When Learning to Swim is a Privilege 


It was mostly toddlers who drowned off the coast of Libya.* Toddlers who had never paddled chubby legs in YMCA pools; who had never learned to hold their breath under water; whose last, terrible moments have to be given into the arms of God – because if not, life could not go on. 


I only took swimming lessons for one year while growing up. It was a year when we lived in the United States and every Wednesday Carin Waaramaa, me, and our two little brothers would go to the YMCA on a high hill in Fitchburg, Massachusetts. After an hour of breast stroke and back stroke, of treading water and learning to hold our breath, we would change back into street clothes and watch the ending of Dark Shadows in a television perched high on the wall of a waiting room. Dark Shadows was a no-no at both of our homes, so despite water logged ears, and chlorine-shot eyes we would watch until one of our mothers came to pick us up. 

I am still not a good swimmer, because one year is hardly enough to make you water safe, let alone proficient. My lack of comfort with swimming repeated itself in the next generation. Raising my children in Pakistan and the Middle East, we had limited access to pools, and though they all learned to swim, they are hardly proficient. 

The opposite is true for my husband. Indeed, he is a strong swimmer. He began as a toddler in Florida and only got better through the years. 


Why don’t they just swim to safety?” says someone when I mention the number of refugees who have drowned while trying to reach the safety of land and a new life. I am incredulous and bite back a scathing reply. 

Learning to swim is a privilege. In fact, more than half of the world’s population cannot swim.** Considering poverty levels and the large populace that live in massive cities around the world, this does not surprise me, nor should it surprise anybody. Knowing how to swim is not a guarantee for all the children and adults of the world. Many will never have the opportunity to learn. 

Yet crossing bodies of water is a primary way of escape for refugees caught in untenable situations and circumstances, no longer safe in the places they call home. 

The International Organization for Migration approximates that more than 5,000 died last year in attempting to cross bodies of water. Boats, overcrowded because of greedy owners, pile far more people than they should, charging too much for those desperate for safety and willing to pay any price. Even when the boats are not overcrowded, if a large ocean wave pummels refugees overboard, it is unlikely that any can swim to safety. 

I know all this, yet still this latest headline has me weeping. Toddlers who should be doing nothing more than learning to play and develop normally are drowned at sea. The atrocity of this sickens me. 


Two years ago my friend Farhan reached out to me. I met Farhan at a Yezidi refugee camp in Turkey. Farhan is married with two little boys. He is a gifted linguist and translator, trained and used by the U.S. Army. There was no future where he was, and he was desperate to leave Turkey. Through a United Nations connection in Ankara, we were able to help him get registered. When the date came for his first interview, we gasped in dismay. The date was for 2022 – 7 years from the date at the time. So Farhan took matters into his own hands. He found a boat that would take him and his family to Europe. He arrived safely and is now settled in Germany. Farhan’ family did not end up a headline, but many are not so lucky. 


There are many things in our world that are privileges, not rights. When we read the headlines through eyes and lives of privilege, we forget this and we grow blind to the suffering of others. So as I pray for those moms who lost their toddlers at sea, I voice another prayer. 

May God heal the eye sight of those of us who live in privilege and safety, and may we see the world with clearer vision. Only then can we pray with more wisdom and greater passion. 

*Source – NBC News 

**Source – MySwimPro

Persecution of Christians: Real and Stable


I speak up for refugees, immigrants, and Muslims on this blog. It’s right that I do so. I see, read, and hear fear about all of these groups from a variety of people. 

But today, I am speaking up for those from my own faith tradition who face persecution: Christians

An organization called Open Doors releases an annual list that examines religious freedoms for Christians worldwide in five areas. The five areas are private, family, community, national and church. 

Open Doors has been monitoring persecution for 25 years and claim that this past year, 2016, was the worst year yet for Christians. Indeed Islamic extremism, often a primary cause of persecution now has a rival: Ethnic nationalism. 

“Persecution” is defined as hostility experienced as a result of identifying with Christ.

Here is the list of the top ten countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian: 

  1. North Korea
  2. Somalia
  3. Afghanistan
  4. Pakistan
  5. Sudan
  6. Syria
  7. Iraq
  8. Iran
  9. Yemen
  10. Eritrea

It is critical to remember that this list is not about people being made fun of for their beliefs, or people feeling like they are not allowed to express political leanings. Many in the west erroneously believe that social media attacks on newsfeeds are “persecution.” Reading the report on persecution is both important and sobering. It also reveals those newsfeed attacks to be exactly what they are: petty, childish demonstrations of anger and dislike of opinions, NOT persecution. 

The persecution that these Christians face is real and it has been going on for many years. In fact, it shows no signs of stopping and is concerningly stable. I have highlighted a few significant findings. 

  1. A total of 27 Christian leaders in Mexico and Colombia (23 in Mexico and four in Colombia) were killed for speaking out against drug lords. 
  2. Pakistan rose to number four on the list, with great concern over the increase in violence. 
  3. Ethnic nationalism is deeply concerning as a growing cause of persecution 
  4. The most dangerous place in the world to be a Christian is North Korea. For 14 years, this country has topped the list. 

There are many more important findings and you can access the full list here. 

But all is not lost! The end of the article gives a beautiful picture of Middle Eastern Christians reclaiming their place. 

1. Christians looking forward to going back to historic homes in northern Iraq 

The days of an Islamic State-run caliphate in Northern Iraq and Syria are numbered. Since an August 2016 offensive, the Islamic militants have been pushed back by a coalition of Iraqi and foreign-backed forces. Some of the towns and villages, such as Qaraqosh – which were once completely Christian – have been liberated. Iraq’s second largest city – Mosul – will soon be in the hands of Iraqi forces. Over 80,000 Christians fled their homes in 2014 and have been refugees in Iraqi Kurdistan since. “We can’t wait to go back,” said one, in Erbil. “But we will go back with a greater determination to keep freedom defended.”
2. ‘Exodus’ of Middle East Christians slows 

Most Christians in the Middle East may have crossed a border within the region, but the majority have not yet left the region as a whole. The number of Christians exiting the region has slowed. Open Doors estimates the number of Christians in the Middle East and Turkey at currently 16.5 million, including migrant and expatriate Christians in the Gulf States.*

I will be honest. I am writing this while in complete comfort. I am at home in my living room and I’m slowly drinking a cup of coffee. I am far removed from the persecution and stress of so many who share my faith.  How do I reconcile my reality with what I’ve read, what I’ve heard, and what I’ve occasionally seen?

I think the first thing I need to do is be honest about my own circumstances and have a clear view of what persecution is, honoring those who struggle and not seeing persecution when it’s not there. The second thing I need to do is not shy away from the difficult. If it’s a story that is difficult for me to read, how much more difficult must it be for those who go through it? 

