Forgiving Our Fathers

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My father has big, warm hands. He gives the best bear hugs against his belly and beneath the stern appearance is a soft heart with his family at the centre of it. His narrow eyes are bordered by dark circles testament of his tireless working and wrinkles have amplified them. Miles away from home, some nights when I close my eyes, I can still hear his voice, trace the features of his tired face and feel the firmness of his forearm. I can still hear his heartbeat against his chest and I can still see the single teardrop shed as we hugged at the airport bidding farewell. This piece is a dedication to my father along with millions of others around the world, who find themselves frantically trying to fill the shoes of a father from the time his first child is born.

My father has taught me some of the most valuable lessons in life. Amongst which, is the lesson to love one’s family deeply. Etched in my heart by countless conversations we’ve had, I can almost hear the exact cadence with which he says “always do your humanly best” and “start from home first”. My father has dedicated his whole life to protecting his children and loving his wife: an ordinary man with an extraordinary heart for his family. The nights he would stay over at his workplace instead of returning home and the weekends he was absent were mysterious patterns that once caused confusion, sometimes anger. Even in his presence, most days he was too tired to ask about my day. I had questions with no answers, “Why work so hard?”, “Are you really listening?”, “Why do I barely see you?”, “How come you don’t say ‘I love you’?” Growing up, more and more answers are found and the confusion has been replaced by clarity. The answer is love.

The alluring adventure of the world beyond my father’s embrace distracted me over and over again from the relentless love of my father, who still, always, had his concerned gaze fixated on me and his tired arms stretched out to welcome me home every time. His love that awaits patiently for me to understand, awaits patiently for me to get over my tantrums, for me to find the words I am looking for. His love waits. His love that pursues endlessly even if I am always ten steps ahead stumbling and tripping – from my baby steps as a child to the ones I take now, as a young adult venturing into the wilderness. The answer has always been love.

Our imperfect relationship falls short often – our temperaments are match-made for combustion, manifesting themselves in heated conversations where we both forget to breathe. We have unintentionally hurt each other numerous times in the process and I live with these memories I cannot seem to forget. The fallibility of our fathers are often mistaken for the absence of love but I am learning that the fallibility is inherent to our nature, and if anything, the times we fall short are evidence of effort. The failures are there because of the trying, and we try because we love. Sometimes, those who love you most can also hurt you most (unintentionally). I have been trying to forget for a long time now, but I cannot.

This father’s day, I have a new proposal – to forgive. There are things we never forget, but forgiveness offers another way out. To forgive is to absorb all the debt and wrongs, to forgo the consolation of plotting revenge and it is a form of suffering. Forgiveness is mistakenly associated with weakness because it feels like we are ‘letting it slide’, we are ‘not holding people accountable’ or ‘not standing up for ourselves’; but truly, forgiveness is a tall order that we find challenging. Forgiveness is not forgetting, forgiveness is saying, “what happened was real, the hurt was real, but our relationship is more important”. It is choosing love in spite of our sense of injustice, our memories of hurt and anger, our reflexive defensiveness. In spite of it all, because of love. It is choosing love: to love and be loved. Here’s the challenge for us sons and daughters – to confront the hurt you have preserved over time, forgive yourselves and forgive those who’ve inflicted the hurt. And to all Singaporean fathers, Happy Father’s Day!

Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. [Colossians 3:13, NLT]

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The Ration Challenge

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In Refugee Awareness Week (18-25 June), the Act for Peace Ration Challenge sees over 10,000 Australians come together to take rations that Syrian refugees in Jordan take, while actively raising awareness and funds to support the work of Act for Peace in the refugee crisis. This includes the provision of medical facilities, education support and food rations. The challenge organiser (Act for Peace) provides the rations that we eat – no meat, no coffee, no alcohol. This is not just about the dietary cravings dismissed or the privilege of choice forgone, it is an act of solidarity and a step forth towards peace. This piece is a pre-challenge reflection of my intentions of being a ‘ration challenger’. 

