A man who stutters.

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As a freshman in high school, I was invited to a Halo LAN party. It was about as much fun as a 14-year-old me could hope to have; playing video games with 15 other stinky, pimply teenagers for hours on end. At the end of the night, a bunch of us piled into a parent’s SUV to be driven home, with me sitting on the far back bench. About 10 minutes into the drive, a boy in the row in front of me started making fun of “Captain Stutter.” It took me only a second to realize he was talking about me, and my stomach immediately transformed into a pit. To this day, when I look back on how I felt in that moment, my throat still catches, my stomach still becomes a pit, and tears still well up in my eyes.

Luckily, a boy next to me with more grace and wit than I spoke up with a simple “Hey Nathanael…” Realizing I was sitting right behind him, the bully ridiculing me immediately shrunk down in his seat and endured in awkward silence until he was dropped off. I honestly don’t remember if he ever offered a heart-felt apology, but I’m going to assume he did, because I want to believe the best of people. Plus, we were barely out of middle school, we all said and did some terrible things about our peers, and I certainly don't want to be remembered for my worst moments.

I have a stutter. I’ve stuttered ever since I could utter words. My parents paid for speech therapy for years while I was in elementary school, and my speech improved but the stutter was never conquered. (I don’t blame my therapist for that one, it’s on my 8-year-old ego for quitting.) Thoughts form in my mind, my mouth is ready to articulate the words, but my vocal cords catch, preventing air from passing through my throat, transforming my words to s-s-s-silence. Over the years, I’ve been able to articulate myself better and better, to the point where most people I meet only discover I have a stutter 5-10 minutes into the conversation. Yet, anytime my heart rate goes up, from excitement or anxiety, my stutter comes *roaring* back. You can imagine how difficult it was to knock on people’s doors as a missionary. To this day, I fear calling someone on the phone I don’t know well, because not seeing the person I’m talking to makes me a little nervous. I’m 30 years old, and I still ask my wife to make phone calls for me so that I don’t have to, because I’m afraid.

Knowing all this, you, my dear reader, might be shocked to know that I’m grateful I have a stutter. Without this beautiful stutter, I believe that 8 year old ego would have ballooned into full blown narcissism. Instead, having a disability humble me has significantly increased my capacity for empathy.

I recently watched the speech given by Brayden Harrington at the Democratic National Convention. I was brought to tears. I also take quick breaths in the middle of sentences. I also repeat “w” sounds at the beginning of words. I also have long, hissing “s” sounds. I have struggled so long to get out a word that it felt like I might be choking. Brayden was helped by Joe Biden in a personal way, he took the time to minister to Brayden’s needs right then and there, just as Christ would have done. Sure it’s great for Joe’s campaign, but as a fellow stutterer, I can’t imagine that was the reason Joe helped Brayden. 

6 months ago, people were questioning Joe Biden’s mental capability (like somehow Trump is a shining example of mental faculty?) I’ve looked at those moments my conservative friends have pointed to, all I see is a stutter popping up. I can’t imagine many more nerve racking situations than a nationally televised debate where every word you say is going to be picked apart, and you don’t have the time to compose your thoughts or words. Obama admires Joe Biden’s "empathy, born of too much grief. Joe’s a man who learned, early on, to treat every person he meets with respect and dignity, living by the words his parents taught him. No one’s better than you Joe, but you’re better than no body. That empathy, that decency, belief that everybody counts, that’s who Joe is.” (Side note: watch this speech, it’s fabulous.)

Joe might not be the perfect candidate, but no candidate is, because none of us are perfect. However, Joe Biden did not mock a disabled member of the press. Donald Trump did that. Joe Biden did not sexually assault a women, then brag about it on camera. Donald Trump did that. Joe didn’t pay off a porn star that he cheated on his wife with. Donald Trump did that. Joe Biden did not put children in cages. Donald Trump did that. Joe Biden did not dismantle a federal pandemic response team months before a global pandemic hit, then botch the response time and time again, resulting in the loss of over 180,000 American lives (and counting), all for the stock market to do well. Donald Trump did that.

At this moment, Joe Biden is the man for the office of the President. Get out and vote for a decent man, a man with empathy. A man who stutters.

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Hearing their stories.

On September 30th, 2017, I flew from Utah, to Germany. It was the beginning of a week-long expedition in Germany and Paris to interview refugees. My experience in Europe was life changing, for what I saw and heard covered the gamut of heartbreaking to inspiring. It’s taken a few months to even partially process the journey and I’m still apprehensive to be writing about it for fear of being sanctimonious or morbid.

Let’s start with some context of the refugee crisis; according to the UNHCR, there are 65.6 million people worldwide that are currently forcibly displaced from their homes. 22.5 million of them have crossed international borders in their displacement, and are now defined as refugees. By the end of 2016, 5.2 million of those refugees were in Europe. Out of the 22.5 million refugees, only 189,300 (0.84%) were resettled. When people are forcibly displaced, it’s usually a result of violence or natural disasters; my experience was that every refugee’s ultimate reason for leaving was violence, or the threat of violence.