Next, I need to identify with those who are suffering through prayer and giving when and where I can. If that means giving of time and finances, then I need to move forward and give in those areas. 

But lastly, perhaps the biggest thing I can do is seek to love God and my neighbor, to remain faithful where God has placed me, to seek to be worthy of identifying with those who lose all that this world offers, deciding that their faith was worth it all. Amen and Amen.  

[Source:https://www.worldwatchmonitor.org/news/4812440/4812457/4837468%5D

1500 Olive Trees

Friends, I wrote this back in January, but I know many of us have been hurting over what is going on in Aleppo, so I am reposting.

There comes a time on any trip where you feel overwhelmed, when tiredness and lack of control of your surroundings can creep into the journey. I think it is particularly true of any kind of refugee or humanitarian work.

Yesterday was my day to feel overwhelmed. Overwhelmed and inadequate with the needs I have seen and the stories I have heard.

To summarize, anything you have ever heard or seen about the refugee crusis is true, but worse. The stories of losing everything, people watching relatives killed, babies born to moms who can’t breastfeed because of inadequate diet, losing factories, businesses, and livelihood. All of it is true.

Two days ago, we sat across from a farmer who had 1500 olive trees in a village near Aleppo. ISIS has taken over his land and cut most of the olive trees down for firewood. It is a literal loss of generations of family’s work. It is symbolic of everything else they have lost.

I have met widows and new moms struggling, men who can’t find work and mothers who lost their sons, men who are being pressured to sell their kidneys just to get money to feed their families. The collective loss is unimaginable.

I have learned that ISIS is one kind of evil–and the other evil is the people that would profit from a crisis. Those who would buy children from a desperate parent; scheme to traffic vital organs; and charge thousands of dollars so people can drown in a poorly made boat.

When people are left without hope, we must hope for them. 

It is a privilege to sit with people and hear their stories and I am so grateful for this time. It is a gift to laugh in the midst of pain; to drink strong cups of Arab coffee while sitting in tents; to ask people how we can pray.

But I also have an obligation to pass on what I have seen and learned and to ask you to remember this crisis, remember Syrian and Iraqi refugees. Don’t forget them – and pray for peace to come to these lands.

The following information comes from this site:

Preemptive Love Coalition has been working for over 10 years in the Middle East. They serve families in both Iraq and Syria. You can take a look at their website for information and ways to make a difference for refugees.

Questscope has been giving at-risk people in the Middle East “a second chance” for over three decades. Now they are first-responders, providing critical and long term assistance for thousands of families literally on the run for their lives in Syria. Just this week, Questscope is rescuing 4000 women and children from Homs, Syria. You can give desperately needed funds for those families here.

World Relief works through churches in the US as well as throughout the Middle East and Europe to provide emergency and long-term assistance for refugees. Check out their website to see how your church can get involved.

In the Fourth Watch of the Night


Recent Headlines:

Saturday, December 3 – 10-alarm fire in Cambridge, MA displaces 166 people.

Saturday, December 10 – Explosions outside football (soccer) stadium in Istanbul kills many. Turkey declares Sunday a national day of mourning for the country.

Sunday, December 11 – Terrorist attack in Coptic Church kills over 25 people with many more wounded. Most of the victims are women and children.

Sunday, December 11 – At least 160 dead when church in Nigeria collapses.

*****

The book of Matthew, first gospel in a set of four, says that Jesus came to the disciples on the fourth watch. His disciples, fishermen by trade, had gone fishing and a storm came suddenly in the middle of what had been a calm sea. 

After He had sent the crowds away, He went up on the mountain by Himself to pray; and when it was evening, He was there alone. But the boat was already a long distance from the land, battered by the waves; for the wind was contrary.And in the fourth watch of the night He came to them, walking on the sea. When the disciples saw Him walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.”

The Romans divided the night into four three-hour segments and the Jews had adopted these divisions. The fourth watch was the last part of the night between three and six in the morning. This was the last watch, the end of the night.

The fourth watch is that point where you wake up and it is so dark, you look at the clock beside your bed, and you sigh deeply – you can still sleep for another 2 hours. Or it’s the time when you have to be at the airport for the early morning flight, that flight that leaves at 6 am, passengers sporting only sleep-blurred eyes and coffee breath.

Or it’s the “darkest before dawn” part of the night.

It meant this storm on the sea of Galilee had raged all night long. It meant that the disciples were exhausted and defeated, that they had battled a critical weather event with every ounce of their human strength – but it was not enough. The storm was going to defeat them.

Until Jesus came and spoke words that calmed the sea.

The fourth watch. My mind fills with questions: Why did Jesus wait so long? Why did this miracle worker not intervene sooner? Why, when it was at their last bit of strength, did he suddenly appear – a ghost-like figure walking on the stormy seas?

My questions will never be answered and even as I write them I know these questions reflect my heart – a heart that finds faith hard, that sometimes thinks God waits too long to intervene. Too long to move hearts and souls, too long to change circumstances. I want him to come on the first watch, not the fourth.

Explosions, bombs, faulty construction, fires, a never-ending war in Syria, refugees by the million, continued persecution of Christians in the Middle East; people fleeing homes only to drown at sea — all of it feels like the fourth watch. It’s gone on too long. When will peace come? When will the Prince of Peace reign? When will evil be conquered? When will God intervene?

I texted an Egyptian friend yesterday when I heard about the bomb at the cathedral. She had invited me to the cathedral during our recent trip to Egypt and because of timing, we couldn’t go. “What can we do?” I typed out. Her immediate response “Pray. Pray for the wounded. Pray for the grieving. Pray for us.”

My heart is grieving for Egypt and Turkey. It is also heavy for my own stuff – my own grief and sadness. Perhaps yours is as well.

The world is waiting for the fourth watch. I am waiting for the fourth watch.

Many years ago there was a group of people who were waiting. There had been four hundred years of silence; four hundred years where there were no prophets, no mouth pieces of God. Four hundred years of history and oppression and finally, occupation by Rome. It was surely the fourth watch when Jesus came as a little baby, insignificant, another male child at the time of a census. The significant marks of his birth were seen later — a virgin birth, a star in the East, and an angel’s song to shepherds. Perhaps people like you and me were saying the same things that we say during these days of grief and loss.

It’s gone on too long.

When will peace come?

When will evil be conquered?

When will God intervene?

I’m reminded of this on this Monday morning.  We are weary. We are waiting for the fourth watch. We are waiting for the words: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” 

May it be so. 

*The story relayed is from the Gospel of Matthew chapter 14: 23-47.

[Note: this post was adapted from a previously written piece.]

Refugee Sunday – A Day of Sharing

Each year, the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of the United States of America set aside the Sunday before Thanksgiving as a time to specifically remember refugees and highlight the humanitarian  work that they do through International Orthodox Christian Charities.

Today is the day set aside for 2016.

