*Original images from the Guardian and Unicef: click on images to see link to original in comments below image.
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
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.
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?
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.