For Those Who Can’t Go Home

“My Missionary Son Returns, Refugee Sons Don’t.” These words form the title of a blog post graciously sent to me by Melissa Dalton-Bradford.

She might just as well have punched me in the gut.

Last year, Melissa’s son returned from a two-year mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (commonly referred to as the LDS or Mormon church). Hours before his arrival, Melissa wrote these words:

He will land on a jet plane. I will be on my toes at the arrivals gate. I will strain at every blond head coming my direction. My heart will thud, my palms will sweat, my voice will jitter, my eyes will tear up. And then I will see his face, his dimples, his smile, his whole healthy self. And I will run, arms flung wide.

Three weeks ago, my son Sven returned from a Mormon mission in Sweden, and I was the mom having the experience which Melissa had so eagerly anticipated and so accurately described.


For Mormon parents, there is little that compares with the adrenaline rush of welcoming home our missionary sons and daughters. For one and a half to two LONG years our contact has been limited to weekly emails and three or four short skype visits on Christmas and Mother’s Day.

When our children finally return home, it is surreal to hold them in our arms and feel their hearts beat again.

And being safely home again is a moment, even for our strongest, most independent children. Relief surges, sometimes against their will, to their throats, eyes, and shoulders.

Melissa’s Reminder

After three weeks I’m still constantly patting Sven to make sure that he’s real. And I am pained by Melissa’s poignant reminder that for millions of refugees there is no reunion—or at least no known reunion date—with loved ones from whom they are separated.

For many refugees, there is also no going home. They “survive months on end in tents, shared facilities, or … small camping caravans” and wait. They wait for residency. For work. For education and language training. For news of surviving family.

And they mourn the many family members they have lost. Family members who, like them, were imprisoned, tortured, gang-raped, mutilated, threatened, and driven away.

Melissa, an expatriate American writer, teaches German to refugees near Frankfurt.

Melissa teaching German
Photo by Aaron Dalton ©, pictured in Melissa Writes of Passage

In her blog post, she writes of the day she told her students about her son and realized that, though she had been separated from him for two years, she had never “seriously, frantically feared for his life.”

At that moment she felt “the weight” of her students’“thought bubbles—the ones filled with loving memories of togetherness and the stinging, exquisite hunger to be united with beloveds in one safe place…”

Melissa’s Mother Heart

I don’t know Melissa personally, but two things are obvious from her vivid prose. First, despite cultural differences, her refugee friends have clearly captured her heart. And second, their suffering has compelled her to action. She is ALL IN and has embraced their cause with the fierceness and tenacity of a mama bear.

Besides giving them crucial language skills, she uses social media to connect them with people who can help them find work. She pleads for blankets, clothing, supplies—the things they need this very moment to survive, and she uses her rare gift of image making to tell their stories. You can find them, among other places, on Facebook at Melissa Dalton-Bradford, in her blog Melissa Writes of Passage, and in her award winning essay “Strangers No More,” published by BYU Magazine.

Melissa's team
From the TSOS website

Melissa and a team of volunteers have also created a medium for their refugee friends to tell their own stories.  They have interviewed, filmed, and photographed hundreds of refugees; transcribed and translated their stories; and posted many of them on their website Their Story Is Our Story.


On the website you will meet Kamaria, a math teacher who fled the war in Syria with her husband and four sons. Kamaria and her youngest son lived in three different camps and now share a house in Germany with 25 other women and children. Her thirteen- and fourteen-year-old sons are with their father in Turkey. They work twelve to fourteen hours a day in a bakery and a grocery store because their father has been unable to find employment.

©2016 LINDSAY SILSBY, TSOS website

After fifteen months Kamaria has been given temporary asylum. She has one year to learn German and show she is assimilating into German culture. She hopes at the end of that year that her husband and sons will have the financial and legal means to join her in Germany, and she dreams of one day attending medical school.



