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

Small Things for the Kingdom

“Long ago, it seemed, I had been ruined for the ordinary.” 

It was six years ago that I had the opportunity to go to Pakistan, place of my childhood and land that I love, to work with displaced people. Massive floods had uprooted millions of people and Pakistan was feeling the after effects. Villages sat empty, every house unliveable because of water damage that had reached high on the walls. IDP* camps were full of people who already had so little – now they had lost the little they had.

Something happened to my heart the day that I saw a picture of Jacobabad, a place of one of my childhood homes, on the front page of the NY Times completely flooded. More than anything in the world, I wanted to go to Pakistan. I wanted to go help.

For many, this would seem brave. The Taliban had just attacked 36 trucks filled with fuel on the outskirts of Shikarpur – the place where I was headed. Pakistan was constantly front page news, not for anything good. For me, this wasn’t about bravery. It was about longing. It was about place. It was about home. It was about getting away from the “ordinary” that had become my life. 

In the words of Danielle Mayfield, author of the new book Assimilate or Go Home, “long ago…I had been ruined for the ordinary” 

Those two weeks in Pakistan were weeks that I will never forget. What we did was small in the big scheme of things. But the trip set in motion a longheld desire to work with refugees and displaced people. I found that this desire was bigger than place, (although to begin this work in a place I considered home was wonderful.) The desire was bigger than me.

I came back to the United States and no one wanted to know about my trip. Not a single person asked about Pakistan. I was a package of defeat, humiliation, and dysentery. Here was a place and a work I cared about – and it didn’t matter to my current, every day reality. It didn’t matter to the ordinary.

In retrospect, I wonder why I expected it to matter – that in itself was unreasonable. But beyond that was what was happening in my own heart.

Suddenly, it didn’t feel enough to be where I was. I wanted to be somewhere else. I wanted to make a difference. I wanted my life to count.

I wish D.L. Mayfield’s book had been available at that time. Six years later, I had the privilege or reading this book and as I read, I found a kindred spirit.

On the surface, Mayfield’s journey has stark contrasts to mine. But just below the surface, there are many similarities. She grew up as a nomad in her own country – the United States. Moving from place to place, she learned early what it is to be uprooted, what it is to start over. Mayfield also knows what it is to not really know the meaning of ‘home.’  She brings this into her journey of living side by side with refugees, learning the rhythms that define their lives in a new place, and through this, learning more about what it is to really understand that God loves you.

Those rhythms –anticipation, reality, depression, acceptance — are the way she tells her story. She writes “The resettlement cycle is a loose, fluid look at how so many in our world are being asked to envision and forge new lives for themselves, and what a rocky journey it can be……There was and is something to the emotional arc that connected with me, the process of leaving the safety and security  of my background and religion and being launched into the wilder territory of discovering the kingdom of God.” 

Mayfield’s journey is initally about wanting to do big things and go faraway places. As she sees the world dropped into her neighborhood in the form of refugees, she realizes that the kingdom of God is not about doing big things. It’s not about going exotic places. It’s not about major conversions. The kingdom of God is about his love for our world, and us showing up to reflect that love; a love that turns everything upside down. 

The book is about refugees, about communities that could not be more different than white America, about finding God in the margins and the broken. But mostly, it’s about learning how much God loves you; how much he loves me. How much he loves each one of us, not for what we do, but for who we are.

Slowly, I found myself relaxing and resting in the love that D.L. Mayfield discovered, and then with surprise, I realized I could relax and rest in that same love for myself.

After my trip to Pakistan, I desperately wanted my world to change. I desperately wanted to make a splashy difference. But that didn’t happen. Instead, slowly by slowly I’m learning to function out of love of God, right where I am, in the ordinary of life.

It’s only as we discover God’s love for us that we truly have what it takes to embrace our broken world. It is only through understanding the deep love of God that we are equipped to do small things for the kingdom. 

assimilate or go homeNote: For more information and to order Assimilate or Go Home, take a look here. The book is available wherever books are sold!