It is hard to get our heads around the magnitude of the problem. The numbers get larger every day.

The Syrian Crisis is a humanitarian nightmare. On Friday this past week, an area housing several hospitals was bombed. The news reports write of nurses and doctors scurrying to get babies and small children to safety amidst the chaos of bombing. As of today, the few hospitals and health care facilities left in Aleppo closed due to ongoing attacks.

Along with the crisis of Syria are the ongoing challenges that come from people without homes and countries. Around 34,000 people are displaced every day and if we think that we are immune, that it could never happen to us, then we are living in a fantasy world. It takes one crisis to lose a home. One storm. One bomb. One fire. Our lives could change in a fraction of a second.

It’s easy to give up. When we are miles away from the heart of a struggle, it is much easier to ignore it. Perhaps that is why every single refugee we met in the past two years has left us with the same plea: “Don’t forget about us!”

I’ve written before about ways to help, and those ways continue to be useful and effective. It’s a bandaid to be sure, but in my experience God does to bandaids what he did to the loaves and fishes – he multiplies them times thousands.

Another way to give is by purchasing Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging. During the rest of November and all of December, all royalties will go toward refugees.  You can purchase the book here. 

I want to end with a reminder of three challenges that I have given before, but I believe they are worth repeating:  

A Call to Pray: “In the midst of tragedy, I am called to pray. Called to pray to a God who hears and loves, a God who is present in tragedy and accepts our “why’s”, a God who knows no national boundaries or citizenship, a God who took on our human pain and suffering when he ‘willingly endured the cross’.” [from In the Midst of Tragedy, A Call to Pray.]

A Call to Walk Away from Fear: I’m going to repeat what I have said publicly three times this week. Don’t make safety an idol. Choose to walk away from fear. Choose to love as you are loved; choose to offer your heart and your resources to those in need.

A Call to Love: Governments may do their thing, they may close their doors; as a Christian, I don’t have that option.  Period.

 “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you.”Luke 6: 26-31

Click here for more articles on refugees.

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A Life Overseas – Relax!

Readers, I am at A Life Overseas today talking about how God is at work in places where we go — and because of this, we can relax.

holy-ground

In August of 2015 I had the privilege of going to the Kurdish area of Iraq to work with refugees. On my first day there, I was traveling to a mobile health clinic when I got into a conversation with a pharmacist. One year before she lived and worked in Qaraqosh in the Nineveh province of Iraq. When ISIS entered the city, Christians were given three choices: Convert, pay a massive tax, or leave. She got out on the last bus to leave Qaraqosh. As we were talking I asked her what she would want me to communicate to Christians in America about Christians in Iraq. “What?!” she said in astonishment. “There are Christians in America!”

I love this story for many reasons, but the main one is that it reminds me yet again that long before America was born, the Church had been established and was growing even as it endured persecution, human mistakes, and petty gossip. I found out later that the pharmacist’s church was built by St. Thomas two thousand years ago. God and the Church had not left Iraq. They had been there all along. 

In my parents early years in Pakistan they felt like pioneers. They stepped out in faith just a few years after Pakistan had become a nation and left the shores of New York Harbor along with two other young couples. There were three couples with five children between them and for three months they lived in two rooms, the only foreigners in the city. My mom talks about the day they arrived in Pakistan in her book, Jars of Clay: 

As we stood on the deck of the Steel Recorder with our little ones around us on November 4,1954, we felt like pioneers. Today was the day we would finally set foot on the soil of Pakistan. Our years of study, preparation, and prayer, had brought Ralph and me, and Ray and Jean to this place at this point in time. We expected to spend our lives here in Pakistan, serving God and telling people of his love. We had not come on a short, fact-finding tour, gathering material to write an article or even a book. This would be our life.

However, we soon learned that others had been there before us, preparing the way.

More importantly, God was, and had been, at work preparing the way before they arrived.

You can read the rest here! 

Aleppo – History, Horror, and Cry for Help

city-view-772778_1280

In early September, main stream news sources and  all of social media were  alive with indignation when the Libertarian candidate for president – Gary Johnson – asked the question “What is Aleppo?”

Indeed – What is Aleppo? 

Aleppo is History.

For hundreds of years Aleppo was the largest city in Syria and one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world. Aleppo was called the “Jewel of Syria.” In a recent NPR interview, Charles Wilkins, professor of Middle Eastern History at Wake Forest University recalls entering Aleppo:  “You would enter the ancient city through the walls, usually from the west. And as you enter it, you immediately smell spices. Walking further in, you encounter shops selling soap, olive oil. Aleppo is famed for its soap. And further on you might even find heavy wool cloaks to wear in the cold Aleppan winters.” Aleppo was in a geographically unique position acting as a “caravan city” or a hub connecting other cities to each other through people and through trade.  Before the war, the city had a population of approximately 2 million.

Aleppo is Horror.

Short of the use of biological and nuclear weapons, Syria has seen the full spectrum of human destructiveness and Aleppo is currently in the centre of the storm.*

In the last five years, Aleppo has been on the front page of many newspapers world-wide more times than we can count. Since 2012, Aleppo has been in a battle between the Syrian government and the many forces that are fighting against that government.  Before and after pictures of Aleppo show a beautiful building in a vibrant community side by side with concrete buildings that are bombed out ghost streets. There is no resemblance to what it once was.

Aleppo is a case study of a massive refugee problem;  a problem that has humanitarian aid workers shaking their heads in disbelief and begging the world to act. But Aleppo is more than that – it is a symbol of what is wrong with our world. It is a symbol of disconnect between east and west, a symbol of what happens when a leader destroys its country, a symbol of war in all its horror.

“I heard a story recently that is emblematic of all of the suffering in Aleppo right now. A gravely wounded man arrived in a hospital, and there were no more spaces on the floor for new patients. The doctor told the nurse: “This man will only live for two more hours. Take him out of the hospital so that we can admit those who can possibly be saved.” The man was put in a body bag while he was still alive, and placed in the street to be buried. This is the horror that we face in Aleppo.” From NYTimes Opinion piece 10/21/2016

Aleppo is a Cry for Help.  

Aleppo is complicated – it is much easier to ignore something when there are no easy answers, when it takes an effort to educate ourselves on what is going on. We watch buildings bombed out on television, we scroll through news that gives us more body counts and describes more destruction. We watch and we have to turn away because it is too much to bear. We also turn away because we wish we had answers, and we don’t.  Aleppo calls out in her suffering, begging the world for answers that it cannot give.

Aleppo is bigger than a war, bigger than a historical place in Syria. Aleppo is symbolic of so many problems in our world today — problems that are too big and seemingly have no solutions. Aleppo is apathy and denial; turning our faces away from need and focusing on that which is easy. Aleppo is disparity between rich and poor, injustice, and enmity between people.

