Subjects of Objectification or Kindred Spirits? Images and Stories of Refugees

mourning sham

by Kathryn Kraft*

Did you know that many Syrians who flee their country choose not to register with the UN as refugees? There are many reasons for this, but one important reason is that they don’t like the images that the word ‘refugee’ conjures. If they were to officially become refugees, they would be eligible for various types of assistance, including food rations and possible resettlement to another country. But they absolutely do not want to lose their identity. They see themselves as Syrians first and foremost, and also associate with their chosen career, their extended family, their interests and passions.

The media seems to have landed on a simple but somewhat misleading image capturing ‘the refugee’, Continue reading

Forgive us, as we Forgive: Visiting Internally Displaced Persons in Iraq

IDP Iraq 2

by Kathryn Kraft

“Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”

The challenge in the words of this prayer have taken on a new weight for me after spending some time in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI), getting to know Christians who are taking refuge from the so-called Islamic State, or Da’ish.

According to the International Organization for Migration, close to 1 million people fled the city of Mosul and the surrounding Nineveh Plain region during the summer of 2014, when Da’ish took control there. They didn’t flee the violence. Mosul has seen more than its fair share of conflict during the past decade, but many people chose to stay in their homes even when surrounded by fighting and instability.

This time was different. A million people fled, because they simply could not stay. Almost all of the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) from the Nineveh Province are Yazidi or Christians. What happened? Continue reading

Trash: A Rather Unusual Form of Expertise that Middle Eastern Christians Have to Offer the World

Cairo, Egypt, is one of the world’s largest metropoles. Many people associate Cairo with the Giza Pyramids, with one of the most impressive national museum collections in the world, and with the more recent iconic images of protests in Tahrir Square during the early days of the so-called Arab Spring. If you have visited Cairo, thoughts of the city will readily conjure memories of pollution, crowded streets and crazy drivers.

But something else that distinguishes Cairo, that we are unlikely to notice if no one points it out to us, is its garbage collection system. Most of the garbage collection in this megacity is done by the 60,000 residents of a community on the outskirts of the city that is referred to popularly as Hay al-Zabbaleen, or Garbage City. This community is mostly Coptic Orthodox Christian, and has for decades lived off of the profits from collecting and recycling the city’s waste. Continue reading

Touching the Heart of a Refugee

by Kathryn Kraft

Zahle church

A few weeks ago, I was sharing with a friend at my church in London about my research with churches in Lebanon. As Rupen Das described in a post several months ago, many churches in Lebanon are providing assistance including food, blankets, clothing, or education, to refugees, most of whom are from Syria. They also engage refugees in a variety of other social and religious activities within the everyday life of the church. Churches are doing this as an expression of Christ’s love for all people, and out of an understanding of what it means to be “Church” in the world today.

Then I told my friend that one of the most interesting things about how churches are assisting refugees, is that they are doing more than just providing life-saving material aid. There is a deeper element to what they are doing. Continue reading

Capoeira: A surprising source of social transformation

Lugging a big wooden drum, about a dozen tambourines, and an assortment of other percussion instruments, we walked onto the big green astroturf. Some members of our team got to work assembling berimbaus, the staple instrument of a Brazilian dance/music/sport called Capoeira. Others began assembling several dozen young Syrian boys into a big circle. This was the beginning of a series of intensive Capoeira classes for Syrian youth living in al-Azraq camp in Jordan. I was there to help the team, part of the NGO Bidna Capoeira, monitor their project and get a better sense of how Capoeira can support disadvantaged youth.

Al-Azraq camp is astonishingly monochrome: little white pre-fabricated houses are lined up neatly against a backdrop of beige sand, for as far as the eye can see. The youth centre, with its bright green astroturf, created quite the contrast. It is easy to imagine how eagerly young people living in the camp flock to the centre, simply to enjoy a few hours of colour. The assortment of Brazilian instruments we brought with us, along with the unique songs and acrobatics that my colleagues were coming to teach, were an even more exciting contrast to the monotony of life in a refugee camp. I asked some of the youth what they do when they are not at Capoeira class, and their answers included helping their mothers get food and water, studying to catch up on the years of school they lost due to war in Syria, and little else.IMG_0914

But, while the initial appeal of the Capoeira classes might have been the fact that they offered something new and different in an otherwise dreary life, I was particularly impressed by how they helped these young people grow in confidence and respect.