*IDP – Internally Displaced People

There’s so Much to Do

I wake up thinking “There is so much to do!” Housework and writing; communicating and catching up; praying and reflecting. 

But I’m caught in this trap of media watching. It’s a vicious cycle of anger and laughter and sadness – but mostly anger. There’s so much to do, but I’m caught. I’m right where the enemy of my soul and heart wants me to be – distracted. 

The other day I read an article on refugees – how this year will be the deadliest yet; how we aren’t even paying attention because we are so distracted. 

“At least 3,034 refugees have died in the Mediterranean since the start of this year — almost as many as the whole of 2015.”

Because we are busy talking about Trump. 

Because we are busy talking about Hillary. 

Because we are busy being ethnocentric and egocentric and all sorts of centric. Because we have been lured into time wasting and media watching, giving attention to those who don’t deserve our attention. Because if we can focus on the sins and faults of another, we don’t have to deal with our own. 

So refugees continue to die, and asylum continues to erode, and misinformation and media continue to rule the day. 

The enemy of distraction is not easy to defeat. But defeat it I must. It cannot be allowed to control me. 

I cry out to God and I pray for the hurting, for the one at the margins, for the refugee. 

Then, resolutely I begin to do what needs doing. 

Because there’s so much to do. 

And Lady Liberty Weeps….

 

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“Give me your tired, your poor,” she says.

Ah, but first we must verify income and employability; we must make sure these people fit with “our way of life.” We must make sure these creatures are not leeches who steal jobs from those who really belong.

“Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,”

Make sure the huddled masses have clear lungs and negative TB tests, their HIV status is negative, and that no communicable diseases will be passed on to our current healthy, chronic-disease-free citizens.

“The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”

But first, these wretches must fill out forms in triplicate or learn to swim. UNHCR, Homeland security and the Office of Refugee Resettlement must approve said forms. I heard that one lucky wretch has an interview before 2022.

“Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,”

Wait. What’s that you say? They’re Muslim? Muslims need not apply. And are they really that destitute? Come on! They have cell phones!

“I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Which door? Ah! That one – the one that says ‘Trump Towers.’

And so the tired and poor, the huddled masses yearning for freedom, the wretched refuse, the homeless and displaced, the refugee turn away, eyes vacant and heads shaking, trying desperately to find another door.

And Lady Liberty bows her head and weeps.

Imagine for a Moment…

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“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.” [Refugees Don’t Need Your Pity by Anna Badkhen]

Imagine with me for a moment. 

Imagine that you have spent the last seven years in a refugee camp. You live in a tent with nine other family members. A water truck comes by twice a day and you make sure you and your family are there with your water containers, because water is life. Food bags are distributed once a month and give you lentils, oil, powdered milk, rice, sugar, and tea. At the same time you are given a bag with soap and detergent.

You registered your family with UNHCR when you first arrived, and the last two years you have been to so many interviews that you have lost count. You have been asked if you have ever trained child soldiers; if you’ve ever sold your body for sex; if you have ever communicated with a terrorist–so many questions, questions that embarass you. You have gone through medical exams where you were probed and prodded, where blood was taken over and over for laboratory tests, where you comforted your screaming three year-old with a soft “shh,shh,shh” desperately trying to hold down their tiny arm so blood could be taken from an almost absent vein.

And then one day, the word came. Your papers have been approved. You are going to America. You, your parents, your spouse, and your five children– nine of you in total. The next weeks are a blur. The camp has been your home for seven years. Your youngest two children were born here. You know everything about the residents, you have lived in close quarters for a long time. You can hardly believe that this is happening.

Stories periodically circulate around the camp about America. “My Uncle lives in Detroit,” says one of your neighbors. “Please say ‘hello’ to him.” “My cousin says that children don’t respect their parents,” says another. “Children run off and do all sorts of things.” You are quite sure that they are simply envious of your lot.

