Tell About It

The Urban Refugee: The New Face of the Displaced

I recently went to Jordan and Lebanon to interview Iraqi and Syrian refugees. I met refugee after refugee but here’s what I did not see:

Families huddled in tents.

Children hauling heavy containers of water.

UN guards standing in front of barbed wire fences.

 

While those conditions exist for many refugees, there’s another reality for hundreds of thousands of the displaced in the region.

 

The bustling cities of Amman, Beirut and Istanbul now bulge with refugees. Entire families squeeze into one-to-two room apartments; others shuffle from a relative’s home to another and some bed-down in dorm-room style accommodations in churches or shelters.

 

Despite all the cramped quarters, refugees continue to stream into the urban centers. The streets, the schools, the job market–all appear on the verge of buckling from the added weight.

 

I spent a few days interviewing and walking around one neighborhood in Beirut where there are approximately 45,000 Syrian refugees crammed in amongst the Lebanese.

 

I talked with children riding bicycles, mothers getting groceries, and fathers manning shops. One thing that was clear: these refugees are like us in the West in so many ways. Prior to the war in Syria, the chemical warfare and the terror of ISIS, these were men, women and children who embraced education, devoted themselves to family, and desired meaningful work.

 

And when they got displaced so much else got dismantled too.

 

Getting an education for the refugee youth now presents a profound challenge. Al Monitor did an insightful piece on this. Here’s an excerpt:

 

“Based on UNHCR reports, 400,000 Syrian children between the ages of 5-17 are registered in Lebanon and only 30% of them are receiving proper education. The UN reports that, as of March in Lebanon, there are more school-age refugees than the entire intake of the country’s public schools.'”
(Read more: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2015/03/lebanon-education-crisis-syria-refugees-children-schools.html##ixzz3XOFHGbic)

 

And making a living is perhaps even more difficult. Mercy Corps reports:

 

“Most refugees must find a way to pay rent, even for derelict structures. Without any legal way to work in Jordan and Lebanon, they struggle to find odd jobs and accept low wages that often don’t cover their most basic needs. The situation is slightly better in the Kurdish Autonomous region of northern Iraq, where Syrian Kurds can legally work, but opportunities are now limited because of the conflict there. And language is still a barrier.” (Here’s quite a helpful snapshot of the situation by Mercy Corps: https://www.mercycorps.org/articles/turkey-iraq-jordan-lebanon-syria/quick-facts-what-you-need-know-about-syria-crisis)

In the midst of these intense challenges I happened upon an astonishing phenomenon: joy. I interviewed several refugees who have discovered a community of faith that has reframed their current circumstances.

 

Here’s a look at two women I met. Their names have been changed for security reasons.

 

Abida is a mother of three from Aleppo, Syria. She gave birth to her third child in the midst of bombing and chemical warfare. Her family eventually escaped to Beirut. Here she met a community of Christians that has given her a deep sense of belonging.

 

“Others would say that we left our homes in Syria, but according to me, I don’t feel I have left home….I feel my big home is here.

Yes, I left a home but I have a castle here where all the family (community of Christians) gathers like a house with a grandpa and grandma. This is how I feel. My whole family is this community of Christians and everyone is like a brother and sister to me. Sometimes I feel sad or angry from the home situation or the financial situation. But then I feel their faith and it encourages me to know God.”

I also met Fariha. She’s 53-year-old mother of six; two of her adult children are severely handicapped. She’s from Afrin, Syria. When she saw bombing from her roof she wondered how would she continue to get the medical care needed for her children. So the family eventually made it to Beirut.

 

She too met a community of Christians. Her newfound faith in Jesus has invigorated her life.

 

“I didn’t know about Jesus before and I was bored. Now I am not bored, on the contrary. I come and go to church. When they sing there, I want to dance! I didn’t know how to read much, but now I go to church, and they put the songs up on a screen, and I am knowing all the songs. There is a lady who saw me and said: ‘Ahhh my aunty knows all the hymns, and has started singing like those people.’

It’s now been six months since I’ve been going to church. They are family for me. When I go there I forget everything. I see Jesus in them. When I go there, my heart is opened and I feel Jesus is with me. I feel He is in my heart. Because I believe in him, when I go and they talk about Jesus my eyes start tearing.”

