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.

15068375_595689577284248_6119543924896866808_oThese 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.

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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.

img_0598-2I 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.

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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.

 

Requiem for All Souls

Passing the college at evensong, I go inside

Take a seat behind hushed voices

Candlelight, expectant

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All Souls Day: Let us remember

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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

A damaged classroom is pictured after shelling in the rebel held town of Hass, south of Idlib province

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

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And now I wish I could wait here, perpetual in this stillness

And hear each of you patiently called by name

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But like the leaves you are too many

Each one once created and singing its beauty now falling, dying, crushed

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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

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Let us remember

People not skittles

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.

2016-09-21-15-18-44-copyThis 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.

img_0432-2Fares 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.

*names changed

Beatitudes for Syria

Empty ground, nothing left

A boy in an ambulance, a boy on the beach

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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

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Somehow you’re blessed – kingdom comfort

And a child is welcomed, a family known

Grass springs up from broken soil

Undemanding, unnoticed, underfoot

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

Remain

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.results

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.

IMG_0183In 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.

Syria CFSThe 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.

 

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.

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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.

beirut-rubbish-5-s_3582657kThis 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.

P1060037Today’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.

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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

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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.”

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P1060030This 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.

12733457_10101522934783891_8477343487082379692_n.jpgThis 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.

P1060028bOn 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)

 

Alternative Nativity

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.

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So Joseph went to Bethlehem. He took with him Mary, his fiancée, who was obviously pregnant by this time.

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But there was no room for them in the inn.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt.

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So the word became human and made his home among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness.

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The one who is the true light, who gives light to everyone, was coming into the world.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

P1050982bI 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?