Refugee Sunday – A Day of Sharing

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

Today is the day set aside for 2016.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click here for more articles on refugees.


Aleppo – History, Horror, and Cry for Help


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

Indeed – What is Aleppo? 

Aleppo is History.

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

Aleppo is Horror.

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

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

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

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

Aleppo is a Cry for Help.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Psalm 10

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

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

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

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

Mosul and Aleppo: A Tale of Two Cities

[Picture Source – Pixabay

When Pictures Wake us Up


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

Washing Cars in Wartime – A Guest Post

Just two days ago ISIS released a horrific video of the death of Jordanian pilot Lt Moaz al-Kasasbeh. While ISIS is known to be brutal, this death showed a new level of cruelty, of inhumanity. If man is indeed made in the image of God then those who commit these acts are wounding their creator and I have no doubt, he weeps. The pilot was actually killed January 3rd – a full month before the video was released; a month where negotiations were going on between ISIS and Jordan for his release. The duplicity is nauseating. My friend Laura lived in and loves Jordan and it is through her that I have followed much of this news.

Today’s post is by Laura. It is not about Jordan or the pilot, but it is about war, about violence, about dignity — and human dignity is what I want to think about in the midst of this. Dignity of the innocent, the dignity God gives us in drawing us to himself, in calling us his children. Thank you Laura for this beautiful piece. 



Washing Cars in Wartime
“Syrian rebels attacked army roadblocks in Midan district in the heart of Damascus on Thursday to relieve pressure on outlying rebel strongholds being pounded by air strikes and artillery, opposition activists said.
“Assad’s forces responded by bombarding the densely populated commercial and residential district, situated just outside the Old City walls, killing a woman pedestrian and a worker in a car wash, they said.”
– Reuters, 8 November 2012


In the morning, he rubs his palms through his
hair and swings his legs over the edge of the bed.
At the door, like sentries, stand two pale blue rubber
boots. Knee-heighted waders, he puts them on.

In the morning, he makes his tea and, sipping, walks to
punch in the numbers for the punishing measure.
The tea is hot. Tit for tat, tit for tat, tit for
tat, tit for tat—the numbness is
learned, drummed into minds by
years, obedient generations, of slavish fear.

He marches in his boots to his post,
puddles and soap. The cars roll in.
Astonishing that cars must be washed
during war, bodies of metal,
gleam and polish.
The rain of weaponry makes nothing clean.
Cars must be washed.

Next he marches down the hall to report to the next
goon up. Breathtaking the fruitful efficiency of war
and its stillborn child, death.
Rolling like a wave over the weeping face of
the earth, deracinating life from its soil.
Life scrubbed lifeless.

The soapy water runs red into
the gutter drain. Down in the valley, the cracked
earth drinks the blood of patriots and villains
in equal measure. A green patch of grass,
a bold rebuke that life will not finally succumb and
bow to the instruments of death.
The emptied rubber boots in melted pieces
held more personified dignity in one car washer than a thousand
sorry soles of the regime.


LauraAbout the author: Laura Merzig Fabrycky is a freelance writer and editor, and serves as editor of Missio, a blog of The Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation, and Culture. Her writing has been published in Books & CultureThe Review of Faith and International Affairs, the Foreign Service Journal, and Good Housekeeping Middle East; and her poetry has appeared in Glass, her church newsletter, and family Christmas cards. A diplomatic trailing spouse and mother to three young children, Laura has lived in Doha, Qatar; Amman, Jordan; and currently resides in the fever swamps of the Washington, D.C. area

Chasing the Bishop: An Evening with a Syrian Christian

Last night my husband and I had a rare opportunity to hear from Bishop Elias Toumeh, a Syrian bishop. The following is an account Cliff wrote while it was still fresh in our hearts and minds. This piece is long form so I encourage you to sit down and not try to read through it to quickly. Thank you for reading – for the opportunity to share!

Chasing the Bishop: An Evening with a Syrian Christian by Cliff Gardner

Marilyn and I had the privilege of attending a talk on March 28th entitled “Christians in Syria at the Crossroads” at Hellenic College & Holy Cross Greek School of Theology in Brookline, MA. The speaker was Bishop Elias Toumeh, a Greek Orthodox Syrian Christian who resides in the area of Wadi al-Nasara (Valley of Christians) near the Syrian city of Homs.

We were anxious to hear his talk and to learn more from someone on the ground experiencing the current crisis in Syria. We were also a bit hesitant about what he would say about the Syrian Christian support for the Assad regime in Damascus, and possible vitriolic rhetoric about Muslims.

We arrived to the lobby of the Maliotis Center to find a sea of Arab-American Christians from Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, mingling with the students of Hellenic College and Holy Cross, including our youngest son, Jonathan. Like anyone who has lived in another culture our ears perked up when we heard the familiar cadence of Arabic being spoken. I quickly spotted “the Syrian bishop” by his black robe, long beard and icon chain pendant. He was speaking to some of the Arab-Americans. I wanted to introduce myself and was about to make verbal contact after a smiling nod, but he was ushered quickly through the closed door into the auditorium. I turned to Marilyn and whispered, “I almost got to the Bishop!” 

We continued to mingle with guests and greeted an old acquaintance and began to talk about the ongoing tragic situation in Syria and that it had not only effected Christians, but all Syrians.

In typical Middle Eastern/Mediterranean fashion our 7:00pm talk began around 7:30pm. We entered into the auditorium to find a large screen with a PowerPoint presentation with a large photo of the Syrian city of Ma’lula, where they still speak the ancient language of Aramaic. Bishop Elias was introduced by Fr. Luke Veronis, who stated that they had wanted to create an all-day consultation on Christians in Syria. They were going to arrange for some expert in the U.S. to speak when someone said, “Why don’t we invite a Syrian to speak?” How novel.

