The gifts in the storm

Yesterday I was in Lebanon, and somehow today I’ve packed up everything in Oxford and moved out of the community house I’ve been living in and into a new place. I’m excited and hopeful about a new start and new people to get to know, but it’s not where we as a community expected to be. It’s been painful over the last few months to see our hopes and dreams of living together and welcoming in the people around us who are living on the edges seeming to be lost after being battered by many different circumstances, until we’ve had to accept that for now it’s not happening, and we are all leaving. It would be easy to wonder what the point was, and at times it has certainly been hard to understand what’s been going on.


Typhoon-HagupitThis feeling of being battered by storms reminded me of my trip to the Philippines just before I moved to Oxford. Despite the fact that the purpose of my trip there was to evaluate the response to a previous typhoon, it hadn’t even remotely crossed my mind that I could be on the island of Samar when another storm hit. Yet a couple of days into my trip we started to hear that another severe typhoon was on a path straight towards us. This meant that despite plans for a packed schedule of meetings and interviews, with a week in the city evaluating the work of a big international NGO, most of my trip was in the end spent in a remote part of the island either waiting for the (very slow moving!) typhoon, battening down the hatches, and missing the whole second week of plans through not being able to travel in the aftermath.

1508629_10101083301672171_7557995443653420224_nThis may not sound like the makings of a great trip; I was meant to be spending my second week with an American colleague who in fact never made it  onto the island at all because the typhoon was already approaching by the time she was due to arrive, making it too dangerous for her to get there. From the outside it might look like she was lucky to miss it, but in fact, in the end I actually felt that I was the lucky one because I had the chance to be there in the midst of it.

Preparing for and experiencing the typhoon with the amazing family I stayed with and was able to encourage and be encouraged by, the children I met when families came to1601009_10101083301592331_742590917431699867_n shelter in the house I was staying in, the sense of togetherness singing songs the night before the typhoon and at daybreak as the typhoon passed, and in the days after where it wasn’t safe to travel and I spent time visiting families, and sat out under the stars listening to stories and songs, are memories I treasure as a gift I didn’t ask for, expect or deserve. A sheer gift where I was in a specific place with particular people at a moment in time that I could never have planned for but is something I will always be grateful for.

I feel the same way about the last 9 months at 244. It’s been a complete gift – something I didn’t ask for, expect or deserve. I know I’m not the same person I was when I arrived; simply being around people who are brave enough to be who they really are and share that has helped me get a little bit closer to the integrity and authenticity I long to live with; living with children has helped me remember and 2015-03-22 14.34.50practice the way that who we are is so much more important than what we do (as well as provided many happy hours of lego construction); rhythms of doing life together have given me structure and grounding in what have been uncertain and changing times, and have often been filled with laughter and sometimes with shared tears; it’s been freeing to be given permission to care deeply for people and know that I’m also loved; and more than ever before I have felt that I’ve had roots which are deep enough to mean that coming back from a place like Iraq or Lebanon hasn’t been hard but has genuinely been a real coming home. I’m deeply grieving the loss of these things as the community in this form has come to an end far sooner than we hoped, and when I had it so briefly, and when there seemed to be so much potential for reaching beyond ourselves into the community around us.

But the things that have changed in me and in each of us, the friendships we’ve formed, the dreams we’ve dreamed, haven’t ended; and the gift of this time and this place and P1050732these people is something that endures. I believe that we’ll still see the things we hoped for emerge in different ways in the future – but for now, it’s enough for me to choose to recognise this time as a gift and value all it’s been and all it’s given. In this storm, and the others I’ll go through, I hope I can choose to recognise the gifts in the midst of grieving for what’s been lost. Thank you fellow 244-ers for being home, and for being a gift to me by being who you are.

Making hope possible in the hopeless places

Last week, in a dusty tent, I found myself sitting and talking with a group of mostly Yazidi women who one year ago were forced to flee from Sinjar when ISIS took control of the area. Each a mother of young children, the women told difficult stories of how the children struggled to cope with the what they saw and experienced, some having had to leave their grandparents behind, some having seen other children abandoned on the way, and others seeing dead bodies all around them as they left.