The day comes. You’ve never been on an airplane, and it smells funny and feels slightly claustrophobic. You feel like you are in a dream. Can this really be true?

“Everything is held together with stories,” the writer Barry Lopez once said. “That is all that is holding us together, stories and compassion.” But for all of our new accessibility, we know each other’s stories no better than before.

Hours later, you arrive, exhausted and beyond emotion. But there is more to come.

Your family waits for a long time in an immigration line, and you are grateful that there is someone who is helping you who speaks English. There are other refugees with you, but they are not from your camp. You don’t know them, but conversation comes easy when there is shared experience.

25 of you pile into a bus. The noises of crying babies, confused adults, and talkative children mix together – an orchestra of humanity.

You arrive at a brown building. There is a door that moves around and around, but you’re not sure how it actually works. So you go for the safer option–a double door to the side.

It feels like hours before you get to your room – a ‘suite’ they call it.  The space looks huge. There are beds and a table and chairs. You’re told you will be staying there for a few days, just until an apartment is arranged.

But as you look around, the confusion only continues. There is shiny silver and ceramic and a bright flourescent light. The person in charge has been joined by others. They are all friendly, but so loud.

“This is a machine that takes your bread and cooks it.” You are dumbfounded. You learn later that it is called a toaster.

“This is a bathtub.” “This is a refrigerator.” “This is how you turn the lights on and off.” “This is an electric stove – DON’T let your children put their hands on these round things! They get very hot. Your children will burn their hands.”

You want to cry, but you don’t want to seem ungrateful. Finally, they all leave.  All of them. They have left a cell phone with a number on it. You can call if you need anything, anything, they insist. “Welcome to America!” Their smiles are genuine, their voices are still loud.

Your youngest two children have fallen asleep on the floor, your older ones are rushing through the rooms. To them, it’s all new. it’s all exciting. Your mom and dad are rapidly fingering their prayer beads, dazed looks in their eyes. Your husband has the loud voice he gets when he feels out of control.

It takes another hour to get everyone settled, and when you go to look at your sleeping children, you see that they have taken blankets off the bed and all five are huddled together on the floor, a tangle of legs and arms.

You feel strangely comforted by this. Somehow, you know that if you stick together, a tangle of arms and legs, heads and bodies, you will somehow make it.

In fact, it might be the only way to survive. 

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

Note: All quotes are from Refugees Don’t Need Your Pity by Anna Badkhen

http://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/11/12/checking-in-to-a-new-life-in-america/?_r=0

Note: This piece was inspired by the Checking in to a New Life in America as well as by conversations with refugees and resettlement organizations.

Podcast -On Refugees, Fear, and Politics

Good morning!

After an incredible weekend with my people at Families in Global Transition, I am sending you to a podcast that Anita Lustrea did with me last week. We talked about Pakistan, refugees, fear, politics, and how America needs a spanking.

I would love to have you take a listen and let me know what you think!

More reflecting on the weekend will be coming, but today I am still in the glow of connection that happens when you get together with people who have lived across the globe and love the world.

Thank you!

Click here to listen! 

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:

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! 

On Being Bold on my Birthday

So….today is my birthday! For years, I would wander around my workplace, Eeyore-like, thinking “No one is going to wish me a happy birthday. I hate this. I hate being here.”

And then I watched my gorgeous and sassy friend from Portugal on her birthday. She let everyone, I mean EVERYONE, know about her birthday. And she was so happy. And we all celebrated her and wished her happy birthday and it was great.

So this year – I’m being bold. I’ve told everyone it’s my birthday. Big meeting with advertising company? “It’s my birthday!” I announced as I came in late. Bus driver? “It’s my birthday!” I said as I got on the bus. Colleagues I barely know? “It’s my birthday!” I say. So now everyone knows, and it is so much fun!

I bought a pumpkin cake with cream cheese and pecans to my work. I bought pretty napkins. I’m celebrating!

