The gifts in the storm

Yesterday I was in Lebanon, and somehow today I’ve packed up everything in Oxford and moved out of the community house I’ve been living in and into a new place. I’m excited and hopeful about a new start and new people to get to know, but it’s not where we as a community expected to be. It’s been painful over the last few months to see our hopes and dreams of living together and welcoming in the people around us who are living on the edges seeming to be lost after being battered by many different circumstances, until we’ve had to accept that for now it’s not happening, and we are all leaving. It would be easy to wonder what the point was, and at times it has certainly been hard to understand what’s been going on.


Typhoon-HagupitThis feeling of being battered by storms reminded me of my trip to the Philippines just before I moved to Oxford. Despite the fact that the purpose of my trip there was to evaluate the response to a previous typhoon, it hadn’t even remotely crossed my mind that I could be on the island of Samar when another storm hit. Yet a couple of days into my trip we started to hear that another severe typhoon was on a path straight towards us. This meant that despite plans for a packed schedule of meetings and interviews, with a week in the city evaluating the work of a big international NGO, most of my trip was in the end spent in a remote part of the island either waiting for the (very slow moving!) typhoon, battening down the hatches, and missing the whole second week of plans through not being able to travel in the aftermath.

1508629_10101083301672171_7557995443653420224_nThis may not sound like the makings of a great trip; I was meant to be spending my second week with an American colleague who in fact never made it  onto the island at all because the typhoon was already approaching by the time she was due to arrive, making it too dangerous for her to get there. From the outside it might look like she was lucky to miss it, but in fact, in the end I actually felt that I was the lucky one because I had the chance to be there in the midst of it.

Preparing for and experiencing the typhoon with the amazing family I stayed with and was able to encourage and be encouraged by, the children I met when families came to1601009_10101083301592331_742590917431699867_n shelter in the house I was staying in, the sense of togetherness singing songs the night before the typhoon and at daybreak as the typhoon passed, and in the days after where it wasn’t safe to travel and I spent time visiting families, and sat out under the stars listening to stories and songs, are memories I treasure as a gift I didn’t ask for, expect or deserve. A sheer gift where I was in a specific place with particular people at a moment in time that I could never have planned for but is something I will always be grateful for.

I feel the same way about the last 9 months at 244. It’s been a complete gift – something I didn’t ask for, expect or deserve. I know I’m not the same person I was when I arrived; simply being around people who are brave enough to be who they really are and share that has helped me get a little bit closer to the integrity and authenticity I long to live with; living with children has helped me remember and 2015-03-22 14.34.50practice the way that who we are is so much more important than what we do (as well as provided many happy hours of lego construction); rhythms of doing life together have given me structure and grounding in what have been uncertain and changing times, and have often been filled with laughter and sometimes with shared tears; it’s been freeing to be given permission to care deeply for people and know that I’m also loved; and more than ever before I have felt that I’ve had roots which are deep enough to mean that coming back from a place like Iraq or Lebanon hasn’t been hard but has genuinely been a real coming home. I’m deeply grieving the loss of these things as the community in this form has come to an end far sooner than we hoped, and when I had it so briefly, and when there seemed to be so much potential for reaching beyond ourselves into the community around us.

But the things that have changed in me and in each of us, the friendships we’ve formed, the dreams we’ve dreamed, haven’t ended; and the gift of this time and this place and P1050732these people is something that endures. I believe that we’ll still see the things we hoped for emerge in different ways in the future – but for now, it’s enough for me to choose to recognise this time as a gift and value all it’s been and all it’s given. In this storm, and the others I’ll go through, I hope I can choose to recognise the gifts in the midst of grieving for what’s been lost. Thank you fellow 244-ers for being home, and for being a gift to me by being who you are.

When hope breaks through

I realise I’m a bit late to reflect on the impact of the picture of a boy on the beach and the sudden change of heart it brought about in the UK, and if current headlines on immigration are anything to go by I may have missed my chance. But being in the strange but privileged position of living my life half here and half there, the “refugee crisis” has been much on my mind.

