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"Without A Home"

When you read the words, “Irish immigrant,” what comes to mind?

For me, it’s a family image. In the early 1900’s, my great grandfather, John J. Sheehan, escaped a distraught and subjected Ireland, crossed the Atlantic and ended up in Butte, Montana. I met the man when I was just a wee lad but didn’t have the wherewithal to ask him why he left. Guessing he was fed up with it all, as were many Irish at that time, and he bugged out.

Bottom line, he was after a better life and America offered that. Good on him. Good on America. He met his future wife, Julia Downing, also just off the boat from Ireland and together they built that better life.

Thank you, John J. and Julia.

When you read the words “Mexican immigrant” what comes to mind?

Dare I say a little different image? I’ll let it go.

Whatever immigration means to you, it’s hard to argue that despite the nationality, most migrants to the United States find the courage to leave everything behind despite the menacing unknown.

Because anything is better. Better to start at zero than stay home. And migrants do it by choice.

That’s a bold move.

The woman in this photo is not a migrant. She represents a vastly more grave and desperate population than those seeking a better life somewhere else. She is a refugee.

Big difference. Basically, and often the definition is a hair split most fine, but a migrant chooses to move; a refugee is forced to flee.

She is a member of a global refugee community now numbering more than 35 million. Not sure how to make that number of “forced to flee” people more shocking. That’s equal to about 11 percent of America’s population. That’s more people than the population of 192 countries. How about, that’s just a big-ass number?

She happens to be from South Sudan. She found me in 2018 at a United Nations (UN) refugee camp in southwestern Ethiopia known today as the Gambela People’s Region. It hosts more than 33,000 refugees.

I noted that she found me. I was in Gambela assessing a new influx of South Sudan refugees into Ethiopia to determine their level of needs. Those needs were high.

We motored around the campgrounds in a UN Toyota, assessing shelter, water, sanitation, health, camp organization, security, and a dozen other boxes. We eventually parked near the camp’s segregated section for females. This box is labeled “protection.”

I didn’t notice her right away. We approached the group slowly, escorted by the UN camp officials, maneuvering cautiously around mounds of goat and cattle dung. On that day, they were singing and clapping, keeping the beat to a tribal tune only they knew.

The magic of humanity. Can it be better defined? A large group of vulnerable female refugees, having nothing, needing everything. Not knowing where they were or where they were going, yet singing and clapping as one human voice, minimizing the sense of loss and suffering and pain, at least for the moment. Perhaps hanging onto to the one thing they still had together: a little piece of humanity.

She spotted me before I spotted her. I know that because when I paused to take it all in, I saw her glaring at me. The others around her continued their concert, but she had a fix on me. I did not have my camera ready, so it wasn’t about that. We locked eyes for some time and before I lost the moment, I did raise the camera.

Camera blinked. She didn’t.

There is an arresting sharpness to her face. Is it a honing of suffering and pain, or if you peel away the emotions, is that just her face? For those who study African art, especially expressed through masks, this face from South Sudan is classic. Just ask Mr. Picasso.

Maybe it’s just that. But refugee camps suck. And I think this woman agrees. That’s a hard stare and there is a clear intention to it, but it’s unclear what it is. It’s not attached to a furrowed brow. If she had furrows, they would be deep and that would tell us something.

There is a little bit of “Why?” in that glower, but most of the why is gone. I think it’s less why or blame and more of “What are you going to do to fix this mess?”

I don’t see fear. That emotion is lost, perhaps shaken from her years ago. She certainly isn’t afraid of me. Not in those eyes.

I don’t see curiosity, but I do see suspicion and who would blame her. I don’t believe she cares what I’m doing there unless I brought something. Food? Water? Not me. Then why would she waste her time wondering about me?

I do see her mouth. Poised to tell hours or days or weeks of stories. Or does silence speak louder than words? Do we just throw whatever she has to say in the bin of endless refugee stories, or do we listen to this one woman’s face? Her story is a thousand times told, but unique only to her. Her story is hers and hers alone. Just like you and me. The difference is that we have outlets. We can search out sympathy, love, people, to share our stories and listen to our sad and happy times.

I believe this refugee from South Sudan has a story who had innocence and happiness once. At some point, she was robbed of all that. She did not choose this. And there are 35 million of her around the world. My point is not to feel bad about the whole thing, just to know about it.

On this day, I was reminded of the refugee pandemic. She found me on this day to tell her story. She loaned me her face so I would know about it.

And despite it all, without a home, she still sang and clapped.

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