D. Leiva is the editor of The Body Politic. A former staffer for Republican House Leadership, he now works in international development. D. was born into a family with a rich legacy of full-time ministry.
I am a refugee.
I had never thought of myself as one, but as Syria has delved deeper into civil war and millions have fled their country, I’ve reflected on what I lived through in 1989 and realized a major area of overlap between what happened to me then and what’s happening to people now: we all left our homes to escape violence.
In late 1989 my parents told my older brother and me that we would be taking a trip to Houston, Texas—just the two of us. We were excited. We had been to Houston before, but trips to the United States back then were a luxury, not the norm. As the civil war tore apart El Salvador most families scrambled just to survive, let alone make ends meet or travel. So to have the opportunity to go back to the US after having been there recently felt like hitting jackpot.
My brother and I started to dream about the land of brand-new cars, McDonald's Happy Meals, Coca-Cola and highways. We didn't speak English at the time, but that didn’t deter us from being excited about spending Christmas in the United States.
Several weeks prior to our departure, my parents began to "prep" my brother and me for the trip. They started to teach us how to say certain things in English, and how to use hand signals to communicate in case language failed us. They taught us simple words like "please," and "thank you," and they explained how different things would be.
But on the eve of our trip, my parents did something that I'll never forget to this day. All four of us sat in my dad's home office where he had a boombox and we recorded our conversation on a cassette tape, both sides. In that conversation, my parents talked us through everything they had been teaching us to say in English. But they also reminded us that God would be with us if we got scared.
At the time I wondered why we would talk about being scared. I couldn't imagine how anything about vacation or Christmas could be scary. Nevertheless, Philippians 4:13 is seared into my brain because of that night. I can hear them even to this day telling us that we need not ever be scared because we could do anything through Christ who strengthens us. I repeated after them and believed it in my 7-year-old heart, even if I didn’t understand why in my 7-year-old brain.
We stayed with the Jaegle family—Mr. and Mrs. Jaegle and their sons, Drew and Will. I have nothing but the fondest memories of that Christmas. My brother and I had many experiences I never thought I would ever have: It snowed a couple of inches in Houston that winter—the first time in my life I had ever seen snow, and the first time in decades that Houston got snow. I had also never seen more than one gift with my name on it under a christmas tree. That year I couldn't keep track of how many gifts I opened with my name on them.
I will never forget that Christmas with the Jaegles, because even though neither my brother nor I had ever met them, they opened their home to us and gave two Salvadoran boys a vacation of their little lifetimes.
In 2006, while visiting my parents during Christmas break, I recounted to them the opening scene in the recent movie The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, which shows the Pevensie children being dropped off at a train station during WWII to escape the war. Thinking I was making the type of gross exaggeration for which I am known in my family, I asked my mom if dropping us off at the airport in 1989 felt as dramatic as the movie depicted that parting scene. I fully expected my mom to brush off the comment.
“It was agony,” she told me instead.
For the first time in my life, my parents revealed to me that my mom had to go from the airport straight to the hospital because she had an emotional breakdown.
For the first time in my life, my parents revealed to me that when they dropped us off, they didn't know if they would ever see us again.
At that moment it dawned on me that it was not normal for parents to separate themselves from their children during Christmas. I realized that the tape we recorded wasn't for if fear gripped us for a moment, but for the moment in which we had the worst to fear.
I realized that we weren't on Christmas vacation.
I realized that in 1989, my brother and I had been refugees of a civil war.
The Jaegles weren't close family friends before that. They were just a family from a church that supported my parents as missionaries. Upon learning of my family's situation, they made the sacrificial choice to not just take in my brother and me but to love us as if we were their own. Mrs. Jaegle was well into her third pregnancy, and had two boys under five years of age. One of those boys had a physical disability that required a prosthetic aid and physical therapy, and also broke his arm while playing with my brother and me.
We were nothing short of a massive burden to their everyday lives, yet they opened their lives and home to us.
They didn't send us back.
I think of my experience in 1989 in light of what Syrian families are experiencing in 2015 and I am thankful that Donald Trump wasn't yelling back then that he'd "send them back!" I am thankful that there was a family that took in two civil war refugees despite how inconvenienced they would be. I am thankful that they gave my brother and me a reprieve from the violence back home.
I am thankful that the Jaegles weren't gripped by fear but boldly saw us as neighbors to love as they would themselves.
I pray that for Syrians in 2015 there are other people like the Jaegles in 1989.
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