Memory and imagination make much of our inner life nonlinear. Friends who vanished thirty and forty years ago remain as vivid to me as if we just met for dinner last week.
One of science fiction’s strengths is that it can give us insights into ourselves by transporting us to other worlds. In “The Inner Light,” a 1992 episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” the Enterprise encounters a probe of unknown origin that transmits a “nucleonic beam” that scans the ship and renders Captain Picard unconscious for 25 minutes.
During that time, Picard experiences four decades of life and love on a planet whose civilization was wiped out a thousand years earlier when its sun went nova. A flute is recovered from the probe and given to Picard, who remembers how to play it. It is a classic science fiction tale, sad and beautiful.
Yesterday I received a text message from Kenya — only seven thousand miles distant, rather than centuries — from Priscilla, an HIV+ Ugandan refugee who, like many, was suffering ulcers because of a poor diet, faced violence in the street, and lost her housing because she couldn’t contribute to the rent.
I told Priscilla she does not deserve the cruelty and hate to which she has been subjected, that she is better than those who persecute her. I added that if she gives up now, she may miss a new adventure that waits for her just around the next bend in the road.
A former refugee who now lives in America put me in touch with the managers of a safe house in Nairobi. Priscilla was able to tour the facility, and they offered her space. Now she just needs to retrieve her clothing from the place where she was previously staying. Life is precarious for these displaced LGBTQ+ people in terms of food, housing, medical care and transport.
This morning, I received a message from another refugee:
“Hello my name is Rani am a South Sudan resident I ran to Kenya for my life and safety and also for my sexuality. I lost my parents years ago because of civil wars in my country. Am struggling in Kenya for life and it’s really hard for me to get a job or something to drink or eat or a house to live in. Guys take advantage of me because I am needy and poor. If you can support me with food or a small business or even fund my education I would appreciate. Am really struggling and lost with hope.”
I reluctantly explain that the people seeking help exceed my capacity. Many international aid organizations are affiliated with churches unfriendly to our community.
Rani is reduced to looking through other people’s discarded food. She writes: “Too much cold here. Too much shivering. Too much hunger. No sweater. No blanket. No mattress. No house. No brother. No mother. No father. I wish this ground would swallow me and these troubles will go.”
I reply, “My dear, please don’t give up. I can imagine wanting the world to swallow me up. But I just learned of your existence this morning. Please don’t disappear so quickly.”
She replies, “I will hold on till the end.” With that brave spirit, she connects herself to pioneering ancestors. Shortly afterwards, a colleague identifies an available space in a safe house. In the meantime, a sympathetic shopkeeper provides her a hot meal, a few changes of clothes, and a job. Our network of volunteers, albeit inadequate, saves lives.
Most of these people I will never meet. Sometimes, operating at such a distance, I feel like Picard and the family he grew to know while lying unconscious on the bridge of the Enterprise a millennium after they disappeared. As he told his daughter in that long-vanished world: “Live now. Make now always the most precious time. Now will never come again.”
Cultural differences, language barriers and trust issues complicate aid efforts. On the other hand, I have encountered many acts of grace by the displaced themselves. The caring I give returns to me many times over.
Anti-gay and anti-trans policies by governments in East Africa, often pushed by Western missionaries, make the future uncertain. More LGBTQ-affirming non-governmental organizations and focused diplomacy are needed. One reputable group is All Out (https://campaigns.allout.org/emergency-in-uganda).
One volunteer can inspire another and another until lasting change occurs. When our imaginations take us to other places and circumstances, they can nurture new familial bonds that help restore societies frayed by ignorance and fear.