For photo credits see https://www.instagram.com/alternative_advent/
All images taken from The Guardian or Euronews.
How does change happen? Does it primarily come from decisions taken by presidents and the powerful, or is it something more subversive that springs up from underground?
Having the chance to return to Cairo brought back happy memories of good friends from many countries, walking by the Nile, and unbroken sunshine in a place I loved dearly.
But there was always more to life here than that, and with the focus of this trip meaning I have spent most of every day visiting people who are working with Egypt’s most vulnerable communities, I have been firmly reminded of how relentless a struggle life is for the majority of people living here.
And yet, as always, my work gives me the incomparable privilege of seeing hope emerging quietly but with strength in unexpected places. In our current political situation I have been thinking about how we might have something to learn from these people who have many years’ experience of continuing to work for justice and change in uncertain and turbulent times, and I believe their experience shows us some principles about how we might model the compassion and justice we seek to advocate for:
Get to know those you’re fighting for…
I visited a group of nuns who have been living and working amongst the zabaleen people on the outskirts of Cairo (above) for many years. Life for this community who make their living from sorting through and recycling Cairo’s rubbish remains difficult and dangerous, and poverty is pervasive. These nuns have been consistently present in the midst of this. By virtue of being there, they have built strong relationships and respect, and can notice and respond to deeper, more complex needs – currently they are working to develop anti-addiction programmes and providing catch-up education for working children.
… And stay there
I’ve also been challenged by the persistence and commitment of those I’ve met this week in Egypt, not just caring when it’s popular but in it with those they’re working on behalf of for the long haul. One project which began by supporting a single deaf child now works with children and adults with a myriad of different disabilities and at the same time still seeks to do the best for each individual to develop to their full potential. Alongside this practical work they advocate for the rights of people with disabilities in Egypt.
Work with people who aren’t like you
The most powerful forces for change I’ve seen are those which bring together people who you would never expect to find together in the same room. This week I met an interfaith, inter-generational, child protection committee which included children themselves as well as representatives of the local health department, education and government ministries who were seriously working together to improve children’s access to their rights in this one community.
Make space to hear the voices of the marginalised
Over several years this child protection committee is now seeing significant change and impact through being there, being committed and working together. The children themselves have learnt about their rights, been trained in advocacy, and have gone out into their community to understand the needs of children. Over the last seven years, among other things, they have had a huge impact in improving the working conditions for the many children involved in child labour in the local workshops and factories; one teenage boy said,
“We learned how to deal with workshop owners, and now they will listen to a child; now we can deal with anyone.”
The impact of children themselves speaking up for change and seeing it happen is immense, and slowly but surely, change is coming in this community.
And so: what if, rather than responding in kind to acts and words of intolerance, we could break this cycle of violence with responses that embody the very compassion for which we advocate?
While it would be a wholly undeserved grace, I suspect a president is more likely to be disarmed by accepting a cup of sweet Syrian tea and a welcome from those he fears, than by a petition signed by 2 million against him; or that speaking gently and recognising and putting aside my arrogance to really seek to understand the reasons why someone can think so differently to me, might make more difference than sharing a facebook post ridiculing their point of view.
While the need to challenge unjust policies and practices remains critical and political engagement is essential, I have a feeling that the quiet stories of genuine compassion like those I’ve witnessed in Egypt this week in fact also have significant power to transform systems and policies. Beginning from the actions of people like these Egyptians, and like you and me, little by little something totally new is created from the seemingly insignificant threads of our actions weaving together. Let’s be part of this story.
“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.
Donald Trump Jr.’s analogy comparing refugees to skittles this week seemed to set a new low in the level of disregard for human life it reflected, and provided a frightening indication of the attitudes fear can legitimise.
I was glad to see so many people responding to show why this is not an appropriate analogy – especially those pointing out that if in fact these skittles represent men, women and children who we can save from horrific situations of conflict and violence, then we should in fact eat as many ‘skittles’ as we can because of the value of human life they represent.
And yet even this response has something lacking when I think about the Syrian people I’ve come to know and work alongside here in the Middle East.
Undeniably the situation in Syria is continuing to deteriorate and is something that people should be rescued from; what’s happening right now in Aleppo clearly shows that. Stories I heard this week from Syrians working with children in conflict-affected areas – stories of parents suddenly lost in explosions, children who have seen things they should never have seen – mean that yes, we need to do all we can to bring peace and an end to this conflict in which the most vulnerable continue to lose the most.
But still, there is something missing in the counter argument to the ‘skittles’ analogy which casts us in the west as the selfless heroes who take action to save these ‘helpless’ people, despite the potential cost. Certainly selflessness and a willingness to disregard the cost are good things for us to aim for, but when these qualities are all on our side, this doesn’t even come close to telling the whole story about the people I’ve spent the last few years working alongside here. In fact, selflessness and courage are qualities I have seen much more clearly in these men and women than in myself.
This week I spent three days with the Syrian child friendly space teams we work with in conflict-affected areas, and once again was overwhelmed by their compassion, heart and willingness to remain for the long term in dangerous places when there are so many other, easier, much less costly choices they could have made.