Because – My Birthday!

And so here in this space, I’m going to be so bold as to ask for something. The director of three schools for Syrian refugee kids in Lebanon has a dream of having a small library in each school. And we want to make it happen.

We want to send her $15,000 – $5000 per school. One of the schools is in a poor area of Beirut, the second is in Bekaa Valley, the third is in South Lebanon. These schools reach the most at-risk children who have lost one or both parents. The teachers are amazing, dedicated professionals who love these kids.

So through Conscience International we are raising funds. I am so excited about using Communicating Across Boundaries to help in this way! In the past year, the blog has grown exponentially and I know the audience. You care about the world! You hang your hearts across the globe and grow to love the countries where you live and work. You care about the marginalized and the refugee. You read and comment and pray.

So on my birthday – I would love to ask if you can give toward these libraries. Here is the link to donate. In the area where it says: “I want my donation to go toward”, highlight Lebanon from the dropdown list. Then where it says “in honor or memory of” – you can put Communicating Across Boundaries, so we can track what has come in.

Thank you so much for reading! And Happy Birthday to me! 

It’s a Baby!

 

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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.

Valley of Weeping

We arrived in the Bekaa Valley and immediately felt the temperature change. It was cold and damp, the sun hidden behind a grey cloud. We entered a cold, concrete warehouse full of large, blue bags and boxes. This is where food and supplies are stored for refugees in the area. A truck was parked outside and volunteers were busy filling it with bags and boxes, all part of todays food distribution.

Inside the building we met Bashir, the director of Heart for Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley location. He explained to us that this is the hub for the 13 camps and thousands of refugees that they have committed to working with in the area. We would be going to visit a school and then head to a camp where we would be part of a regular food distribution. Along the way, we would meet and hear the stories of a few refugee families.

The school was a few miles away and up a gravel road. A mural on the outside, painted in primary colors, brought a bright splash of color to an otherwise bleak building. The inside, as though defying the outside to determine its fate, was full of life and learning. The school principal explained that the school focused on the neediest kids, kids who were orphans or who had lost at least one parent in the Syrian conflict. There was room for 75 kids and he said that parents are constantly pleading with them to accept their children. Many of the refugee kids have no opportunities to go to school and have now missed two to three years of critical learning. No school means long days at refugee camps with hundreds of children. No school means a generation lost to learning the basics.

We visited each classroom, watching dedicated teachers, some of them refugees themselves, focus on English, Arabic, and Mathematics. I longed to whisk some of the kids away and soak them in a hot tub for hours. It’s hard to keep clean with no running water, and kids around the world attract dirt like magnets attract metal.

Our next stop was at a camp around fifteen minutes away. The camp had 165 tents and with an average of ten people per tent, hundreds of residents. The food and supplies truck had already arrived and men were busy unloading. We received instructions: Each family would get one bag of food that contained sugar, tea, lentils, salt, rice and a few more basic supplies. Added to that we put three containers of oil, a bottle of dishwashing liquid, and soap into a bag. We got to work filling bags while the volunteers called a member of each family over to receive their allotment.

Most of the families from this camp came from farming communities in Syria. They are used to hard work, and life has never been easy for them. But refugee status has added a whole new level of ‘hard’ to their existence. Each family pays for the tents that they live in, $600 per year to use the land. The camp is isolated, far away from any stores or businesses. Men try to find work, but it is limited to informal arrangements as they don’t have legal status to work. Being paid ‘under the table’ means that you have no rights to argue your pay. You take what you get and move forward.

While the food distribution continued, we walked through the camp to visit a family. Taking off our shoes, we walked across the carpeted ground and sat on pillows set up around the sides of the tent. We asked the family their story. They were farmers in Syria near Aleppo — the family had 1500 olive trees that they tended and used as income generators. They lived simply, but the olive trees had been in the family for generations. With ISIS coming in and wreaking havoc, they fled to nearby Lebanon and had been at this camp for over 15 months. The olive trees were gone now, chopped up for firewood, no longer a living thing offering fruit and oil.

