Two summers ago, as the news was full of almost daily coverage of refugees on boats hoping to make it to Greece, I was asked to meet with a man who needed help.
His name was Fiaz, and he told me about the night that he, his wife, and two daughters stood on the shore in Turkey and watched the boats approach. The flashlights were weak and the waves crashing on the rocks were strong. With the crowd pressing on all sides, he scooped up his little girls and called to his wife to follow.
Only when they had pushed away from the shore did Fiaz discover that she had not made it on board. There were other boats, he told himself. His wife would be on one of them.
He searched for her as soon as they landed. Nothing. He scoured the beach. Nothing. He waited as long as he could, but his girls were cold, terrified, and needed to get somewhere warm.
In the end, it took nine months for Fiaz to learn his wife had fallen down in the crush to climb on board. She had drowned right there, just a few feet away from him. She was twenty-three.
To be a refugee is to know pain, but not just the pain of making such a dangerous journey. There’s the pain of accepting that there is no future for you in your homeland. The pain of leaving all that is familiar - your family, your culture, your language. The pain of tearing yourself away from the old and forcing yourself to change into someone new.
I’m a refugee too. I was still a teenager living in Iran when my first husband died. My second husband abused me and my son. And when I had to flee the country to escape the regime, I was forced to decide which of my two children I would leave behind. I spent four months in a Turkish jail, fought for years to be reunited with my son, and endured more than a decade of sustained physical abuse and the hands of my husband. My life was full of sorrow, and more than once I wanted to die.
But pain is not the only thing I’ve learned about as a refugee. I’ve learned to my surprise that there are reserves of strength in each of us, and that there is always the chance of a new start. I’ve learned never to lose hope, that love is far better fuel than anger and that patience isn’t just a virtue, it’s as vital as the air we breath. And I’ve learned that without forgiveness there is no peace.
Refugees must look forward, not back. Isolation and loneliness are toxic to the soul. Refugees must look forward, not back.
Perhaps this is biggest lesson of – one that is true for all of us, whether we’re refugees or not. Life is ahead of us, not behind.
Annahita Parsan is an ordained minister in the Church of Sweden and leads two congregations, one of which ministers to the growing number of former Muslim refugees. Her memoir, Stranger No More, A Muslim Refugee’s Story of Harrowing Escape, Miraculous Rescue, and the Quiet Call of Jesus is now available on Amazon and wherever books are sold.