I met ReGina on a cold January morning in Beirut after a women’s Bible study for Iraqi refugees hosted by Heart for Lebanon. We stood next to a portable heater, warming our hands and feet. ReGina wore black, knitted gloves. Two fingers were missing from her right hand.
Then she told her story.
She and her family were from Mosul, a city of over a million people in northern Iraq. They were part of the Christian community there, which has ancient roots in the region. The Christians of Iraq are considered one of the oldest continuous Christian communities in the world, dating back to the first century AD, hundreds of years before Constantine and the formation of the Catholic Church.
One day, as she and her daughter were leaving church, a car bomb exploded. Regina lost those two fingers in the explosion. Her daughter has scars all over her body from the shrapnel, some of which is still embedded.
She fled Mosul and now lives in a rented apartment with her daughter and extended family members. Like many other Iraqi refugees, they are struggling to survive while they wait for the U.N. to approve their relocation to another country. Like most refugees, work is difficult if not impossible to find. Most refugees flee their homes with little or nothing, and what savings they have are used up quickly.
According to the UNHCR, ReGina and other Iraq Christians like her represented less than five percent of the total Iraqi population but made up 40 percent of Iraqi refugees living in nearby countries in 2007. That number increased after ISIS attacks in the past year and a half.
It has been a long week, full of long days–sick kids, doctor appointments, back to school nights and meetings, work hours, work conference, phone calls, bills, cleaning, shopping, editing, gas stations and oil changes. And it’s still not over.
Yet, every time I leave home, I know it will be there when I get back. When my kids get sick, my biggest struggle is coordinating schedules to get them to the doctor. I have a job–a good one that I love–and money to get food, gas and oil.
As tired as I get, it isn’t even close to the exhaustion of millions of mothers and fathers living in tent settlements and refugee camps.
They had homes, cars and jobs; now they have nothing. Their kids went to school; now far too many work long hours for less than $10 a day. If they get sick, there are few if any doctors to help them.
The “natural order,” for our God, is bringing impossibly different people together and calling them “family.”
The story of Scripture, the story of God is, in many ways, about the creation of a profoundly “unnatural order,” where Gentiles eat with Jews, where tax collectors and prostitutes mingle with religious know-it-alls, where gender biases are abolished, where last become first and first become last, where sinners and saints embrace realizing they are one and the same, where every tribe and tongue is brought together by the one God who made and loves them all.
And this is what gives me hope, whether I’m anxiously glancing at the refugee crisis across the pond and wondering how things will unfold here in Canada, or I’m thinking about families I know and love that have kids with different colored skin and ethnic backgrounds. On a purely pragmatic level, it makes no sense to throw all this difference together in families and churches and cities and nations and expect it all to end well. On a purely pragmatic level, we should expect conflict and identity crises and scarcity and pain. On a purely pragmatic level, people should stay where they belong. On a purely pragmatic level, we should cling to what is safe and predictable, and “natural.”
But, as followers of Jesus, we have been liberated from looking at things on a purely pragmatic level. As followers of Jesus, we are free to imagine families, churches, cities and nations that struggle and strain and stretch toward the glorious reality of God’s unnatural order.
I came back to the U.S. eager to share their stories. At first, I was full of hope and enthusiasm, but as months passed I grew discouraged and frustrated. It felt like their stories—be it those I shared, those shared by others advocating for refugees, or the ones on the front pages of newspapers around the world—evaporated into the air. It felt like the world was simply shrugging its shoulders and looking away. While I connected with Christian leaders and friends advocating for refugees, I was disheartened by the lack of priority and concern in churches in North American and the church as a whole.
“All I need is the permission to put these people on this island. After that I don’t needanything anymore from them. I’ll pay them for the island, I’ll provide the jobs, I’ll take care of all the logistics. I know I can do that,” he said during a CNN interview.
But here’s what makes my heart quicken.
This morning, I read in the Huffington Post that Pope Francis announced the Vatican would take in two refugee families and called on European Catholic bishops to “express the Gospel in concrete terms” and have their dioceses do the same.
