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Lessons from Dandelions and Refugees

©Illustration by Amy Aves Challenger

Already this year, the dandelions spread their way across the fields around my new home, painting gold all that was green before. Then they left, moving on to become translucent circles dotting the horizon, waiting to blow off over the lake toward the Alps and the month of May. In their tiny seeds, some believe that dreams will be made by a child or perhaps a mother, and then whisked off into the sunshine to come true. I walk with my dogs, looking past the dandelions to dots of yellow buttercups and low, nameless purple flowers. What will come next after this season? I’m dreaming of change, of hope in hardship, of my own ability to do something good in our wild world.

In Switzerland, at first glance, everything appears light, kind, and perfect, no matter the season. But this week I visited the refugee shelter and met a woman who has come to Switzerland along with her husband and two small children to beg for an expensive heart surgery for her son who will die without it. I sat beside her, watching her pale boy color happy faces and eat grapes, while I tried to fathom how any human could deny his heart a way to keep on beating. My own son had open-heart surgery in his first year of life, along with other health complications, and I’m often reminded that he wouldn’t be here without our access to money, freedom and healthcare; so this particular story penetrated my spring glee, my leftover dreamy lightness from my earlier morning walk with the dogs. How can the world keep planting seeds, tending crops, celebrating seasons while letting even one child go— like this?

“Well it can’t. Someone in the Swiss government will help him,” said one expat mother when I shared the story. I think she felt that I’m naive. And perhaps I am. Why get sad? There are people and organizations to fix these things. Why even write about it? I ask myself this question often, too. As mothers, what can we do? We’re so busy. We've got to hang on to the happy endings that may come to every child, at least in Switzerland. We must believe in the good in order to go on gazing at flowers, letting our kids romp on the football field, worry-free. We’ve got to wrap our hands around everything positive, even if our beliefs aren’t based on facts.

In reality, one child every five seconds died in 2017 of preventable causes, that's an estimated 6.3 million children under 15 years, according to mortality estimates released by WHO, UNICEF, the United Nations Population Division and the World Bank Group. Do these children ever get to Switzerland to ask for help from the authorities? Mostly, obviously— no. But if they make it here, and we we meet these children, is Switzerland required to provide more than basic healthcare to a human, particularly a child, who crosses its border? The requirements, this mother was told, are not clear. Because the surgery is expensive, Switzerland is not required to fund it. So she waits for an answer now. "What will you do if the surgery is denied?" I asked.

"I have no idea," she answered.

"No, said the expat mother. You've got to talk to the people in charge. They won't let him die." I shook my head, wanting to believe her.

Another mom sat on a bench with her son wiggling beside her. While he stretched across the table to grab a green Lego, I learned that this mom had escaped her husband who beat her so badly in her previous country that she left with her son, to venture across the world by herself, with little money, in search of safety. She lived in a camp now where only one person could speak her language. Where would she go next with her child if the Swiss authorities don’t agree to help her? She did not know. I know that in my own country, politicians are fighting to ensure that women who have been abused, even raped, generally won’t qualify for asylum. Worldwide, woman aren’t protected much at all in cases of domestic abuse. In fact, 35% of woman around the world have experienced either physical or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner violence in their lifetime. But according to worldwide definitions of refugee, this fact does not deem all such women (and therefore their children) worthy of protection, often because cases of domestic abuse are difficult to prove.

And so I listened. I listened to more than the wildflowers bristling against the grass, the birds and baby sheep in their springtime hum, but I tried to listen to these stories, to let them sink in like the sunshine, and then to feel my gut.

What am I going to do? What difficult issue do I need to face this spring? Will those little boys and girls who aren’t scattering dreams across fields today get what they need if you and I and politicians and doctors and world leaders don’t wrestle with these issues? I need to read and ponder and inquire about real stories that keep coming, and spreading, just like dandelions do. They come in the midst of our wild, beautiful seasons, our amazing jobs, our fields of flowers, even if we can’t bear to see them. They come.

I’ve got to ask myself— how can another season come, how can any society grow glorious, how will our children survive and flourish and dream when our world is leaving so many little ones and their mothers behind?

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