You will also meet 13-year old Firoz, who lived happily with his family of carpenters in Syria until ISIS invaded his village and began “killing people without mercy.” Firoz fled with his family to Turkey and then traveled with his aunt from Turkey toward Greece in an inflatable boat that sank. He treaded ocean waters for an hour and half, made his way (with the help of Nigerians on his boat) to an island, paid fishermen 100 euros to get him to a beach in Greece, and then traveled through Serbia, Macedonia, Croatia, and Austria to finally reach Germany.  His parents remain in Turkey, unable to join him because of financial, legal, and health restrictions.

“I’m worried about my family all the time, every minute,” he says. “It’s hard without them.”

These stories are similar to narratives my son Sven has shared with me about refugee friends in Sweden—friends who fed him, studied Swedish with him, fed him, played basketball and soccer with him, fed him, teased him, and fed him. These friends had lost everything and had nothing.

Everything about Sven’s situation—from his missionary clothing to his pictures of family vacations—must have reminded them that their situations were not really comparable to his; still, they reached out to him, recognizing his need for friendship as he too struggled to forge a path for himself in a new land.

Discouragement and Hope

After spending a few hours on the TSOS website, I am having a hard time getting through my daily routines. For so many of Melissa’s friends, the future looks so bleak. Yet one story fills me with hope and gives me a vision of what could be.

Dr. Kaadan

From the TSOS website

Physician/scholar Abdul Nasser Kaadan escaped the bombing in Aleppo, secured a job at Weber State University in my home state of Utah, and now lives in an apartment with his wife, Roua, in Ogden.Dr. Kaadan has been surprised and overwhelmed by the welcoming, helpful attitude of many Utah colleagues and neighbors. “People here … enjoy helping us,” he says.

When I talk to my friends back in Syria, they don’t believe it. They have a bad picture of America because it’s in the media. The media presents America as violent, as killing — but the people I’ve met here would never kill an ant. This is what I want to correct, this picture of how bad America is. I want to correct many misconceptions.

Misconceptions across the Globe

Unfortunately, misconceptions plague all of us, and perhaps Melissa’s most important contribution is in challenging us Westerners to evaluate the conceptions upon which we base our response (or lack of response) to her refugee friends.

Melissa is no stranger to dark factions within the countries from which her refugee friends have fled.

Getty image: Dan Itwood and Win McNamee, pictured On Melissa’s Facebook page, October 17, 2017

In a brutal facebook post dated October 17, 2017, she introduces us to women who have endured serial rape and genital mutilation, women who have been denied education, and women who don’t know their own birthdays.  But everything she writes reminds us that her refugee friends are NOT the evil from which they have fled. On the contrary, they are courageous heroes trying to change their destiny and create a better world. To judge them by their abusers’ crimes is far worse and far less justifiable than judging all Americans by the violence portrayed in our media.

A Better Response

The only response that will reduce rather than escalate violence across the globe is to help.

“We are like adoptive mothers…” says Melissa. “We role model … that it is not only safe, but imperative, that we use our first world voices to help everyone—women, men, adults, children—rise above their own horrific sagas of abuse.”

The Risk

Of course, “safe” is a relative word–one that I confess I struggle with. I have refrained from sharing pictures, names, or details about any of Sven’s friends, not only because I don’t have permission, but because I know that there is always some risk in exposing them, even though they are “relatively” safe in Sweden. Sitting at home half-way across the world from them, I don’t know enough about their circumstances to determine when the benefit of speaking out justifies whatever risk remains to their safety. I have not earned the right to ask for their permission.

The Reward

But I also know in my gut that love and change both involve some risk. I’m grateful to Melissa for earning trust, and I honor her refugee friends for their courage.

I am not naïve to the challenges of suddenly assimilating millions of refugees from Eastern nations into Western cultures. I know the threat we all face from the extremists who have victimized those refugees the most. I know the road ahead will be long and difficult for those of us who want to help and connect.

friendsBut then I look at this picture and others like it of refugees who welcomed my son Sven so warmly to Sweden.

I remember that Sven is home and they are not.

For me, it is long past time to care about their journey.


Hannele and Sven Find Refuge

My mother, Hannele Blomqvist, was a refugee child in Sweden during World War II. From 2015-2017, her grandson (my son) Sven served a Mormon mission in Sweden. His dearest friends were refugees from Middle Eastern countries like Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria. When I contemplate their experiences, I am reminded not only that “there but for the grace of God go I” but that God’s grace can be found in the refugee experience, both for refugees and for those who have the luxury of staying home. Of course, everything depends on how we respond to the newcomers among us.

