Tag Archives: Syria

Where Is My Defender?

What I remember most is what he didn’t say.

“You should feel flattered by their attention.”

“Others have experienced far worse.”

“You were wearing bright colors– that’s why you got harassed.”

Some form of each of these statements had been made to me in the past.  But the day after this post, I told this visitor about how my serenity– and my lesson on Lord Byron’s poetry– had been interrupted by a group of male university students heckling me from the hallway, and he simply said: “I’m sorry that happened to you.”

He and two other men from Massachusetts had come to the Middle East, to visit my coworkers and to see our community center.  His compassionate response was soothing.  So was my housemate’s recommendation, that I snap a cell phone picture of the perpetrators, and either show it to campus security or to “guys I know who will make sure NOTHING happens again.”

A situation like this didn’t happen often.  But things that made me feel vulnerable did.  After ten months here, I was feeling stranger than when I first arrived.  I was temporarily staying in other peoples’ spaces, feeling awkward about my ability to speak Arabic, and lacking a feeling of connectedness.  Despite my long sleeves in 100 degree heat, my large collection of scarves, and my long hair being held in a permanent ponytail, I stuck out wherever I went.  I was lonely.  I was an alien.  I was an ajnabia (Arabic for “foreign woman”… I was also the only one working at the university at that time).

And the deeper questions, as I looked at the countries and people around me: How could I ask Him to protect me from some simple sexual harassment when thousands were dying in nearby wars?  How could I expect Him to meet me in the vulnerability of feeling lonely, when others were experiencing the deeper vulnerability of losing jobs, homes, and family members?

I leaned over a sink full of dishes that day, remembering that there was no promise of avoiding suffering… remembering my Syrian student’s description of the dead bodies in his neighborhood… remembering my solo walk up the university stairs, stared at by dozens of guys with cigarettes and no subtlety.  Asking, wondering: Where is my defender?

The Boston visitors had come primarily to see the center.  But two of them heard that E. E. Cummings was next in my class’s series on love poetry.  They wanted to hear me try to explain him; they asked if they could attend.  So when I went up the university stairs the next time, on my left was a New England carpenter, a head taller than most of the students; on my right was a new grandfather, with a quick smile and a ready camera on his cell phone.

I had two defenders.  

During class, the carpenter listened attentively to our discussion on Cummings’ poem somewhere I have never traveled,gladly beyond.  The grandfather jumped up every time he heard any disturbance in the hall that might be harassers, kindly smiling as he attempted to snap their pictures.

They rushed away every time.

The Boston visitors left later that week.  The semester was half over; we started a new unit on nature poetry, and I asked my students to list words that described the outdoors.  “Beautiful.”  “Changing.”  “Powerful.”  “Fierce.”

The troublemakers returned to point and harass through the window in the classroom door.  This time I went myself and opened it.

You cannot bother this class, I said without smiling.

“I don’t English,” one of them answered, backing away.

The hallway quieted, I returned to my class.  Students exchanged glances.  I don’t think they could see my hands shaking.  I told you at the beginning of the semester that poetry is about the soul.  This is not a normal class; here we talk about our souls.  And I am not going to let anyone disturb us.

Over the next several classes, I sent a few more would-be harassers away with stern English; soon they interrupted us far less often.  I was no longer intimidated.

I didn’t notice one day when they returned.

One of my students rose.  “May I go get security?” You can, I answered, surprised at her initiative and assertiveness.  But do you want me to just send them away like usual?

I know that not all injustice can be stopped this side of heaven.  I know that suffering is still occurring, in countries and cities and individuals. And I know that situations will continually arise, leaving us exposed, vulnerable. But somehow the knowledge that my Defender sent two men from Massachusetts to the Middle East to escort me to class, when I needed it– makes a big difference.

It’s not the whole story.  But it’s a glimpse of its culmination.

—–

My student declined my offer of help; she wanted to speak up herself.  The next semester, we simply covered the window with paper.

And we were taken care of.

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Ten Thousand Times Ten Thousand

Their voices traveled through the air and across the sand.  The cliff where these teenaged Young Leaders stood was facing another, larger mountain, which threw back the sound.  The students were surprised; it was the first time, for some of them, that their voices had echoed.

