Good news of great joy: Advent 2019
Images from the Guardian/LiveLoveLebanon
“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.
“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.
Empty ground, nothing left
A boy in an ambulance, a boy on the beach
Who dares to dream any more?
The lonely, the broken, the hopeless
A mother lost by chance – wrong place, wrong time
Unbreakable silence of rock and stone
Somehow you’re blessed – kingdom comfort
And a child is welcomed, a family known
Grass springs up from broken soil
Undemanding, unnoticed, underfoot
But strong, resilient, green with life –
As a child’s laughter breaks through
You’re hungry and thirsty for things to be different
Each child safe, each child known
You take them by the hand and show them grace
Grace that fills you and flows through you
And as you turn your face towards the sky
Mercy falls and makes things new
As you make things new for the child who had no one
You are her someone
Pure heart – you shine with a light you know now
more intimately in this darkness
Light that fills you and each space you move in
And the space you’ve created for the child who was lost
And suddenly in this ‘hopeless’ place
Beauty springs up, unexpected, unasked for
Blessed are the peacemakers, heralding the birth of something new
You who welcome children – the children of God.
Illustrations created with Syrian caregivers working with children in conflict-affected areas of Syria
Arriving at my location this morning, there was little evidence of what the inconspicuous entrance in between the seemingly grey, everyday series of shop fronts and apartments actually contained. However, after climbing four flights of stairs I found myself in a hall used as a church, and through a doorway I glimpsed a colourful room decorated with children’s drawings.
This church’s small school project serving 30 children aged 5-12 with basic catch-up education was the venue for our day’s training workshop for an emerging network of churches and small organisations who have initiated small scale informal education projects to meet the needs of the refugee children in their community, many of whom have been out of school for several years.
Gradually the hall filled with more teachers and pastors, Lebanese and Syrian, involved in projects amongst the tents of the Bekaa Valley, the North of Lebanon, the poorest suburbs of Beirut.
While operating on totally different scales and with different approaches, another thing that these projects have in common is that you would never notice their existence if you didn’t know what to look for, or decide to take a closer look. Amidst the statistics of millions of Syrian children out of school, it’s easy to miss these innovative projects which are happening all the time.
This is how I also often think about the beautiful country I find myself in here; news of Lebanon in the media doesn’t tend to be positive. This week’s big news was this image of a ‘river of garbage’ on the outskirts of Beirut, and on travelling into the city with a friend on Friday night and noticing an unexplained plume of smoke, we agreed that we hoped the smoke was from the deliberate burning of a large pile of rubbish (common practice in the current garbage crisis) rather than a less positive explanation.
But piles of rubbish and the risk of explosions aren’t anywhere close to representing the Lebanon I’ve come to know and love, even if there are undeniably many struggles for people here. I’ll always be grateful that I had this opportunity to spend time in this country with continued surprises of unexpected beauty, obvious in the breathtaking first glimpse of the Bekaa Valley laid out underneath the backdrop of mountains, or the winding roads of the north through orchard-villages.
I haven’t always been good at recognising the beauty of Beirut, though.
On my last trip here I deliberately took a long walk across the city and tried to notice what was around me, and I was rewarded by stumbling upon amazingly well-preserved Roman ruins hidden along a street, mosaic floors, elegant buildings, colourful stairways.
It seems there is much beauty there to be seen if we are willing to notice it, even in places and situations which are presented as the opposite.
Today’s education network workshop was on the topic of psychosocial support, and how these churches can help children to cope with the many difficult experiences they’ve been through.
We often think of psychosocial support as meaning the ways we can include specific activities like art, music and sports for children.
But what came across powerfully today was how the quieter, less noticeable work of providing a regular, safe place for children characterised by routine and secure expectations and delivered by people with a consistently loving, encouraging and supportive attitude is perhaps the most significant input that education projects can provide for children affected by conflict. Today we heard stories of transformative change in children’s lives: a child who hadn’t spoken for 18 months, speaking; a child who couldn’t stop being violent towards others, making friends – through regularly being part of these projects, their lives have changed for good, forever.
And this all happens quietly, unnoticed.
So I want to make sure that I deliberately keep my eyes open for the good things that are happening beneath the surface: people, ideas, and initiatives, and get behind them.
That’s the main idea behind the bigger project I’m working on at the moment around finding out what local churches and organisations are doing to help children in emergencies, and helping those who want to partner with them to know how to do it in the best ways they can to make the most difference in children’s lives… and that’s really exciting! Today was a good day.
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.
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.’
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, but 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.
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.