Syrian Storytellers – Letting the World Know

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Caption on picture “Even the House of God is not safe from Bashar Al Assad”

Last night my husband and I had the privilege of attending a fundraiser for NuDay Syria — a nonprofit created to support humanitarian and relief efforts in Syria. Their activities include food programs inside the country, education for children displaced from the war, medical aid for moms and children, and other social service endeavors.

The highlight of the evening was listening to the stories of two Syrian activists who have been on a “Hope tour” in the United States for the past month. Without drama they told their stories. The first was Raed Fares from the town of Kafranbel. Kafranbel is in northwestern Syria and has the loving nickname of “The Little Syrian Town that Could.” Anyone who knows the children’s story of The Little Engine that Could will immediately be curious about why this small town has this reputation.

It’s because Kafranbel is the center for creative thought and expression against the Assad regime. Raed is the brain and catalyst behind the efforts in Kafranbel. The main focus has been banners and signs written in English that seek to tell the world about what is going on in Syria. They are written in bold print and many have cartoons to illustrate the situation. Some are sarcastic, some are witty, others are plain sad — but all tell a story. All express outrage. You can see many of the images at the website Occupied Kafranbel, where the history of the town is given in more detail.

The second is a blogger — Razan Ghazzawi — who has blogged under her own name for the duration of the conflict. She had to flee Damascus a couple of years ago when she faced arrest and persecution but has traveled across the Middle East to bring awareness to the Syrian conflict, specifically to the human cost of the conflict. Razan gave a poignant description of the loneliness that is a part of being an activist in Syria, holding out hope for others through writing and art, even as the activists themselves struggle with the loneliness that leadership and passion for a cause bring.

We left the evening sobered. The event took place while many Americans were glued to the television watching the Golden Globes – a yearly narcissistic event designed to give already big egos even bigger ones. Yet even as Hollywood glitters, and in that glitter mocks the rest of the world, Syria has not gone away. Other news has taken over our news feeds and our Facebook shares, but Syria is still there. It is still a public health and humanitarian disaster. There is still unthinkable violence and struggle for survival.  A Syrian musician, Kinan Azmeh, will be on stage tonight at Carnegie Hall for an event to raise funds for Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders). He will be the opening act – a clarinet solo playing a song called Every Day is a Sad Morning; the words haunting in their description of the daily reality for the people of Syria.

Earlier yesterday I read a quote from Joan Didion on stories and story tellers: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live…We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the “ideas” with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.

These words resonated deeply with me as I listened to the stories from last night’s event. The narrative line across the disparate images given by these two Syrian Storytellers was one of hope, one that says “Don’t Forget”. A narrative that said to me “Despite bombed out buildings and millions of refugees, we’re going to keep going, keep drawing, keep writing, keep informing — will you come with us on the journey?” 

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Blogger’s Note: You can find more information on NuDay Syria here. For practical ways to assist click here.

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Healing in the Midst of War

A month ago a 71-year old surgeon from France left his City of Lights and went to Homs, Syria. There in a makeshift operating room in a house that had been abandoned, with sporadic electricity and none of the fine surgical equipment that allows him and his patients to flourish in France, he operated on 89 people, 80 of whom survived. It is an amazing story.

I’ve stayed away from the topic of Syria – not because I want to, or because I think it’s right to avoid, but because every time I think about it I feel physically sick and a paralysis sets in. In a world where we are hesitant to use the word sin, preferring instead the less damaging words of “dysfunction”, “addiction”, or  “self-defeating behavior” are we not confronted by sin, by pure evil as we look at what is happening in Syria? Would we not be foolish to surmise that Bashar Al-Assad, president of Syria, is doing what he is doing to his own citizens because he is “emotionally impaired”?

But today we have a story of redemption and sacrifice. I am struck by real-life heroes that do their part, those that carry out acts that reflect a God who heals and redeems, as well as the real-life heroes that are survivors and victims of the atrocities. I am specifically drawn to the story of  this man.

The surgeon is a Dr. Jacques Bérès, one of the founders of Doctors Without Borders in the early seventies, and then another organization, Doctors of the World, in 1980. He is familiar with war zones, having spent much of his career helping from Saigon to Sierra Leone. In his picture he has the look of a benign grandfather, but the story belies that and you are left with a picture of compassion and courage; a man with a sense of purpose who doesn’t shy away from fulfilling that purpose. The worst of conditions awaited him in Syria. He was smuggled in through the Lebanese border with medical equipment, stopping on the way in another city to aid a Syrian physician.  When he finally reached Homs and set up the temporary hospital, he treated war wounds of all kinds, some that will haunt him forever. Men, women, and children, the future of Syria, were treated from damage caused by war wounds – I think we call this “civilian casualties”, a nice, sanitary name.

In a radio interview in Paris on return from Syria he says this: “I was sad… I saw useless suffering, cruelty, meanness, the suffering of children, of families.” He used this sadness to energize a gift, to be a person who brought healing in the midst of war. A person whose countenance of “quiet energy and purpose” affected all those who were working with him.

I’ve heard it said that character during crisis doesn’t suddenly emerge, but is a product of daily decision-making when there is no crisis. If so then that is my challenge – to daily make choices that count. To have it said that in a crisis I worked with a “quiet energy and purpose” is the height of compliments; to be a healer in the midst of war like Dr. Bérès.

We all have stories of hope in the midst of tragedy, healing in the midst of war. Would love to hear some of yours through the comments!