For many of them, it was also their first trip to this famous desert reserve– despite its proximity, only an hour from their homes.  Their first time racing across the sand in the backs of pickups.  Climbing sand dunes.  Seeing stars undimmed by city lights.  Letting themselves go in a trust fall.  Day five of our group’s summer camp took them into the “wilderness,” both rewarding and continuing the previous days’ intensive English and leadership development.

IMG_6860
The students raised their voices again, in celebration and to hear the rock reply: “YOUNG LEEEEADERRRRRRS!!” 

Lana had been one of the first to make it up the cliff.  She was not one of the original Young Leaders; she had been at the top of our waiting list of 180 students, and when another girl’s family withdrew her before the camp, this petite 15-year-old got her chance.  She wore a flowery headscarf and an expression of delight the whole week.

“Do you remember the lesson about dreams?” she asked me.  I did.

Lana and her classmates had thought first of occupations, when they had been asked, If money were not a factor, and you knew you would succeed, what do you dream of doing?IMG_6706

We pushed students to take the question more broadly: what kinds of people they would help, how they would influence the world, what experiences they would have.  Answers ranged from, “Create peace in the Middle East” to, “Take a selfie with a lion.”  Students made posters about their dreams, and Lana had written something, without knowing how soon it would be fulfilled:

‘Climb a mountain’— this was one of my dreams.”

The setting sun spilled golden light across the desert, creating a storybook-like background as groups of students stood chatting, or bent to write their names in the sand.  But Lana’s eyes looked at me with a deeper fire, and with pride.  She came from a family of limited resources and opportunities.  She had, nonetheless, turned at least this one dream into reality– so what dream could come next?

I cannot show you her picture.  My cell phone wouldn’t quite capture the desert light, anyway, or the glow in Lana’s eyes over this simple experience.  But even if it did, respect for her culture and privacy would limit what I share in this public space.

If you saw her picture, would its thousand words-worth articulate a call to somehow take action?  Climb a mountain.  Ask a young person their dream.  Chase a dream yourself.  

Last week many of us viewed a photograph that we did not want to see.  It spurred media, individuals, and governments to focus once again on the long-term problems faced by displaced people.  It saddened us, it shook us.

But it cannot surprise us.

If it does, we haven’t been paying attention.  To the hundreds of gut-wrenching headlines over the past few years.  To the thousands dead (220,000 in Syria’s civil war alone, about half of whom are believed to be civilians).  To the millions displaced (from Syria, 7.6 internally, 4 million in other countries–the most severe displacement crisis since the Rwandan genocide).  To the swell of voices of oppressed people who have lost their homes, family networks, and security, and are desperately seeking a place of shelter, safety, and hope for their children.

Somehow a single, controversial photograph of a dead Syrian child on a beach commanded us to face the incomprehensible.  But far too many other tragedies came before the one with Aylan Kurdi.

My good friend Zaina is one among the displaced.  She lived where I am only a few months, in between her life in Syria and in the country where her husband now has work.  Last week she sent me a message: “I saw you in my dream last night, my dear friend.  How are you?”

When I returned the question, she sent emoticons streaming with tears.  Financial stress, social isolation, the cultural gap between where she is from and where she lives, and continuing difficulties registering her son for school– these have left her heartbroken.  If I sent a picture of her son– a round-cheeked six-year-old with a mischievous glint in his eyes– would the story mean more?  “Sometimes I think about trying to get to Europe by boat,” she wrote.  “Maybe it is better to die at sea than to live here.”

This is not news.  This is a mother of three– a woman the same age I am– seeking options.  Getting doors slammed.

Though my hands are tied from reaching her, I stretched words out across the distance.  Your life echoes, it matters, to me, to your beloved family.  Please be careful.

“I won’t attempt anything,” she texted.  “It’s just my sadness doing the talking.”

Her sadness is what needed to be heard a long time ago.  We tend to photograph drama, to tell stories full of excitement, but the slow death of Zaina’s hopes and opportunities speaks loudly of the need for justice both in her country and in the surrounding region.

Even if you can’t see her, can you hear her?