In the midst of concerns about the numbers of people who might want to seek refuge in the UK, it’s easy to forget that most people affected by conflict never leave their own country.

UntitledIn 2014 alone 2.2 million Iraqis were forced to leave their homes and have taken refuge in other parts of Iraq; many in the relative safety of Kurdistan, northern Iraq (the green area on the map), where the mothers I spoke to now live.

Funding for the crisis in Iraq is far from meeting its target and so conditions in the IDP (internally displaced person) camp I visited are poor. Families live in tents and electricity is usually off for most of the day, leaving people with no protection from the summer heat which can reach almost 50 degrees. In the complex context of Iraq where it’s difficult to know what will happen next, and the country is also home to thousands of Syrian refugees, it’s not easy to feel hopeful for for these families.

Over the last ten days I’ve been part of a team evaluating the emergency response of a local child-focused NGO which never planned to deliver humanitarian relief but in the midst of the great needs they’ve seen around them have massively increased and developed their work to respond. In the IDP camp I visited they are the only organisation providing services for children.

IMG_7029bChildren love having a safe and fun place to go and spend time, and the child friendly spaces act as an entry point for the team to identify children in need of further support and to work to support the whole family. This is possible here because of this organisation’s long-term focus on work around keeping children safe and their deep knowledge of the local context and systems that come from having been present in northern Iraq over many years.

Children’s lives are changing through the work of the team I met with last week. One of the mothers told me that after the crisis her son simply stopped speaking and spent all his time alone. He was initially reluctant to go to the child friendly space, but since starting to attend regularly he has begun to interact with other children again, and now wants to go so much that he wakes his mother up early in the morning to take him. Although it’s unclear how soon there can be any sense of resolution to the complex crisis in Iraq and Syria, this local organisation understands and acts on the critical reality that children’s lives cannot simply be put on hold while we wait to see what happens.

In the really difficult contexts we see all around us today, I’m believing more and more deeply that the key solution lies in supporting and resourcing local organisations like this who are already there on the ground, already passionate about working alongside the most vulnerable in their location, already equipped to work in their environment and willing to stay when media attention and funding fades. I believe that the more visible these stories of local people caring and acting for children become, the more chance there is that we can see a world where, even amidst the most difficult circumstances, children can be safe and hope for a positive future which can become a reality.

Is it worth it?

Is it worth it? Is it all making any difference? Why keep trying? So often we can feel that the effort we are putting into a relationship, a project, or a long-held dream isn’t having the impact we’ve hoped for. When costly investment and hope sometimes seem to yield only disappointment and pain, why should we bother to keep going?

UntitledWhile the resources available to meet the needs of Syrian children are rapidly diminishing (this month the UN are cutting in half the monthly food allowance for refugee families in Lebanon from $26 to $13), the statistics on the war in Syria have now grown beyond anything we can fully comprehend. It’s difficult to imagine a thousand children, let alone more than 5 million. So instead let’s try to picture just one child. A five year old girl called Naima.*

Displaced from their home to a village just outside one of Syria’s most conflict-affected areas, Naima’s family are struggling to meet their basic needs. Naima is one of 240 children who each week attend a child friendly space (CFS) – it’s a safe place where she can play, learn, have fun and spend time with a team of young leaders who care about her and want the best for her.

Every day when the children arrive at the CFS, the team leader, Samir, greets each child with a smile and a handshake. But  each time Naima would refuse to shake hands, and wouldn’t meet his eyes. During her time at the CFS each week, Naima wouldn’t say a word.

Samir told me that much of the time, his team feel discouraged and that they are having little impact in the lives of the children they care for. Children whose behaviour was difficult to manage at the start is still difficult to manage. There’s so much the team can’t change about the circumstances in which the children live, in this insecure location not far from Homs and with IS not far away on the other side.