Hannele's family (2)Finland at War

In 1944, when my mother was eight, her parents made the difficult decision to send her, along with 70,000 other Finnish refugee children to Sweden. Russia had invaded Finland, and the Finns, who had finally won their independence from Russia in 1917, were determined to fight to maintain that independence.

However, the Finns knew their chances of victory were slim against the powerful Soviet army. They wanted some of their children to escape the violence of war and the very real possibility of Soviet communist rule. My grandfather, a pilot in the Finnish air force, was especially concerned about the danger his family faced while living on an airbase, a likely target of a Soviet bomb attack.

My grandparents were part of a minority of Finns whose first language was Swedish. My mother and her older sister usually spoke Finnish, but they understood their parents’ Swedish, and my grandparents hoped this would help my mother adjust to a new life in Sweden. Still, I think it must have been almost unbearable for them to send their daughter away, not knowing who would care for her and whether they would ever see her again.

Hannele's passport (2)

Here’s a picture of my mother’s passport, though it turned out she didn’t need it. Most refugee children were allowed to enter the country with just an identification tag around their necks.

An Unexpected Outcome

Some historians today argue that separating these Finnish children from their parents was a mistake. Some of the children were treated like servants, and many developed serious attachment disorders. Of course, if the Finns had not managed to drive the Russians out of their country, the historians might feel differently now. They have the luxury of criticizing the venture because the war ended a year later and most Finnish refugee children returned home to their families in a miraculously independent Finland.

Transition to a New Life

My mother’s year in Sweden was a happier one than some children experienced, but she did suffer at first from anxiety and homesickness. She remembers an interminably long train ride and then a new temporary home at a school in Stockholm, where she cried herself to sleep every night. However, her circumstances quickly improved after a young Mr. and Mrs. Lundén and their baby visited the school in response to a plea on the Swedish radio and took her home with them.

A Second Family for Hannele

Knowing Swedish did help my mother to adjust. She soon became close, not only to the Lundén couple with whom she lived during school days, but also with Mrs. Lundén’s large, close, and loving extended family with whom she spent weekends and holidays. Mrs. Lundén’s mother especially played an important role as the grandmother my mother never had, since her biological grandparents had all passed away when she was very young. And my mother was blessed to see in the Lundéns’ marriage relationship a happiness which seemed to elude my grandparents’ marriage, though my grandparents were both good people.

young Lundens (2)I believe that my mother’s relationships with the Lundén family also were aided by her own sweet nature and desire to please. Mr. Lundén was a formal navy officer and educator who wore a suit throughout much of my visit with him in 1980, even though he was long retired by then. Yet my mother tells stories of him paying her to comb his hair while he graded papers.  In 1945 when he faced the prospect of sending my mother home, Mr. Lundén took the time to write her a poem about the light she had brought into his life and then decorated the poem with a border of flowers.

poem (2)

When I visited him 36 years later in 1980, he took me for a walk and showed me, with tears in his eyes, the building where my mother had attended school in Stockholm. Here’s a picture of me with the Lundén family in 1980. In between Mr. and Mrs. Lundén is Mrs. Lundén’s younger sister, Inga-Brita, and in front of Mr. Lundén is Mrs. Lundén’s special mother whom my mother adored.

746109-R1-19-19_020 (2)

More Refugees in Finland

The Finns my mother returned to were grateful and stunned to occupy the only remaining independent country bordering Russia. However, they were also exhausted by the heavy price they had paid for this independence and overwhelmed by the task of re-claiming their lives.  Much of their infrastructure was in shambles, almost an entire generation of their young men lay in graves, and their country was now geographically smaller.

In order to negotiate a peace treaty, they had conceded a large portion of eastern Finland to Russia. Consequently, long lines of eastern Finland’s residents were now entering independent Finland as refugees. This led to a serious housing shortage and a government mandate that Finnish citizens share any home with a greater number of rooms than occupants.