Lana’s slow ascent toward one of her dreams– and the light in her eyes– speaks of the power of putting action behind ideals.  She envisioned a goal and accomplished the task.  Even if you can’t see her, can you hear the echo of her voice, across the oceans?

Hearing is not sufficient.  Will you take action against the injustice, near and far away, that you encounter?  Will you stand for the ones whose stories don’t make headlines and don’t get photographed– or who do, yet continue suffering?

A picture is worth a thousand words.  Action’s value can be ten thousand times ten thousand.

He Sees

Soundlessly, she sat beside us, crying as her sister Sammi told her tale.  “A European couple offered me a job nannying their children,” she said.  “But then they decided that they want someone else, someone who does not wear a headscarf.”

Sammi spoke in a matter-of-fact voice, like the entire affair was of no consequence.  However, we all knew that this had been the kind of opportunity that does not come often– and that the reason it was rescinded appeared to be flat-out discrimination.  My mouth fell open and then filled with words like that’s horrible and they have no idea what an amazing person they are missing.  Sammi’s sister’s eyes simply filled with silent tears.

Sammi shook her head.  “Don’t cry,” she commanded in English, as if using their second language would make them both feel stronger.  Her sister had completed Young Leaders before I arrived in the Middle East; through that program, they had connected with our community center, and eventually I had met them and they had accepted me into their family.

Now 18 years old, this youngest sister dreams of skydiving, passing her final exams for high school next month, and working toward a psychology degree.  Her compassion is the size of Saudi Arabia, and more precious than all the oil it contains.

I stopped speaking.  I wrapped my arms around her and prayed inside that God would wrap His arms around her gentle soul.

Dana knows what it is like to experience deep suffering.  And great joy.  And pain, brokenness, loyalty, and love.  She is known as a woman of wisdom, and is the giver of some of the best hugs I have received while in the Middle East.

I came to work late one day– in the middle of a busy couple of months, when the weekends were full of Young Leaders events and the days seemed long– to good-natured joking from some of my coworkers.  “You should look more rested, after you took the morning off.  You still look tired!”

I laughed with them, saying I was much refreshed, since I had spent the morning quietly relaxing, reading, and sleeping.

Dana, however, eyed me carefully.  “You look more than tired.  There is something else– what is it, really?”

Later that day, I found Dana alone and sat down beside her.  “There is something else,” I said, quietly.  “Don’t know how, but you see what other people don’t see.  I did spend some of my morning resting, and did eventually feel refreshed, but first there were tears…”

She listened as I explained why.  Then she wrapped her arms around me.  She told me she would pray and reminded me of the goodness of God.

I told her that when she put her arms around me, when she said that she could see me, I knew His eyes were on me also.

Sammi and I sat in the car with the windows rolled down, sweating as we longed for a breeze and waited for her sister to emerge from the house.  A four-year-old boy started to walk in front of us, talking to no one that we could see, and swinging an empty, pink-stained paint bucket.  We smiled at each other, happily distracted from the heat to wonder at the little guy’s chatter, and his choice of toys.

He noticed us and went immediately to Sammi’s side of the car.  He extended his hand to shake– while I suppressed my surprise and wondered if this kid’s culture had ever taught him to be cautious with strangers– and she politely took it, asking his name.

His answer was unintelligible, but she established that he lives in her neighborhood.  Then he said, in a voice just as matter-of-fact as Sammi’s own had been about the recent job opportunity lost:

“Do you know the news about my sister?  She’s dead.”

She kept her voice normal and asked what had happened.  “We gave her medicine, and we shook her like this, but she never got out of bed.”

“When?” He didn’t know.  As he wandered around the car to my side, Sammi told me, “He has a Syrian accent.”

I shook his hand.  Where are you from?  “Homs.”  The fallen capital of the Syrian revolution, some would say, but to him it is simply home.  He told us then that his favorite food is cake.  His favorite color is blue.  And then Sammi’s sister arrived, and we left.

Our arms waved goodbye.  But in our hearts, we held him.

His eyes are on us.

When injustice slaps beloved friends.  When delayed hope sickens hearts.  When shells echo in a four-year-old’s mind.