So the question “What is Aleppo?” is not just a political one – it’s a spiritual one.

As Christians in the United States, we watch suffering from far away, often from a comfortable couch with a favorite drink in our hands. The Aleppo problem is theoretical rather than personal. It is something that is happening “over there” and many feel the important piece is making sure that it doesn’t “come here.”

But as a Christian, the question “What is Aleppo?” encompasses all the other questions I have that have no answers. Why suffering? Why injustice? Why do the evil thrive?

The questions have been asked by millions through the ages and they will be asked again until the end of time.

So what is Aleppo?  I find the answer in the verses of a Psalm written long ago.

Psalm 10

Why, Lord, do you stand far off?
Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?

In his arrogance the wicked man hunts down the weak,
who are caught in the schemes he devises.
He boasts about the cravings of his heart;
he blesses the greedy and reviles the Lord.
In his pride the wicked man does not seek him;
in all his thoughts there is no room for God.
His ways are always prosperous;
your laws are rejected by[b] him;
he sneers at all his enemies.
He says to himself, “Nothing will ever shake me.”
He swears, “No one will ever do me harm.”

His mouth is full of lies and threats;
trouble and evil are under his tongue.
He lies in wait near the villages;
from ambush he murders the innocent.
His eyes watch in secret for his victims;
    like a lion in cover he lies in wait.
He lies in wait to catch the helpless;
he catches the helpless and drags them off in his net.
10 His victims are crushed, they collapse;
they fall under his strength.
11 He says to himself, “God will never notice;
he covers his face and never sees.”

12 Arise, Lord! Lift up your hand, O God.
    Do not forget the helpless.
13 Why does the wicked man revile God?
Why does he say to himself,
“He won’t call me to account”?
14 But you, God, see the trouble of the afflicted;
    you consider their grief and take it in hand.
The victims commit themselves to you;
    you are the helper of the fatherless.
15 Break the arm of the wicked man;
    call the evildoer to account for his wickedness
    that would not otherwise be found out.

Mosul and Aleppo: A Tale of Two Cities

[Picture Source – Pixabay https://pixabay.com/en/city-view-quote-elle-aleppo-772778/%5D

When Pictures Wake us Up

Syria

The world grows tired but pictures wake us up.

The world is weary of words, but pictures change the conversation.

I write about refugees, knowing that there are those shaking their heads “yeah, yeah, we know already.” This is coded language for the longer “We know there are refugees, we know there are overwhelming needs. There is nothing we can do. Just let us escape, just for one day.”

The world is weary – pictures revive us.

No matter how tired we are, God sees. God hears. God remembers. God knows. I cling to this today as another picture, of another small child, wakes up a sleeping world.

Today, whatever you are doing, would you stop and pray for Syria?

*****

Why You Should Care: 

Three challenges:

A Call to Pray: “In the midst of tragedy, I am called to pray. Called to pray to a God who hears and loves, a God who is present in tragedy and accepts our “why’s”, a God who knows no national boundaries or citizenship, a God who took on our human pain and suffering when he ‘willingly endured the cross’.” [from In the Midst of Tragedy, A Call to Pray.]

A Call to Walk Away from Fear: I’m going to repeat what I have said publicly three times this week. Don’t make safety an idol. Choose to walk away from fear. Choose to love as you are loved; choose to offer your heart and your resources to those in need.

A Call to Love: Governments may do their thing, they may close their doors; as a Christian, I don’t have that option.  Period.

Here are ways to help:

  • Heart for Lebanon – This is an amazing organization that works with refugees around Lebanon focusing on food distribution and education. The organization is based on developing relationships with refugees. I can’t speak highly enough about this organization.
  • Make Refugee Kits! Family and Infant Refugee Kits I cannot stress enough how useful these kits are. We have taken over 100 to Iraq and Turkey and sent even more. It’s an excellent Christmas project. I reached out to the folks at Medical Teams and here is what they said:“Thank you so much for your email – and your support for our mission. We will gladly accept shipments at our Tigard Oregon Distribution Center – 14150 SW Milton Court, Tigard OR 97224. Again, thank you for your interest in our project – We are so touched by the kindness and compassion from people around the US!”
  • International Orthodox Christian Charities

For Sale Cheap: Kidneys and Children

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“An entire criminal infrastructure has developed over the past 18 months around exploiting the migrant flow.”

Brian Donald, Europol Chief of Staff to Observer

 

It was five in the evening and we had just returned from South Lebanon. We had an hour before our evening appointment and so we collapsed on the bed, drained.

I wanted to punch the walls and scream so that the roof fell in. Anger rose like bile in the back of my throat.

Only a couple of hours before, we had met with a lovely family.  They were refugees from Syria and were living in a small shack in South Lebanon. The family had two little boys, and the mom had just given birth to twins – a boy and a girl. As I sat holding the baby girl, she told me about her husband. A man had been pressuring him to sell one of his kidneys. He had refused, but the man kept on coming back, kept on pressuring. She didn’t want him to sell a kidney, but she was afraid. Afraid that the man would come back, afraid that her husband would break under the pressure. She knew it was dangerous. She knew it wasn’t a good idea. She also knew that her husband was worried. He had no job, no income, and the family needed to eat. She was breastfeeding the baby girl but didn’t have enough milk to breast feed both babies, so was formula feeding her baby boy.

As heavy as all of this sounds, our time with them was joyful and fun. I was so struck by the general sweetness of this family, their spirit of peace and joy evident despite their circumstances. It was a stark contrast to the visit we had just had with a woman across town, whose circumstances had engulfed her with sorrow and despair.

It was afterwards, as we drove back to Beirut that I could not shake my rage.

ISIS is only a part of the evil that is going on in the refugee crisis. There is a whole other side, a “lazy evil” my friend calls it. It’s the evil of exploitation and gain from another’s misery. It’s the criminal underworld of trafficking children and organs; of charging $50,000 for a leaky boat ride where passengers are only fifty percent likely to make it to the safety of shore. The evil of exploitation has found a billion dollar business in the world of refugees.

Consider this:

  • 10,000 refugee children missing in Europe – thought to be kidnapped or sold.
  • In Jordan, 46% of Syrian refugee boys and 14% of girls aged 14 or over are working more than 44 hours a week.
  • Refugees are pressured to sell kidneys to middle men who then sell those kidneys to rich people who need transplants.
  • In July, a diabetic child dies on a migrant transport boat after traffickers throw her insulin overboard.
  • In August, a 27 year old is found asphyxiated in luggage on a ferry.
  • In February, 9 people (including 2 children) drowned, while only 2 people were saved, when a boat sank off the coast of the Turkish provice Izmir.
  • Women and girls are consistently placed in vulnerable positions, harassed, threatened, and pressured for sexual favors in exchange for safe passage.

