Before the Crisis, There was a Crisis

South Lebanon January 2016 working with Syrian Refugees

Afghanistan. The land that has mystified and defeated would-be colonizers and conquerers for centuries, now on every social media account known to our current world. Suddenly, everyone has a friend in Afghanistan. It’s uncanny and a bit unnerving. They join others who have a friend of a friend of a friend in Afghanistan, creating an outraged public calling for compassion, open borders, and funding. Memes slap us in the face with their “Let all who want to leave, leave!” “Make room for all!” One does not need to ponder long the impossibility of that idea, yet I’ve not seen many challenge publicly the impossibility of it.

I’d like to spend a bit of time getting a perspective on all of this. Please hear at the outset that I am deeply sad and angry about the current situation in Afghanistan. From friendships with Afghans and those who have spent years living and working with Afghans (yes- I too am guilty of mentioning this…) to memories of vacations and school trips, Afghanistan has long been on my heart. After 20 years, one could argue that we should have known it was always going to be a messy leave taking. The question then becomes: “Did it have to be this messy?” But discussing our complicated foreign policy in Afghanistan is not my area of expertise. In addition, writing about the messiness feels singulary disrespectful to those remarkable people who have risked and lost their lives, and the many who have worked tirelessly to bring people to safety. For them alone I daren’t comment publicly. They are true heroes and know a courage of which I have little understanding. What I want to do is to give some perspective, something I work toward every day, so that is my desire here.

Perspective

There has been an Afghan refugee crisis for many years with little attention paid to the problem, and even less accomplished in finding sustainable solutions. There is also a Venezuelan refugee crisis, a Syrian refugee crisis, and a Myanmar Crisis. Before the crisis, there was a crisis, and before that crisis, there was a crisis. It brings to mind the Haitian proverb “Beyond mountains, there are mountains.” This applies to Haiti and Afghanistan equally well, both nations crippled in crisis after crisis, both desperately needing stability and peace. This does not mean we should not pay attention – we should. And we should also recognize that this makes an already difficult crisis even worse.

As of June of this year, over 82.4 million people in the world had to flee their homes because of conflict and violence. Of those 82.4 million, 26.4 are refugees. Half of them are under 18 years old. In addition, there are millions of stateless people with no nationality, no border security, and no rights. When I say no rights, I mean no freedom to move, no access to healthcare or education, and no legal employment.

1 out of every 95 people has had to flee their home.

68% of refugees orginate from five countries: Syria – 6.7 million; Venezuela – 4 million; Afghanistan – 2.6 million; South Sudan – 2.2 million; Myanmar – 1.1 million. There are five countries who have been the major hosts of refugees: Turkey, Colombia, Pakistan, Uganda, and Germany. Geographically this makes sense – these are bordering countries and borders become more porous during major conflicts and disruptions. The majority of the world’s refugees (86%) are hosted in developing countries. Only 14% are hosted in developed countries. It really makes one question the words developing and developed, doesn’t it? If developed means decreased hospitality, inflated sense of self, and living out of scarcity instead of abundance, no wonder so many of us find the developing world so attractive.

So what of all this? Prior to all of this, those who work with refugees and displaced people were already working hard to serve and care for people. Resources have been limited for a long time and sustainable solutions were already difficult to come by. This current crisis will soon die down for most of us and a new season of outrage will be upon us, begging us to do our our part in performing for the crowd. But there are many who do this work year in and out, with limited funds and a lot of heart.

There are a couple thoughts I have on what we can do:

  • We can give. Many of us have the ability to give, if even a small amount. I will list some organizations at the end of this post for you to check out. Remember to weigh all of them through Charity Navigator to ensure accountability. As wonderful as your friend’s gofundme may seem – it is likely not a sustainable solution. So give to the gofundme, but also find a place where you can give regularly to a program that is ongoing.
  • We can write our elected officials. America is quite simply not doing enough to help in the current crisis. Both the last administration and the current administration err on the side of doing too little, too late. Those of us who are lay people can make noise through an email or a letter. The time is perfect as every September the President sets the number of refugees that are allowed entrance for the next fiscal year. Click here to send an email or call your representative.
  • We can pray. This high form of empathy helps us to recognize that we are small, and God is big. Through prayer we can discern our part in an ongoing crisis.
  • We can volunteer. This is tricky during a pandemic that continues to stretch on. But check out the organizations I have listed as most of them can use volunteers.
  • We can educate ourselves. It is not helpful to pass on incorrect information. It is not helpful to make situations worse than they are for the sake of sensation. What is helpful is to find good sources and recognize that even good sources have their limits. What is helpful is to remain humble as we learn. The refugee crisis is ever changing and what is true today may have changed by tomorrow. There is no quick answer and there is no simple answer. Refugee and immigration issues are complicated. But there are sources and places where you can find out more. I’ve linked some at the end.
  • We can remove ourselves from outrage and ground ourselves in facts and truth. Outrage limits our ability to function. Outrage creates massive inner conflict. Outrage does not and cannot last. Grounding ourselves in facts and truth helps us discern the voices that reflect the same.
  • We can be part of the chain of goodness that makes a difference for all those around us.

As I have thought about all of this in the last few weeks, the words of the prophet Micah have often come to mind. Micah was one of the original and true social justice champions, a prophet who cared about oppression, who cared about injustice to the poor, who cared about women and children cast out of homes. His was not an activism of social media, but a true heart for those who were hurt by false righteousness. He had harsh words of judgment, but those harsh words were always followed by faith that was practical and down to earth, by faith that invoked the beauty of a God of mercy. The people and the world Micah wrote to and about are not so different from the one we face every day. It is Micah that writes words that are heard through the centuries:

He has shown you O Man, what is good, but what does the Lord require of you, but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.

Micah 6:8

And that, my friends is perspective. May we do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God – only then will we have the wisdom to respond to any crisis, be it a refugee crisis or another that comes our way. Amen and Amen.

To make it easier to see the magnitude of this problem, I’m including a series of photographs.

Note: Primary source for all statistics is as stated on photographs – UNHCR

God of the Displaced and Exiled

Oh God of the displaced and exiled,

Hear the prayers of those in limbo.

Wipe the tears of mothers who parent children without a home.

Feed those who are hungry; keep safe those who are in danger.

Give strength to the helpers and the healers; to those who work tirelessly for justice.

Give us the spirit of courage and not fear that we might welcome the stranger in our midst.

Root out lazy prejudice that would block us from receiving those in need.

Give us ears to hear the voices that cry out in desperation, making impossible choices for their families.

Consume the conscience of lawmakers and policy enforcers with the holy fire of compassion, that they may open their hearts and their borders to those desperate for shelter.

Remind us that your prophets spoke words many years ago that are still true today; remind us that you have always cared for the oppressed, have always urged your people to care for the displaced and exiled.

Oh God hear my prayer for the displaced and the exile.

“Lord, listen! Lord, forgive! Lord, hear and act! For your sake, my God, do not delay, because your city and your people bear your Name.”*


All week my heart has been aching for those displaced. This morning my brother Dan sent me an article that the United States is on track to admit less refugees than it has since the beginning of the refugee program in 1980. There is simply no excuse. With the resources we have and the crisis being what it is, there is no excuse.

*Daniel 9:19

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

New Lives and Portable Memories


Every time I leave home, I’m struck by the fact that I have that choice. I’m not being forced out by violence, persecution, or a crooked landlord. 

I choose when to go. I choose how to go.  I choose what to take. 

An article in the NY Times called “In a Refugee’s Bags, Memories of Home”* paints  a poignant picture of things left behind when refugees and displaced people have to leave their homes and possessions. But the picture is juxtaposed with creative ways that refugees bring pieces of their homes and places with them. For one woman it’s a dress that holds the landscape of her beloved city in Iraq. For a musician it’s the melody of a song sung in his native Syriac; for another it’s a wooden string instrument. All of these are reminders of who they are and where they come from. 

More so, they are a picture of their resiliency and willingness to keep on living, to not believe that all is lost. 

… their stories….reveal not only what they have lost, but also the beautiful things they have saved, or remade.

I am far from home today, and I write this while sitting in an airport, surrounded by other travelers. I carry these stories with me, treasuring them for what they teach me about hope, about resiliency, about keeping on living even when it seems all is lost. 

Take a look at the story today by clicking here. You won’t be disappointed! 

*by STEPHANIE SALDAÑA

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.

For Sale Cheap: Kidneys and Children

img_0445-1

“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!