Gratitude: A Universal Language
“¿Puedo llevar a tu bebé por ti?”, I asked. Her beautiful brown eyes widened, and without hesitating, she gently put her baby in my arms. As I cradled her three-month-old daughter, hips swaying back and forth, my eyes filled with tears. I watched this young mother, who had fled her home in violence-ridden Guerrero, Mexico, savor a chance to eat a meal without balancing a baby at her breast. For 15 minutes, Esperanza could enjoy conversation with her shelter companions, and perhaps for just a moment, attend to her own needs and wants.
I write this from Nogales, Mexico, where I am taking a week to volunteer with the Kino Border Initiative. The experience is multi-faceted — ranging from hiking along desert trails where discarded clothing, photos, and water jugs evidence those risking their lives to find safety, to witnessing court proceedings for individuals seeking asylum and seeing the course of their lives rerouted in ten minutes, to hearing from ranchers whose property adjacent to the border has become a route north for narcotics runners. The issues are complex, and fraught with competing economic, political, and humanitarian priorities.
What I would like to share, however, is far simpler, yet no less important. I thought I was prepared for what I might witness on this journey. I anticipated feeling emotionally distraught by the circumstances I would encounter here. I expected to feel deeply pained by the plight of the impoverished and marginalized men, women, and children, and helpless that I could do little to alleviate their anguish and uncertainty. But there was one thing I was not at all prepared for — the warm gestures of genuine gratitude given so freely, from migrants of all ages.
11-year old Marcos taught me a game of slapping our hands, which he won more often than not. His peals of laughter, and “Gracias, Señora” when it was time to go, came from his heart. Francisca shared her intimate story of leaving an abusive husband in the middle of the night, with her toddler and only the clothing on their backs. When finished, she embraced me with a caring hug, grateful for my listening. Aldo proudly showed me his Spanish-English dictionary, and asked if I would teach him new words. When I rose to leave the table, he haltingly offered, “You are nice to help me.”
That evening, reflecting on my day in the comedor (dining hall), I was reminded of the South African greeting, “sawubona,” which is the Zulu word for “hello.” Literally translated, “sawubona” means, “I see you, and by seeing you, I bring you into being.” I realize the expressions of gratitude so generously offered came from a place of feeling truly seen. Seen as mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters — worthy members of our global community of humanity, individuals rather than merely refugees or “illegals.” We shared laughter, tears, and awkward moments of trying, together, to understand one another. The universal language of expressing gratitude connected us, and I will carry these glowing gifts in my heart during this season of giving thanks. May we all offer one another these simple gifts in the months ahead.