Compassion: We Are Family

Martin Luther King Jr once said, “We must learn to live together as brothers and sisters, or we will perish together as fools.” History has shown us over and over, how our trivial differences can distract us from our fundamental similarities – the wars fought, conflicts arisen; then, the countless apologies made and stories retold. The blemishes in the chapters of our past, each affirming that our differences in skin colour, languages spoken or geographic locality are but trivial differences. Fundamentally, we were created the same. The same human body, same human brain, same human heart; the same human frailties and vulnerabilities.

In the end, we are all members of the big human family and each of us, brothers and sisters. Arriving in Sydney as an international student, I have found home and love from individuals who were strangers less than 4 months ago. The depth of our relationships testament to our underlying humanity that connects us regardless of where we’ve grown up and the accent that coats our tongue.

Then, the refugee crisis is not a problem of ‘theirs’ or ‘ours’. There is no blame game or pointing fingers; it is collectively, a reality of the human family of which we are all a part.

Love: The Covenant

Growing up, as I learnt about more and more of the evil and suffering in this world, I found myself wanting so often to cower in the corner of ignorance. Like a child afraid of the dark covering her eyes with her hands, I preferred the view through the veil of oblivion – the thought of confronting these unsettling crises made me shrivel from helplessness. ‘Unnecessary,’ I thought. Time and again though, blessed with the courage lent by inspiring individuals each fighting important battles, I learned that the veil of oblivion might have protected me from the helplessness of confronting suffering, but it also shielded off the deep sense of hope that we need to feel to be truly, truly alive.

It is in darkness, that we find light; we can’t have one without the other. If you are, like I was, struggling with the fear of confronting evil and suffering in this world, I promise you that in the instant you lift the veil and delve in the darkness, you will simultaneously find light. There is a light that exists in each one of us, in every person – a God-given capacity to love. Without being taught or directed, we have an innate ability to care for a fellow human being, to cringe on the inside when we see a frail old man struggling to cross the road or to experience pain when we see someone else hurt. We were each made with that light in us, a light that calls us to love.

Gratitude: We Are Entitled To Nothing

This time last year, I stumbled into a Refugee Awareness Week event in Singapore where I was first introduced to the reality that the poorest nations in the world were paradoxically, the ones resettling the most refugees. It is as if the more we have, the more we earn, the less willing we are to give and share.  The more we possess materially, the less we embody as human beings. Sure, we are a product of the society that believes our nature is red in tooth and claw harnessing our defensive inclinations. We are holding onto our privilege, clinging on to save ourselves but from what? What are we trying so hard to protect by closing our eyes, hardening our hearts?

As we live our lives of impermanence, it is tempting to accumulate material treasures given the illusion of perfection – have that perfect job, perfect suit and tie, perfect family and somehow, maybe, then, that perfect life. We ask little meaningful questions about the beginning and the end, as if we have no concept of our finite time of existence. We never ask, “How did I come to be this privileged person in this safe country and not a refugee running away from home?” or “What is it that amounts to something in my final breath? What lasts?”

Three things will last forever – faith, hope and love – and the greatest of these is love. [1 Corinthians 13:13, NLT] Perhaps, we could maintain our privileged positions in oblivion and come up with defensive reasons not to give, we could come up with an endless list of things we need to protect; but without love, we are nothing.

Step out of oblivion with me today. A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step, I dedicate this to the Empathy Taskforce that taught me the courage to be ever ready to make someone else’s reality my own in recognition that we are family; and to the God I’ve recently found who challenges me over and over to be a better person for His glory.

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If Home Was Safe

Joie de Vivre is the name of the University of Sydney’s Cumberland campus food court, and French for “a cheerful enjoyment in life”. Mornings here are characterised by the radio in the background accompanied by familiar sounds from the coffee machine; there are morning-goers interspersed across the separate varnished wooden tables, on grey chairs. Most of us, MacBook users and coffee drinkers. The whiff of caffeine blankets us and the sunshine streams in as if to greet us. Joie de vivre, absolument. What comfort we each immerse in, with no worry about tomorrow – no need to ask ourselves ‘will I live to tomorrow if I stay here’, ‘must I run away to keep my family safe’ and ‘if I run, where else could be home’, ‘if I plead to strangers for love and mercy, will I receive’.

