Where my heart is

My grandma died last week while I was in Lebanon. In everything I’ve done she’s always been there for me, so it was very hard not to be able to be with her in her last days. Back at home now, I’ve read the diary she kept, and it’s bittersweet to see how many references there are to me being absent from special occasions or to the sadness of saying yet another goodbye to me as I flew back to wherever I was living.

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While I know how deeply my grandma supported me and my passion for working with children at risk, I’m realising that my decision to go has come at a cost.

Yet for me, this cost has been a choice I have made, and I am always only a plane ticket away from being together with my family again. But this is sadly far from the reality of many of the millions of people worldwide who have fled their homes because of violence and conflict. In Lebanon, Syrian families speak of the sadness of having left behind grandparents or other relatives unable to make the journey, while others lose touch with loved ones and have no way of knowing what has happened to them or where they are.

On this most recent trip to Lebanon, I felt perhaps the most at home I ever have on one of my visits; rather than having to deal with my sadness alone, I felt surrounded, known and cared for by many good friends. This gift of ‘family’ is the beautiful other side of the coin for the cost of the life I have chosen with its goodbyes and absences; experiencing it also depends on me being open to receive it.

I believe we’re at our best when we are welcoming strangers and being welcomed in return. Those who have fled from unimaginable situations of violence and pain are deeply in need of opportunities to receive, and to give, this real hospitality. But when we group these people together into a mass of “refugees”, “Muslims”, “migrants”, “people-who-aren’t-like-us”, we lose our chance to know people as individuals with stories to share and it becomes easy to be motivated by fear, rather than by love and compassion.

While the debate goes on and we talk on social media about taking too many or not enough refugees and fight about the controversial statements of politicians, the real situation continues unabated. Every moment, people in Syria and Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, are weighing up what new risks to take: getting into more debt so the children can eat, taking a child out of school to cut costs, risking it  all by getting onto a boat.

And also continuing under the surface, all this time, is the church in Lebanon, whose local members have been quietly caring for the Syrians they have come across; meeting their physical needs as best they can, but also sharing friendship and their lives at huge personal cost. It’s not always popular, and it’s not always easy, but after several years, these churches continue to know, love and value people.

The impact is immeasurable. Asked to draw pictures to describe the most significant change in their lives since participating in the child friendly space run by our church partner in north Lebanon, one child shared, “I’ve learnt that loving one another is the most important thing.”

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In the UK and in the US the number of refugees we are talking about accepting is just a tiny percentage of the number who are in Lebanon, but I hope that those who get here will find such a genuine and lasting welcome. Let’s be willing to speak out against attitudes motivated by fear, and be ready to listen to stories, ready to be a friend, ready to be family.

Loving the ‘outsider’ is an attitude of heart and a choice we make even in the smallest things. As well as signing petitions and engaging in debate, let’s find ways to be the change we’re looking for right here and now, whatever that might look like. Let’s welcome the people we find difficult, notice people who might be lonely, really see the people around us; perhaps for some of us it might even look like engaging with and seeking to understand and love those who are sharing views that are very different to our own.

P1050982bI long to be like my grandma in her faithful, unfaltering care for me and many others over a lifetime, and like the Lebanese Christians I have the privilege to work alongside in their willingness to love and to listen for the long term, without counting the cost.

Amidst the seemingly ever-growing voices of fear and unwelcome, how can we not just say, but be something different?

 

 

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.

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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.’

IMAGE: REGIS LE SOMMIER

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.

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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.

Making hope possible in the hopeless places

Last week, in a dusty tent, I found myself sitting and talking with a group of mostly Yazidi women who one year ago were forced to flee from Sinjar when ISIS took control of the area. Each a mother of young children, the women told difficult stories of how the children struggled to cope with the what they saw and experienced, some having had to leave their grandparents behind, some having seen other children abandoned on the way, and others seeing dead bodies all around them as they left.

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In the midst of concerns about the numbers of people who might want to seek refuge in the UK, it’s easy to forget that most people affected by conflict never leave their own country.

UntitledIn 2014 alone 2.2 million Iraqis were forced to leave their homes and have taken refuge in other parts of Iraq; many in the relative safety of Kurdistan, northern Iraq (the green area on the map), where the mothers I spoke to now live.