“After living through the horrors of the war in Iraq and Syria these women have risked everything to find safety for themselves and their children. But from the moment they begin this journey they are again exposed to violence and exploitation, with little support or protection.” Tirana Hassan, Amnesty International’s Crisis Response director

It seems like there is nothing I can do to stop this evil from happening. I have nothing to offer.

And yet, in a way, perhaps I do have something to offer. Any time I make a decision to willfully ignore my fellow man, I am adding to the problem. Any time I choose to ignore my relationship to God, and therein my connection to humans, I too am participating in “lazy evil.” I can argue and deny it all I want. I can say, “I’m nothing like those who exploit the refugees. I would never do anything like that! I’m better than that!” But am I?

Somehow, we are all connected in this journey. Not in a sappy, “We are the world” way – but in a vigorous, mystical way. The decisions that I make do not just affect me, but others around the world. We are integrally connected, and until I take responsibility for that connection, I am only partially human.

This is why the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have Mercy on Me” makes so much sense. Now, suddenly, the me is we. None of us lives in isolation but in a connected mystery that takes a lifetime to figure out. I am connected to these refugees. I am connected to the entire refugee crisis. I am even connected to those who exploit.

I cannot live my life as though they do not exist.

As I write this, I am in the midst of reading a book called The End of Suffering by Scott Cairns. I received it from my son, Jonathan, on my birthday. It’s a small volume, easily carried in a purse. It is an appropriate book for me at this time, as I think about the refugee trips that I have been on and attempt to make sense of what that means in the future.

This book is a precious gem in a sea of cheap, glass baubles. It’s deep and thick reading and the truth is, I am not smart enough to read it quickly. I find myself reading almost every sentence three times before I fully understand it. But it’s worth the time that it is taking.

It’s in this volume that I am learning more of Christ’s decision to enter into our suffering; to enter into the suffering of the refugee; of the exploited one. I’ll end what has felt like the hardest piece I have ever written with words from the book:

The thief being crucified beside Christ was not simply baiting Jesus when he asked of Him, ‘If you are the Christ, save yourself and us’; he was probably thinking that if this bloodied man hanging beside him were truly God’s annointed, then any reasonable, self-respecting Christ would do just that – save Himself….which was why He did not save Himself, but rather gave Himself. 

He did not come simply to rid the Jews of the oppressive Romans any more than He came to trump the other oppressive circumstances that His oddly beloved creatures have continued to construct for themselves and others. On the contrary, He came to suffer the results of those cosmic bad choices with us, and by so doing to both show us how we might survive them and to enable our survival – in Himself.* 

*From The End of Suffering by Scott Cairns pages 108-109

Sources:

Waving Olive Branches

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Olives are ubiquitous in the Middle East. Served with almost every meal, they vary in color and size, offering a pungent, salty taste. Eat them with bread and white cheese and you have a meal fit for royalty. The trees are everywhere – in gardens, along the sides of roads, and in churchyards. You cannot escape the olive branch.

For years, the olive branch has been a symbol of peace.  In early August, on my first evening in Iraq, I saw the symbol of the olive branch in a new way.

We had been invited to participate in a women’s meeting in late afternoon, but immediately following the meeting we were whisked away to a performance put on by actors from the city of Qaraqosh. Exactly one year ago that day, Qaraqosh had fallen to the Islamic State. Until that time, I had only read stories about Qaraqosh in the news. Now, I was meeting real people with real and poignant stories.

One woman, a lab technician, was walking home from work, only to have a neighbor rush up to her and say “You must leave! ISIS is coming!” She was the primary caregiver for both a father and sister who were disabled. In her words, she became “very afraid.” The next morning, her neighborhood was deserted and she saw the ominous, black ISIS flags in the distance. By a miracle, she was able to secure bus space for her family, but had to leave everything else behind.  When you are fleeing for your life, your priorities of what matters and what you should take change in an instant.

The play we were privileged to see was about the fall of Qaraqosh. The heartache and loss that people experienced as they had to leave their homes and community was palpable. Vivid color and music drew us in. The stage set alternated between dark and ominous, where ISIS soldiers took center stage, to a bright and vibrant background of churches and ancient city streets.

The play was in three acts with monologues by three main actors. It was all in Arabic, but like all good acting, it didn’t just rely on the spoken word.

There were many poignant parts of the play, but a couple parts stood out. During one scene, a  beautiful little girl came skipping and dancing on stage. She symbolized the story of Christina, a little girl who was pulled by ISIS from the hands of her mother while she was fleeing the city. Of all the stories of Qaraqosh, this one was the most difficult and symbolized all the loss and pain of a community.  As the main character reached for Christina, she was gone.

During another scene, one of the actors reminisced about Palm Sunday, a day when the whole city of Qaraqosh would wave olive branches as they remembered the coming of Christ to Jerusalem.

But it was the end of the play that left a defining imprint on my heart and soul. The three actors came out on stage, holding hands and raising them high. They practically shouted words of forgiveness and grace:

“Though the road may be long and filled with our blood, we will go back bearing olive branches.”

This play was not ending on a note of despair, but of hope. This play was a tribute to resilience, to perseverance, to faith, and to forgiveness.

Forgiveness is not easy. We give up our rights to hold on to wrong-doing, we give up our rights to be victims, we extend grace to the perpetrator. Sometimes forgiveness costs us everything we have, everything we can give. But there is no ambiguity in the Biblical call to forgive, there is no grey area, there is no “but what about…?”

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy’…But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,”*

The command is clear, and I was witnessing a group that didn’t just act this out, but lived this out.

The actors on stage and the people in the audience were witnesses to a greater love, to a greater command then our human desire for vengeance and revenge. When they left Qaraqosh, they lost everything but their lives. Yet here they were, publically proclaiming grace and forgiveness.

Their grace and forgiveness was as present and pungent as olives and olive trees in the Middle East.

I have seen a lot of examples in my life of forgiveness, but this one was the most powerful.

I fell asleep that night with my heart full, the images of olive branches waving above me, images of forgiveness and peace.

*Matthew 5:44

Scraps from the Table

seat at the table

“Pity and what it offers are scraps from the table. Justice is a seat at the table.”*

Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan.

Three vastly different countries with different histories and different politics. They don’t even speak the same dialects of Arabic, but they are lumped together in the two-dimensional view that the Western world has of the Middle East.

I have a limited perspective, one that is confined to brief visits, cups of strong tea or Arabic coffee, and conversations of the heart. But in this limited perspective, I am reminded again that refugees are not to be objects of pity, hanging around like dogs to get scraps of charity. They are people of dignity and worth, people who have tenaciously clung to life and hope. Why would I pity someone who is so much stronger and more courageous than I am?

But this is not necessarily the attitude of others or of governments. An excellent article in Foreign Policy speaks to the danger of pity:

The Global North is building fences, deporting children, stymieing the progress to safety of war refugees from Syria, South Sudan, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Europe is paying Turkey to play bouncer and keep asylum-seekers outside its borders. The settled West is telling migrants: We pity you, but we don’t trust you, and we want to keep pitying you on your shores rather than welcoming you to ours.

