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When the disciples heard Jesus tell them to throw their nets out wider, I wonder if they worried a bit. “We haven’t done that before. What if our nets get caught in some debris we don’t know about? What if we catch fish we don’t know how to prepare? What if no one buys these fish?”

In January, a group from the church I attend went to Fort McCoy, Wisconsin where the United States government had housed several thousand refugees from Afghanistan at the army base. Many groups like ours volunteered there to help the refugees adjust to living in the United States.

We were sponsored by Catholic Charities, and lived in the army base dormitory for the week. When I left for our trip to Fort McCoy, I felt a bit like Jesus was telling me to throw my net out wider. I was a bit anxious. I did not know what to expect. What would I say to people who grew up so differently from me? How would I relate? What would I do?

Truly, my work with the Afghan guests was different from anything else I have ever done. Never before have I felt so connected and so disconnected at the same time.

The volunteers there were assigned to a work center each day. The centers were Recreation, Learning, Women and Children (a social gathering), and Sewing. Because I checked “ability to sew” on my application form, I spent most of my days in the Sewing Center.

The Sewing Centers were set up with 25 numbered machines, various donated models. When the women came, they received a numbered box with basic tools such as scissors, seam ripper, and measuring tape. The box numbers corresponded to their assigned sewing machines.

The Afghan women loved coming to the sewing center, but could only come on their assigned days. They proudly showed their colored tickets, indicating it was their day to come, and headed to the fabric room where each seamstress could choose six yards of fabric each day. They chatted, asking each other if the fabrics matched. Digging deep for the perfect color, the women soon asked me as best they could, “Match? Beautiful? You like this?” And I knew we weren’t that different. These women loved color and pattern just as I did. They wanted approval from their friends and counted me in.

One day I could tell two women were discussing me. I tried to ask what they were talking about. I discovered, with the help of an interpreter, the conversation was about my hair, uncovered (unlike theirs) and much lighter than the hair of anyone they knew. When I showed them pictures of my blonde daughters, they smiled in awe.

Although I thought I might be helping with sewing, most of the Afghan women’s sewing skills far surpassed my own. They did not use patterns, helped each other measure, and simply started cutting. I helped thread machines and bobbins, but seldom answered sewing questions.

Most of the women sewed loose-fitting tunics, but a few chose flowy fabric and sewed more fitted dresses with big skirts and wide sleeves. Some of the women modeled their new clothes, twirling and laughing at the mirror. When the rest of us clapped, they beamed. We connected and felt joy, but the quick, “No photos. Not safe,” reminded me of where we were.

Every afternoon, a few women found a piece of fabric, laid it down on the floor, and knelt to the east and prayed. With respect, I bowed my head and prayed too, asking God to bless these women and their children. I wondered if they prayed for their children daily as I do mine.

When one mom had a hard time sewing because her baby was fussing, I held the little boy who giggled to “The Itsy-Bitsy Spider” and its actions just like my grandchildren do. One day I played with a six-year-old, tossing bean bags into a trash can. She could not speak English, but quickly learned the important phrases, “My turn” and “Your turn.” A seven-year-old boy coming to the center with his mom worked quickly and said, “More, more,” when I wrote math problems for him. He needed to go to school. Another eight-year old boy coaxed me to play foosball, a game I play with hopeless incompetence. He kept telling me my bad shots were just practice. I am quite sure he wanted me to keep playing and feared a severe loss would send me on my way.

I wonder if Jesus also wanted me to cast my net out farther to remind me how trivial my first-world problems really are when compared with the challenges facing the refugees. When I want to complain about an annoying driver, shoes that hurt my feet, recipes that don’t meet my expectations, or the cost of groceries, I want to hold in front of me the stories that broke my heart. One of the young women made a bracelet for me with my name. I keep it at my bedside. I need this reminder to help me remember the stories I heard that week.

One woman who could speak English told me she was a midwife in Afghanistan. She wondered how long she would have to go to school to work as a midwife in our country.

Another one told me how she dreaded the long evenings in the barracks. “We sit and look at the walls.” How I hope and pray she has found a place to live and work. Another woman told me how much she missed the food of her country with unique spices. She wanted to cook.

I remember the young man who left Kabul just three days after his wedding; he was a guard at the airport, working for the military not the Taliban. To ensure his safety, he had to leave without saying goodbye to his wife, his family, and his dogs. I remember the family of eight having a hard time finding placement all together. I think about the little blind girl following her mother everywhere in the sewing center. I pray for the young woman who had been headed to a small village in Afghanistan to visit when her mom told her to go to Kabul instead because it was not safe to come home. She wonders when she will see her mom again. I wonder if the young engineer filling his days playing chess in the recreation center has found a job in his field.

All of the Afghan refugees housed at Fort McCoy have now moved to cities and towns all over the United States. I wonder if they have comfortable places to live. I wonder if they can now cook their own food, send their children to school, and work in jobs using their skills. I plan to remember my time at Fort McCoy and keep casting my net wider.

Header Photo by DoDo PHANTHAMALY on Pexels:

Helen Luhrs

An Iowa woman to the core, Helen Luhrs is a retired high school teacher who lives in the country near Knoxville, Iowa. Helen and Lee have four married daughters, eight grandchildren, a graceful prairie, and a square foot garden.


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