Magnus Wennman/Rex

Magnus Wennman/Rex

I recognised the deep value in the compassion which has motivated many people to offer their spare room to a refugee, and it’s been good to see the previously pervasive language of fear and exclusion being challenged. But at the same time, I deeply hoped that the return of Syria to our headlines might also prompt our compassion to extend to Syria itself and to its neighbours struggling under the pressure of hosting 96% of its refugees.

And yet at the same time I also questioned whether offering practical support to refugees whether in Europe or closer to Syria is anything more than putting a sticking plaster on a deeper and more complex situation that requires a real solution. What difference does it really make to give food and blankets, or to care for children and families, in the bigger and incomprehensible context of air strikes and violence and ISIS and power and politics?

Something I’ve been reminded of while I’ve been in Lebanon this month is the deep longing most Syrians have not to leave their country at all. The team of young people from Syria I was with last week described taking a group of children to say goodbye to one of their friends who was leaving Syria:

‘Afterwards his friends got out of the car and sat on the ground crying and wouldn’t stop – this was the third one of their group of friends who was leaving Syria.’


Regis Le Sommier

When the children were asked about their dreams and hopes for the future, they replied that their dream is to be able to stay together, but they can’t because ISIS is coming. If our only response is to try to bring more and more refugees to Europe and help them there, that can’t be a complete solution; but there’s so much that is complicated about it that it can seem easier to ignore the questions.

I know that I’m unbelievably lucky to be able to actually be here in Lebanon at this time, and as usual, some things I’ve seen and heard have spoken into my questions during this trip.

Child protection policies and procedures might not sound like something to get excited about, but this week they have been for me, largely because of an incredible NGO I’ve been working with for the first time. They provide high quality education and medical care in one of the poorest areas of Beirut where most people, and the police, never go. Violence against children an everyday occurrence, and cases of abuse are disturbingly common. In this complicated context where there is no clear path to know how to help a child at risk of or being abused, it would be much easier not to even raise the issue and simply provide education and medicines, a much clearer task without blurred edges or grey areas.

But one of the things that has encouraged me most of all during this trip is that rather than looking away, this organisation has been deliberately working to find the very best ways to respond to the complex cases they are finding. It comes at a high cost of time, commitment, and real personal risk, and with an increased amount of frustration and depth of pain when you do all you can and yet in a failing and under-resourced legal system, in some cases nothing changes at all – but they keep going.

And in the same way, as we work out our own response to the refugee crisis, we too can allow ourselves ask the big questions and engage with the complexities of the situation, at the same time as deliberately choosing to take practical action in the best way we can. As this NGO has found, the more we know and the more questions we ask, the more painful and difficult it might be. But paradoxically at the same time, when we really engage with the realities of the situation, hope also emerges.

This inseparability of pain and joy was very clearly illustrated for me by the time we spent last week with the team from Syria. They spent most of their time laughing and joking and enjoying being together, IMG_3331bbut as they prepared to leave on the last night there was a sense of heaviness in remembering that they were returning to the insecurity of their location in Syria and to uncertain futures.

Just as pain and joy can exist side by side, I’ve been wrong to think about our response as a zero-sum either-or scenario when in fact of course we can also support refugees in our midst in Europe at the same time as taking action to care about those closer to Syria. And we must – these are two parts of one situation in a world in which we’re more and more connected to one another, whatever fences we try to build.


The Syria team’s hopes and vision for their child friendly space

Among the many stories the team from Syria shared, one was about an activity where children needed to put their hands on each other’s shoulders, and how a Christian child overcame his initial reluctance and chose to reach out to the Muslim boy he was standing beside.

Every time a child refuses to believe the messages of violence and hate they are surrounded by is a new chance for a different future – and hope breaks through.