How Do You Define Family?

Liberian brothers at the Buduburam Refugee Settlement in Ghana.

A Few Reflections On How We Define “Family”

We had just dropped off my old friend Erik and his unwieldy crew at the airport, when my daughter Eliza let out a dramatic sigh from the back of the minivan.

“It’s pretty much BORING without our cousins!”

Curious, I launched into a lengthy cross-examination to determine why she thought they were our blood relations. She went along with the questioning for a while, mumbling one syllable responses out of the corner of her mouth as she gazed morosely out the window at a long, undulating line of sunflowers. Some kind person, in the interest of beauty, had planted them along the highway.  Now they were more than six feet tall, so large that you could almost see the Fibonacci sequences in their bright spirals. Even from a minivan with a six-year-old pouting in her booster seat in the back.

After several miles of this, Eliza suddenly sucked in air until her cheeks were full.  She then blew it all out, frustration personified.  I watched her in the rearview mirror as she put everything in her small, defiant being into these words:

 “Because!  I just FEEL like they are.”

How do you define family?  Is it common ancestry? Shared experiences?  Mutual commitment? Living in the same household? Common values?  The people you know you can count on for support? The people you know you can get into a knock-down-drag-out fight with but they’ll still love you?  People who you feel deeply connected to even though you rarely see them?  All of the above?  Or none of them at all?

The boys in the photo above are brothers I met at the Buduburam Refugee Settlement in Ghana.   Their mother Kebbeh considers them her sons, although only the oldest is her biological son.   The younger boy and his little brother (not pictured) are her neighbor’s sons.   The neighbor had gone back to Liberia with the first wave of resettled refugees, with the promise  to send for the boys after she got settled. They never heard from her again.   Post-conflict Liberia was dangerous, so they fear the worst.  But they really don’t know what happened to her.   So Kebbeh is raising the boys as her own, feeding and caring for them, sending them to school.  They are family.

When I was in Buduburam, I met a woman called Ma Fatu who ran a cook shop on the main thoroughfare of the camp where many of the refugee-owned businesses were.   The street had no name, of course, but the Liberian refugees called it “Wall Street” because so many financial transactions were made there.  Ma Fatu has a feisty personality.   I think she would have  been equally at home as the proprietor of a saloon in the Wild West or a grogshop in Regency England.  She took a lot of pride in her cooking and in knowing her customers.  She’d eye me critically as I tucked into my jollof rice and say, “I know what you white people like to eat.” Then, the next day, she would dish me up a heaping serving of jollof vermicelli.

I had noticed that there were several young people helping in the cook shop, washing dishes, waiting tables, whatever needed to be done.  It was only on my second trip to Buduburam that someone told me that they were not actually her children.  During the war in Liberia, her husband and her biological children – her entire family – had been killed.  Over the years at Budububuram, she had taken in several young people who had also lost everyone.   In the face of all this loss, Ma Fatu had created a new family.  In a refugee camp – miles from home and without even the possibility of legal recognition – she had forged familial bonds of love and support.

Like every parent, I’ve got a stockpile of my kids’ drawings of our family – stick figures showing Mom and Dad, Brother and Sister.  Sometimes Grandma and Grandpa and/or Cat and Hamster.

When you are young, the definition of family is very narrow and also very immediate.  But as you get older, you develop deeper relationships with people who are not related by blood.  In many ways, you create your own family of the people who give you what you need to flourish.  Like the heliotropic sunflowers, you turn to the light, needing full sun to thrive.  If you don’t, you wither away.

 I’ve had this discussion about the definition of family with a number of my former asylum clients.  Under U.S. immigration law, your family is defined as your spouse (only one – your first spouse), your children by birth or legal adoption, and your parents.  Of course, many people in the world use a broader definition, with half-siblings, cousins, and children adopted without legal recognition counting as immediate family members.

One of my asylum clients once said to me,

“I feel so sorry for you Americans.  Your families are so very small!”

I had never really thought about it that way before.  But I could see her point.

Article 16(3) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that,

“The family is the natural and fundamental unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.”

Back when the UDHR was adopted in 1948, it is doubtful that the drafters envisioned even biracial marriage, much less same-sex marriage and the multiple forms of family that exist today.

But the bigger point, I think, is that no matter how you define “marriage”, the push for the changes in the legal definition has happened because of thousands – maybe millions – of personal decisions by individuals to define their closest relationships as “family”.  The reality is that there is a very human need to live in a family social structure – the natural and fundamental group unit of society.  The law can better accommodate that reality but regardless of what the law says, people – like Kebbeh and Ma Fatu – will create their own families.