Bishop Elias stepped up to the podium and in a gentle but authoritative voice welcomed the audience in English and Arabic. We were all pleased. He proceeded to provide the backdrop of the current three-year long Syrian crisis. Here is a synopsis of some of his statements and stories (Note-as much as possible I have tried to use his words with mine in brackets):

  • Christianity was born in Palestine and Syria. Christians were first called Christians in Syria (Antioch). St. Paul became a Christian in Syria (on the road to Damascus). Christianity was the faith of Syria before the introduction of Islam.
  • Syria is a country of great ethnic and religious diversity. There are 23 million Syrians. 10% of Syria is Christian, including a variety of Orthodox, Catholic and Protestants. There are also Muslims who are Sunni, Shi’a, and Alawite. There are also Jews. There are Arabs, Kurds, Jews, and Turkoman.
  • Syria has experienced three years of fighting and conflict that has affected all citizens. Here are photos of damaged churches. (He then proceeded to click through slides of damaged churches, Greek Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Protestant Evangelical and Catholic. We all held our breath at the carnage we saw. And then he clicked on the next slide entitled: On the other hand: 1,400 mosques have been destroyed. We still couldn’t take that in.)
  • I live in a predominately Christian area of Syria but there are Sunni and Alawite villages around me. One day I heard of an angry crowd gathering in the town square of the Sunni village and I decided to go and try to make peace. I drove with three other Christian men who had warned me of the danger. We drove to the town square and were surrounded by the Sunni crowds. The Muslim shaykh came out and greeted us and took us into the building and we talked about the need for our communities to live in peaceful co-existence. At the end of our talk the shaykh asked his two children, aged ten and six to come and kiss my hand. He said, “Bishop Elias, you are not just a bishop for the Christians, but you are also the bishop of the Muslims.”
  • I have learned in this crisis that a bishop is not a person who sits on thrones or is taken to fancy restaurants, but is to be a shepherd to his people.
  • A few Christians have been martyred for their faith by Islamic extremists, but then the kidnappings started. In April 2013 two prominent Orthodox Bishops were entering into Syria through the town of Bab al-Hawa. Their driver was killed and they were kidnapped. Nobody knows their whereabouts. Thousands of people have been kidnapped; Christians and Muslims, and some have been used to trade for arms, food or other prisoners. (Bishop Elias told the story of a busload of men who had been kidnapped, including two Alawites, two Sunnis and four Christians. He was asked by the Christians to help mediate and also by the Alawites to mediate. They said that they only trusted the Bishop. So at midnight in a car by himself he drove alone followed by Alawite militia and he stopped when he encountered the Sunni militia and they traded prisoners.)
  • The Christians of Syria have suffered alongside their neighbors. 30% of Syrian Christians have immigrated (fled) to other countries, 30% have been displaced within Syria and about 30% remain in their homes.
  • When asked why so many Syrian Christians are still supporting the Assad regime he said, “As Orthodox Christians we believe that we are to honor and obey our government and that the army is obligated to protect us. When the government is dissolved and the army is no longer able to protect us then we will have to make other choices.”
  • When asked if Syrian Christians should arm themselves he replied, “No private Christian should take up arms. If you take up arms it means that you have an enemy. We do not have human enemies. There are Syrian Christians who have taken up arms but we do not condone that. We are willing to be martyrs for our faith, but we will never tolerate a genocide.”
  • The uprising in Syria began with public demonstrations that were suppressed by the government and the Free Syrian Army was formed. There are Christians in the government army and also in the FSA. But in recent times this war has included radical Muslim elements from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Turkey and funded by countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar. (Someone recently told me that Syrians refer to it as al-harb al-wakil “the war of special agents/interests.”)
  • As Christians we are called to be peacemakers. We are to welcome all people fleeing the violence and destruction of their homes and loss of jobs. We are to take them in and provide for them. The humanitarian crisis is most vital as we see the needs of those created in the image of God. (He shared of the work he does with children who have been greatly affected by this culture of war. Some of the children in his town were exchanging their normal toys with plastic and even real guns. The hearts of children can and must be changed.)
  • We should encourage all of our governments to put pressure so that the violence would stop and that a secular, democratic government should rule and that a New Syria could rise out of these ashes.

After Bishop Elias’ talk we had a Q&A session and he answered honestly and frankly to each inquiry. We were all still processing his talk and the photos we had seen when the meeting ended after a prayer.

Marilyn and I spoke to a few Syrians around us in the audience but we really wanted to speak to Bishop Elias in person. We weaved through the auditorium, trying to chase him down and were just about to greet  him when he turned toward the aisle and greeted those around him, mostly Arab-Americans. We trailed up the aisle, again on the chase, and he was accosted by a sobbing elderly Syrian woman lamenting the woes of the Christians there. He comforted her with words and then she turned to us and continued in Arabic that she wasn’t crazy but so saddened by the deaths of Arab Christians. Her grief felt raw and real, a reminder that this is real people in real conflict. We continued in our pursuit of the bishop and entered the lobby and finally I caught up with him near the front exit door. I greeted him and thanked him for his informative and compassionate talk. He smiled and thanked me for coming and asked that we continue to pray for him and for the people of Syria. He apologized and said that a car was waiting for him to drive to New York City.

It is so important to hear these voices and to not just listen to our own particular political or religious media sources of the current crisis. As Christians we are called to be peacemakers and to reach out and help alleviate the suffering in the world, whether they are people of our own faith tradition or of another.

Bishop Elias ToumehBishop Elias Toumeh is currently the Orthodox Bishop of Pyrgou-Syria. He studied engineering in Syria, theology at the University of Balamand in Lebanon, Arabic & Islamic Studies in the Vatican, Rome and doctoral studies in theology and Islam at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece.

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