Merna Hecht working with writers (David Lynch Photo).

Merna Hecht working with writers (David Lynch Photo).

Across globe, islanders work with refugees

This is the second in a series of stories about Vashon connections to the refugee experience. This week highlights three who sought to bring joy and reconciliation to refugees abroad.

Refugees who flee to the safety of camps often find new ordeals there: Boredom, loneliness and cultural conflict.

Three Vashon residents spoke about leaving the island to go to where refugees were facing these ordeals. In bringing small gifts — laughter, poetry, a peaceful soccer game — they saw glimpses of the struggles of refugees worldwide.

Luz Gaxiola: ‘They were ready to celebrate’

As a clown and musician, Luz Gaxiola always adjusts to her audience. Facing a crowd of refugees who had fled violence to live in camps, however, gave her a unique dilemma.

“There’s a classic slapstick routine called ‘dead or alive.’ There was a little concern: Are we going to joke around with dead bodies?” Gaxiola recalled.

“But everybody loved it. It was one of the favorite parts of the show. It ended up being kind of empowered to broach the subject in a silly way.”

During her two trips with Clowns Without Borders in 2015, Gaxiola performed in camps, lines and beaches in Lebanon and the Greek island of Lesbos. She said she often felt a sense of release from her audiences.

“Some of the shows, there was so much pent-up emotion coming out. We had to play some gentle music. It was like the level of excitement could be agitating,” Gaxiola said.

Lebanon was in the process of taking in 1.5 million refugees from the Syrian civil war. In Lesbos, refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Africa and elsewhere were washing up on beaches — once literally in front of Gaxiola’s eyes.

“In Lesbos, I went to the beach by myself one night with my accordion. I just sat and watched for a little bit. Then I saw these rubber boats just emerging out of nowhere,” Gaxiola said.

Aid workers began helping the refugees disembark safely. Eventually, more than 100 people were waiting for a bus to take them to refugee camps.

“I approached the crowd and took out my accordion, and people cheered,” Gaxiola said.

Although she did not know any Afghani accordion tunes, Gaxiola played everything else she knew.

“It was an instant dance party. The men started doing this super-cool Afghani folk dance,” she recalled.

Gaxiola performed in more grim circumstances, such as the Moria refugee camp on Lesbos. Years later, BBC News would call it “the worst refugee camp on earth.” The miseries of intra-camp violence and sheer boredom made the clown shows a welcome relief.

“Most of the kids were just crazy excited that there was some fun thing going on,” Gaxiola said.

“I heard from a volunteer a few weeks later that before the clowns came, all the kids were acting wars. After the clown show, they were playing clowns. They were playing the games that clowns played.”

Jeffrey Gill: ‘People didn’t know who to root for’

The conflicts within Kakuma Refugee Camp in Northern Kenya were all too serious when Jeffrey Gill first visited.

The residents had fled from South Sudan. Having won independence from the Muslim north, the fledgling nation had lapsed into warfare among dozens of tribes. Residents who breached the customs of a rival tribe might find themselves beaten or murdered.

“That kind of stuff was happening regularly in the camp, and the churches weren’t very well prepared to deal with it, Gill said.

An Episcopal priest by trade, Gill had studied conflict resolution at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. So when a group of African clergymen put out a call for help at Kakuma, Gill said he thought, “Maybe I’m supposed to put my hand up and say okay.”

Gill had seen Kakuma when a Kenyan friend had guided him through Africa. This time, given his mission, he was able to raise money to fly leaders from the region into the camp.

Gill helped find a young potential leader in the camp, a member of the Nuer tribe who was willing to cross boundaries. Gill helped fly out a Rwandan colleague who had given the warring Hutus and Tutsis of his nation a taste of peace by playing on mixed-tribe soccer teams.

After Gill had left, Kakuma had its first game on a soccer pitch in a newly-created neutral territory. Each team had members from seven or more tribes.

“People didn’t know who to root for, because there were people they didn’t like very much on the team their nephew was on, or their son. It forced people to sort of shift their thinking about what a team is,” Gill said.

Despite this moment of reconciliation, Gill said his memories bring mixed emotions.

“My heart gets broken again every time I think of the people that are stuck there,” Gill said.

Kakuma is home to many of the Lost Boys of Sudan, many of whom fled Sudan as young boys 20 years ago. Although some came to the U.S., the terrorist attacks of 9/11 shut down the program that might have brought the rest.

“When I was there in 2014, I was meeting men in their late 20s, early 30s who arrived to Kakuma Camp as 5- to 10-year-old boys. They’d been told they had a ticket to the U.S. They’re still waiting,” Gill said.

Merna Hecht: ‘I will have hope’

When Merna Hecht went to Athens to work with immigrant women, she brought third-hand mint from Iran.

Hecht had worked for years collecting and publishing poems from refugee and immigrant students in the Seattle area. Now, facing a group of asylum seekers from many countries, she read out a poem from one of those students, about the mint her grandmother in Iran grew in her garden.

Hecht said the student’s simple memory unlocked sensations of home and family they had lost. During the workshop, they wrote about their suffering in plain terms: “I miss my mother’s food”; “I am longing for my old city”; “The papers are tired of my ink and my tears.”