The first class was on the astroturf, but the second class took place on a concrete patio, with a tin roof to keep the heat of the sun off our heads. The tin roof didn’t help keep the desert sand from blowing onto the patio, though. When we began the class there, the master teacher, a Brazilian who has been training and teaching Capoeira for almost 50 years, told the students that they needed to respect their space. He asked if anyone could rummage up some brooms. A few minutes later, a kind-faced woman appeared and silently began sweeping the far end of the patio. The teacher, however, asked her to stop. He said that the students need to feel pride in their own environment, and that pride would take root when they cleaned their own training space. Hesitantly at first, but with growing enthusiasm, one boy after another took the broom until they swept out the entire space. On the next day, we showed up again to a dusty patio and the teacher again called for brooms. He said that, from here on out, if the space was not clear when he arrived, he would not give a class. On the third day, we arrived to a freshly swept patio, as well as a circle of chairs neatly arranged in the shadiest spot under the roof. The boys grinned as they told the teacher that they were excited for the class, and had all pitched in to prepare their space!

Similarly, on the first day, when we pulled out the many instruments, which the teacher had brought all the way from Brazil, nearly fifty children ran to them, picked them up, and started banging away. It was fun to watch the joy on their faces as they played with these novelties, and at first their musical attempts created a pleasant cacophony. But soon, the sound grew loud and tedious, and I began to wonder if we would be able to gather the instruments back into one place again. The teacher then arranged the children into groups, according to which instrument they were holding. I watched as students fought over the more popular instruments, complaining when they got stuck with a small drum that they thought “boring”. We told them that everyone would eventually get a turn with everything, but they did not have the patience to wait, and kept squabbling and complaining. After allowing a few minutes of this chaos, the teacher brought them back into a circle and began to talk about the history of music in Capoeira, the significance of each instrument, and the orchestra that would be created when everyone learned to play in harmony with each other. He also talked a bit more about respect, and said that just like it was important for capoeiristas to respect the space in which they trained, it was also important for them to respect the instruments they were playing. He said that, from then on, if a student grabbed at an instrument without a trainer offering it to them, that student would have to sit out the rest of the music lesson.IMG_0922

About half of the students nodded and quickly put back the percussion pieces they had grabbed at, just moments before. A few others didn’t understand at first, but the teacher enforced his rule, and they began to understand the importance of respecting authority and sharing with each other.

These are small victories, but sometimes the small victories are the greatest ones. We might be tempted, when thinking about these challenging times in the Middle East, to want to solve entire crises, and then to feel utterly hopeless when we can’t do that. But Jesus often approached “the least of these” and spoke straight to their personal needs; similarly, touching people’s hearts in these minor, yet very wise, ways, is sometimes the best way we can help. Today’s Syrian refugee teenagers are, after all, the next generation of adults in Syria, and organisations like Bidna Capoeira are working hard to ensure that they are not a lost generation. In the Capoeira classes, I saw refugee youth who had lost much of the structure in their life when war broke out in Syria, re-learning discipline. Material loss may have made them desperate, to the point that they might break out in fight at food distributions or quickly snatch at anything given to them, but they were re-learning the value of sharing with others. They lived in a monochrome camp in the desert and were learning how to make colour in their own lives through music and dance.

All of this happened in a few short lessons; there is so much more that Capoeira classes can offer. Capoeira is interactive in nature, creating a space for its participants to act out their social frustrations inside the roda, or circle. It is physically challenging, requiring a great degree of discipline. It is empowering, in that its students are often expected to start teaching others once they have reached even a limited level of competence. It has a rich history of resistance in Brazil, which can inspire its students to address social problems in a productive way. It is expressive, as students learn a variety of songs and eventually learn to improvise as they play and sing. I look forward to learning more about how Capoeira can benefit refugee youth!

There Are Happy Stories, Too!

By Kathryn Kraft*

I love a good story. Stories can make me laugh or cry, burn in anger or melt in love. I tell stories when I’m trying to make myself understood, and I understand other people so much better when they tell me stories. So I am always on the hunt for a good story, and though it is easy to dwell on horror stories, especially when considering the events in the Middle East during the past few years, I’ve been encouraged by a number of fantastic stories as well.