Maybe my young  daughter is right. The true definition of family is a very personal one, self-defined by each of us.  The definition of family maybe really IS the people who you feel like are your family.

So I think the real questions for each of us then become:

How do you define your family?

What does your family mean to you? and

Wouldn’t we all be better off if society and the State protected and supported all of our families?

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Weekly Photo Challenge: Sea

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A “legelege” fishing boat rests on the shore of the Atlantic Ocean in Ghana. The sea is very powerful off the coast of Ghana, yet Ghanaian fishermen battle the powerful currents and mighty breakers day after day in their small, wooden boats. They often personalize their boats with inspirational sayings.

“But man is not made for defeat,” he said.

“A man can be destroyed but not defeated. ”

― Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea 

This post is a response to the theme “Sea”.  Follow the link to see more entries in the Weekly Photo Challenge: Sea.

Weekly Photo Challenge: The Sign Says

The WordPress Weekly Photo Challenge: The Sign Says this week hit right smack dab on one of my favorite hobbies.  Wherever I go in the world, I take pictures of interesting signs that I see. Here is a sampling of my collection:

Some are hilarious signs I have spotted in bathrooms.  (And it’s worth noting that I have been accidentally locked in a bathroom on every continent but Australia and Antarctica.)

Question:  To flush or not to flush?

To flush or not to flush?  That is the question.
To flush or not to flush? That is the question.
Kathmandu, Nepal

Answer:  DO NOT FLUSH!  DO NOT FLUSH! PANTHERS IN THE BATHROOM!

IMG_0207
Kathmandu, Nepal

USE THE TRASH CAN FOR ALL PANTHERS! I REPEAT:

Taj Mahal, India (the less glamorous part of the Taj Mahal, that is)
Taj Mahal, India (the less glamorous part of the Taj Mahal, that is)

At times, signs can be very clear and direct.

Dar es Salaam, Tanzania
You do want your clothes to be CLEAN, right?
Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

No Grown Ups! Accra, Ghana

CAUTION!  GROWN UPS!

Accra, Ghana

IMG_0404

Relax.

Minneapolis, MN USA

 Other times?  Well, everyone could use a good editor.

What does this even mean? Zanzibar, Tanzania
What does that even mean?
Zanzibar, Tanzania
Monrovia, Liberia
Monrovia, Liberia
Indira Ghandi Airport Delhi, India
Indira Ghandi Airport
Delhi, India

But my favorite signs are those that inspire me.

Kathmandu, Nepal
In the library of a women’s empowerment organization
Kathmandu, Nepal

 

In the pre-kindergarten classroom of a schoolYaounde, Cameroon
In the pre-kindergarten classroom of a school
Yaounde, Cameroon
Raj Ghat Ghandi Memorial New Delhi, India
Raj Ghat Gandhi Memorial
New Delhi, India
Minneapolis, MN USA
Minneapolis, MN USA

Weekly Photo Challenge: A Parable of Renewal

I practiced asylum law for the first seven years of my career, representing refugees who were fleeing persecution and human rights abuses in their home countries and seeking safety in the U.S.  These are people who are not easy to forget and whose stories shouldn’t be forgotten.  Many of their stories – the details of their lives, their losses, their dreams – have stayed with me over the years.  The remarkable thing about the refugees I have known is not only their ability to survive incomprehensible losses, but also the strength and hope and determination they have to remake their lives in an entirely new country.  To learn new skills, speak new languages, adapt to new cultures.  To me, the refugee experience symbolizes this week’s Photo Challenge theme:  Renewal

 The picture above was taken in Buduburam Refugee Settlement in Ghana, which I visited three times between 2007 and 2010. Buduburam was home for 20 years to more than 30,000 Liberians who fled the bloody conflict in their West African country.  Officially closed this year, Buduburam was a small, bustling Liberian city in the countryside outside of Accra.  Life was hard on the camp, where refugees even had to pay for water to drink and for access to the latrines. To improve their opportunities, many of the refugees at Buduburam enrolled in skills training courses; the photo shows some of classes offered by the New Liberian Women Organization (macrame being one of them, as you can also tell by the colorful plant hangers).  Even in a time of limbo, the refugees at Buduburam were striving for renewal. Those refugees who could afford it sent their children to school as education offers a chance for a new life.

I still hold many former asylum clients in my heart. I’d like to share the story of one refugee family I represented.  For me, it is a parable of renewal.