The extended family was large and growing, with a pregnant daughter-in-law as well as other family back in Syria.

Just one family. Just one story. But symbolic of so many more. Olive trees gone to waste, trees that had stood for generations helping a large farming family survive. Gone. Tragically cut down by people who care nothing for life. A family displaced, living in extreme cold and extreme heat in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon.

We left the family, knowing we had so little to give. Now, a week after leaving Lebanon, I write this so I remember. So the pictures stay in my heart and mind a little while longer, so that I don’t forget. The rallying cry of these refugees is “Don’t forget. Don’t forget us. Remember us. Pray for us. Tell our stories.” And so I must.

We said our goodbyes and left the valley in late afternoon, driving up through a mountain pass where a thick fog blurred the valley below. Looking out the window, vision blurred, I thought about a Psalm I memorized years before:

How blessed is the man whose strength is in You,
         In whose heart are the highways to Zion!

Passing through the valley of Baca they make it a spring;
         The early rain also covers it with blessings.

They go from strength to strength,
         Every one of them appears before God in Zion.*

I look at the history of the verse and understand that historically this is a valley of weeping. And so these refugee tents full of people are scattered across this valley of weeping, this valley of tears. I can only pray that along with the tears is a God who sees and remembers, a God who will turn this valley into blessing.

*Psalm 84:5-7

Note: This week I hope to relay several stories from our time in Lebanon and Jordan. Thank you for your interest.

“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. 

  

  

The More I Learn, the Less I Know

I have the extraordinary privilege of being in Lebanon and just returned from a trip to Bekaa Valley.   There are thousands of refugees in the valley and we are with a group called Heart for Lebanon. Heart for Lebanon is working with 1300 families in 13 different camps. We visited the largest camp today. 

I so wish I could come away from these trips with more answers to a crisis, but the more I learn, the more I feel there are no easy answers. And sometimes I feel that there are no human answers at all. 

Human answers may provide an important packet of food, some medication, occasionally schools, but they can’t guarantee safety.  They can’t guarantee a hope or a future. They can’t guarantee a return home. 

We left early morning and returned well after sundown. As we drove back, a thick fog covered the mountain. Even with the head lights on bright, it was difficult to see more than a couple of feet ahead. And I thought how much this fog is like this refugee crisis. You can only see what’s right in front of you, everything else is the fog of the unknown.

But God knows. It’s what I cling to for those who I meet. God knows. He is the “God who Knows.” 

God sees. God hears. God remembers. God knows. I cling to this as I see the small offerings of help in response to massive human need. 

I said goodbye with the Arabic phrase “Allah maak” – “God be with you.” 

And I meant it with every fiber of my being. 

   

    
    
 

Truth Echoes

Did you hear? Did you hear what they did about immigration?” My friend’s eyes were big and troubled.

“No.” I said.

Janira is originally from El Salvador. She has been living in the United States for over 15 years. She works at a hospital, pays taxes, and tries to get by. She is a U.S Citizen and as such has every right to be here.

But like most people in immigrant communities, she has many friends and acquaintances who are undocumented. People who left their countries for a myriad of reasons – drug and gang violence, unemployment, war, and natural disasters are just a few of those reasons.

Janira was referring to the raids carried out on Monday by immigration officials targeting Central American families. I hadn’t heard about them, so I shook my head and just listened.

“It’s terrible,” she said sadly. “They knock on people’s doors and they just take them in the middle of the night. These people…they have nowhere else to go. So hard. These are people from my community. They are not bad people. They have no other choices.”

We talked until the subway came to a shuddering stop and she got up to leave.

“Thank you.” she said.

But I knew I hadn’t done anything but listen.

There are times in our lives where we wonder what God thinks, and then there are other times when it’s as clear as the sky on a cloudless, summer day.