The author goes on to say:

Rootlessness — the implied weakness of it — is treated as a failure. That is plainly schizophrenic: In a world where one in seven people is displaced, the failure must be of planetary scale. It belongs to all of us. This is a century of dislocation not merely of body and home, but also of empathy, dignity, compassion.

We in the West are tutored well in our attitudes toward refugees and migrants – tutored by a fear-mongering media, tutored by law makers and wanna be law makers who speak without facts and spread misinformation. As the author of the article I cited above says: “The West is telling migrants: We pity you, but we don’t trust you….”

Three years ago, I wrote an article called “You Can’t Empower Those you Pity.” I think about it today as I mull over how I want to portray the people I met and the stories I heard. Because if I create a narrative of pity, then I will have failed.

Pity reduces people to failures who somehow couldn’t hold it together enough to stay rooted. Pity is the enemy of compassion.

Pity insults. Pity humiliates. Pity sees others as ‘less than’ not ‘equal to’ or ‘above’. While compassion is a vital part of love and moves us to action, pity looks on as a superior bystander.

Pity is scraps from the table.

I don’t know a lot, but I do know that refugees need to be given a seat at the table. They need our partnership, our compassion, the best of what we can give. Otherwise we all lose. 

“Unless the world finds compassion for this new communality, learns to make sense of one another’s voices, its humanity will perish.”

“Dispossessed is an identity of disempowerment, but it is a powerful identity. Borders may temporarily hold back the flow of humans adrift, but in a world where we are so tightly and dizzyingly interwoven, physical boundaries are far less obstructive than the lasting confinement of imposed narratives.”

*paraphrased from a tweet by Lindsey Hunt at Harvard Medical School Primary Care Center.

Note: Would you consider donating to schools for Syrian refugee children in Lebanon? Read more here! 

It’s a Baby!

 

Om Ali 5

I have several friends who have had babies in the past year. These babies are beautiful — a couple of them boys, a couple of them girls. I watch in amazement as they grow week by week – one week soft, sweet-smelling lumps that look around at the world they came into in wonder; the next week smiling, laughing, interactive personalities. It is a miracle, this human growth and development.

All of these babies have something in common – they were born into families that had homes and jobs, friends and family. They were born into place. None of the couples are migrants or refugees, they are not displaced.

But babies don’t choose when and where they come into the world. Babies are born into the best of circumstances and into the most difficult of circumstances.

This is what I think about as I hold Om Ali’s tenth child, a little girl named Salaam. A little girl she has named Peace. Traditionally, women are called by the name of their oldest son, so Om Ali literally means “Mother of Ali.” It was easy to guess the name of her oldest son.

We pulled up to the set of tents around noon time. “They won’t want early visitors,” said our Jordanian friend. I smiled – I’m the same way. Don’t come early. I won’t be ready.

Om Ali came out to greet us, a bright purple turban around her head. In any language or culture, this woman would be a strong, vibrant force.

The group of five or six tents could hardly be called a camp. They stood, haphazard, some of them with large UNHCR emblems, others with billboards providing shelter. Like many of the Syrian refugees we met in Lebanon, this group were also Syrian farmers. They had come from Syria and settled outside of Amman with hundreds of others. At some point, the government made the decision to move all the refugees to a camp in the middle of the desert, a camp called Azraq. Om Ali said it was terrible. A camp in the middle of the desert, the sun beating down all day, no running water, no electricity. So this group took it into their own hands and moved back to Amman. They set up near a factory where the men could occasionally work for one Jordanian Dinar an hour. That’s the equivalent of one dollar and forty cents. Other men found work in a market near by.

Om Ali had delivered baby Salaam just a month before. As I rocked the baby, she told us the story of coming from Syria. “The Jordanian government has been very good to us. We have not gone hungry and we have been safe. The Syrians at Azraq Camp are not happy. But we are happy.” We asked her about the tent –when the rains and snow come, does it keep dry? “Mostly. There is a thick cloth, then plastic, then another thick cloth. It mostly leaks in the corners.” Her tent was like so many others. Clean and simple, thick carpet on the floor and cushions around the sides. Blankets were piled in a corner, pulled out every night to keep the family warm. An old television sat on the one shelf in the room, it’s antenna reaching up toward the ceilin. A lone light bulb hung down from the middle of the tent. “Mostly we have electricity in the winter. It goes off in the summer.” Like the refugees in Bekaa Valley, they too pay for the land that their tent sits on. They pay for the electricity and water that they use as well. Because this group of tents is not an official camp, Om Ali says they get no refugee benefits. “We lost our papers because we moved back to Amman.” But what to do? There is no work in the desert. There is no future in the desert. In the city, at least there is hope for the future.

Baby Salaam woke up in my arms and looked at me in horror as if to say “You’re not my mother!” Om Ali expertly lifted her up and began to breast feed, immediately quieting her wails. Om Ali’s oldest son, Ali, lived in the tent next door with her daughter-in-law. A baby had been born early that morning and her daughter-in-law was already back in the tent. When they have to, they seek care at a hospital near by but it costs and so the sooner the new mom could get back to her tent, the better. The new baby had joined a one and a half year old girl – Maryam. Maryam came to my lap, sitting contentedly, blissfully unaware of the new-born bundle of competition next door.

Babies were born at Azraq camp too, Om Ali told us. And they don’t always live. It’s hot and sometimes the mothers can’t nurse so the babies die of malnutrition and dehydration.

I thought back to my own experiences of giving birth, in beautiful birthing rooms with rocking chairs and wall paper; in a clean, well run hospital in Pakistan; in a hospital on the Nile River in Egypt — all so different from what I knew of this new mom’s situation. I longed to go next door and check on her, make sure she was okay, that her uterus was going down appropriately and that she was safe. But if there is one thing I know, you respect the privacy of those you don’t know. I was a stranger to this extended family.

Our Jordanian friend indicated it was time to go and so we asked how we could pray. How could we remember them? How could we pray for them?

Pray for safety. Pray for peace. Pray that we can return to Syria. Don’t forget us. 

The same prayer request outside of Amman that we heard in the Bekaa Valley. A prayer that echoed from Syria to Iraq to Lebanon to Jordan and back to Syria.

We had brought baby kits, blankets, and hygiene kits so as we left we asked them to come out to the car. There we loaded their arms with the little we had brought. I hugged and kissed Om Ali – first one cheek, then the other. And then again. As though we couldn’t get enough of each other.

Pressing my cheek against hers, I repeated over and over “Allah ma’ak. Allah ma’ak.” 

God be with you Om Ali.