 James and Julia (not their real names) had been politically active in their native Kenya. Julia, in particular, had been very active in speaking out against an oppressive government.  They had a young son, who I’ll call William, who had huge, solemn eyes.  When the police came to their house to arrest Julia, a police dog bit William on the head. You could still see the jagged scar on his scalp more than a year later when, having left everything they owned behind to escape Kenya, they were seeking legal assistance with their asylum claim in the U.S.  

 In police custody, Julia had been brutally beaten.  She was also repeatedly raped in custody, including with objects such as the muzzle of a rifle and a Coke bottle.  This testimony was critical to the success of their asylum case, so we had worked with Julia to prepare her to tell her full story, with as much accuracy as possible and as many details as she could remember.  “Just tell the truth about as much as you can remember of those weeks,” I urged. We all knew it would be painful.

 Julia testified about her experiences in a straightforward manner and in excruciating detail, but with such poise and dignity that both the asylum officer and I were in tears. Asylum officers are specially trained federal officials who make decisions about asylum cases based on a written application and an in-person interview.  During my time practicing asylum law, I rarely saw an asylum officer actually cry during an asylum interview. 

 I remember well how James sat next to her, utterly still. Not touching her, not looking at her, but supporting her as she spoke. Anguish is the only word that could possibly describe the look on his face as he listened to her testimony.  I had to look away. Even in my role as their attorney, a role which requires a special intimacy, I felt the need to give their family some small space of privacy as they recalled those terrible days.

 Years later, after they got their citizenship, James and Julia had a party to say thank you to all of the people who had helped them. In addition to their attorneys, there were people from their church and other members of the Kenyan community. They now lived in a big, new house out in the suburbs. Julia was close to graduation from nursing school. William, who I hadn’t seen since he was three, was now in middle school.  He was a straight-A student and talented musician who had just gotten braces.  They had another child, too – a daughter born here in America. She was wearing a pink tutu.

It had taken a lot of hard work for James and Julia to get to where they were.  They had experienced many challenges and frustrations with adapting to life in this strange, new country.  But they persisted and, through sheer effort and determination and a bit of creativity, slowly but steadily they moved forward, finding healing for themselves and building a new life for their family.   It wasn’t easy, but James and Julia had managed to make something new out of nothing. 

Talking To My Kids About Death

Pet Graveyard

The recent demise of Fat Stanley was met with far fewer tears than that of Kevin Bacon (the gerbil) and definitely far less anguish than that of Tub-Tub, our first dearly departed rodent pet.  It did however, necessitate a discussion about death with my three children.   The easiest answer to the question “Where is Stanley now?” would have been to describe a dwarf hamster heaven, where Stanley roams freely among a vast surfeit of yogurt treats and well-oiled wheels.  While it was somewhat tempting to give them an easy and soothing answer, I can not  in good conscience pitch that pablum to my kids.  You see, in my line of work, I talk to people about death all the time.

As a human rights lawyer, my job is to document human rights abuses.   So there have been many days over the course of my career when I have asked  people to describe to me in very precise detail how someone they loved died.  In one week alone in 2007, I took statements from more than 45 Liberian refugees at Buduburam Refugee Settlement in Ghana for Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  The very first person I interviewed at Buduburam was a teacher.  The teacher was wearing a pink polo shirt that was remarkably clean and crisp, given the hot, dusty conditions on the camp.  He had come into the Refugee Welfare Office, where we were piloting the interview process, to watch a football match on the TV.  When I asked if he wanted to give a statement, he said, “Sure.  Why not?”

It was late May and the equatorial sun had beat down relentlessly all day long.  As we went into one of the private offices to do the interview, however, a pleasantly cool late afternoon breeze was coming through the barred window.  I discovered later that the location of the camp was very close to the Prime Meridian, as well as  the notional center of the world – 0°, 0°.  The sun sets early and fast near the equator.  As we talked, the shafts of light from the setting sun were low and long, glinting off the gold in his round, wire-framed glasses.

I had an interview protocol to follow and certain biographical data to collect.  We talked about what he did in Liberia, where he had lived.  It was going well.  We established a rapport, buzzing through the facts of his life.  I’ve done many similar interviews with the survivors of human rights abuses. You know immediately when a question is going to cause someone to break down.  But the trigger questions are not always the obvious ones and usually you can only tell as you ask the question.  As you see the pain  in their eyes, the anguish in the lines of their mouth.   The moment I asked the teacher if he had ever been married, I knew.  I knew we would both soon be crying.