Funding for the crisis in Iraq is far from meeting its target and so conditions in the IDP (internally displaced person) camp I visited are poor. Families live in tents and electricity is usually off for most of the day, leaving people with no protection from the summer heat which can reach almost 50 degrees. In the complex context of Iraq where it’s difficult to know what will happen next, and the country is also home to thousands of Syrian refugees, it’s not easy to feel hopeful for for these families.

Over the last ten days I’ve been part of a team evaluating the emergency response of a local child-focused NGO which never planned to deliver humanitarian relief but in the midst of the great needs they’ve seen around them have massively increased and developed their work to respond. In the IDP camp I visited they are the only organisation providing services for children.

IMG_7029bChildren love having a safe and fun place to go and spend time, and the child friendly spaces act as an entry point for the team to identify children in need of further support and to work to support the whole family. This is possible here because of this organisation’s long-term focus on work around keeping children safe and their deep knowledge of the local context and systems that come from having been present in northern Iraq over many years.

Children’s lives are changing through the work of the team I met with last week. One of the mothers told me that after the crisis her son simply stopped speaking and spent all his time alone. He was initially reluctant to go to the child friendly space, but since starting to attend regularly he has begun to interact with other children again, and now wants to go so much that he wakes his mother up early in the morning to take him. Although it’s unclear how soon there can be any sense of resolution to the complex crisis in Iraq and Syria, this local organisation understands and acts on the critical reality that children’s lives cannot simply be put on hold while we wait to see what happens.

In the really difficult contexts we see all around us today, I’m believing more and more deeply that the key solution lies in supporting and resourcing local organisations like this who are already there on the ground, already passionate about working alongside the most vulnerable in their location, already equipped to work in their environment and willing to stay when media attention and funding fades. I believe that the more visible these stories of local people caring and acting for children become, the more chance there is that we can see a world where, even amidst the most difficult circumstances, children can be safe and hope for a positive future which can become a reality.

Is it worth it?

Is it worth it? Is it all making any difference? Why keep trying? So often we can feel that the effort we are putting into a relationship, a project, or a long-held dream isn’t having the impact we’ve hoped for. When costly investment and hope sometimes seem to yield only disappointment and pain, why should we bother to keep going?

UntitledWhile the resources available to meet the needs of Syrian children are rapidly diminishing (this month the UN are cutting in half the monthly food allowance for refugee families in Lebanon from $26 to $13), the statistics on the war in Syria have now grown beyond anything we can fully comprehend. It’s difficult to imagine a thousand children, let alone more than 5 million. So instead let’s try to picture just one child. A five year old girl called Naima.*

Displaced from their home to a village just outside one of Syria’s most conflict-affected areas, Naima’s family are struggling to meet their basic needs. Naima is one of 240 children who each week attend a child friendly space (CFS) – it’s a safe place where she can play, learn, have fun and spend time with a team of young leaders who care about her and want the best for her.

Every day when the children arrive at the CFS, the team leader, Samir, greets each child with a smile and a handshake. But  each time Naima would refuse to shake hands, and wouldn’t meet his eyes. During her time at the CFS each week, Naima wouldn’t say a word.

Samir told me that much of the time, his team feel discouraged and that they are having little impact in the lives of the children they care for. Children whose behaviour was difficult to manage at the start is still difficult to manage. There’s so much the team can’t change about the circumstances in which the children live, in this insecure location not far from Homs and with IS not far away on the other side.

The surveys we have done with the parents of the children in the CFS which I analysed in April indeed showed that children are struggling. The answers given score each child on a number of different scales including emotional and behavioural difficulties. Where a child was not struggling in an area, the corresponding box on my spreadsheet would stay white; orange indicated a slight problem, and darker red a much more serious problem. The results below are part of the responses for 10-15 year old boys, who were struggling the most – the high levels of orange or red boxes seemed to show that the team were right – the children they are working with really are having a lot of difficulties.

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But on my visit to Lebanon this time, I was handed a new pack of completed surveys – this time from parents of displaced Syrian children in another (safer) area where there is no child friendly space, for comparison. I couldn’t believe the results I was typing, as more and more boxes turned the very darkest red, indicating that the vast majority of the children have very severe difficulties and are not coping with life. It was hard not to burst into tears at my desk remembering that these boxes represent real children.

