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.
15th March marks the 6-year anniversary of the Syrian conflict. It’s crushing to read another report from Unicef, and to know that as I work on reports or proposals I’ll be updating them with these latest, still worse statistics.
And yet these overwhelming figures can somehow become meaningless to us. Stories like this one can be more heart-stopping:
And I re-think the thought I have thought so many times in the last years: What if what we’re doing is not enough?
Usually I like to share stories of hope – of which there are many – often hidden, but significant beyond measure in this crisis. And these stories, and the people they represent, are what hold me precariously back from the brink of falling into despair.
But in these last few weeks in Lebanon, I’ve seen and heard how many of these courageous and self-giving people are deeply feeling the burden of what they do never being enough, never providing a complete solution: no place for a teenage girl to go back to school, no way to provide enough food for every family who needs it, no way to fully protect an abused child. These are the burdens of people I love, and so they are my burdens too.
Are we satisfied to care only in sporadic, media-ordained bursts? To care about Aleppo for a week or two, sign petitions, perhaps shed some tears – and then move on until the news reminds us again (depending on how much of our news-space US politics and Brexit don’t fill).
And I know it’s not possible to care about everything, all the time, and that it’s important to recognise and be grateful for what we do have, and not to be motivated by guilt.
But I can’t shake the feeling that isn’t this something that could break our hearts continually?
Reading my friend Jesse’s blog post recently reminded me that there’s good reason for feeling like this – whatever arguments we might have to prevent us acting, these pale against the reality that, “When it concerns children, there is never such a thing as collateral damage.”
These passages show the posture that might be appropriate in light of the current realities of the way the world is for children:
‘My eyes fail from weeping, I am in torment within; my heart is poured out on the ground… because children and infants faint in the streets of the city… their lives ebb away in their mothers’ arms.’
‘Teach one another a lament. Death has… removed the children from the streets.’
This situation breaks the heart of God in every moment of every day.
And so, until there is peace, I think this situation calls for more from us:
More than a few days of feeling outraged a couple of times per year
Even though it’s not our responsibility
Even though it’s really complicated
Even though political change is needed and beyond our reach somehow
Even though there seems to be no end
Even though we don’t understand
Because in the end, these are our children.
And what does that mean?
I don’t think it means feeling more guilty.
More likely it means seeking renewed compassion and taking an action.
Here are some actions I might try:
- Pray intentionally. Set aside 10 minutes a day for a week to pray for Syrian children, using this Unicef report as your guide. Pray for an issue each day and ask God to help you learn to lament and to give you his compassion and the prayers of his heart for these children.
‘Arise, cry out in the night, as the watches of the night begin; pour out your heart like water in the presence of the Lord. Lift up your hands to him for the lives of your children.’
- Give more than you’re comfortable giving (there are many organisations working with Syrian children but some I personally know well are Tahaddi, Merath, Tearfund, Embrace, Viva). Give up something you would have bought to give more than you planned to. While there isn’t a total solution here, more resources simply can make a huge difference.
- Commit to reading news about the situation once a week or once a month whether or not the conflict has a high profile in the media.
- Find out how your local area has responded to refugees and get to know them.
Whatever you do, and whether it is in this situation or one of the very many others, like Yemen or South Sudan, there is too much brokenness here to comfortably ignore.
And somehow, the more we lose – the more we lay down – the more we will find, as we become part of what God is doing to bring change and hope in the lives of children.
Includes pictures and quotes from Unicef’s current report available here
Get in touch if you are interested in taking action together or hearing more.
How does change happen? Does it primarily come from decisions taken by presidents and the powerful, or is it something more subversive that springs up from underground?
Having the chance to return to Cairo brought back happy memories of good friends from many countries, walking by the Nile, and unbroken sunshine in a place I loved dearly.
But there was always more to life here than that, and with the focus of this trip meaning I have spent most of every day visiting people who are working with Egypt’s most vulnerable communities, I have been firmly reminded of how relentless a struggle life is for the majority of people living here.
And yet, as always, my work gives me the incomparable privilege of seeing hope emerging quietly but with strength in unexpected places. In our current political situation I have been thinking about how we might have something to learn from these people who have many years’ experience of continuing to work for justice and change in uncertain and turbulent times, and I believe their experience shows us some principles about how we might model the compassion and justice we seek to advocate for:
Get to know those you’re fighting for…
I visited a group of nuns who have been living and working amongst the zabaleen people on the outskirts of Cairo (above) for many years. Life for this community who make their living from sorting through and recycling Cairo’s rubbish remains difficult and dangerous, and poverty is pervasive. These nuns have been consistently present in the midst of this. By virtue of being there, they have built strong relationships and respect, and can notice and respond to deeper, more complex needs – currently they are working to develop anti-addiction programmes and providing catch-up education for working children.
… And stay there
I’ve also been challenged by the persistence and commitment of those I’ve met this week in Egypt, not just caring when it’s popular but in it with those they’re working on behalf of for the long haul. One project which began by supporting a single deaf child now works with children and adults with a myriad of different disabilities and at the same time still seeks to do the best for each individual to develop to their full potential. Alongside this practical work they advocate for the rights of people with disabilities in Egypt.
