(Photograph: John Bowen – Location: Bekaa Valley, Lebanon)
by Suzie Lahoud
“I wonder why all children are happy around the world enjoying Christmas decorations, different colors, new clothes, but the children in our country live, every year, with a hope that the next year will be better, yet they discover that it is more painful than the year before.” – Tartous, Syria; December 2015
I have never been able to reconcile myself to the disparities of the world. Growing up, I used to regularly travel across time and space from the raw want of the former Soviet Union to the wealthy consumerism of the United States. In Uzbekistan, the average “middle-class” citizen owned two pairs of clothes, and was annually wrangled into picking cotton in the fields without pay in the hot, summer months. When we traveled back to America each year I sometimes wandered the streets of the neat, suburban neighborhood that I used to call home and just wonder how people there lived. I longed for a bygone day when that was all that I had known. When everyone lived in comfortable houses and children rode happily on their bikes in quiet streets.
I believe that today the world is facing a similar coming of age. We long for a bygone day when children didn’t wash up on sea shores, and mothers didn’t have to walk for miles with bloodied feet just to reach the next border. We try to escape the emaciated faces, the haunting reality that somewhere in the world right now, bombs are being dropped, human beings are reduced to eating grass and leaves just to survive, families are watching loved ones being slaughtered before their eyes.
Not long ago I heard the story of a small boy whose mother had taught him,
If you ever smell a strange smell, put a damp cloth over your nose and mouth, run into the bathroom, and lock the door.
This little boy followed his mother’s exact instructions the day that the sickening smell of sarin gas first touched his nostrils. He emerged an hour later to find his entire family dead. How does one even begin to comprehend what this boy has been through? How does one even attempt to respond?
Yet I think that what we often fail to recognize is that the Syrian people are not only the victims of this unthinkable tragedy. They are also its unsung heroes. They remain battered, and yet, unbroken in the face of the storm. When was the last time that you risked your life to carry a parcel of food to a family who was hungry? Or had the fortitude to establish a new life with your children, though the living conditions were harsh and the future uncertain?
The Middle East is so often portrayed as unstable and in turmoil. But I have found that its heart beats louder than many are willing to heed and understand. I have also found that the channels of hope often flow contrary to what you would expect. As an American humanitarian worker, I have found myself to be quite weak compared to the resilience of the Syrian families that I have met. I have been comforted by Syrian pastors coming across the border into safety, only to return to certain danger the next day. I have been welcomed by refugees who, within their host communities, are despised, yet they greet me with a warm smile and a cup of hot tea. I have been inspired by young men and women who choose to forsake their own security, refusing to flee the violence for the sake of the children that they feel called to serve. I have been utterly humbled by the beating heart of the Syrian people. And five years on, it beats still.
Emmanuel. God with us. I seldom meditate on this truth except at Christmastime, but lately I can’t seem to get it out of my mind. It keeps coming up in my encounters as a recurring theme – in the oft-repeated phrases of Syrian families,
“Whatever you do – please, don’t stop visiting us. Don’t stop asking about us. Don’t stop knocking on our door.”
It’s been spoken to me and my husband so many times as we visit the refugee families in our neighborhood in Beirut. It’s been repeated by Pastors from Syria who share stories of families greeting them with tears in their eyes –
“You are the only one who’s asked about us. The only one who’s come to give and not to take.”
It was recently recounted to me by a British Anglican Priest who had the courage to go and take part in an interfaith gathering inside Syria. He described how passersby kept coming up to him on the street, smiling –
“You are the only one who’s come to us. We don’t want anything. We just want people from the West to come to us – to see how we are.”
A ministry of presence. Lately I’ve been trying to understand what this means. It’s a step beyond mere empathy. It’s an embodiment, a movement of empathy. It’s choosing to go from the comfort of where we are to where the pain is. And so what I keep asking myself, five years into this crisis, is how can we be present with the Syrian people in the midst of their suffering and pain? And I think that the answer depends on who you are, and where you are. I think that very few of us will actually set foot inside Syria while this conflagration rages. But if that is your calling, go. I think very few of us have the power to influence political machinations, and to enact peace negotiations, but if you have that power – for God’s sake, wield it. I think a small percentage of us possess the kind of money that can actually make a dent in the severe gap in humanitarian funding. But if you do – pledge it, and follow through.
I also think that each of us possesses more power than we realize. I once asked my husband if he thought that politicians are the ones who change the world. He responded thoughtfully,
“I think that everyone changes the world.”
So if you can offer a warm blanket – do it. If you can give a dollar – do it. If you can welcome a family – do it. If you can organize a prayer vigil, petition your government, volunteer at a local NGO, call out fear and xenophobia – do it.
In the midst of the unthinkable, the unconscionable, in the midst of agony, terror, and crisis, in the midst of a world gone horribly, irrevocably, relentlessly wrong, I think we all need to know that God is still present. I think that many of us who are nowhere near the suffering, have been broken and haunted by what we have vicariously watched unfold. I think that many of us are struggling to make sense of it all, and to know how to respond. The best answers that I have personally found to why some children safely ride their bikes through quiet neighborhoods while others dodge bullets and breathe their last as mere collateral damage, are none at all. I think the seven days that Job’s friends spent mourning with him in silence were so much more meaningful, so much more powerful, and so much more healing, than the days of their grandiloquent theologizing of the why of his suffering.
I still have a lot of questions concerning the why. I think that we all do. But I want to honor and stand by those who have courageously faced the storm and cried out,
“Though He slay me, yet will I hope in Him.”
And I think that when God shows up, He will chastise all of our false pretenses and seemingly self-evident justifications. I think He will silence us. Not with all of the answers that we think we need, but with who He is.
“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?”