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While we shouldn’t infer too much from this one piece of data, I began to think about how much worse the situation of the children might be without the work of the child friendly space team. Although they feel that they aren’t having enough impact, it seemed to me that in fact their impact might be enormous; that in some way they are holding back or dispelling the darkness around them.

It reminded me of these verses from Isaiah 58:

If you spend yourselves on behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.

Or in the Message version:

Your lives will begin to glow in the darkness,
your shadowed lives will be bathed in sunlight.

 Samir’s whole face lit up as he told me that after several months, finally, Naima shook his hand, looked him in the eye and smiled. A seemingly small change that in reality is life-altering.

So for us, in those big and small things that we know deep down are the right things to do and to keep on doing, even where we feel like we’re not making a difference, or seeing results, or seeing the transformation we long for, let’s keep going. It might not be easy or comfortable, and it might not be safe. But even in the most insecure environment, because of his commitment to these children, Samir was able to honestly tell me, ‘This is my dream job…  These are the best days of my life.’

Let’s allow our lives to glow in the dark too.

Read more about the CFS story at http://www.lsesd.org/Default.asp?PN=%27News2%27&SubP=%27DNewsStory%27&gn=0&DivisionID=0&DepartmentID=0&SubDepartmentID=0&NewsID=75442&ShowNav=&StoryGroup=Current

Read more about the CFS story at http://www.lsesd.org/Default.asp?PN=%27News2%27&SubP=%27DNewsStory%27&gn=0&DivisionID=0&DepartmentID=0&SubDepartmentID=0&NewsID=75442&ShowNav=&StoryGroup=Current

*All names have been changed.

Leaving the helmet behind

Written in February 2014

Today I had to fill in a form asking for ‘proof of life’ questions. Not having seen the Russell Crowe movie of the same name, it was left to google to unceremoniously inform me that these are questions that my organisation will ask my kidnappers during negotiations to work out whether I am alive or dead.

In reality, my impending move to Beirut is not really all that dangerous – incidents are rare and I think for most people life is pretty normal. But even thinking about answering that question as a formality rang alarm bells in my mind. Is it really a sensible choice to move to a city where bombs explode regularly, and a country whose porous borders offer only superficial protection from the Syrian conflict which rages all around it?

SDC15019Most of the time, our impulse is to make sure that we do whatever we can to stay safe, and usually that’s not a bad idea! I’m really glad that I decided to buy a motorbike helmet before I moved to Kampala – while travelling around the city is always pretty risky, it feels good to know that my head is at least slightly protected!

FCO 301 - Lebanon Travel Advice Ed16 [WEB]The travel advice maps on the FCO website also help to feed into our desire to draw lines around what is safe and what is unsafe. It’s reassuring to think that you could stay in the green area forever and never let your feet cross over into yellow, and certainly not red, and then danger cannot touch you.

But the reality is that people move, things change, and the lines of ‘safety’ in our lives are not fixed, however much we would like them to be.

I constantly have to challenge my assumption that I have a right to live a life which is safe and comfortable. While it’s comforting to think that we could spend a whole lifetime avoiding risk, that’s just not what life’s like, and it’s certainly not what God tells us life will be like if we decide to live it with him.

In fact, I think that the real danger is found in trying too hard to stay safe – in missing out on living the life you’re called to and being the person you’re called to be, because it involves risk and uncertainty and things you can’t know and control. As I move to Lebanon for the next six months I don’t know for sure that I can do what’s being asked of me or whether things will go according to plan, but I know that the danger of not even trying is, for me, much more frightening.

In the midst of all the uncertainty, one thing I am confident about is the fact that children should be safe. When I read the Bible, the message that children are a priority to God and that he wants them to be valued and kept safe flows through the pages and should spill out into the way we live our lives.

I don’t know whether I’m going to be safe in Lebanon or not. But I hope that at least some of what I do will help some children there – children who don’t have the luxury of choosing not to be in the yellow or red areas, children who are still across the border in Syria, children who have known a lack of safety beyond what I can imagine – to be really safe and to be able to live the lives they are meant to live.

So I’ll be leaving my helmet behind and trusting that simply doing your best to be who you are in the place you’re called to, is really the safest place to be.