“I learned from the IRC [International Rescue Committee]: When people from Afghanistan come, the men assimilate. The women are lonely,” Hecht said.

“I think everybody wants to tell their story, they really do.”

Hecht recalled that one Afghani woman’s poem, about losing family and hope, ended with: “I have my children, I came here, I met my sisters in the other women, I live for my children, I will have hope.”

Hecht volunteered in Athens in 2015 with the Greek Forum of Refugees. Hecht also went to Berlin with a program called Pass the Crayon to run theater workshops with refugee children. As a former pediatric nurse and worker in juvenile detention, Hecht has spent years concerned about children facing trauma.

“My hope is in kids, and my despair, my utter despair is: What are we doing, what kind of world are we leaving these kids? The kids at our southern border, not only will they be traumatized for life, but they’ll carry generational trauma for generations to come. It’s heartbreaking,” Hecht said.

All three residents said they felt changed by their experience of aiding refugees overseas.

“It got me to think more in big terms about migration and war and how all of us are interconnected. It has definitely affected me a lot,” Gaxiola said.

“I will spend the rest of my conscious life trying to make sense of, come to terms with, reconcile the complex realities that I experienced,” said Gill. “And yet I’ll fall right into that white-savior kind of mentality and make lots of mistakes in how I do that, too.”

Hecht said her call to work is simple:

“If I wasn’t doing the work, I would be in much worse shape. If I were just hearing this but not doing anything active about it, I would be a mess,” she said.

The three subjects of this article each answered the question: When you think of your work with refugees, what one person comes to your mind first?

Luz Gaxiola

In our first show at Moria camp [on Lesbos Island] … there was a mother holding a small girl, maybe 3 years old, with scratches on her face. The girl was shy at first, burying her face, peeking out occasionally. She peeked out here and there, and as she saw the other children laughing and playing with us, she became more excited. Eventually I got her to crack a smile with my cross-eyed, puff-cheeked funny face. That was it. After that, she was on the ground, running and jumping with the other kids.

The mother’s eyes met mine. She was not smiling, but was present with me. I could see a huge sadness. She was not available for joy, at least not for today.

During the show, the kids laughed with each other like usual. The mother sat behind the crowd, facing sideways, staring off. Later we learned that several of the children in the crowd were hers, and that her husband had died the night before in a shipwreck. I thought about the difficult task she had ahead of her, starting life over in a foreign land, caring for several children. At least we could cheer her children for a while, I thought, and at least there was a time where she could just be with her sadness and know that her children were close, safe and having fun.

Merna Hecht

I did a theater group with refugee kids in Berlin, and some of the kids were so traumatized that it could get pretty chaotic. I noticed there was this girl, this beautiful Syrian child, who was just loving it, she was loving it like it was just all she was ever meant to do. That session went really well.

When I went back the next time to continue the theater games … I don’t speak any languages this little girl speaks, but I could tell she just wanted to do the play again. So I took just a couple of kids over into the corner. Once she got back into the character — which happened to be, in the story, the smallest character who saved everybody — she was transformed.

The next time, I had to say goodbye, and when I had to say goodbye, they literally had to pull us apart. It was so moving.

And then she walked to her door, because the kids live in the refugee center where the groups take place, and she just had her little face looking out of the door until we just couldn’t see each other again.

It was just like: Should I even have come? Does she need another goodbye? I didn’t feel like, “Oh, she likes me so much.” I felt like: Is this the right thing?

Jeffrey Gill

My son went to college at a little liberal arts college in the mountains of East Tennessee called the University of the South. I walked on the campus the first day we took our son there and I saw this big tall drink of water Dinka guy. I knew him immediately. I’d never met him before, but I walked up and introduced myself and I said, “You’re from South Sudan.” He looked at me like, “How did you know that?” And I said, “I bet you’re Dinka, too, aren’t you?” and he said, “Wow, how did you know that?”

He was one of the Lost Boys of Sudan. I did find about an hour to talk to him, and he had the most amazing story. He talked about at the age of 7, as a lost boy, being put in a charge of a group of 50 5- and 6-year-old boys to ration their food. He said he had to ration like one or two kernels of corn off an ear of maize each day for months. They were just digging any root out of the ground they could find.

This is the ordeal that went on for three or four years. They eventually end up in a refugee camp in Ethiopia after two years of wandering in the wilderness, some being eaten by lions, others just dying of starvation … some of them had managed to retain one possession, which would have been a little book or something under their arm.

My friend Martin Mosimbuko said that every time the refugee comes into the camp … they would always ask them one question, the first question was: “What can we do for you?” Martin told me that every single one of those children, the first thing they said is: “I want to go to school.” They didn’t say “I’m hungry” or “I want to pair of shoes.” They wanted to go to school.

Anyway, I saw one of those kids, big 6-foot-5 Dinka guy in school at a very prestigious boy’s college in the U.S. He went on from there to get a master’s at Johns Hopkins and then a doctorate at Oxford. He’s now a minister of finance in South Sudan.

But he said to me, of that four-year ordeal, he said: “I remember every single day.” He remembered every single thing that happened

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