The summer I was seven
I made perfume from petals
Rode my bike down to the sea
Now seven is your number
And it hasn’t been like mine
You heard parents’ whispered fears
Felt walls crumble, choking dust
Emptied wordless red goodbyes
Seeing, unseeing, fleeing
To a place that isn’t home
Tonight on Beirut’s corniche
I walk hastily away
As you offer me a rose
And the thorns pierce deeper still
“As we were leaving we became visible to terrorists and snipers started shooting at me. I was holding my son across my chest and my daughters by the hands. We were running. My son was shot. The bullet went through his shoulder to his heart…
In 30 minutes I lost my son, my father and my cousin’s daughter.”
Yesterday I visited what might be the most significant project I’ve been involved with, and I think it gives some important insights into the current debates on international aid brought up so powerfully again this week.
Just over a year ago I wrote from the midst of some research we were doing in partnership with the local Lebanese church and community members in one Syrian community in the Bekaa Valley.
After many discussions and activities with children, young people and adults, one of the key issues that emerged was lack of services or activities for young children, while many mothers in particular felt alone and unsupported, having lost the natural in-built community of aunts and grandmothers and cousins they left behind in Syria.
At the community meeting at the end of the research, one of these mother spoke up with an idea – to create a safe space among the tents for young children to come and play, and learn, led by the Syrian women themselves.
And so, one year later, the Little Friendly Space (LFS) opened its doors. Two months in, and 60 children aged 2-5 attend the LFS in shifts – learning, singing, playing, and having a chance to be with other children and possibly a completely different future than they might have had without the developmental opportunities they are now accessing at this critical age. While the project is simple, the difference it could make is huge and the change is already evident:
“My daughter used to be very quiet and shy, she wasn’t sociable and she didn’t play. But since coming here she is more open – she is playing, enjoying herself, and she has a different spirit.”
“My children are so happy now and you can feel it – they understand everything and the teachers take good care of them.”
One of the issues the Oxfam story brings up for me is that of the value of genuinely working with and through local partners in emergency situations, something that most humanitarian agencies talk about but few genuinely put into practice. Certainly working with local partners adds a layer of complexity to any response – it will likely be slower and require more listening. But the current weighting of the balance in favour of the western aid agencies delivering programmes because of their greater capacity to meet western-determined reporting requirements needs to change, because it is this very separation of ‘us and them’ which positions the recipients of aid as powerless victims and is a significant enabling factor for abuse and exploitation.
Involving communities in all areas of their own programmes is no longer an optional extra but a critical priority, and we need to take action and put resources and research into really working out how partnership can genuinely become the main way we work with people in crises.
This one small project with 60 children gives a glimpse of the value of making the effort to facilitate projects led and developed by the communities they target. In addition to the impact for children, the children’s mothers are also involved in leading and also attend weekly sessions along with their children. Where mothers were often alone in a new area, because of this project, they are getting to know one another and a supportive community is coming into existence.
But one of the most significant impacts I’ve seen is in the life of Roula* herself, the Syrian woman who had the idea for the project, and is now leading it. Consider how much weaker the impact of the project might have been if Roula was simply viewed as a ‘beneficiary’, able to succeed only in meeting the dispiriting vulnerability criteria needed to become a recipient of support. Instead, yesterday she told me:
“In the beginning I was so afraid and not sure if I could fulfill this trust placed in me – but I was also excited – and then after we started I saw that the children were so happy to be here, I thought, ‘Yes, I am able to do it!’ Now I feel about myself that I am doing something – I’m responsible for these children.”
The tragic and unimaginably difficult story at the beginning of this post is Roula’s own story. I have personally witnessed the transformation in her – from the foundation of getting to know the local church partner who initially offered her support and friendship in a new and unknown place, to the tangible hope present in the moment when she spoke the idea for the project, to today where her idea is a reality.
Roula’s experience is one of many hidden stories that could be multiplied countless times if only we will be willing to listen, and to really see her and others like her who can be part of transformation and change in those places and situations that seem the most broken of all.
* Not her real name
15th March marks the 6-year anniversary of the Syrian conflict. It’s crushing to read another report from Unicef, and to know that as I work on reports or proposals I’ll be updating them with these latest, still worse statistics.
