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.
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?
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.