Because I don’t know what the government should do about immigration, but I sure know what the Church should do once the immigrant is among us. 

And I don’t know all that the government should and must do about racism, but I know what the Church should do. 

And I don’t know all that the government should do about refugees, but I know what the Church should do. 

Because, in the words of Martin Luther King Jr., the Church is neither master nor servant of the state. The Church is its conscience. 

Because the Church is about Christ crucified, Christ risen, and Christ coming again. 

Because the voice of God comes with whispers and roars and gentle calls and the words echo through generations because that’s what truth does – truth echoes. Truth will not stay silent. Truth rises up – generation after generation after generation. Truth speaks and hearts are softened.

And the voice of God needs to be heard through the actions of the Church.

And he’s saying this with a mighty roar: 

“But let justice roll down like waters And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Amos 5:24

And he is saying this with a voice of challenge: 

“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” James 1:27

And he is saying this with a gentle whisper: 

“He executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and shows His love for the alien by giving him food and clothing. So show your love for the alien…” Deuteronomy 10:18

And he issues this Call to Obedience: 

“Learn to do good; Seek justice, Reprove the ruthless, Defend the orphan, Plead for the widow.”Isaiah 1:17

And he smiles with Joy and says: 

“How blessed are those who keep justice, Who practice righteousness at all times!” Psalm 106:3

To those who would say “We must be practical,” I reply “Every time people try to be ‘practical’ they compromise on the Gospel Message.” Christians in Hitler’s time were just “being practical.” We know what happened.  To those who say “But it takes time and money” I reply “I know.” And to those who say “I’m not sure what I think about these issues,” I shake my head and say “But is it really about your political thoughts? Isn’t it supposed to be about what God thinks? When you are the one who is hungry, when you are the one who needs refuge, when you are the one who seeks justice – then you will know exactly what you think about these issues.”

So next time we wonder what God thinks about immigrants, and black lives, and refugees, and the poor, and the oppressed, and the one who suffers, and the one who grieves, remember – his voice is clear and there is no ambiguity in his words.

Because the God of the universe cries this throughout time and it echoes to eternity: 

“He has shown you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Micah 6:8

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.

 

no to refugees

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.

His Mercy Echoes

generations quote

 

Yesterday my mom wrote a comment on my post that is worthy of a space of its own. Here it is: 

From my mom – Pauline Brown

I recently read the story told by a Vietnamese American woman. Her grandparents, her mother and two aunts escaped as Saigon was falling. The woman had worked for the American Embassy, but in the end was abandoned. They had to get out because of the American connection.

The three girls were separated from their parents, neither daughters nor parents knowing if the others had gotten out alive as they all saw one of the last helicopters shot down in flames. They miraculously found each other on Guam amongst the thousands of other refugees. As a child she and her cousins loved to hear the story of what she called their “Exodus from Vietnam.”

But the other part of the story is that there was a little Baptist Church in Lafayette, Indiana whose people had decided that they should sponsor a Vietnamese refugee family.

Far away, at a small Baptist church in Indiana, some Christians were convinced that God’s heart was for those whom nobody wanted.

They were praying for that family long before they ever saw them. They met them with a furnished apartment, doctor’s appointments, clothes, all the practical help they needed, and such love as they had never experienced. At the end of the article she says this:

“This is also my story. I grew up knowing that I existed because somewhere in the world, a group of people believed that God was asking them to show mercy to those who needed it. I grew up knowing that this sort of a God is a God worth trusting. His mercy echoes down through the generations.

And I thought to myself, “What if every church in the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and all the countries of western Europe each sponsored a refugee family? I wonder how much of a difference that would make for the millions fleeing.” 

It might be a small dent in the total, but how much it would mean to each of those families! And His mercy would continue to echo down through the generations.

May God help each of us to do what little we can to show His love and compassion to these desperate people He loves.

Story and quote credits to Juliet Liu Waite, Christianity Today December 2015, titled “The Waters of My Family’s Exodus.”