My last 2 weeks in the land of sand I went to the centers almost every day and spent as much time as I could with my community there. It was a hard, beautiful time, and I am so grateful for each moment I was able to spend with the people I love there. We played games, watched tv, and drew. I had some really great conversations with the boys. About faith, trust, and important things in life–the doors opened for me to say the things I wanted them to know.
Getting to spend several hours with them every day for several days in a row was an absolute joy. Well…while it was indeed a joy, really it was bittersweet. I knew by now that my days were numbered, that an end to my time there was imminent. (Whether temporary or not I didn’t know then and still don’t know now, but knew that permanence was a possibility). So I was joyful to be with them, but there were many moments that I would fight back tears, however unsuccessfully sometimes, knowing what was coming. They told me not to be sad. And probably thought I was a little silly. But a good friend told me that it’s probably really good for these boys to see someone upset to leave them. So many people have let these boys down in their lives, so many have left them. It is probably a very good thing for them to see that I care for them so much that I can’t contain my sadness about leaving.
One way I show people my love is cooking for them. So I baked for the boys almost every day, which they really enjoyed. I cooked lunch for all of them one of my last days. It was a downright joyous day—one I’ll always remember. I played soccer with them for a little while then I got underway in the kitchen. Working with a huge pot and one gas burner I worked on making a stew. I had curious heads popping in and out the whole time I was cooking. When the director got there in the early afternoon he walked in the center, and without knowing I was in there cooking, asked one of the boys what smelled good. J T, who I talked about here, stayed in there keeping me company basically the whole time I was cooking. It was sweet. We played games on my phone and chatted about all sorts of things like our fears and how Jesus put others before himself. I tried to teach him and another boy some yoga poses…with little success. Oh, it was so fun.
Asbuur (here, here, and here) who is ornery and talented and lazy, whom I just adore, came in to return my mp3 player that he had been borrowing that afternoon. He half-jokingly said that I should let him keep my mp3 player to remember me. I laughed and said “What, you won’t remember me if I don’t give you my mp3 player?” His face got really serious and he said, “No, no, no. I will not forget you.” A little while later he came back in and said “Don’t forget us, Bess. We will not forget you.” My eyes got watery (of course) and I told him that was impossible–I would never, ever forget them. A couple of boys were in the kitchen with me and told me how much they would miss me. I said I would miss them so much too. Sigh. And I do.
Lunch went over well. I accidentally made way too much. I have no idea how to gauge the appetites of 30 growing boys plus teachers. They thought this was hilarious, this huge quantity of food. But the boys ate with gusto, and all of them until they were full, which they don’t always get to do.
I ended up flying out several days earlier than I had originally planned. It wasn’t safe for me to stay and the day I got my passport back I switch my flight and flew that night, after no small amount of anxiety about being further detained at the airport and prevented from flying. (Do you know the song “Whom Shall I Fear? [God of the Angel Armies]” by Chris Tomlin? This was one of my ‘anthems’ during these couple of weeks, and that day specifically.)
Anyway, so that day was bonkers. By the grace of God I was able to get done almost all that I’d hoped to. The week prior I’d already gotten in a proper sort of goodbye with the boys at the younger center. It was very important for me to get a proper goodbye with the older boys, too. After a rather frantic morning and afternoon, in the late afternoon I made my way there praying the whole time that all of the boys would be there, which never happens. There are almost always a few out and about doing whatever. But on this day, glory hallelujah, they were all there. There were tears in my eyes as I told them I was traveling that evening. They said that they will miss me. That the Lord is with me. That I will go and return with peace.
Earlier that week I had gotten a bunch of pictures printed out for each of them. They are always bugging me for copies of pictures, and I wanted them to each have a couple as a sort of goodbye present. I didn’t choose the most orderly manner of handing the pictures out. I basically said “I have pictures for you, go for it,” and handed them the pile. At this point I was going on like 4 hours of sleep in like the last 40 hours or something crazy, so I didn’t have the patience to be organized about it. So I sat back and let the chaos ensue.
A few of the pictures were from a few days prior when I cooked lunch for them. I overheard one of the boys who wasn’t there that day ask two of the boys that were about the picture. One said that I cooked for them and said how good it was. And T, who sat with me in the kitchen, said that they all had full stomachs that day and that it was a “yoom jamiil”—a beautiful day. To hear him say that with such sincerity was a gift. To help give some of these boys a beautiful day in life, even just to be part of it; I feel like I don’t deserve that sort of grace.
Shortly after I asked one of the teachers to ring the bell and gather the boys so I could say a few things. I tried to keep it together while the teacher said some nice things. Thanking me for being there with them and assuring me that I would be back. With tears quietly sliding down my cheeks I told the boys that, as they knew, the government had closed my language school and that I needed to leave. I told them I didn’t want to. That they are the reason I came to this country, and they are the reason I want to stay. I told them that they are my brothers and I will do everything I can to try to come back. In case that can’t happen, that I will never, ever forget them–that each of them is in my heart forever. I told them how much God loves them and never to forget it. He is the most important thing in life.
The teacher asked for one boy to volunteer to say a few words. T thanked me and said they are sad for me to leave. He said how much they appreciated what I taught them and the things we did and some other nice things. Then I asked for us all to get a group picture. Which turned into an hour long photo shoot. The boys took turns with my camera and directed me and the other boys accordingly. We got several group shots. Then they each got individual shots with me. They got creative with some of the poses (as opposed to the usual standing there with a serious face and making gang signs with their hands.) They even got out hats for us to pose with. I was laughing and they were laughing and it was wonderful. During the prolific picture taking some of them felt comfortable enough to put their hand on my shoulder. It was harmless, and somehow comforting. I am their sister, after all.
It was the perfect, perfect good bye situation. I said all the things to the boys that I wanted to and we went out with laughter. I shook all of their hands, said “Ma’salaama” (go with peace) and left smiling, at peace, with so much thankfulness in my heart.
I walked the short distance to a friend’s house, listening to Meredith Andrews on my headphones sing “Even when I can’t see what’s in front of me, I will trust in the name of the Lord.” Crying tears of joy/sadness/exhaustion behind my sunglasses and praising God for my time in the land of sand, even if it was coming to a close much sooner than I ever hoped or expected.
I spent my last few hours with my support community. People who have loved me, taken care of me, and let me be a part of their families. People that I couldn’t have coped without. Much laugher and tears, those last few days. Too many goodbyes.
I suppose it’s a blessing that I’ve built such good relationships, that I have loved the people there so much, that I have been so broken for this land, that it hurts to leave. I keep reminding myself that God loves these boys more than I do. That he can take better care of them than I ever could. My heart aches, it longs, to return. And I am hoping I can someday. Until then I shall continue to follow as he leads. Take this furlough time to reconnect with people, refuel, and get ready for whatever Arabic speaking land awaits me next. Hoping it is a return and not a restart…but the Lord goes before. Continue to pray for the people there. …Things are only getting worse.
“This is the Blessed Life—not anxious to see far in front, not careful about the next step, not eager to choose the path, nor weighted with the heavy responsibilities of the future, but quietly following behind the Shepard, one step at a time.” C. E. Cowman