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
Little spaces for big change: The power of the stories we don’t hear
“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
Put your shoes on, drink tea, and move the bricks
“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.
Beatitudes for Syria
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
The extraordinary everyday
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.
The next Syria starts here
Stories like this over the last few weeks have left me feeling confused; it’s hard to understand how peace can be decided so remotely from the people it concerns. On Sunday suicide bombings in Damascus and Homs killed 140 people. How can these both be versions of the same story? Reconciling all the different versions of reality seems almost as out of reach as reconciliation between all the people involved in perpetuating the conflict.
One thing that is clear is the impact that the conflict continues to have in people’s lives in the meantime. A friend who lived in Homs recently shared the shocking recent drone footage of the extent of the destruction of his city, with these words:
“Wondering for how long I will be still able to remember you my lovely home city “Homs” the way you used to be. It will always be hard to believe what I see in this video. Goodbye Homs. I truly loved everything about you.”
This week I sat in a tent in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley with a family who fled their homes in Aleppo at the start of the conflict five years ago.
One of the women smiled as she told us,
“We laugh at ourselves because we used to see people living in tents on the news, refugees from Yemen or Iraq – and now we have become those people.”
I was reminded of how easily that could be me, or any one of us; and equally how easily fear, the way stories are presented to us in the media, and our distance, allow us to see them as people that could never be us.
I know that I’m unusually lucky to have had this opportunity to connect with some of the people behind the story – to drink sweet Syrian tea together and to share stories about our families, to laugh and to watch children play. But in the UK, and even in my comfortable life in Lebanon, I usually feel very far removed from the people at the heart of this story I care deeply about.
This idea of being disconnected is something I’ve been thinking about recently in terms of my ‘two lives’ in the UK and in Lebanon. I still struggle with each transition, wanting to hold onto the people and the place I am leaving behind, often thinking of what I’m missing out on being part of with the people in the place where I’m not.
So, lately I’m trying to lose the fear of missing out – a lesson I learn by deliberately choosing in each moment to be present in the lives of the people I’m with. It could mean sharing tea with Syrians in the Bekaa Valley, it might look like enjoying breakfast with my housemate in Oxford, or it might be finding a way to practically encourage someone who is deeply engaged in meeting the needs of the people who are on my heart.
I have a feeling that peace on a bigger scale also has something to do with connecting; finding ways to know the people who are actually very often living lives not so different to ours – wanting to find work, to do the best for their children, to be safe. I love my work in Lebanon because I get the chance to, in small ways, be alongside people who are deeply committed to and connected with with the Syrian families they are serving, and I love that I get the chance to share these stories with you.
On the day I visited the family from Aleppo, I also visited a new project we have started which is providing catch-up education for children right there amongst the tents they are living in. I saw a classroom full of children eager to learn, and a Syrian teacher who (despite the difficulties of managing the behaviour of children who have been out of school for several years) shone with something that looked a lot like peace as he spoke about his sense that what he is doing is something really important; and I believe it is.
Maybe there will be peace in Syria this weekend. Maybe there won’t. But right now we can choose to be present and be connected where we are with the people around us. And we can also choose to find ways to connect with and listen to the stories of the many people who, unnoticed, beneath the surface, are quietly building peace; a peace that I suspect may have more impact that we can understand.
‘The future is not somewhere else but here and now: sunlight, rain dancing.
Stop trying to prove yourself; become a swallow in flight; blur of joy.
Change in Syria or the next Syria starts here: with me, with you.’
(From ‘Unfurling’ by Ian Adams)
About that time Caesar Augustus ordered a census to be taken throughout the Empire. This was the first census when Quirinius was governor of Syria. Everyone had to travel to his own ancestral hometown to be accounted for.
So Joseph went to Bethlehem. He took with him Mary, his fiancée, who was obviously pregnant by this time.
But there was no room for them in the inn.
While they were there, the time came for her baby to be born; and Mary gave birth to her first child, a son. She wrapped him in a blanket and laid him in a manger.
That night there were shepherds staying in the fields nearby. They said to each other, “Come on! Let’s go to Bethlehem!” … And there was the baby, lying in the manger.
About that time some wise men from eastern lands arrived in Jerusalem, and the star they had seen in the east guided them to Bethlehem.
When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream.“Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”
So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt.
So the word became human and made his home among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness.
The one who is the true light, who gives light to everyone, was coming into the world.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it.
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.
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.”
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.
I 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?
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.
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.