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Chicago's O'Hare International Airport can be a maze of frustration
Inside Story
Chicago O'Hare International Airport | Photo by Erik Tryggestad

A busy airport, a refugee toddler and a Happy Meal toy

Christian Chronicle editor recalls a Christmas Eve encounter with asylum seekers — and a plea to see with God's eyes

CHICAGO — This is a story I’ve told many times. I apologize if you’ve heard it before.
Erik Tryggestad

Inside Story | Erik Tryggestad

In 17 years of reporting for The Christian Chronicle, I’ve accumulated more stories than I can ever hope to tell. I’m amazed, however, at how many of those stories involved the disenfranchised, the meek, the poor, people in need of asylum. People who desperately need to see God’s love.

These are the stories I’m drawn to. These are the stories that move me — taking me to the small town of Abilene, Texas, to interview Bhutanese refugees served by a church or to the metropolis of Bangkok to meet Pakistanis who survived the Taliban, only to live in fear of arrest for overstaying their visas. Most recently, I traveled to Austria and Greece to see the life-changing work going on among Muslim refugees from the Middle East.

Sometimes, however, God places me in the path of refugees when I’m not reporting — and when I least expect it.

Touch down on the cold blacktop.
Hold on for the sudden stop.
Breathe in the familiar shock of confusion … and chaos.

Those lyrics from Brandon Heath‘s “Give me Your Eyes” describe the way I feel every time I transit through a busy airport, especially Chicago O’Hare. It’s a hot maze of overcrowded frustration. Never have I thought I could be in a place so full of people and feel so alone.

All those people … going somewhere.
Why have I never cared?

Seven Christmas Eves ago, I was traveling with my wife and then-3-year-old daughter, Maggie, to see my family in Tennessee. We had an hour-long layover and hurriedly picked up dinner at a triangle-shaped McDonald’s between concourses. We sat on the frayed, dark blue carpet and scarfed down our cheeseburgers.

There was no room on the seats at the gate. A large group of Asians — wearing clothing that reminded me of Guatemala’s indigenous Mayan people — occupied most of the vinyl bench seats. One woman was lying, cramped, across two seats, trying to sleep. (I’ve made the attempt many times as I’ve waited on flights. It never works.) A toddler, maybe 18 months old, stood next to her, crying to be held.

The woman’s grizzled features made her look too old to have a young child. She patiently motioned the boy away, toward other relatives. He only cried louder.

I noticed the white plastic bags many of the Asians were cradling with the letters “I.O.M.” emblazoned in blue. I grabbed my phone and did a quick search. “International Organization for Migration.”

Refugees.

In the 2014 film “The Good Lie,” refugees from Sudan show their “luggage” to Carrie (Reese Witherspoon). The white bags come from the International Organization for Migration. Read Erik Tryggestad's review of the film.

In the 2014 film “The Good Lie,” refugees from Sudan show their “luggage” to Carrie (Reese Witherspoon). The white bags come from the International Organization for Migration. Read Erik Tryggestad’s review of the film.

I fished through Maggie’s Happy Meal sack and grabbed the toy.

“You already have this one,” I told her. “Why don’t you give it to that boy?”

I’ll never forget watching Maggie walk those few, timid steps to the toddler — a host of foreign eyes suddenly transfixed on her. There were no thank-you’s as he took the gift, just slight smiles and nods.

The boy stopped crying … for about 90 seconds. He wanted mom, not a toy.

“Had these folks ever been on a plane?” I thought. I’ve flown those long-haul from Southeast Asia back to the U.S. I know how brutal that final layovers can be, waiting for the flight to take me home. But where was “home” for these refugees. What had they endured to reach this place? How different this dingy airport must look to them, these souls seated a few chairs — and another life — away from us.

Suddenly, one of them was standing in front of me, thrusting a cell phone at my ear. She seemed ancient — the family matriarch, perhaps, afraid but assertive.I took the phone, dutifully, and heard a man chattering in broken English on the other end. A translator. He quickly handed his phone to a man with a southern accent who identified himself as a pastor.

The refugees were Burmese, he explained, and his church was assisting them as they resettled in Nashville. Their homeland, Burma (Myanmar), was ruled by a military junta until 2011. The country’s government continues to have a terrible track record of humans rights abuses — most recently toward its Muslim Rohingya minority.

Rohingya refugees enter Bangladesh after fleeing Myanmar in 2017.

Rohingya refugees enter Bangladesh after fleeing Myanmar in 2017.

The minister and the translator were waiting for the new arrivals at the Nashville airport — and didn’t even know if they had made it to the right gate in Chicago. Could I check?

I did. Everything was fine. I told the minister I’d make sure they got on the plane. He thanked me.

It seemed almost absurd.

“Uh, no problem,” I said. “And God bless you for doing this.”

“Thank you,” he said. “Merry Christmas.”

Christmas. I’d almost forgotten. A day of gift-giving, feasting, celebration. A day when we think of home.

And now a day when a huddled mass of tired, poor souls, yearning to breathe free, would see their first sunrise in a new world.

Give me your eyes for just one second. 
Give me your eyes so I can see, 
everything that I keep missing. 
Give me your love for humanity.
Give me your arms for the brokenhearted,
the ones that are far beyond my reach. 
Give me you heart for the ones forgotten. 
Give me your eyes so I can see.

To all of you, Merry Christmas. Happy New Year. May we all use what we’ve been given to God’s glory. May we use our eyes to see what he would have us see and do what his Son’s blood requires.

Filed under: Airport asylum chicago christmas Churches of Christ and Christmas Inside Story International layover refugee ministry refugees

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