“Faced with the tragedy of tens of thousands of refugees who are fleeing death by war and by hunger, and who are on a path toward a hope for life, the Gospel calls us to be neighbours to the smallest and most abandoned, to give them concrete hope,” he said.
“May every parish, every religious community, every monastery, every sanctuary in Europe host a family, starting with my diocese of Rome.”
Then I read a post by Ann Voskamp announcing the formation of We Welcome Refugees, founded by Voskamp, World Relief and The Justice Conference to connect churches, communities, organizations and individuals to respond in practical and tangible ways to the crisis—including sponsoring refugee families and finding concrete ways to embrace them into our communities.
My kids go back to school this week. Last week, I spent hours filling out stacks of forms, funding lunch accounts, standing in registration lines and tracking down school supplies. Most years, I struggled to curb my irritation with the paperwork and long lines. This year, I simply felt lucky.
For many of these children, the public school systems in the hosting countries simply don’t have room, and most refugees don’t have the funds for private schools—even if the private schools would take them.
Most of these children haven’t stepped foot in a classroom for several years, and many of them are working instead. The Guardian reported this summer that thousands of Syrian children have become farm laborers in fields and warehouses in Lebanon, and nearly half of the Syrian refugee households in Jordon rely on children’s income to survive. In Lebanon, children make about $8 a day for 10 hours of work.
I met some of these children earlier this year when I went to Lebanon, which is hosting close to two million refugees. It was winter, and most of the Syrian children I met spent their days in tent settlements or working. In Beirut, I met Iraqi families at a food distribution center, where the children sat on their parents’ laps or helped them carry bags of food and rations.
As the crisis continues to grow, so will the number of refugees. But in the midst of staggering statistics, there are islands of hope.
In Lebanon, I visited two of three non-formal education “Hope Centers” run by Heart for Lebanon, a Lebanese faith-based relief and development organization working with Iraqi and Syrian refugees. With public schools unable to take in refugee children, non-formal education efforts funded by NGOs has gained momentum as a substitute for the hosting country’s schools.
In the Bekaa Valley, H4L’s education center is housed in an old church at the foot of a large mountain range which separates Lebanon from Syria. Standing outside, we heard the distant booming of artillery from a battle taking place on the other side of the mountains. Inside, the classrooms were cold. One class met in the kitchen next to a wood stove.
The children were the most vulnerable or marginalized of the refugee population. Some were orphans, and others had lost a parent. Others were disabled or traumatized from their experiences. The mother of one of the girls had died in childbirth at a checkpoint in Syria, and one of her brothers had been shot and killed. Another girl needed eye surgery. I saw one little boy on crutches.
But you wouldn’t know that most of them were refugees by the way they acted. They reminded me of the kids in my own children’s schools—laughing and smiling during games, concentrating on assignments, raising their hands and writing answers on chalk and white boards.
It was the same in Beirut. In a converted warehouse in the densely packed city, the classrooms of this H4L education center were packed with over 100 children. From a second story window, I watched children play organized games on the concrete parking lot below. Inside, children were learning traditional subjects like arithmetic and reading. After school, some of them took lessons to play keyboards, guitars and other instruments. It felt like a miniature version of our elementary schools.
As I watched them, it dawned on me that these kids in the Bekaa Valley and Beirut were experiencing normal in a place where normal was rare and precious.
And that makes a difference. A big difference.
If you are looking for a way to tug at the edges of largest humanitarian crisis to face the world since World War II, consider supporting H4L or another organization like it. It is easy to be overwhelmed by the stories, pictures and sheer numbers of refugees. But you can make a difference. Don’t wait. Do it now.
A devastating picture made headlines today: the body of a Syrian toddler washed up on a beach in Turkey. He has short cropped dark hair and he’s wearing a bright red shirt, shorts and brown shoes. He lays on his stomach, his head tilted slightly to the side, arms at his sides and legs slightly bent. It almost looks like he is sleeping.