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The organization I work with is Their Story is Our Story (TSOS), an organization that helps refugees tell their stories in an intimate and emotionally authentic manner with the goal to help shape the international dialogue about refugees. I produce etchings of interviewed refugees for TSOS to help expand the reach of the stories. The art provides ways for people to get involved through fundraising and having art work in their home which can serve as a reminder and conversation starter. In Europe, I was there to draw interviewees to help prepare for the upcoming etchings, although I often pulled double duty by helping with the paperwork, and on one occasion, I did my best to keep a toddler entertained during an interview.

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Ali was the first refugee I met in Paris, and his story, although unique, shares patterns that were repeated again and again with each refugee I met. He was left with the options of staying in Afghanistan with his life being threatened for refusing the Taliban recruitment, or making a perilous 3000+ mile journey to Greece. Some of the details of his experience are so mind boggling, I would have had trouble believing it if I hadn’t seen videos and pictures with my own eyes. What I remember most about Ali was his smile. Despite all his trials and his uncertain future in Paris, he joked with me. Especially when he made fun of my feeble attempts to repeat Pashto words he was trying to teach me.

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We walked the streets of Paris with Ali and saw the terrible circumstances that thousands of refugees endure day in and day out. The slow bureaucracy of the French government, combined with relative indifference, has bred an environment that allows for vulnerable refugees to be preyed upon by the dregs of society. With thousands of people on the streets, receiving meager amounts of help, is it any wonder why crime, drugs, pedophilia, and other horrors are running rampant? I felt powerless as I stood outside the “Bubble” (Paris’ only temporary refugee shelter) looking at the hundreds of refugees waiting in line, accompanied by a permanently stationed SWAT team across the street. I still feel relatively powerless to help these people with my meager efforts, but I’m trying to do something.

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Asad is an Afghani that was forced to leave his family (wife and child) behind as his cooperation with Western militaries and companies from years before made him a target for the Taliban. As we shared an Afghani meal, Asad and I spent nearly half an hour talking about accents and language in the United States and Afghanistan. He got a particular kick out of my southern accent (thank you to my mother’s southern heritage for that one). My brother, Noah, and I talked after meeting Asad and a few other parent refugees about how difficult it must be to worry about your children when you’re a refugee. Those particular family concerns are something that I can’t truly empathize with at this point in my life, but I still have tears in my eyes writing about it.

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In Germany, I met a wonderful group of mothers in a refugee mother’s shelter. I wish I could share details, but for their safety, I won’t. Out of all the stories I heard, theirs’ bring the most tender feelings and I often reflect upon that Friday. Their determination to build lives of safety for their families motivated them to carry their children across continents, seas, and borders. Yet, no matter where they went, they couldn’t find the peace they were looking for. Hopefully Germany can provide them with that peace.

As difficult as the stories were to hear, we also met angelic humans who are going beyond the call of duty to help their brothers and sisters. Heather and Kelvin of Paris Refugee Ground Support are British ex-patriots gave up their lives to support refugees each and every day. They live out of a van that they stuff to the gills with supplies every night, with the express purpose of distributing everything before they call it for a night.

Ben and Diana form a mother-son team that proves any age can help relieve the suffering. Ben was moved as he watched the news coverage of shoeless refugees early on in the European crisis. With the help of his mother, he founded Compassion Without Borders which has collected countless donations, including thousands of shoes, to help refugees, partnering with the generosity of the community at the American School of Paris.

Kayra Martinez, an American in Frankfurt, has changed her life to help the refugees in Greece support themselves and work through the scars of their experiences by providing art materials and then facilitating art shows where all proceeds go back to the artists.

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Each of these volunteers, and the many not named, seem to have one thing in common: they’ve experienced the reality of being an outsider. They have taken that life lesson to fuel their compassion for these outcasts in dire need. I have often wondered since my third day in Europe, am I too comfortable in my life? Too much on the inside to notice those who are in the deepest of need of my love and help?

A couple weeks after getting home, I related the story of my trip to a friend, and she asked: “What are you going to do now?” I wasn’t sure. I’m still not 100% sure. However, I do know this: making artwork to help refugees in Europe is a great thing, but there are refugees in Utah. 60,000 of them. And we get roughly 1,200 more each year (except this year, due to the Trump administration cutting back on the number refugees allowed to resettle, which led to some state by state allocation disparities). I must be serving those who are here in Utah, as well as the friends I’ve made across the Atlantic. I’ll still continue making etchings that can be seen and obtained through TSOS, as well as do something on a local basis.

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The refugee crisis is complicated. There aren’t any easy solutions. There aren’t any clear solutions. I do not pretend to have an answer on how to help each of our 65.6 million brothers and sisters that have been forcibly displaced. However, it’s not an impossible task. It will require sacrifice. The sacrifice will be well worth it, because “are we not all beggars? Do we not all depend upon the same Being, even God, for all the substance which we have…?” (Mosiah 4:19)

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