One of them living in an area currently often under bombardment explained, “A good thing about that is you learn to face death and not to fear it.” Day by day, month by month, children are loved, valued and cared for when no one else is there. And this is the courage not of a moment but a patient, persistent, tenacious courage.
The week before this, I met Fares*, a young man who had left Aleppo only one month ago, and told me in a matter of fact way how his role in Syria in the last few years has been working to give aid to people in the city, going into ‘hotspot’ dangerous areas to find out people’s needs and help to provide support – risking his life on a daily basis. Fares joked that having this job was the reason his English is so good, since he had plenty of time to study as he didn’t feel like going out of the house in the evenings after spending his whole day going out into dangerous places.
Fares is hoping to complete his studies, but in the meantime has taken on a teaching role in a non-formal education project for out-of-school Syrian children in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Many Syrians are partnering with Lebanese churches and NGOs and working as teachers or volunteers in projects like this.
In another of these schools which I visited a few weeks ago, it was clear that there is a significant impact on children and their families. Children who were out of school for several years now know how to read and write, they have become less isolated, and it’s clear to see that joy and hope are being restored through the commitment and passion of these volunteers.
Far from being a homogeneous group of helpless “refugees”, these are in fact the most courageous, the most persevering, the kindest, the least selfish group of people I have ever met.
To continue the inappropriate analogy, I would be happy to have a whole bowlful of them.
Rather than us needing to selflessly eat the skittles to rescue people in need, we should recognise that in fact these are people who, after all they have been through and with all that they bring, are people we could instead choose to welcome and receive as a gift.
It’s not just that refugees are ‘people not skittles’, true as that is – their identity also does not primarily lie in the label ‘refugee’. In today’s world, where fear is allowing lies to pass for truth, selfishness for logic; having the opportunity to know men, women and children from Syria, hearing their stories, developing friendships, living life alongside one another – this could be a significant way for us to reclaim our humanity.
I wish we were in a place where there was no ‘them’ and ‘us’ – but until then, I’m becoming more and more convinced that we need them as much as they need us.
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
Yesterday morning I was taken aback by quite how deeply sad I felt to wake to the news that we are leaving the EU. My sadness stemmed in part from the realisation of quite how separate we can become from people who seem to think differently from us; as the day wore on, I had the same conversations and saw the same expressions of feelings of loss, disappointment and astonishment. Missing were the voices of the almost equal proportion of people who voted the other way. A referendum in its nature is designed to split people in two, and this one appears to have been particularly effective at catalysing and strengthening division.
I’m especially saddened by this sense of increasingly sharp and painful division since recently I’ve actually been seeing incredible examples of the exact opposite of this phenomenon.
In Lebanon, we’ve started a network for churches who’ve begun informal education projects for Syrian refugee children, a much needed response where more than half of Syrian children remain out of school. Lebanon isn’t a place where working together across churches and denominations always comes easily, and in fact it feels somewhat miraculous that people are so excited about meeting together and helping each other.
Closer to home, I spent the two days before the vote at the NSPCC’s annual conference. I was shocked by the huge and rapidly growing scale of the issue of online child sexual abuse; in the last year alone, the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) removed 68,000 separate URLs containing images of child abuse. But what was encouraging was the scale and depth of the response to this issue; sitting on the discussion panel were representatives of the police, IWF, Google, and an academic, whose united response has made the UK now one of the most difficult places in the world to access child abuse images.
In both of these situations, we’re witnessing people who shouldn’t or wouldn’t normally choose to connect with each other, overcoming that which could divide them because they recognise that the issues they are faced with are worth tackling, and can only be solved, together.
In our current situation I think it’s important not to become closed off from what we might be tempted to see as a group of ‘other’ people totally not like ‘us’. It seems to me that one of the factors at the heart of the EU debate was a sense of anger and distrust because of a growing distance between politicians and people, a sense that decisions are made which don’t have the best interests of the most vulnerable at heart, and a frustration that it feels that there’s little we can do about it. Oliver James, an author and child psychologist speaking at the NSPCC conference commented,
‘There has to be a total change in our society… we need to become a nation that puts wellbeing ahead of greed.’
I hope that however we voted, we can choose to look beyond the pervasive rhetoric of fear, anger and hate, and begin to untangle the knots and find one another again. I hope we can make a choice to connect with people we wouldn’t normally interact with, and take this opportunity to listen, talk, understand, reach out, and not simply close off. I would like to choose to remain engaged, remain caring, remain hopeful, and remain in relationship.
The most compelling example of remaining in difficult circumstances I’ve known in recent months is that of our team in Syria running a child friendly space in an area that is deeply affected by conflict and insecurity – they have chosen to stay and continue to engage, where many others would have left. And one year in, we are seeing remarkable evidence of impact in the lives of the children they care for day in, day out.
To me, this team of young people represent hope in a situation that many see as only filled with despair. Let’s not let this week’s decision take us away from focusing on the issues that are really important and really demand our attention, thought and action, and let’s look for ways to remain connected and work together to ensure that our society is one that is good news for those who need it most.
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.
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)