He was one of 12 refugees who drowned when their boat sank in a failed attempt to reach Greece.
It hurt to breathe after I saw it. It still does.
I’ve seen pictures of dead children before. I was in Beruit, where I’d just met a refugee couple with several children who had fled Iraq after ISIS attacked their village. They had just finished telling me how an ISIS bomb had killed their four year old son, David. Then the mother handed me a stack of photos. On top were pictures of flesh and body parts that were no longer recognizable as human. Pictures of her son. Underneath those were photos of injured children in torn clothes lying on beds, their bodies blackened and bloody. One of them was her nephew.
The world needs to see pictures like these. They blast through statistics and politics. Numbers and issues strip away humanity. These photos, as horrific as they are, restore it.
When the photo of the dark-haired toddler lying on the beach hit social media, it came with a hashtag: #KiyiyaVuranInsanlik. “Humanity washed ashore.”
I can’t help thinking that we are standing on the beach watching them drown.
Those of us who live in North America and Europe are in a unique position. Many of us abound in wealth, influence and resources. We have the power to speak for those who do not have a voice (Proverbs 31:8-9). We are Esthers with a choice to make. Will we stand by and watch a whole population suffer and die, or will we use our positions of power and influence to reach out and help?
Yes, it is hard to wrap our minds around the staggering numbers and the immensity of suffering. It feels like there is nothing we can do. But that’s not true. Talk to your church. See what the charities you support are doing. Check out the resources tab on this website. Learn about what the people in Iceland are doing.
In the past couple of days, the Telegraph and Guardian have both reported on how 10,000 Icelanders (the country has a total population of 300,000) have responded to a Facebook campaign by author Bryndis Bjorgvinsdottir to urge the government to take in more Syrian refugees. Bjorgvinsdottir started the site in response to the government’s offer to take in a mere 50 refugees.
The striking aspect of this story is not only the number of Icelanders expressing their support but that they are also volunteering to personally help the refugees by donating services, time, clothes, money, furniture, children’s toys and even their homes.
It makes me wonder what it might look like if churches, communities and cities around the U.S. started to talk about pooling our resources and offering to support groups of refugees in our own country. Perhaps some members could offer one of their rental homes for free for a year. Maybe others could offer jobs. Doctor offices could offer a list of pro-bono services. Churches and mosques could offer furniture, clothing and food. Teachers could offer language training. Local social agencies and organizations could link together and coordinate to provide services.
The possibilities of ways we could come together to embrace refugees into our communities is endless. I’m not suggesting that there aren’t major hurdles and challenges that would be faced–or dismissing the fact that very few communities are doing these things already for those already suffering and in deep need in their community. But perhaps this is not only an opportunity to tug at the edges of the largest humanitarian crisis in four decades but also move our communities in a direction that would benefit its own members as well.
When people ask me what can be done in the face of such overwhelming need, suffering and turmoil, I often wish I could think more like Jesus. In the gospels, his responses are clever, creative, resourceful and outside-the-box—he often seems to find a third way, a way different than what we expect or one we hadn’t even conceived.
The response of the Icelanders reminds me of that; maybe we should consider something like that, too.
The Hollywood Reporter recently ran an acticle about Sir Nicholas Winton, who organized the rescue of Jewish children from the Holocaust and found people in England to take in the refugee children in 1939. He was an ordinary man who asked a simple question that set in to motion the saving of thousands of children; his story is well worth the read. His daughter wrote a book about her father, and the article notes: “The real reason that her father wanted her to write her book, Barbara Winton writes, was not so people would worship him as a hero or continue to look backward. The point, he felt, was that ordinary people should recognize that ‘they, too, can act ethically in the world and make a positive difference to the lives of others.'”
The photo of Winton with a refugee child in his arms brought tears to my eyes. I looked into the eyes of refugee children in Lebanon earlier this year; there is such great, great need. Winston’s life and words encourage me: “If something is not impossible, then there must be a way to do it.”