?” I asked her. “I promise we’ll find food that is halal.”

She laughed again.

“Yes, I would like that.”

She got out of the truck when we returned to the place where she was staying. Maile walked over to her and reached for her hand.

“Can I hug you?” Maile asked, and Miriam nodded, smiled. That’s the clearest image in my mind from that day: Maile sinking into the dark folds of this woman’s robe, the two of them hugging and smiling and almost crying.

There is hope for this world yet. That is all. There is hope.

Tune in next week for Miriam’s story in her own words.

A huge thanks to Church World Service for introducing me to Miriam and somehow convincing her that she could trust Maile and I with her story. If you would like to learn more about the refugee work that CWS does, if you’d like to make a donation, or if you’d like to explore other ways you can help, please check out their website HERE. Or send me an email. I’d be happy to coordinate your desire to help with their current needs.


8 Replies to “He Told Her, “An Absent Mother is Better than a Dead Mother””

  1. Shawn,
    Diana sent me here, and I’m glad she did. I have not had your experience. Moreover, I’ve not had this woman’s experience and can’t fathom it. I told Diana that our niece portrayed a Syrian refugee in a play this weekend, and actually met this dear woman who had been tortured and raped every day for a year. The purpose of my niece’s performance troupe is to make Americans aware. It’s a first step, such as you are doing here. I am asking what to do.

  2. Powerful story of hope. I’m not even sure of the hope that I speak of; but for some reason it was floating over the text – even in the quiet pain of Miriam. This is a journey of understanding the strangeness of God’s grace. I Loved this article.

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