Lahti houseAt the end of the war, my grandfather had started building a home in the city of Lahti. Shortly after moving in, his family turned over their two upstairs bedrooms to a 30ish-year-old woman named Selma and her mother. A carpenter and his son lived and worked in their basement bedroom. All three families shared the kitchen and a small bathroom in the basement. The carpenter and his son soon found a better place to live and work, but Selma and her mother stayed long enough to become life-long friends with my mother’s family.

Multi-Generational Friendships

Mom also maintained close ties with the Lundén family and visited them during the two summers she worked in Sweden as a teenager. In her adult life, after she had moved to the United States, she rarely made a trip to Finland without scheduling a detour to Sweden to see the Lundéns. Mom and Dad with the Lunden familyAbout ten years ago, the Lundéns’ granddaughter Stella


spent a year as an exchange student with my brother’s family in Provo, Utah, and in 2015, Stella’s parents, Håkan and Ingrid, made a special trip to Utah from Sweden just to celebrate my mother’s 80th birthday with her. Håkan was not born until about ten years after my mother’s year in Sweden as a refugee child, but because of deep bonds that have lasted several generations between his family and ours, he is as important to my mother as anyone else in his family. Unfortunately, I don’t have a picture of them at the 80th birthday party, but here they all are about ten years earlier, visiting the Mormon tabernacle together in Salt Lake City.

A Changed World View

Mom’s life was profoundly affected by her experiences both as a refugee child and as part of a host family to fellow country men and women in need. Her world became larger. She experienced people and relationships that compensated for what she sometimes lacked in her immediate family relationships. She found courage and gained confidence. She learned that the strange and unfamiliar could become valuable and beautiful to her. She desired to learn more about the world first-hand and in fact took a detour after one summer of work in Sweden to hitch-hike throughout Europe with a friend–waiting until she arrived home to inform her father of the trip.

Above all, her experience made her more open than she might have been to the teachings of the LDS church (commonly referred to as the Mormon church), to which she was introduced in her teenage years. Her eventual baptism into the LDS church changed the course of her life and resulted in her emigrating at the age of 21 to the United States.

In a future blog post, I will discuss more about her immigration experience, and in yet another post I will try to explain the many ways her experience has affected my life and my world view. However, right now I need to fast forward over seventy years to my son Sven’s recent experience with refugees in Sweden.

Hannele’s Grandson Sven Visits Sweden

You might already know that many young StellaLDS men and women serve 18 month to 2 year missions for their church throughout the world. The process begins with their sending in an application to church leaders, and then they wait for a “mission call” which tells them where they have been assigned to labor.

When Sven was “called” to Sweden, our family were of course thrilled that he would have the opportunity to learn more about Scandinavian culture, and we were especially delighted that Sven was able to visit Stella Lundén in Stockholm recently.

But Sven’s experience in Sweden was also deeply enriched by his humanitarian work with many Muslim refugees and immigrants from Middle Eastern cultures like Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria. Many reached out to him in kindness and friendship, displaying a culture of hospitality so appealing to Sven that he is thinking about pursuing a degree in Middle Eastern studies.

Swedes Help Refugees/ Refugees Help Sven

Sven was only a few blocks away from the terrorist attack in Stockholm last April,  and he witnessed several angry demonstrations of white supremacist groups who feel threatened by the large influx of Middle Easterners in the country. But Sven also saw many Swedes successfully helping his Middle Eastern friends to assimiliate into Swedish culture, and his personal experience with the vast majority of Middle Easterners was overwhelmingly positive. Sven was especially moved by the generosity of these friends even in the aftermath of terrible trauma and even midst conditions of extreme poverty and hardship.

Unfortunately, most of these friends aren’t able to live with a Swedish host family, as my mother did. They are at first dependent on the housing and help the government gives them, and then they transition into modest apartments as they gradually learn the language and find jobs often far beneath their education and skills levels. Sven met many refugees living in large numbers in tiny apartments with little or no furniture. Yet almost always they wanted to feed him and learn his story.