This piece is about those who ask these daily questions at every waking moment, those who must answer these questions for themselves and for their families. For those whose struggle daily is about survival: not the sort of ‘survival’ we worry about concerning our professions or grades or climbing the ladder of ‘perfection’, but the sort of ‘survival’ concerning wading of oceans to avoid deadness.

There are 60 million displaced people in the world in the minute. There are myths surrounding these statistics that we, in a privileged position of safety and security, have the responsibility to unpack truth about. Only then, can we make informed decisions that have tantamount impact on vulnerable human lives. Allow me to take apart just one that I’ve commonly uncovered in my conversations:

At least seven migrants drowned after the heavily overcrowded boat they were sailing on overturned on May 25 CREDIT- AFP

At least seven migrants drowned after the heavily overcrowded boat they were sailing on overturned on May 25 CREDIT- AFP

MYTH | “If we stop the boats (of refugees) from entering the country, we dissuade people from getting on boats in the first place and risking their lives. We keep them safe.”

What is true – Refugees do die at sea.

The journeys are treacherous and the conditions on these boats have poor hygiene and sanitation; there have been reports of violence on board these boats (including sexual violence) especially for boats that drift at sea for long durations of time. In the first half of last year alone, at least 2,500 refugees died trying to cross the Mediterranean to get to Europe.

When we consider this option in isolation, it does seem dangerous and one cannot fathom why such an absurd decision is made. The myth itself is premised on the assumption that the decision to leave one’s home and get on a boat with one’s family is a “choice”. The reality is that for any refugee, one has to consider his/her situation in whole and compare the options relative to one another – the country mired in conflict and physical threats to survival or the waters toward other possibilities.

What is not true – Our policies that turn boats around back to where they came does not stop the boats. Quite the contrary, stopping the boats does not keep the refugees any safer and instead, places them in a position of greater vulnerability to danger.

When boats are turned around, they are chased back to sea, where they are vulnerable to extreme weather conditions, piracy, kidnapping and violence. The ‘deterrence approach’ has abandoned refugees to their fate. When the refugees literally run away in desperation, reach their hands out to us for help and beg on their knees for mercy, we say, “No. Stay where you are.” Refugees being turned away from Australia end up in Southeast Asian countries and the numbers of asylum seekers in the poorest countries in the region are increasing dramatically.

As ongoing conflicts systematically destroy the homes of many, imagine the desperation and despair that accompanies the radical decision to leave behind all of home and get on a boat that never turns back. Photographer Brian Sokol and poet Jenifer Toksvig’s work brings the first-hand testimonies of refugees all over the world – in the eventual poem ‘What They Took With Them’, items that refugees mentioned were “national flag” and “house keys”. Who doesn’t want to stay home?

Who doesn’t want to stay home if home was safe.

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A young girl crowds with other asylum seekers under a tarp while making the three-day boat journey from Indonesia to Australia in 2013. Soon after this photo was taken, the Australian Navy took the passengers to Christmas Island and eventually on to Papua New Guinea and Nauru. © Joel van Houdt / Hollandse Hoogte

Here’s my call to action. The first Indigenous Australians arrived on boats; then, in 1788, colonial masters from Britain arrived in boats. Today, ‘the boat people’ is part of everyday language to refer to refugees seeking asylum in other countries after fleeing their own. The tragedy of 59.5 million refugees in the world together struggling in-between, paying the human cost for our apathy and self-interest is a reality we can’t ignore – it is the ongoing act that will become history. There is always something you can do; start where you are and do what you can.

I am on a month-long journey to lend my voice to those who go unheard, forgotten. In the lead-up to Refugee Awareness Week (18-25 June 2017), I will be raising funds for the refugee support efforts in Jordan. Syria refugees will be provided with education, medical services and ration packs amongst other necessities with funds raised at bit.ly/sherms4refugees. For those who, too, deserve joie de vivre.

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