Refugees Don’t Have the Luxury of ‘Being Present’

Be present


Be here.

With the ringing in of a new year comes the inevitable promises we make to ourselves, to be different, to be better. Many choose a single word or phrase to focus attention throughout the year ahead—a minefield full of distractions just waiting to derail us from our best-laid plans.

“Be present.” It’s a phrase dotted across social media channels this week, in both simple text and beautifully designed graphics perfect for posting our intentions to the world. “Be present” is a rallying cry to step away from complicated lives and things that can’t be controlled, and instead to be rooted in now, and what is in our own hands to do.

The baby sweaters Shireen leveraged into owning a shop. Photo by Erin Wilson/Preemptive Love Coalition.

Choosing to “be present” isn’t a bad thing.

But it is a luxury. An utterly normal luxury.

“We don’t have a vision for the future, that it will be this, and the next year we will do this…” Shireen pauses for a minute. We’re a group of women sitting together in a tiny concrete block home in a camp for Syrian refugees.

“Before, when we were in Syria, we thought about our future…how it would be, and how we wanted it to be for our children.” Before civil war picked Syria apart at the seams, Shireen and her friends were just like us, with faces turned to the future. Displacement and death changed that. Instead of working towards future dreams for her family, Shireen had to stay laser-focused on working to survive each day.

“I want to live today, and I want to live tomorrow,” Shireen says. “The day after tomorrow…we will think about it when it comes.” Shireen doesn’t use figurative language—she literally wants to live today, and she wants that for her family.

Shireen didn’t choose to “be present”. War chose it for her when it stripped her of all other options.

The baby sweaters Shireen leveraged into owning a shop. Photo by Erin Wilson/Preemptive Love Coalition.

Knitting is one of those pursuits that makes it easy to choose to be present to the moment. With time, attention, and a series of repeated motions, a single strand of yarn can be made into a garment. Some knit while watching a movie, or while watching their children play. Shireen knits any chance she gets. When breakfast has been eaten, the dishes done, and her children go off to school, Shireen picks up her knitting needles and begins to add rows to her work in progress.

Last year Shireen knit a number of baby-sized sweaters that we offer for sale in our shop. It was good work that helped her keep her family fed and clothed. Knitting is a seasonal business though. Shireen knew that she needed to make her knitting business into a springboard to something more stable.

Shireen’s sister has a small shop in the refugee camp where they both live. She carries new clothes and blankets for children, and scarves and fabric for moms to sew dresses for themselves.  The shop has developed a good reputation for carrying what neighborhood women need, at good prices.

It’s expensive for families to take taxis from the refugee camp to the city for shopping—just too expensive for most. Adding the cost of a taxi ride to the price of a warm baby blanket, for example, means most families would need to make do without the baby blanket.

Through the profits Shireen earned from knitting baby sweaters–keeping babies around the world warm–she was able to become a partner in her sister’s shop, and to help keep babies in her own neighborhood warm!

Warm winter clothes ready to be purchased. Photo by Erin Wilson/Preemptive Love Coalition.

Shireen purchased fresh winter stock for the store she now shares with her sister. She brought in sweatshirts and thick sweatpants, jeans and hats—the exact goods that their neighbors want to buy during the cold winter months.

Shireen was able to buy into an established business with an existing customer base and a good reputation, which provided immediate returns on her investment. Her sister was able to expand her business with someone she trusts. It was a great opportunity for both!

“I wish everyone outside could understand that the only thing we ask for is peace. I want to have peace for our family, for our friends, in order that we can return home,” Shireen says hopefully.

“Even here…Iraq is our home, and we are all one family, but…still, we wish to return.” With a new, stable source of income, Shireen is beginning to glimpse the future again. Instead of being focused on each day as it comes, she’s beginning to dream for a day when she is able to take her children home.

Investing in a business is helping Shireen to move to the place where she has the choice to “be present”.

It will be a luxury. An utterly normal luxury.

Support women like Shireen, women creating a new future for themselves and their families.