Finding Common Ground

Sven found much common ground to celebrate with his Muslim friends, who value kindness, generosity, modesty, humble reliance on a higher power, and a “plan” for God’s children which includes many similarities to the one Sven espouses. Perhaps the most important commonality between Sven and his middle Eastern friends, however, is that they all know what it feels like to begin a new life in a new country with a new language.

friendsThe Language of Love

That language barrier can especially be a problem, and Sven deeply wished he knew Persian and Arabic so he wouldn’t have to rely so much on Google Translate and charades to communicate. But Sven also assures us that language barriers do not have to stop us from being friends with people of other nations. Love is a universal language understood by all God’s children. Love and friendship especially can happen between displaced peoples who recognize each other as travelers sharing a new experience and dependent upon each other’s kindness and mercy.

skyping SvenAn Invitation

Last Christmas when our family skyped with Sven, he spoke Swedish for the first time with his grandmother and I sensed deep gratitude within her for this opportunity. I wish that we could all contribute to this conversation in our native languages, and if you want to do so, I’ll try my best with Google Translate to understand you. But I’ve seen what Google Translate does to Finnish and I have to say that English might still be our best bet! If you share a desire to be part of this international community of friends, I warmly welcome you and so look forward to hearing your stories! I especially hope to hear from those who are refugees or who work with refugees. Why did you or your friends have to leave home? What was most difficult about the move? What good has come from the experience? What are your or your friends’ hopes and desires for the immediate and more distant future?

I look forward to hearing from you.

Why This Blog? I want to Know Your Story

Syrian refugees 2

It is hard these days not to despair about the state of the world and harder still to avoid the consternation I feel as a White American. For years now, I’ve sat in front of my television in my comfortable living room and watched families fleeing their own countries. I’ve seen doctors, lawyers, school teachers, engineers, artists, and computer programmers with no supplies except what they can carry on their backs trying to calm their children as they cross ocean waters in rubber boats and contemplate a bleak, unknown future.



I’ve seen the make-shift refugee camps where some people have lived now for years. I’ve seen the anxiety on the faces of national leaders who warn that their resources and ability to accommodate these refugees are stretched to their limit. And now I grapple with my country’s decision to close its borders to so many who need a home.



We’ve all seen the backlash —the nationalism and even tribalism that have resulted from rapid cultural migration, a rapidly changing global economy, and rising terrorism.  At a time when the world needs to come together to solve complex international problems, alliances are crumbling and the United States is mistrusted by many of its oldest international friends and partners. Within the United States, rural folks are pitted against city folks, and Republicans and Democrats no longer speak to each other. Throughout the world, white supremacist groups have come out of the closet into mainstream culture, and 800,000 young people who know no other home besides the United States now face the very real threat of deportation.


Yet on good days I also see much that gives me hope. I see caring, egalitarian young people becoming more politically involved than they have been in the past. I see donations increasing to humanitarian organizations. I see inter-faith activities bringing Christians and Muslims together.  It’s been a hard year, and there’s no question we are deeply divided about immigration and national security issues, which are admittedly difficult and complex. But I still believe that many of us want world travel to be accessible to as many people as possible. Many of us feel enriched by cultures and world views different from our own. And many of us still believe that all human lives matter.

What Can I Do?

I want to avoid despair, to choose love over fear, and to enjoy the rich variety of cultures throughout the world. Specifically, I want to be a part of the effort to promote not only multi-cultural understanding, good will, and peaceful co-existence, but also true cross-cultural friendships and collaboration.  And though my efforts will most likely result in some political discussions, I do not believe that political discussions are the best way to begin.

Political viewpoints are by necessity based on generalizations, and our generalizations don’t seem to be working for us these days. They are too often hasty, uninformed, and reductive. Before we can make any meaningful or useful generalizations about groups of people, we mush first recognize every group as a mix of unique, complex individuals who are so much more significant and complicated than the categories in which we place them. And paradoxically, it is when we begin to see each other’s individuality and uniqueness that we often discover our common humanity.

earth-1964822I believe a better way to begin forming relationships is to become acquainted with each other’s individual life stories—the stories behind our political views. Even people who have grown up with us or lived in the same house with us often don’t really understand us until we narrate our own perceptions of our shared lives. How important it is, then, to know the stories of people who live on the other side of the tracks—or the other side of the planet—from us.

