How pillows can change the Syrian refugee narrative

At the heart of nonviolent direct action lies the task of reimagining narratives that enable oppression. If they are not challenged and disrupted, the stories we tell can make space for destructive policies and mores.

In less than five years, Syria’s civil war has caused the death and displacement of millions of people, creating a massive global humanitarian crisis. These displaced human beings, most of whom are Muslim, have quickly come to represent the largest refugee population in the world.

If these individuals manage to finally arrive on our U.S. shores — a formidable challenge, given the fact that Middle Eastern refugees are subject to the “strictest form of screening of any class of traveler to the United States before they are allowed to enter” — they are stigmatized, as “terrorists” by many neighbors. From this language is birthed policy to protect “us” instead of policy that resettles “them.” In fact, this language eliminates the possibility of “us” and “them” ever becoming a united we — human beings searching for freedom.

The predominant narrative of otherness, criminality and terrorism allows state and federal refugee resettlement programs to be drastically underfunded, new political roadblocks to be proposed in Congress and state legislatures, and emboldens presidential candidates like Donald Trump to shamelessly promise banning all Muslim immigrants from the United States. This narrative dehumanizes undocumented Central Americans, reducing them from mother, father, sister, neighbor to simply “law-breaker.”

Anthony Grimes holding a pillowcase that he made for the #GiveRefugeesRest campaign. (FOR)

Anthony Grimes holding a pillowcase that he made for the #GiveRefugeesRest campaign. (FOR)

Changing this bellicose narrative was my motivation in developing the #GiveRefugeesRest campaign, which I initiated as the new director of campaigns and strategy for the Fellowship of Reconciliation, or FOR. Our team started imagining a way to reverse the course of a nation that is increasingly hostile toward Muslim people and the idea developed into using pillows to send a message to our government.

Last week, my teammate Gretchen Honnold and her mother, Martha Ridings, sat at their dining table in their North Carolina home, painting #GiveRefugeesRest on 31 pillowcases. They then inserted the pillowcases with accompanying letters into envelopes, and addressed them to the 31 governors who have sought to ban Syrian refugees from their states.

The letters state that we believe their current stance on Syrian refugees is an “egregious decision that contradicts the best spirit of the United States of America, as well as our various faith traditions. We oppose this decision in the strongest possible terms, on both moral and political grounds.”

As part of a broader campaign launched on January 12, the day the 31 envelopes were charted to land in the governors’ mailboxes, the pillowcases are twofold symbols: they are both a wake-up call for political leaders to remember our common humanity, and a demand to provide for the basic needs of displaced and suffering people.

FOR is mobilizing a national network and calling for people of conscience to join in this campaign. We are inviting everyone to join us by sending a pillowcase to a listed governor, particularly of your own state, with a message of your own, as well as the hashtag #GiveRefugeesRest. We are also encouraging participants to take selfies with your pillowcases to post on social media with the same hashtag. In addition, we will be releasing a series of short video commercials over the next month aimed at changing this narrative.

In just the first days of the campaign, this initiative is already proving to be bigger than any one organization — people around the country have expressed interest in participating; we have been told of high school and college groups that plan to participate, of pillowcase-making house parties, and of people who are planning to personally deliver their pillowcases to their state capitals.

“We’re just glad that people are finally doing something about this,” Iman Jodeh, executive director of Meet the Middle East, said to me as we were filming a commercial.

A couple respondents have expressed skepticism, questioning if the campaign is a gimmick. We contend that historically symbolic acts of protest have proven effective.

#GiveRefugeesRest was inspired by a successful FOR campaign in 1954 in which bags of wheat and rice are reported to have changed the course of history. On November 3, 1954, in the midst of a severe famine on the Chinese mainland and a period of intense U.S.-China political tensions, FOR launched the “Food for China” campaign. Members sent small sacks of grain to President Eisenhower’s administration with the message, “If thine enemy hunger, feed him. Send surplus food to China.”

A small bag of food sent to the White House in 1954 as part of FOR's Food for China campaign. (

A small bag of food sent to the White House in 1954 as part of FOR’s Food for China campaign. (

“We now know that the 45,000 bags that were sent, as well as tens of thousands of letters, were mentioned three times in cabinet meetings,” Rev. Kristin Stoneking, FOR’s executive director, recently explained in a statement on this historic moment. “The third time, this grassroots pressure led Eisenhower to veto a proposal to bomb China.”

On February 4, Rev. Stoneking will seek to hand-deliver a pillowcase and letter to the office of House Speaker Paul Ryan, along with fellow FOR members and partners in Washington D.C. We are asking concerned citizens everywhere to also hand-deliver your pillowcases to your state capital if possible, and to please take photos and share on social media with the hashtag #GiveRefugeesRest so that we can follow your actions.

Last week in his State of the Union address, President Obama lifted up the first three words of the U.S. Constitution — “We the People” — as a central metaphor for how we understand a “more perfect union” based on trust and mutual respect. But he spoke these words against a backdrop of heightened Islamophobia and anti-Muslim rhetoric, with hate crimes against mosques and individuals, as well as broad anti-refugee policy, with nativistic federal legislation accompanied by ICE raids on Central American homes.

In the face of this xenophobic reality, the meaning of #GiveRefugeesRest is to engage a metaphor that allows everyone to express their dreams of a country for, indeed, “all the people” as the president stated. Through symbolism and multimedia, together, we can reimagine a dangerous narrative and prevent the racist policies that too often represent its aftermath.