Sometimes we extend His love to each other with a hug, a word, a hearing of each others’ tales.  Sometimes we feel that love straight from the heart of the Father.

But even when we can’t see, when circumstances steal our eyes from His, He wants us to know He is present.

His arms are extended.

And He sees.  

One Word (a matter of light and death)

I held the box in my hands, waiting.

It gave me a moment to observe the givers.  One grinning, rubbing his hands– a gleeful, boyish gesture of impatience.  One watching with eyes shining, and a quiet whisper: “She’s going to love this.”  One sitting very close, her hands poised to assist and her presence, as always, a steadying one.

Their delight and anticipation on another’s behalf– that is worth more than anything they could have put inside this box, I thought.  Finally, I released their treasure from its plum-colored case.  It caught the light and shimmered.

IMG_4061My friend’s fingers fastened the fragile chain around my neck.  “We knew we had to choose this green stone for you,” she said.  “Because of your word for the coming year.”

It was the night before I left New York, in order to move to a different language and culture: that of the Arab world.  A few days earlier, I had been with most of the same friends on New Year’s Eve.  We spoke of our hopes for the coming year, set out the challenges, and then summed up our focus– what we were each determined to pursue in 2014– in a single word.  Mine was Life.

I had no idea how much dying would be required.

When I boarded the plane to the Middle East, I didn’t just carry on a guitar, a green pendant, and a good old L.L.Bean bag. I carried with me memories and anticipation.  But these had expanded with unchecked assumptions and fears: things that would stick out, in the year that followed, in the strangest places.

Change cuts deeply.  In those twelve months, it felt like a hammer and chisel were being applied. They broke off some pieces that I didn’t know existed, and others that I had been convinced were essential.

When I thought the work was complete and my appearance was again smooth, some new layer or other facet would be exposed.  I was left, for all to see, ragged.  The pressure of perfection built as I tried to adhere to mixed messages, regarding various aspects of life:

  • Dress attractivelythey don’t like frumpy here.  But not too attractively-you don’t want to look like you are trying to be sexy.
  • Work hardyou’ve got to learn Arabic and do your part as a member of your new “family”/company.  But don’t work too hard heed the cautionary tales of depression and burnout, from friends… and those no longer here.
  • Don’t expect too much— things may be slow, you have to be in it for the long haul.  But don’t expect too little— or you’ll get it. Too little.
  • Keep in touchyou need family and friends back home.  But open up hereyou must learn to depend on local friends/coworkers.
  • Be independent-– there are endless stories of “needy” personalities.  But don’t be too independent— don’t act like you know what you are doing before you really do.

But I’m not sure I’ll ever really know what I’m doing.  I am sometimes needy; sometimes overly communicating, sometimes overly guarded; sometimes focused on surviving, sometimes dreaming steps ahead; sometimes lazy, sometimes extended too far; sometimes sticking out, sometimes caught at a grocery store with a mis-matched skirt hastily thrown over my exercise clothes.  Complete with sneakers.  Frumpy AND sweaty.

What’s being put to death is security based on perfection.  Performance.  People.  And pleasing others.  A work that is in progress, but oh, it is positive.

And it is painful.

My story is only one part of the challenge.  The second stories cut deeper.  Sweet ladies whose dreams, bodies, and spirits are assaulted by discrimination and human depravity.  Syrian friends sent far from home, wondering which relatives are alive, wishing for escape.  Treasured family members and friends facing death, separation, and sickness from all around the world– their questions are unanswerable.

One morning I woke up to this world of work in progress, and I had in mind the manger.  A cloth-cloaked baby surrounded with straw.  Appearance is weak, but all power is His.  Lowly, but “by highest heaven adored.”  He is startling and He is strong.

And He is life.  An explosion of all prior expectations.

I’m on the sidelines.  I realize, in that picture, that we can cease attempting to perform perfectly, to resolve every question.  Because while chiseling has to happen for the stone to gleam, the brilliance never came from inside the rock.

Our tenderly cut stones catch the Light.  And we shimmer.

Locked In

My hands were scrubbing a sink-full of plates and plastic bowls.  My eyes were filling with a water of their own.  Both a challenging situation in class, and a short night of sleep, were brimming over into the dishpan.