Work with people who aren’t like you
The most powerful forces for change I’ve seen are those which bring together people who you would never expect to find together in the same room. This week I met an interfaith, inter-generational, child protection committee which included children themselves as well as representatives of the local health department, education and government ministries who were seriously working together to improve children’s access to their rights in this one community.
Make space to hear the voices of the marginalised
Over several years this child protection committee is now seeing significant change and impact through being there, being committed and working together. The children themselves have learnt about their rights, been trained in advocacy, and have gone out into their community to understand the needs of children. Over the last seven years, among other things, they have had a huge impact in improving the working conditions for the many children involved in child labour in the local workshops and factories; one teenage boy said,
“We learned how to deal with workshop owners, and now they will listen to a child; now we can deal with anyone.”
The impact of children themselves speaking up for change and seeing it happen is immense, and slowly but surely, change is coming in this community.
And so: what if, rather than responding in kind to acts and words of intolerance, we could break this cycle of violence with responses that embody the very compassion for which we advocate?
While it would be a wholly undeserved grace, I suspect a president is more likely to be disarmed by accepting a cup of sweet Syrian tea and a welcome from those he fears, than by a petition signed by 2 million against him; or that speaking gently and recognising and putting aside my arrogance to really seek to understand the reasons why someone can think so differently to me, might make more difference than sharing a facebook post ridiculing their point of view.
While the need to challenge unjust policies and practices remains critical and political engagement is essential, I have a feeling that the quiet stories of genuine compassion like those I’ve witnessed in Egypt this week in fact also have significant power to transform systems and policies. Beginning from the actions of people like these Egyptians, and like you and me, little by little something totally new is created from the seemingly insignificant threads of our actions weaving together. Let’s be part of this story.
“They work from 6am to 3pm in agriculture and take $3 a day. They are too tired, they are working too hard. A child doesn’t have the capacity for this, but he has to do it.”
“We have to be strong in front of our children, to let them feel strong. Maybe we don’t have enough support but we have to pretend.”
It’s somehow surreal to be spending my days hearing stories like this of a reality I can’t really comprehend which breaks my heart again and again – at the same time as the rest of the world also seems to be turned upside down in a very different way.
These conversations with Syrian children and families feel very far removed from the world of facebook arguments and article sharing justifying votes and views; and yet at the same time, these people and these conversations are in some way right at the centre of it all. Because here is where I meet the theoretical ‘other’ face to face – the family from Raqqa with a faith different to mine, the teenage boys from Aleppo who dream of a life with more opportunity – as they laugh, are listened to, and drink a cup of tea with me.
In this current project, with this one community, we’re trying to listen and learn together about the ways that these children are not safe and how together we could make them safer. More than ever I am recognising these people as just that – people – not ‘refugees’ but a community, individuals with stories, neighbours.
I love to share stories of how the church in Lebanon is acting and working to change the situation of those who have fled war in Syria – and undoubtedly they are, and they’re in it for the long term.
But it’s not easy.
The reality is that they do this amidst a sea of intractable and seemingly insoluble problems; among these, a registration system which prevents most Syrians from having legal refugee status, making life constantly insecure and rooted in well-founded fear; and an inescapable lack of money which means families increasingly use coping strategies like sending children to work, removing them from school or accumulating increasing debt. This is a complicated story, and we somehow live and work amidst the tangled knots.
And as I’m thinking about this, we suddenly arrive at one of the settlements. Way past the edge of town, past the vineyards and agricultural fields, past brick factories and through clouds of dust. And out of sight amidst the piles of blocks and stones, brown earth and grey air, a cluster of tent and brick homes and children, outside, playing with pieces of cement and stone.
Like the rows and rows of bricks piled neatly one upon the other are the challenges and apparent hopelessness of the child’s world who lives here –the child who must be growing up knowing only brick and dust – can anything really change this?
And in the same way, there is so much that needs to change from the top down for things to really be different – for war to end, for justice to be done, for resources to be shared, for the most vulnerable to be seen and valued.
While this doesn’t happen, the losses continue: today bombing restarts in Aleppo, and so it continues. More children will die, and I don’t think anything will happen to stop it. For one group of children we spoke to this week, children who have lost someone in their family was the most serious problem they identified.
And yet, in these communities beyond anywhere, on the edge, the church we’re partnering with is including these children, who no one else has cared about, in their education project – they’re going to school when they weren’t before.
I struggle to imagine how the church members first decided to come out here, to overcome fears and give up comfort, to make contact with people so apparently not like them, to talk and to listen.
And as children listen seriously and share ideas with wisdom and kindness, I recognise the deep privilege it is to be here.
Later on this week we’ll have a meeting to present all the information and ideas that have been shared and to try to decide together on ideas for projects we could develop together for children.
I’m under no illusion that there’s huge potential for miscommunication and misunderstanding, and that faithfully listening and acting and matching resources to dreams and hopes is far from a simple thing.
But whether or not it ‘works’, I’m glad to be trying. Despite all the things that seem impossible, wrong, and incomprehensible, I’m glad we have this chance to put on our shoes and take some steps together.
So, even though perhaps it seems that the bricks are piled especially high at the moment, as well as grieving and seeking for justice on a higher level, let’s also put our shoes on, go, listen, understand – and who knows, maybe we can be part of building something totally different together that we haven’t yet imagined.