And yet these overwhelming figures can somehow become meaningless to us. Stories like this one can be more heart-stopping:
And I re-think the thought I have thought so many times in the last years: What if what we’re doing is not enough?
Usually I like to share stories of hope – of which there are many – often hidden, but significant beyond measure in this crisis. And these stories, and the people they represent, are what hold me precariously back from the brink of falling into despair.
But in these last few weeks in Lebanon, I’ve seen and heard how many of these courageous and self-giving people are deeply feeling the burden of what they do never being enough, never providing a complete solution: no place for a teenage girl to go back to school, no way to provide enough food for every family who needs it, no way to fully protect an abused child. These are the burdens of people I love, and so they are my burdens too.
Are we satisfied to care only in sporadic, media-ordained bursts? To care about Aleppo for a week or two, sign petitions, perhaps shed some tears – and then move on until the news reminds us again (depending on how much of our news-space US politics and Brexit don’t fill).
And I know it’s not possible to care about everything, all the time, and that it’s important to recognise and be grateful for what we do have, and not to be motivated by guilt.
But I can’t shake the feeling that isn’t this something that could break our hearts continually?
Reading my friend Jesse’s blog post recently reminded me that there’s good reason for feeling like this – whatever arguments we might have to prevent us acting, these pale against the reality that, “When it concerns children, there is never such a thing as collateral damage.”
These passages show the posture that might be appropriate in light of the current realities of the way the world is for children:
‘My eyes fail from weeping, I am in torment within; my heart is poured out on the ground… because children and infants faint in the streets of the city… their lives ebb away in their mothers’ arms.’
‘Teach one another a lament. Death has… removed the children from the streets.’
This situation breaks the heart of God in every moment of every day.
And so, until there is peace, I think this situation calls for more from us:
More than a few days of feeling outraged a couple of times per year
Even though it’s not our responsibility
Even though it’s really complicated
Even though political change is needed and beyond our reach somehow
Even though there seems to be no end
Even though we don’t understand
Because in the end, these are our children.
And what does that mean?
I don’t think it means feeling more guilty.
More likely it means seeking renewed compassion and taking an action.
Here are some actions I might try:
- Pray intentionally. Set aside 10 minutes a day for a week to pray for Syrian children, using this Unicef report as your guide. Pray for an issue each day and ask God to help you learn to lament and to give you his compassion and the prayers of his heart for these children.
‘Arise, cry out in the night, as the watches of the night begin; pour out your heart like water in the presence of the Lord. Lift up your hands to him for the lives of your children.’
- Give more than you’re comfortable giving (there are many organisations working with Syrian children but some I personally know well are Tahaddi, Merath, Tearfund, Embrace, Viva). Give up something you would have bought to give more than you planned to. While there isn’t a total solution here, more resources simply can make a huge difference.
- Commit to reading news about the situation once a week or once a month whether or not the conflict has a high profile in the media.
- Find out how your local area has responded to refugees and get to know them.
Whatever you do, and whether it is in this situation or one of the very many others, like Yemen or South Sudan, there is too much brokenness here to comfortably ignore.
And somehow, the more we lose – the more we lay down – the more we will find, as we become part of what God is doing to bring change and hope in the lives of children.
Includes pictures and quotes from Unicef’s current report available here
Get in touch if you are interested in taking action together or hearing more.
“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.
Passing the college at evensong, I go inside
Take a seat behind hushed voices
All Souls Day: Let us remember
He slowly recites their names
Henry, Peter, Hugh – those they’ve known and lost:
But I want to remember you
You, the child crushed as the classroom fell down, brought to rubble
You, Aleppo’s son, home and body shattered
You, daughter of Homs, caught by sniper’s fire
You, child of a mother whose weeping knows no end
Let us remember you
Earlier, a flurry of wind prompts a shower of autumn leaves
Amber-red, crimson, gold
Twirling dancing ground-wards
And now I wish I could wait here, perpetual in this stillness
And hear each of you patiently called by name
But like the leaves you are too many
Each one once created and singing its beauty now falling, dying, crushed
Let us remember
And as I remember you
I also remember him:
The one who knows each leaf, each child by name
Not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care
The one who weeps with us, and calls us:
Arise, cry out in the night, as the watches of the night begin…
Let us remember
Each one that falls goes back to the heart of God
Let us remember
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
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.