For photo credits see https://www.instagram.com/alternative_advent/
All images originally from The Guardian.
All images taken from The Guardian or Euronews.
The summer I was seven
I made perfume from petals
Rode my bike down to the sea
Now seven is your number
And it hasn’t been like mine
You heard parents’ whispered fears
Felt walls crumble, choking dust
Emptied wordless red goodbyes
Seeing, unseeing, fleeing
To a place that isn’t home
Tonight on Beirut’s corniche
I walk hastily away
As you offer me a rose
And the thorns pierce deeper still
“As we were leaving we became visible to terrorists and snipers started shooting at me. I was holding my son across my chest and my daughters by the hands. We were running. My son was shot. The bullet went through his shoulder to his heart…
In 30 minutes I lost my son, my father and my cousin’s daughter.”
Yesterday I visited what might be the most significant project I’ve been involved with, and I think it gives some important insights into the current debates on international aid brought up so powerfully again this week.
Just over a year ago I wrote from the midst of some research we were doing in partnership with the local Lebanese church and community members in one Syrian community in the Bekaa Valley.
After many discussions and activities with children, young people and adults, one of the key issues that emerged was lack of services or activities for young children, while many mothers in particular felt alone and unsupported, having lost the natural in-built community of aunts and grandmothers and cousins they left behind in Syria.
At the community meeting at the end of the research, one of these mother spoke up with an idea – to create a safe space among the tents for young children to come and play, and learn, led by the Syrian women themselves.
And so, one year later, the Little Friendly Space (LFS) opened its doors. Two months in, and 60 children aged 2-5 attend the LFS in shifts – learning, singing, playing, and having a chance to be with other children and possibly a completely different future than they might have had without the developmental opportunities they are now accessing at this critical age. While the project is simple, the difference it could make is huge and the change is already evident:
“My daughter used to be very quiet and shy, she wasn’t sociable and she didn’t play. But since coming here she is more open – she is playing, enjoying herself, and she has a different spirit.”
“My children are so happy now and you can feel it – they understand everything and the teachers take good care of them.”
One of the issues the Oxfam story brings up for me is that of the value of genuinely working with and through local partners in emergency situations, something that most humanitarian agencies talk about but few genuinely put into practice. Certainly working with local partners adds a layer of complexity to any response – it will likely be slower and require more listening. But the current weighting of the balance in favour of the western aid agencies delivering programmes because of their greater capacity to meet western-determined reporting requirements needs to change, because it is this very separation of ‘us and them’ which positions the recipients of aid as powerless victims and is a significant enabling factor for abuse and exploitation.
Involving communities in all areas of their own programmes is no longer an optional extra but a critical priority, and we need to take action and put resources and research into really working out how partnership can genuinely become the main way we work with people in crises.
This one small project with 60 children gives a glimpse of the value of making the effort to facilitate projects led and developed by the communities they target. In addition to the impact for children, the children’s mothers are also involved in leading and also attend weekly sessions along with their children. Where mothers were often alone in a new area, because of this project, they are getting to know one another and a supportive community is coming into existence.
But one of the most significant impacts I’ve seen is in the life of Roula* herself, the Syrian woman who had the idea for the project, and is now leading it. Consider how much weaker the impact of the project might have been if Roula was simply viewed as a ‘beneficiary’, able to succeed only in meeting the dispiriting vulnerability criteria needed to become a recipient of support. Instead, yesterday she told me:
“In the beginning I was so afraid and not sure if I could fulfill this trust placed in me – but I was also excited – and then after we started I saw that the children were so happy to be here, I thought, ‘Yes, I am able to do it!’ Now I feel about myself that I am doing something – I’m responsible for these children.”
The tragic and unimaginably difficult story at the beginning of this post is Roula’s own story. I have personally witnessed the transformation in her – from the foundation of getting to know the local church partner who initially offered her support and friendship in a new and unknown place, to the tangible hope present in the moment when she spoke the idea for the project, to today where her idea is a reality.
Roula’s experience is one of many hidden stories that could be multiplied countless times if only we will be willing to listen, and to really see her and others like her who can be part of transformation and change in those places and situations that seem the most broken of all.
* Not her real name
“Today my son goes to the heaven to have a new year with Jesus.” This news of the death of a dearly-loved child – shared in broken English with words inadequate to convey the weight of a lifetime of tears, of dull, aching grief, of a burden released but a new, heavier one picked up – a son gone too soon, before his time, to be buried by his mother.
And this one darkness reminds me of a thousand other darknesses recounted and buried deep. Stories of children afraid and alone, not protected by families or by systems – a pitch black tunnel whose end lies ever out of reach.
Yesterday I read my friend’s children their bedtime story, from the closing chapters of C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle. Everything in Narnia has been made new, but some seem unable to see it:
“But it isn’t dark, you poor stupid Dwarfs,” said Lucy. “Can’t you see? Look up! Look round! Can’t you see the sky and the trees and the flowers? Can’t you see me?”
~ C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle
The dwarfs are unable to recognise the beauty and joy and light which is all around them, instead seeing only darkness and things to find fault with.
I don’t want to be like that – I want to be aware of the beauty, to see God at work, to notice where the light is breaking through, to find the truth that ‘the Kingdom of God is already among you.’
But this message – this death – this news shared with me and the group of Middle Eastern children’s workers brought together for the first time last November, united by their shared passion for seeing children in their country kept safe – this message, stopping short the flow of ‘Happy New Year’ greetings, this heartbreaking news that the cancer had finally taken her son – news so simply broken, so wholly breaking.
Where is grace here? Isn’t this darkness too big? Too real?
And yet, now, today – this ever-told story of following a star in the night sky.
Of trusting and watching and waiting and leaving behind and risking and searching and following.
Of arriving. Of finding what you seek. Of kneeling down. Of giving and receiving. Of joy.
And of returning into the darkness again, holding a treasure in your heart much greater than the one you brought in your hands.
Could it be so for us?
We can’t pretend this darkness isn’t here, isn’t overwhelming.
But could the birth of a child in Bethlehem mean that we can see light piercing through? That we can know and experience this light – a light which is somehow weightier, more substantial, than the darkness?
And this is it. It doesn’t make bad things good, it doesn’t make the darkness light. But it lets us see light shining anyway – in all the places we’d never expect it – the presence of Christ with us, recognised as a grace to live each moment with. The place where we stand is glowing with light, if we will open our eyes to see it.
The holy grail of joy is not in some exotic location or some emotional mountain peak experience. The joy wonder could be here! Here, in the messy, piercing ache of now, joy might be – unbelievably – possible! The only place we need to see before we die is this place of seeing God, here and now.
~ Ann Voskamp
This is what enables my Syrian friend and colleague to say with truth that his work with children during the conflict has been the best time of his life; this is how the church leader in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley can recognise the presence of Syrian families seeking sanctuary and support as a gift and a blessing.
So may this new year be about seeing the beauty in the everyday, in the hard places and in the painful situations. And not just in an idyllic, somewhere beyond us, words-only way; but in a messy, tear-stained, joyful, difficult, laughter-filled, real-life kind of way, as we live alongside one another and share each loss, each small step forward, the hopes and disappointments, and all that life is.
And as I struggle to comprehend the magnitude of loss and grief contained in that one message, I offer a simple word of comfort, which stands fragile and alone, almost nothing.
But then one by one the messages begin to flood in – messages of love and of being there, each one standing with this new friend, each one – and together – being the Christ-light in this darkness shared. And here, today, in this moment and in all moments, grace and beauty shine bright.