People who have experienced trauma and loss often think it is behind them, that they have put it in the past.  But of course, that is never really possible.  The teacher and his fiance were not yet married when the fighting came to Monrovia in July 1990.  When Charles Taylor’s NPFL rebels came to their neighborhood, they separated the men from the women. She talked back.  He yelled for her to hold her tongue, to just cooperate!  He didn’t know if she heard him.  The teacher had been herded into the back of a pick-up truck with other young men.  It was from that vantage point – above and unable to help – that he saw the rebel hit her with the butt of his rifle.  He knocked her to the ground, turned the gun around and shot her.  The whole thing happened fast, so fast.  Then the truck pulled away.

There was much more to his story.  He escaped the rebels eventually, made his way onto a leaky tanker with thousands of other refugees, made it to safety in Ghana.  Got a teaching job and lived in a refugee camp for 17 years.  But those parts of his story came later, after he had wiped the tears from his glasses.  After we took the time to honor the memory of his fiance.  To dedicate his statement to her, so that her story would not be lost among all the others in the terrible Liberian civil war.

As a parent, I know there is a natural impulse to try to shield our children from the sad and terrible details of both life and death.  I believe each parent has to make his or her own decision about what is best for their children, so I am not presuming to give advice.  I do believe in God and the potential of an afterlife, but I have no idea what actually happens after you die.  But I know that bad things – terrible things – happen all the time and, as my kids grow into their tweens and teens, I think I would be doing a disservice to them not to be honest about that.  And I am absolutely certain that, like the teacher, you carry your loved ones in your heart long after they leave this life.  The best thing you can do when you lose someone you love is to keep their memory close and honor them in whatever way you feel is right.

Sometime shortly after my third child was born, I gave up trying to be the perfect parent.  I made peace with the fact that the best I can do is try – try as hard as possible – to do my best.  I stopped obsessively reading parenting books and desperately seeking “expert” advice on how to do things like talk to my kids about serious issues like death.   I started following my own parenting guidestar.  For lack of a better way to put it, I started listening to my gut instincts.

So when my 9 year old son asked me to tell him a story from my work, I looked at him silently for a while as I listened to that little voice inside my head. It was telling  me that he was ready to hear the story of Victoria.

Victoria was the last refugee I interviewed at Buduburam on that trip in 2007.  She was a poised and intelligent young woman who rushed back to the camp from her classes at nursing school in Accra in order to give her statement.  We sat outside, away from the buildings on the edge of the camp, face to face with each other on white plastic chairs set on the hard-packed red dirt.  Victoria’s mother had died when she was young, so as a child in Liberia she had lived alone with her father.  Her story began later than the teacher’s; two civil wars raged in Liberia between 1989 and 2003.  She was only 8 or 9 – the same age as my son – when the fighting reached her house.

Her father told her to hide in the bushes by the side of the house while he went out to talk to the rebels.  She lay on her belly in the bushes, saw the rebels argue with her father.  She watched as they shot him in the head and he fell to the ground, unmoving.  The rebels went into the house and took food and anything of value.  But they didn’t find Victoria in her hiding place and eventually they lit the house on fire and left.   “I didn’t know what to do,” Victoria told me.  “My father never moved so I knew he was dead.  I just didn’t know what to do next.   So I stayed in the bushes, crying, near my father’s body all night.”   The next day, as the sun rose, she kissed her father goodbye and went to a neighbor’s house.  The neighbor brought Victoria with her to Ghana.

After Victoria told me her story and left for her home, I sat for a long time on that white plastic chair, on the edge of a refugee camp near the latitudinal and longitudinal center of the world.  A cool breeze stirred the sweat-damp hair on the back of my neck as the sun sank rapidly. The sunset was brilliant with colors – the muted pink of an impossibly crisp polo shirt, the bright orange of my small son’s hair, the deep purple of a bruise left by a rifle butt.

My son had listened to the story quietly.  I hadn’t been sure how he would react, so it was a surprise when he said.  “That was interesting.  I feel sorry for Victoria.  It is sad that all of that happened to her.  But she found a way to survive without her dad.  The neighbor and other people took care of her.  It kind of makes me less afraid of what would happen if you died.”

The kid makes good point.  One which I hadn’t thought of before I told him about Victoria.   Talking to my kids about death is also talking to them about life and how to live it.

So here’s to you, Fat Stanley.

And to you,  Kevin Bacon.


 

I honor your memory and the time you spent with us.