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McCallum: Asylum Seekers

In the darkened theater we followed an Afghan woman as she escaped her burning village with nine children, carrying a fifty-pound sack of flour on her head while trudging through deep mountain snows. A father and young daughter in Burundi, whose land and home had been destroyed, walked across borders to overcrowded windswept refugee camps, only to journey on again, and yet again, in relentless heat.

A Salvadoran boy traveled alone to the United States to escape violence, while an unmarried Syrian man with an engineering degree, fleeing war and destruction, was denied asylum. When he slumped, defeated, against a locked metal fence, we felt his heartache and despair. Never mind that he was just a puppet - made of wood, paper, cloth and strings.

It was a recent performance by Vermont’s Sandglass Theater, titled Babylon, exploring real stories of refugees through puppetry and music. I was part of the audience that left filled with emotion and hungry for a deeper understanding of what it means to be a refugee… asylum seeker… immigrant.

A 2016 plan to accept one hundred Syrian refugees in Rutland has divided its citizens. With nearly five million Syrians fleeing their war-torn nation and another six million at peril internally, welcoming a mere one hundred hardly seemed enough to change the outcome of Rutland’s last mayoral election - but it did. Then came the presidential order reducing the overall number of refugees allowed to come here, and putting the work of Vermont’s Refugee Resettlement Program at risk.

But it’s now been announced that at least a few more Syrian families may join the two already settled in Rutland, where they’ll have other Syrians with whom to share their traumatic stories of terror, flight and loss as they work to rebuild their lives in a place foreign to them in every way.

There are approximately sixty-five million refugees worldwide. Every day we read about them streaming across borders hoping to stay alive, so we get crisis fatigue because it’s hard to stay attentive to so much pain.

But moved by the potent artistry and power of theater, I’m still thinking about that Afghan woman, how she carried a fifty-pound sack of flour to feed her children as they fled to safety, and how one of her children is safe today - and living in Vermont.

Mary McCallum is a freelance writer and former prison librarian who now works with Vermont elders.
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