Knowing each other’s stories might prevent us from annihilating each other. Knowing each other’s stories might help us to like each other, despite our political and cultural differences. Knowing each other’s stories might in fact turn some of us into real friends. And through the internet, knowing is easily accessible for those who desire it.

Let’s Tell Our Stories!

I have created this “blog” in hopes that it will facilitate more in-depth conversation and sharing than people are prepared to spend on social media like Facebook.  I put quotation marks around the word “blog” because I hope readers will come to think of this site as something different from most blogs. It is “my” blog in that I will introduce our discussion topics, but I hope to read others’ stories as much as to share my own. With each post I hope to start a conversation which will continue even without my involvement.

If you are already telling your stories on your own blog, I hope you will share links to your posts as they relate to the topics I introduce. If you have read articles or books or seen documentaries about my blog subjects, again I hope you will share access to this information.

We Can Make A Difference! … And We Can Make Friends

So many important benefits can come from cross-cultural friendships. I envision significant world-wide efforts to reduce global income inequality, promote universal human rights, and avoid environmental and nuclear holocaust. But at the risk of sounding too needy,  I have to disclose up front that my primary motivation is much more personal.

I am a product of parents who not only come from different cultures and countries, but who both left behind their cultures in their adulthood. Because of their cultural displacement, I have felt for most of my life like a woman without a country.  These days I feel grateful for my lack of complete cultural assimilation because it has brought me freedom, unique relationships, and new paradigms I would not trade for any amount of cultural belonging. There’s something lost but so much to be gained in feeling homeless for a while. But everyone eventually needs a home to go to. I am no exception, and I know there are other misfits like me, searching for a home.

internet friendsI strongly believe we should all be seeking opportunities to connect in person, face to face, with our neighbors, even–especially?–the ones we don’t like, but I also believe we can be buoyed up in those sometimes difficult efforts by a community of friends who share our most important goals and values. I sincerely hope that at least some of us misfits can find a virtual home with each other and that our vulnerability will not make us the target of too much discouraging animosity.

We’re Not Alone

After creating the name for this blog, I did a google search and discovered I was not the first to come up with the name Friends without Borders. Nor was I the first to think of story-telling as a means of bridging cultural divides. The website was established by an organization helping children in India write letters to children in Pakistan; and now a sister website,, is being created to spread the letter-writing effort wordwide. But so far I know of no place where adults can share their stories on-line within an international community.

Besides meeting people of many nations, I hope that together we can consider cultural variations within countries and between sub-cultures. The United States is especially a country of many cultures. The Utah I grew up in is vastly different from the North Dakota my husband calls home. Despite many obvious similarities, the community of my youth–in the foothills of Provo, Utah and in the shadow of Brigham Young University–is very different from the small town of Salem, Utah where I now live. The challenge and unique opportunity of this blog will be to communicate those cultural features in ways that are meaningful even to people who live in Arkansas or Bolivia or Iran or Norway.

House Rules (borrowed from

I believe this blog will serve a purpose quite different from the other websites I have seen. However, I would like my readers to consider the wonderful “Friendship Promise” posted on the website. Imagine a world in which we all made these commitments:

I will seek to understand, not just to be understood.

I will treat all people equally, with equal respect, despite differences in age, gender, religion, ethnicity, place of origin, financial status, sexual orientation, or other perceived differences.

When confronted with viewpoints that may be in conflict with my own, I will work to find connections wherever they do exist and build on these.

I will speak the truth in my heart, that comes from my own life experience, and will allow others to do so without argument. [Here I would substitute the word “antagonism” for “argument.” Surely we can disagree without being disagreeable.]

I will make space for others, especially for those who may be slow to speak, new to technology, or speak a language different from mine.

I will treat others as I want to be treated.  I will approach all interactions with the very best I have to offer: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, temperance. (

An Invitation

In my next post on Sunday, October 22, I will tell you about my personal connections to the refugee and immigrant experience. I then hope to hear your thoughts and stories about the topic. So please spread the word. Share a link to this blog with your friends throughout the world who are committed to the goal of multi-cultural understanding and friendship. Check back with me after Sunday, October 22. And then post your thoughts, stories, and links.