Today’s Strong in the Broken guest post is by Beth Watkins, about sickness, trauma, refugees, and healing.
On our first weekend in Cairo, almost two years ago, it happened the first time. A sudden, extremely painful episode that doubled me over on the floor, unable to speak, vomiting from the pain.
We went to several doctors, had several tests done, and they all told me the tests were clear. Every couple of weeks, it would happen again, and leave me sore and tired for days. More doctors, more tests, more of everyone telling me I was fine.
We were working at an organization assisting refugees out of the church. It was a stressful, demanding job, managing a multi-cultural team and overseeing job training and placement services, and the adult education program. Working with vulnerable people and with people from multiple countries and cultures is challenging.
The season in life prior had been no bowl of cherries, either. In the previous four years overseas I’d been robbed, had a house fire, was interrogated in a second language and eventually expelled from my first desert home. I had to be evacuated from a warzone the same year, returned, got married, travelled constantly for nine months, and then…Cairo. The stress and trauma of the last few years finally caught up.
After a year of the pain attacks, my British husband and I decided we had to move back to the US. So we began the long, expensive, stressful, and uncertain process of applying for his permanent American residency.
From there, it was one month, one week, one day at a time.
I was exhausted all the time, stressed all the time, and in pain part of the time. I was anxious for our refugee friends, worried about my weakening body, and terrified we’d be stuck in Egypt longer than planned. I’d cry myself to sleep at night over negative changes at the organization for our refugee coworkers, while not knowing if I was doing lasting damage to myself by just being there.
I wanted to stay and fight for my vulnerable friends. And I wanted desperately to leave and not feel stuck anymore in a place where I was feeling weaker and more damaged by the day.
I was only working three days a week, and sometimes barely managing that. But in those three days a week, I was able to do more than I ever thought possible. I fought for our refugee coworkers to have equal rights. I quadrupled enrollment in our adult education program. I created new jobs, and rewrote contracts for those jobs to protect the rights of refugee workers. I worked with other organizations in the city to coordinate services, and held new workshops for HIV+ women. In a country where relationship is everything, as much as I could I sat with people, asked about their families, shared my snacks, helped in menial tasks that weren’t mine to do, and tried to make everyone feel important.
Somehow, in my two weakest years overseas, working the least hours in a week in any other season in my life, I managed to contribute more and grow more than during any other time in my life.
It took eleven months of bureaucracy and endless mountains of paperwork to get the green card. We left Cairo for good six days after we had it in hand.
We are still searching for answers, and my health still has a long way to go to get better. The anxiety has decreased. The pain is lessening. For the first time in almost two years I feel as though I’m getting stronger, and not weaker. But I have been told by doctors and counselors that I won’t recover my capacity for at least a year, and maybe never. I am still sick, but no longer stuck. And I am grateful.
All the while, in the back of my mind, are the refugee friends we left – some of them struggling with worse illness then mine – who have no outs or options. While I am back in my home country, they are in a country without welcome.
And I’m sick over the fact that they are still stuck.