Saturday, July 13, 2013

the pen is mightier than the sword

During seminary, I worked at a summer school program for recent refugee kids. Technically, the program was funded by local and state offices of commerce, designed to train new American teenagers how to succeed in the workplace and become good citizens. They learned math, English, and job skills. We traveled around Atlanta several days a week, working in urban gardens and food pantries, field tripping on MARTA. The kids were paid for their time with us, and while it was definitely funded as an exercise in patriotism-building, the reality was more in line with the CPACS (the Center for Pan-Asian Community Services) motto: "People need people." It was FUN. The kids were from all over the world - Africa, Asia, the Middle East. Since the program was housed in  the facility of CPACS, and all the other summer staff were of either Asian or African-American descent, I was almost always the only white person in the building. Talk about cross-cultural credit.

One trio of sisters were in the program both summers that I worked there. Originally from Afghanistan, they had fled to Pakistan when their father was killed by the Taliban. I'm not sure of the timeline or the details of their lives before they arrived in the US, but they did tell me that at ages 14, 16 and 18, those summer school sessions were the very first time they had ever stepped foot in a classroom. These gentle, curious, smiling girls had never before been to school. They had spent their childhood working, instead, in textile factories.

Intellectually, I knew that kids didn't always get to go to school. I knew about child labor and the idea of refugee peoples always on the move. But until I met these beautiful girls - who would hang on my every word in the classroom, who wrote me cards of gratitude for teaching them simple multiplication, who soaked up every English lesson as if they were imprinting it on their hearts - the reality of girls being denied education was not something I had known. And it broke my heart. Of all things to be denied: School! The pleasures of reading, the joy of discovery, the realization that the world is vast and fascinating and infinitely mysterious - that they were forbidden from learning these things just because they were girls makes my blood boil.

I have no idea what those girls are up to, now. But I am grateful to them for sharing their stories with me. Those refugee kids were full up with emotion and determination, reminding me that life is a thing to be LIVED.

Yesterday, Malala Yousafzai gave a speech at the United Nations. Last year, Malala was shot in the head by the Taliban for attending school and advocating for girls' education. She made a full recovery, and picked up right where she had left off. "The terrorists thought that they would change our aims and stop our ambitions," she said, "but nothing changed in my life except this: Weakness, fear and hopelessness died. Strength, power and courage was born." Here's Malala's speech in full. It's 17 minutes long. Watch it.

Compulsory, free education for all boys and girls - even the sons and daughters of the Taliban. This is courage and grace, and redemption. It is God's upside down kingdom breaking through. I am thinking about Malala this morning, and all those refugee kids in Atlanta, and some refugee kids I know now, and a friend's school in rural Ghana, and all the teachers the world over who spend their days practicing Malala's "one child, one teacher, one book, one pen" rule: that something as simple as this can indeed change the world.

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May it be so.


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