I wanted to be told that everything would be okay.  And to get a hug.

Setting the dishes on the drying rack, I thought of others whose stories of challenge had come my way recently.  Omar takes a class at our community center.  He works long days but seems to smile unceasingly, despite his concern for his mother and siblings, still in a neighboring country at war.  One day I asked him to draw a map of his neighborhood, part of a class project on learning how to give directions.  “Draw a map?” he said, that smile of his ever-present.  “If I draw a map of my neighborhood, I will have to draw dead bodies.”

I had exchanged texts with my friend Zaina earlier in the week, asking her about life in her new home.  Conflict displaced Zaina’s family more than a year ago; she and her husband, and their two children, have moved at least six times in the six months since I met them.  “What you mean?  I have one home, in Syria.  Anything outside of Syria is a house.”

A quiet voice woke me early in the morning, after a gentle knock on the door of my current second-story bedroom.  I am helping to care for my four youngest housemates while their parents are away, seeing them off to school in the morning– or, in this case, keeping them home.  The voice whispered, “My tummy really hurts.”

She sat next to me on the couch later that morning, drawing, and I graded Poetry class homework.  “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers – that perches in the soul,” we had read.  One student defined perches as: an edible freshwater fish, providing me with a moment’s laughter, before I entrusted my sick young charge to another friend and left for class.

The week of late nights and early mornings was starting to take its toll, and for some reason I felt irritability stretching icy fingers around my soul as I got in the car.  Shook it off temporarily by listening to some good music.  But when I arrived to the predictable welcome outside the university– dozens of young guys who hang on the university steps between classes, and gape at me as I enter– the irritability flooded back.  Don’t pay attention, I said to myself.  This happens all the time to women here.  Don’t let it bother you.

During class a few other young men lingered outside the door of my classroom, gawking through the window and talking loudly with each other.  When, finally, even my students told me they were distracted by them, I had my (one) male student go out and tell them to leave.  Then it was back to the love poems of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Lord ByronDon’t let it bother you, I repeated, forcing focus from myself, for the students.

But my frustrations spilled over in the kitchen, when my hands were full and my soul had time and space for questions.  “Lord, I know you see, but will you act?”  To defend me.  To heal sickness in a young one.  To soothe the sorrows of my Syrian friend.  Disconnected situations, fused by the element of brokenness.

When darkness means death in our neighborhoods, distance from our homes, disease in our bodies, and discrimination in our hallways– we need salvation.

A soft song was playing in the background, as I struggled with God and the sink:

I will lock eyes with the One who’s ransomed me

The One who gave me joy for mourning

I will lock eyes with the One who’s chosen me

The One who set my feet to dancing

We Dance, from Bethel Music

 When I lose perspective in the shadows, He’s still there.  He is calling me to lock eyes with Him, even when I can’t see what will happen…  Because there is that thing with feathers, that perches in the soul.

Hope.

For a second story.

 

 

 

 

On Waiting for the Story’s Ending

Sleep refused to come.  It’s possible that it was because of the evening visit to wish my friends Eid Mubarak, a blessed holiday, as they finished 30 days of Ramadan fasting.  A short visit, with “simple” hospitality– which meant only two cups of coffee, a cup of tea, a glass of soda, and sugary holiday cookies known as ma’amoul.

I shifted pillows, counted out deep inhales and exhales, listened to the 4:30 a.m. call to prayer sound from the neighborhood mosque.

And then I wondered if my restlessness was because of you.  You, the friend from home, whose deep struggle I heard about just before bed.  You, the family I recently met, striving to make life work with newly adopted daughters, separated from them by heart-sickening delays.  You, Palestine… and you, Israel.  You, Iraq and you, Syria.

You, ISIS.  You, politicians.  You, Hamas.  You, reporters and re-posters and you, you who haven’t watched or heard or read the news in recent weeks.

Me, sharing these words to you, and running the risk of adding noise without insight.  I don’t know where your situation is going, but I’m going to risk it for this reason: I think I know a place to start.