Note: If you are just coming by, this week I am writing stories from our time in Lebanon and Jordan. If you would like to give to refugees in Jordan, we are working with Conscience International to send funds.

“Days of the Week”

Like most things, the refugee crisis is complex and three-dimensional. And one of the things that goes along with this work are the moments and times of extraordinary joy. This is one of those times.

The children in the video are Syrian refugees living in Lebanon. They go to a school that is run by Heart for Lebanon. This was the youngest class, and I couldn’t stop smiling while they were singing.

Take a minute this Friday and enjoy the video!

Syrian refugee children from Marilyn Gardner on Vimeo.

And We’re Back…

Last night we arrived back to Terminal E at Logan International Airport. The trip began early morning in Lebanon and by the time we arrived we had been up for 24 hours.

A wet snow was falling as we made our way out of the terminal, a contrast to our 60 degrees and sunny in both Jordan and Lebanon.

There is a lot to reflect on and think about as we readjust to our day jobs and seek to live faithfully in a place that we don’t find easy.

We are richer in spirit and are humbled by what we have seen and heard.

These are some first thoughts on return. More stories will be coming, stories that are important to hear, but for now these are the things most on my heart.

  1. “Refugees all want to come here”..this is a myth perpetuated by a faux media. They want safety and to go home. It is arrogant of the West to think that all want to come to this part of the world. It is wrong of the Church to base decisions on fear instead of prayer and wisdom.
  2. The churches in Jordan and Lebanon are deeply involved in helping in the crisis. They are tireless in their efforts to feed, clothe, educate, and provide health care for refugees. No penny you give will be wasted. I have provided links to two organizations that I guarantee give money to projects directly helping refugees in their daily lives.
  3. The problem is so huge there is no room for competition or territorialism. There is only room for collaboration and hard work. No one organization or group of people can possibly handle the scope of refugee work that exists. Competition hurts the very people that the organization wants to serve.
  4. In every crisis, there are opportunists. This is the hardest thing for me to come to terms with. Exploiting the marginalized, the refugee, the hurting is nothing new – but there are infinitely creative ways to do this. My heart hurts deeply for this. Da’esh (ISIS) is one evil, opportunists are another. The way to intervene is to offer appropriate help.
  5. Babies are born in the worst of circumstances. They are a picture of grace in the midst of difficulty. I’ll write more later on the importance of offering good forms of birth control. I would gently challenge anyone against birth control to visit a refugee camp and not reconsider their position.
  6. I have been challenged more than ever to pray and believe that the Church has a significant role to play. It is a role of service, prayer, and help. It is a place for the Church to show what it is made of and to live out the Gospel message.
  7. There is only one who is the Saviour, and I am not that Saviour. Yes, I hope I have a role to play, but I have to see my role through the eyes of humility and grace. There is no place for arrogance.

It was a gift to be with my husband on this journey and hear stories together. Thank you to those who have followed us on this trip.

On this Martin Luther King Day, I am reminded to pray that voices and lives rise up for peace and justice around the world. In the words of Amos the prophet: “Take away from Me the noise of your songs; I will not even listen to the sound of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream”

  • Conscience International – If you are interested in small projects like food distribution, helping to fund a mobile medical clinic, or helping support Syrian children go to school. CI does small projects that directly support refugees with almost no overhead.
  • Heart for Lebanon – This is an amazing organization that works with refugees around Lebanon focusing on food distribution and education. The organization is based on developing relationships with refugees. I can’t speak highly enough about this organization.

Note: We received permission to take and share all pictures that you see on this blog. 

  

  

Love, Fear and the Syrian Refugee

The NYTimes Daily Briefing had this to say this morning: Donald J. Trump, called for a “total and complete shutdown” of Muslims entering the country.

At an assembly at Liberty University on Friday, Jerry Falwell Jr., under the banner “Training Champions for Christ since 1971”  said this: “If more good people had concealed-carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they walked in and killed them.” Followed by:“Let’s teach them a lesson if they ever show up here.”

It seems particularly appropriate to publish this guest post written by a man who lives in Afghanistan. I first read it on a friend’s newsfeed and felt it important enough to reach out to the writer and ask for permission to publish it on Communicating Across Boundaries.

 

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Love, Fear and the Syrian Refugees: My View by C.L.

Every day I live in Afghanistan I have a choice to make. Those Muslim refugees streaming to Europe, they’re friends of mine. That ISIS in far off Paris; an outpost of its caliphate is in the city next to Kabul and its minions circulate silently through my city looking for targets. I’ve lost ten friends to the Taliban extremists. Fear knocks at my door every single day. And I choose love. I would defend my family with my life if a terrorist came after my family. And I choose love. The love I choose is for the literally 99.9% of my Muslim friends who hate the extremists. It’s for the Muslim man who literally put his body between me and danger for no other reason than he cared for me as a human.

I smell fear among Christians in America. Why do I say it’s fear? Because fear breeds irrationality. Fear doesn’t listen to facts. Fear looks to others to justify itself. Fear sees conspiracies in every corner. Fear gets caught up in group-think which, in our saner moments, we would scratch our heads at and wonder how we sold our thoughts in the slave market of sheep herders.

Look, I’m not at all immune to fear myself. I was in the Afghan city of Herat during a crisis when I received a frantic call from a diplomat in the US Consulate that communicated to me that I was in imminent danger of being swept up by an angry mob seeking the blood of an American. At that very moment my entire world narrowed down into a simple, raw, laser focus of survival. That is what fear does, it preempts logic, preempts even strongly-held beliefs for the sake of survival. And that is what I see with the issue of the Syrian refugees.

In our calmer moments, how many of us believe strongly in welcoming strangers and refugees? Jesus himself was a refugee in Egypt. The Bible is full of passages that command us to welcome refugees, going so far as questioning our faith if we turn away widows, orphans and refugees. For heaven’s sake, the Pilgrims were refugees and, contrary to the myth we’ve created about them, significant numbers of them were unsavory folks escaping justice, not religious persecution.

So, we hear that 100,000 Syrian refugees are going to invade the US as a Trojan horse for ISIS. We hear that the Paris attackers were all Syrians who surreptitiously joined the hordes of mostly young, military-age men swamping the borders of Europe. It’s inevitable that the same will happen to the US because we have no good system to screen them. Panic! Fear! Does anyone realize that the “facts” that I have just stated are simply not true? But fear ignores the facts. Fear throws out deeply-held beliefs.

Choose love. There are 750,000 legal refugees who have come to our shores since 9/11 and not one of them has perpetrated a terrorist attack. That’s pretty good screening, if you ask me! And what if one terrorist did get through? Do we hate the 749,999 of them because of the one? Do we abandon our principles and beliefs and let the terrorist do exactly what he aims to do, make us lesser humans by reverting to our baser selves?

Where is Jesus in all of this? And think about this: do you realize the rejection of Syrian refugees by Christians in America is bringing shame on the name of Jesus here in Afghanistan?