Research into storytelling in recent years has confirmed that stories have power. Stories have been used in places like post-Apartheid South Africa to help break down racial barriers and begin the long road to reconciliation. Stories have been used by therapists to help people recovering from trauma to better process difficult memories. Stories have been used by big businesses to help get their teams excited about a new project. And an inspiring story can be a powerful fundraising tool.

A few months ago, I did a storytelling training for employees of an educational organisation working in Syria. At the beginning, one of the participants told me why she wanted this training: “We know that what we are doing has a deep spiritual impact, but we don’t know what it is. We are hoping that if we tell more stories, and tell them better, we will be able to capture what we are doing.”

Indeed, I have heard some stories that give me chills when I think of the deep spiritual impact they represent. I met a young man who told me that he and some friends had to quit university because of the war in Syria. After that, they got together and started their own informal wartime project. They knocked on all their neighbours’ doors asking for donations, and once they had gathered a truckload of food and clothing, they crossed enemy lines into a neighbourhood under siege and gave it all to families that were on the brink of starvation. They did this every few weeks. Though this youth was disappointed that he had not completed his education, he had a lot of fun helping people less fortunate.

A young woman living in a refugee camp told me that she had fled Syria a few months previously. Most of her family was with her, she said, except for her oldest brother and his wife. They had stayed behind in their village and refused to leave. I asked her why: isn’t it dangerous? She said that her brother owns the village bakery, and he couldn’t let their neighbours starve. He’d be the last person to leave the village, she said, because whenever he could get his hands on a few kilos of flour he would bake bread and distribute it to anyone still stuck in the village. When there was no flour, he and his wife would collect clothes and blankets and use the bakery as a distribution centre. There was no convincing them that their own safety was more important than their role in caring for their neighbours.

These stories do capture something spiritual. They capture strength of heart, selflessness, commitment and love for others. These were stories told by devout Muslims, but I as a Christian have found that I can learn from their stories about how to behave in a more Christlike way.

Sometimes stories show how our own values change over time. A staff member of an international organisation in Palestine told his supervisors a story last year that broke their hearts: He had encountered a teenage boy in a refugee camp who was being teased by some of the other boys in the camp, and this teenage boy was so angry at his situation that he trained in martial arts and beat up the other boys. This story presented a bleak outlook for peace in Palestine.

But then six months later, the same staff member told a different story: He had met another teenage boy in a similar situation, who also studied martial arts, but this boy chose to focus his new-found discipline and focus on helping younger kids in the camp, playing games with them and teaching them valuable life lessons. We talked about these two boys, their different responses to a difficult situation. We all agreed that we want the youth in Palestine with whom we work to be more like the second boy.

And sometimes stories capture lessons that we, perhaps, all know deep in our hearts but don’t want to admit. One of my favourite stories comes from a little village in northern Africa where hardly a month in the last decade has passed without violent inter-tribal fighting. One Saturday, on market day when all the farmers come in to sell their meagre wares, a motorcycle hit a woman who was carrying her vegetables to market. The woman was killed. By the tribal customs, the woman’s family should take revenge by hunting down and killing the motorcyclist, as well as some of his family members. Alternately, a local council could decide the motorcyclist’s fate, which would most likely include, at minimum, his execution. The family agreed to let the council of respected elders review the case. The council considered the situation: a young woman whose future and whose ability to contribute financially to her family’s needs was lost, an accidental killing by a man who demonstrated remorse, and a community that had seen way too much bloodshed already. They concluded: the man should apologise to the victim’s family and offer to pay them retribution. Everyone accepted the verdict and peace returned to the village.

It was a member of a peace-building team who told me this. I asked her why it was a good story. She said: “Because it shows how powerful an apology can be! When we ask for forgiveness, the conflict can disappear.” With a story and interpretation like this, I sometimes wonder what would happen if we devoted ourselves more to good stories in this troubled region?

Kathryn Kraft

Kathryn Kraft serves as Support Faculty for the MENA Cultures module of IMES’s Master of Religion in Middle Eastern and North African Studies program. Dr. Kraft has lived and worked in various Arab countries since 2001. She has a MA in Middle East studies from the American University of Beirut, and a PhD in Sociology from the University of Bristol, England. She has worked in a variety of fields including research, peace and reconciliation, emergency relief and social development. In addition, Dr. Kraft lectures in International Development at the University of East London.