People not skittles

Donald Trump Jr.’s analogy comparing refugees to skittles this week seemed to set a new low in the level of disregard for human life it reflected, and provided a frightening indication of the attitudes fear can legitimise.

I was glad to see so many people responding to show why this is not an appropriate analogy – especially those pointing out that if in fact these skittles represent men, women and children who we can save from horrific situations of conflict and violence, then we should in fact eat as many ‘skittles’ as we can because of the value of human life they represent.

And yet even this response has something lacking when I think about the Syrian people I’ve come to know and work alongside here in the Middle East.

Undeniably the situation in Syria is continuing to deteriorate and is something that people should be rescued from; what’s happening right now in Aleppo clearly shows that. Stories I heard this week from Syrians working with children in conflict-affected areas – stories of parents suddenly lost in explosions, children who have seen things they should never have seen – mean that yes, we need to do all we can to bring peace and an end to this conflict in which the most vulnerable continue to lose the most.

But still, there is something missing in the counter argument to the ‘skittles’ analogy which casts us in the west as the selfless heroes who take action to save these ‘helpless’ people, despite the potential cost. Certainly selflessness and a willingness to disregard the cost are good things for us to aim for, but when these qualities are all on our side, this doesn’t even come close to telling the whole story about the people I’ve spent the last few years working alongside here. In fact, selflessness and courage are qualities I have seen much more clearly in these men and women than in myself.

2016-09-21-15-18-44-copyThis week I spent three days with the Syrian child friendly space teams we work with in conflict-affected areas, and once again was overwhelmed by their compassion, heart and willingness to remain for the long term in dangerous places when there are so many other, easier, much less costly choices they could have made.

One of them living in an area currently often under bombardment explained, “A good thing about that is you learn to face death and not to fear it.” Day by day, month by month, children are loved, valued and cared for when no one else is there. And this is the courage not of a moment but a patient, persistent, tenacious courage.

The week before this, I met Fares*, a young man who had left Aleppo only one month ago, and told me in a matter of fact way how his role in Syria in the last few years has been working to give aid to people in the city, going into ‘hotspot’ dangerous areas to find out people’s needs and help to provide support – risking his life on a daily basis. Fares joked that having this job was the reason his English is so good, since he had plenty of time to study as he didn’t feel like going out of the house in the evenings after spending his whole day going out into dangerous places.

img_0432-2Fares is hoping to complete his studies, but in the meantime has taken on a teaching role in a non-formal education project for out-of-school Syrian children in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Many Syrians are partnering with Lebanese churches and NGOs and working as teachers or volunteers in projects like this.

In another of these schools which I visited a few weeks ago, it was clear that there is a significant impact on children and their families. Children who were out of school for several years now know how to read and write, they have become less isolated, and it’s clear to see that joy and hope are being restored through the commitment and passion of these volunteers.

Far from being a homogeneous group of helpless “refugees”, these are in fact the most courageous, the most persevering, the kindest, the least selfish group of people I have ever met.

To continue the inappropriate analogy, I would be happy to have a whole bowlful of them.

Rather than us needing to selflessly eat the skittles to rescue people in need, we should recognise that in fact these are people who, after all they have been through and with all that they bring, are people we could instead choose to welcome and receive as a gift.

It’s not just that refugees are ‘people not skittles’, true as that is – their identity also does not primarily lie in the label ‘refugee’. In today’s world, where fear is allowing lies to pass for truth, selfishness for logic; having the opportunity to know men, women and children from Syria, hearing their stories, developing friendships, living life alongside one another – this could be a significant way for us to reclaim our humanity.

I wish we were in a place where there was no ‘them’ and ‘us’ – but until then, I’m becoming more and more convinced that we need them as much as they need us.

*names changed

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