Choose love. Every single day K and I make a decision to choose love and to act out from that love. If we can do it do it in Afghanistan, surely you can choose love in America too. Welcome the Syrian refugees… in love.

Note: Should you want to reach out to the author, please feel free to contact me through the comments or the about page.

Photo Credit –Edward Brown

Syrian Moms Speak

refugee in Arabic calligraphy
Refugee in Arabic Calligraphy from https://twitter.com/MalekJandali

“So now I know what the word ‘refugee’ means, that you leave your own country Syria, and you come to a strange land that you don’t know, and you stay there and suffer its difficulties. That’s the word ‘refugee’, it’s very strange”*

Sometimes my words and passion feel tired. I think to myself “I’m saying the same thing – over and over.” It’s then that I need to use the words of others, whether they be in spoken word or in print. Today I hope you take four minutes and watch this hard but hopeful video and the voices of two moms from Syria.

“It is a difficult feeling when a mother feels she has to defend her children….A mother must be higher than a mother, stronger than a mother. Perhaps this has allowed the Syrian mother to release some of her hidden strengths. Sometimes I turn the problems they are experiencing into stories to teach them [how to cope]. When I talk to them, sometimes we reminisce together about our home. Yes, we talk about things like that. So that our children continue to love their homeland. So that they don’t forget. Particularly here I have children with me. If this goes on too long, they might forget their families. They might forget everything.”

“The experience of being a refugee is extremely tough. To be forced to leave your home, to leave the lovely atmosphere, your friends, and the school environment. I dream of being in my home in Syria….Despite all this, we have some good memories in Zaatari camp. Memories with our brother refugees here. We are all stuck here in one place.The situation is difficult, but perhaps, because of some divine wisdom, people from all parts of Syria have been gathered together in one place.”

*Quote from Syria’s Child Refugees: You feel they have lost their hearts.

The Refugee as Scapegoat

Scapegoat

Breaking News: WASHINGTON — The House passed a bill Thursday to halt the admission of Syrian refugees into the U.S. until they undergo a more stringent vetting process — the most stringent vetting ever required for people fleeing a war-torn nation. [source-USA Today]

I shake my head in disbelief and anger. It already takes two to three years for a Syrian refugee to be resettled in the United States. Out of 4,289,792 and counting registered Syrian refugees, 2,370 have been resettled in the United States since 2001. See this Step by Step guide to the process. 

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As humans, we have a deep need to find reasons for why bad things happen. We want to find those responsible and punish them so that the problem is solved. We want quick results and solutions. And in the process, it is our human tendency to cast blame, to find a scapegoat.

The world has wept at the tragedies of last week, and yet before the tears dried, a scapegoat had to be found. In the United States, the scapegoat is the refugee.

…the real problem is not the refugee. It is the violence that created the refugee.

And so the real problem has been masked. Because the real problem is not the refugee. It is the violence that created the refugee. It is a war that left over 40 million refugees in its wake. It is a 1948 Nakba that caused an exodus of over 80% of Palestinians from olive groves and villages. It is a Bosnian war where 2.7 million people had to flee. It is a violent war in Darfur that left millions displaced. It is conflict in Colombia that gets no attention, even though millions have reportedly been displaced.  It is an invasion that caused 4.7 million Iraqis to flee from their homes and livelihoods.

And now it is a conflict in Syria where numbers rise every day so that I constantly have to look up the numbers and shake my head in disbelief.

No – it is not the refugee. But like the goat let loose in the wilderness in Old Testament times, the refugee bears the sins of violence of others.

What’s to be done with a scapegoat? 

Imagine that you and your family were victims of a violent robbery in your home. You lost everything that was precious to you, including a son who was caught in the crossfire and shot by one of the robbers. Your home was destroyed, and you are at the mercy of those around you. At first there is empathy – but then, people begin to talk. “They should have paid for an alarm system.” “They should have had a gun.”
“They made themselves vulnerable to that attack.” “They should have family that help them.” And so people back away, and instead of offering support, they are suspicious. The insurance company tells you that the repairs and claims will take months to process. You have suddenly become a displaced person, and you are being blamed for being displaced.

I’ve read that in Ancient Greece, during times of war or disaster, a beggar or a cripple was thrown out of the community. It was scapegoating, blaming the innocent in order to make everything okay. I read that and I think “How sad that the community believed that the tragedy would be averted? How sad that they thought this would make everything okay.”

Indeed – how sad. How very sad. Why didn’t they know better? 

Refugee Facts & Resources

Office of resettlement

I thought it would be helpful to compile resources here for those of you who are looking to know more about resettlement and how the refugee process works. The resources are a mixture of those found in the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Australia, and New Zealand.

Refugee Information:

How to Help: 

  • Make Refugee Kits! Family and Infant Refugee Kits I cannot stress enough how useful these kits are. We have taken over 100 to Iraq and Turkey and sent even more. It’s an excellent Christmas project. I reached out to the folks at Medical Teams and here is what they said:“Thank you so much for your email – and your support for our mission. We will gladly accept shipments at our Tigard Oregon Distribution Center – 14150 SW Milton Court, Tigard OR 97224. Again, thank you for your interest in our project – We are so touched by the kindness and compassion from people around the US!”
  • Conscience International
  • International Orthodox Christian Charities
  • Heart for Lebanon

Note: I purposely did not put in the typical large organizations, namely because I think it’s easier to know where your money goes with the smaller organizations. I can absolutely vouch for the low overhead of these organizations as well as seeing in person the work that is being done with refugees.

Helpful Articles: 

Why You Should Care: 

In closing, I want to say this: there’s an acronym in social media “smdh.” It stands for “shaking my damn head.” As I see the reaction to refugees by fellow Christians as evidenced by statements by Christian leaders, I am literally shaking my damn head. I don’t get it.  We have made refugees the scapegoats for egregious, condemnable acts of violenceSo I issue three challenges:

A Call to Pray: “In the midst of tragedy, I am called to pray. Called to pray to a God who hears and loves, a God who is present in tragedy and accepts our “why’s”, a God who knows no national boundaries or citizenship, a God who took on our human pain and suffering when he ‘willingly endured the cross’.” [from In the Midst of Tragedy, A Call to Pray.]

A Call to Walk Away from Fear: I’m going to repeat what I have said publicly three times this week. Don’t make safety an idol. Choose to walk away from fear. Choose to love as you are loved; choose to offer your heart and your resources to those in need.

A Call to Love: Governments may do their thing, they may close their doors; as a Christian, I don’t have that option.  Period.

 “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.29 If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. 30 Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back.31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Luke 6: 26-31

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Purchase Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging and all proceeds will go toward Syrian and Iraqi refugees and displaced people! 

no to refugees
Photograph courtesy of Ed Brown