A friend of mine wrote a book called “The Power of Mentoring.”  He retells the story of the prophet Elijah, tracing his history backwards.  On Mt. Carmel, fire fell and a multitude saw God’s power demonstrated.  Before that, however, Elijah camped by a brook alone during a desolate time, with birds delivering him meals twice each day.  Next he invited one woman– a widow about to starve– to join him in trusting God for daily bread, and later for life to be restored to her dead child.  He went to Carmel AFTER faith had grown in those quiet places.

I visited a fifty-person fellowship earlier in the month.  This anonymous congregation, ten years ago, had noticed local needs and decided to live out His love.  They asked.  They visited.  They brought aid.  When war came close to them, they were on one of the main escape routes through which people fled suffering.  The fellowship kept asking, visiting… loving.  Today, this small congregation has served thousands of displaced, and local, families.

They receive grants from organizations as varied as Samaritan’s Purse and the European Union.  They are consulted by governments and other-faith groups, because they were loving the region before the eyes of the world were on them.

They did not, however, start by reading an article called, “Ten Steps for Responding to a Refugee” or “Three Things to Say to the Suffering.”

They started by loving those in front of them.  In the upheavals of this time, when I think of you and can’t sleep– broken people, beloved people– I pray that love abounds for you.  I pray it rescues you from the destructiveness and darkness that plague us, and ushers you into light.

And I pray today that we are saved from the allure of delay, and the inoculation that comes from information laced with disengagement.

Love the people who are in front of you.  The ones close are often hardest, and acknowledgment may not be present.  Love strongly anyway.  Love daily, without waiting for a crisis to prompt your action.  Love widely, keep your heart soft when you watch the news or receive the updates.  I don’t know where it will go from there… but let’s begin.

Rest comes with surrender.  I fell asleep as dawn broke, accepting the fact that I am unwilling to wait until I know its end before I begin the story.

 

The Cupboard’s Full

We sat at a table in the sunshine.

Sandwiches were for lunch, as we collaborated on a Bible study and plans for a weekly meeting with our international colleagues.  My friend suggested an age-old method that guides people in listening to God through a passage, asking Him what He’s saying for ourselves, and then asking what He’s saying we should do with it (a process called Lexio Divina.)

The brownies had just come out of the oven, at that meeting with our fellow workers.  We read, slowly, the ancient words of Isaiah 55: “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! …Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy?”  We listened for words from God and prayed them into everyone who asked.

Sweet juice, two cups of it, sat on the table in front of my Arabic teacher and me.  “I have no friends,” she said; and an ever-so-slight tremor in her voice undercut the stoicism in her face.  The hunger for relationship remained.  The tension between resignation to the situation being faced, and resistance of the circumstances– this tension I would see on dozens of other faces in the next few weeks.

Cheaply packaged chocolate wafers were handed out to all the students– and to us volunteers– at the afterschool program for young refugee women.  A social worker from Syria asked me how I was doing since the last time we had met.  After the pleasantries had been properly conveyed, she made one more statement, leaving me with no Arabic or English reply: “My house in Syria was burned in a fire.  It is gone.”

I was eating a late-night bowl of Raisin Bran while we chatted on Skype.  She caught me up on discoveries and dreams developing in Jersey, and asked how things were for me in the Middle East.   Have you ever seen a little girl try to lift her father?  I asked.  She can’t move him a bit, no matter how determined she is, how hard she tugs.  But he swings her into the air….

That’s how I feel when I read Isaiah 55.  I can stay hungry and thirsty, regretting my deficits, and scraping to find something to serve to others.  I can spend my labor, without moving the circumstances around me; and instead of satisfaction, I’ll get dissatisfaction and disillusionment.

Or I can let my Father carry both the weight of the world and of this little child.  A physical need, a method of connecting as human beings, a requirement for growth and replenishing, a gift to make celebrations more fun– food and drink are rich metaphors.  And I hear Him inviting me to sit down, drink and eat, and trust He’s got covered both my and my neighbors’ hungry souls.

Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,
and your soul will delight in the richest of fare. –Isaiah 55:2

P.S.– Currently on my “moving songs for this journey” list, and stay for the powerful lyrics: The Cupboard’s Full