The surveys we have done with the parents of the children in the CFS which I analysed in April indeed showed that children are struggling. The answers given score each child on a number of different scales including emotional and behavioural difficulties. Where a child was not struggling in an area, the corresponding box on my spreadsheet would stay white; orange indicated a slight problem, and darker red a much more serious problem. The results below are part of the responses for 10-15 year old boys, who were struggling the most – the high levels of orange or red boxes seemed to show that the team were right – the children they are working with really are having a lot of difficulties.

is it worth it pre1

But on my visit to Lebanon this time, I was handed a new pack of completed surveys – this time from parents of displaced Syrian children in another (safer) area where there is no child friendly space, for comparison. I couldn’t believe the results I was typing, as more and more boxes turned the very darkest red, indicating that the vast majority of the children have very severe difficulties and are not coping with life. It was hard not to burst into tears at my desk remembering that these boxes represent real children.

Is it worth it 1

While we shouldn’t infer too much from this one piece of data, I began to think about how much worse the situation of the children might be without the work of the child friendly space team. Although they feel that they aren’t having enough impact, it seemed to me that in fact their impact might be enormous; that in some way they are holding back or dispelling the darkness around them.

It reminded me of these verses from Isaiah 58:

If you spend yourselves on behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.

Or in the Message version:

Your lives will begin to glow in the darkness,
your shadowed lives will be bathed in sunlight.

 Samir’s whole face lit up as he told me that after several months, finally, Naima shook his hand, looked him in the eye and smiled. A seemingly small change that in reality is life-altering.

So for us, in those big and small things that we know deep down are the right things to do and to keep on doing, even where we feel like we’re not making a difference, or seeing results, or seeing the transformation we long for, let’s keep going. It might not be easy or comfortable, and it might not be safe. But even in the most insecure environment, because of his commitment to these children, Samir was able to honestly tell me, ‘This is my dream job…  These are the best days of my life.’

Let’s allow our lives to glow in the dark too.

Read more about the CFS story at

Read more about the CFS story at

*All names have been changed.

Leaving the helmet behind

Written in February 2014

Today I had to fill in a form asking for ‘proof of life’ questions. Not having seen the Russell Crowe movie of the same name, it was left to google to unceremoniously inform me that these are questions that my organisation will ask my kidnappers during negotiations to work out whether I am alive or dead.

In reality, my impending move to Beirut is not really all that dangerous – incidents are rare and I think for most people life is pretty normal. But even thinking about answering that question as a formality rang alarm bells in my mind. Is it really a sensible choice to move to a city where bombs explode regularly, and a country whose porous borders offer only superficial protection from the Syrian conflict which rages all around it?

SDC15019Most of the time, our impulse is to make sure that we do whatever we can to stay safe, and usually that’s not a bad idea! I’m really glad that I decided to buy a motorbike helmet before I moved to Kampala – while travelling around the city is always pretty risky, it feels good to know that my head is at least slightly protected!

FCO 301 - Lebanon Travel Advice Ed16 [WEB]The travel advice maps on the FCO website also help to feed into our desire to draw lines around what is safe and what is unsafe. It’s reassuring to think that you could stay in the green area forever and never let your feet cross over into yellow, and certainly not red, and then danger cannot touch you.

But the reality is that people move, things change, and the lines of ‘safety’ in our lives are not fixed, however much we would like them to be.

I constantly have to challenge my assumption that I have a right to live a life which is safe and comfortable. While it’s comforting to think that we could spend a whole lifetime avoiding risk, that’s just not what life’s like, and it’s certainly not what God tells us life will be like if we decide to live it with him.

In fact, I think that the real danger is found in trying too hard to stay safe – in missing out on living the life you’re called to and being the person you’re called to be, because it involves risk and uncertainty and things you can’t know and control. As I move to Lebanon for the next six months I don’t know for sure that I can do what’s being asked of me or whether things will go according to plan, but I know that the danger of not even trying is, for me, much more frightening.

In the midst of all the uncertainty, one thing I am confident about is the fact that children should be safe. When I read the Bible, the message that children are a priority to God and that he wants them to be valued and kept safe flows through the pages and should spill out into the way we live our lives.

I don’t know whether I’m going to be safe in Lebanon or not. But I hope that at least some of what I do will help some children there – children who don’t have the luxury of choosing not to be in the yellow or red areas, children who are still across the border in Syria, children who have known a lack of safety beyond what I can imagine – to be really safe and to be able to live the lives they are meant to live.

So I’ll be leaving my helmet behind and trusting that simply doing your best to be who you are in the place you’re called to, is really the safest place to be.