Small Reaches for Hope

I will never forget those faces. Wide-eyed. Frightened. Refik, age 8, and his 5-year-old sister, Zineta, had begun their long journey by boarding a bus in Zagreb with their parents some 20 hours before. They rode to Vienna, where they took a plane to Frankfurt, then on to New York, and finally to Atlanta.

The weariness and strain were evident on the faces of their parents. Their father wore a badge identifying the family as refugees. Traveling with them was a mother and daughter who had lost all their other family members—a husband and two sons killed back home in Bosnia.

Members of Jubilee Partners, a community in rural, northeast Georgia, were meeting them at the airport—as they had welcomed so many strangers before into their life for a time. I was visiting the community when the two families arrived.

A translator asked gentle questions, while the other adults rushed to collect an array of baggage from a moving carousel. Announcements blared through the busy terminal, and local Atlantans stopped and stared in curiosity before hurrying by.

I kept an eye on Refik and Zineta as they edged barely noticed to the back of the crowd. Alone, in their own little corner, Refik reached out and took Zineta’s hand. Their eyes stared straight ahead, and they exchanged no words; but his gesture was one of protection and reassurance.

IN THOSE EYES, I saw other children. Refik’s simple, loving reach carried me back to a day just breaking in Nicaragua, when mist hung low on simple crosses stuck in thick grass in the border town of Jalapa. In that place, surrounded by martyrs of Nicaragua’s long struggle for freedom, I heard a giggle break the stillness.

A young girl appeared, carrying a water jar. Then another, and another behind her. They were sisters, they told me, with 11 children in their family. The oldest went off to get the others. They came like a parade, each with a jar, the youngest, a 3-year-old, with a small tin can.

They began each morning walking through the cemetery to a well, hauling water for the family’s needs that day. In their own way, they understood the struggle that had claimed the lives represented by the crosses. And what they asked for, without even knowing it, was a future.

Zineta’s eyes also took me back to Crossroads, the huge squatter camp outside Cape Town, South Africa. To a little girl who had taken a discarded plastic bag and wrapped it around her head, pulling points out from a knot to fashion herself a hairbow. To her brothers, who made crude push toys out of tin cans and wire, and kites from bits of plastic and string.

Their grandmothers said then—six years ago—that they hoped that apartheid might end for their children, or their children’s children. But they never expected that they themselves would live to see a free South Africa. Some of those women were likely among the elderly who were carried on backs to the polls in April, proud tears coursing their cheeks, waiting in line for hours for their chance to make history.

OUT ON THE sidewalk, Zineta took off her quilted red coat in the stifling Atlanta heat. We all crowded into the Jubilee Partners van. Refik snuggled into a corner and fell asleep as soon as his head touched the seat. Zineta sat wide-eyed, watching traffic and signs pass by.

Our eyes met occasionally, and we exchanged smiles; but Zineta and I could not speak. All I could give her was a cup of water. It is not nearly enough.

We owe Zineta the world. We owe it to her and all her sisters and brothers all over the globe who have lost so much. Maybe, someday, as an adult, she will be able to say, "I knew it was going to be all right, the moment Refik took my hand." What a story she may have to tell us.

Until that day, the greatest gift we can give her is hope. The hope of the South African grandmothers, who hung tenaciously to their belief in justice until a new day dawned. The hope born of knowing that, while there is a season to mourn, there is also a time to dance. Zineta’s time will come.

JOYCE HOLLYDAY, a former Sojourners associate editor and now a contributing editor, writes, leads retreats, and works with survivors of domestic abuse in western North Carolina.

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