 

Both Abida and Fariha pray for their people in Syria. They long to see peace return to the country and the people they love. Yet, in the midst of the displacement and cramped quarters they have found a faith and a community that has somehow expanded their joy and enlarged their understanding of family.

 

I ventured into this project desiring to bring back images and stories from refugees that looked different than what tends to be shown on the news. I had been intrigued to hear about the hundreds of thousands refugees living outside of the camps and informal settlements. I had wondered what were the particular challenges they faced.

 

However, what surprised me most was the warmth shown and exuberance expressed from those such as Abida and Fariha. They both told me that despite all the disruption and suffering it’s been worth it because they have a sense of love like they have never had before.

 

I spent an afternoon photographing in that neighborhood in Beirut. Here’s a glimpse of life there. Not all living there are refugees. However, what struck me was how entwined the refugees and residents seem. So note: not all imaged here are necessarily refugees.

IMG_9857 2

 

IMG_0014

 

IMG_9892

 

IMG_9961

 

IMG_9885_2

 

IMG_0086

 

IMG_0129

What Iraqi Christian Refugees Taught Me about Easter

This week I returned from the Middle East.  I had the privilege to spend the past couple of weeks interviewing Iraqi and Syrian refugees in the region.

I steeled myself to hear story after story of bombings, death threats, and near-miss escapes with little children in tow. I indeed heard those gut-wrenching tales, but a stronger, more shaking theme emerged. It’s one that will mark my understanding of Easter for years to come…and one that I hope will stretch and enrich yours as well.

Here’s a glimpse of my interviews with Iraqi Christian refugees in Amman, Jordan.

There are approximately ten thousand Iraqi Christian refugees living in the city. I had the opportunity to spend a few days with Father Raymond Moussalli, the Patriarchal Vicar of the Chaldean Catholic Church in Jordan. He invited me to attend mass with a community of refugees from Mosul and the Valley of Nineveh that had recently been displaced by ISIS. Sixty of them are now living in a church in Amman. That is where I met Maryam and Najaf. (Note: the names of the refugees have been changed in order to protect identities.)

MARYAM

Maryam approaches me at mass with a smile that collects me up as family. Later that afternoon she serves as my host, introducing me to others living at the church. I had been concerned whether any of these refugees would be willing to share their stories, but from the moment I met Maryam I knew she wasn’t only willing, she felt compelled to bear witness to what she and her community had experienced. The next day I sit with Maryam for an extended interview.

Dark circles frame Maryam’s striking eyes; a wordless reminder that desperation and beauty coexist in powerful ways here. As we begin the interview she tells me she had a short night. Her oldest son struggles with sleep due to what he’s experienced from the bombings and persecution; her husband is having a hard time breathing these days; and she is pregnant, so nights can be difficult.

Yet, she and her family are safe. Only months ago they were fleeing for their lives when 42 tanks entered the Valley of Nineveh. Her hometown had been an epicenter for Christians and ancient churches and the stories of biblical renown.

Yet when ISIS came in threatening to do to the Christians what they had done to the Yazidis, they left in a terror.

Maryam’s voice is steady and strong until she starts telling me about her children. Tears erupt as she laments the struggles her two sons have experienced from all they’ve seen and heard. The questions continue: “Is ISIS coming to take us?” And though she says “No” she aches that she can’t change what they’ve witnessed and she worries about their future. Currently living in Jordan, her sons can’t get an education. She said they have even forgotten how to read. And she wonders what kind of life awaits her unborn baby.

Yet…she stops in the midst of her tears, as if she remembered something vastly important.

She shares her prayers for her children and for herself and then she prays for those other children back in Iraq who are facing even greater distress. While there is urgency in her voice, there is hope in her prayers.

“My God hears our prayers. Jesus said, ‘Whoever would wait, would receive it.’ So, we wait and we will reap the fruit of our patience from Him. As Jesus also said, ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.’ His word will come true.”

Maryam tells me that if she had converted to Islam, as ISIS had demanded, she would still have her house, her job, and all the comforts for her sons enjoyed. I ask her if she had been tempted to do so. She responds, “No way. Even if they wanted to slaughter me, I wouldn’t deny Jesus.”

Then at the end of the interview she said this:

I want to add something to those who persecute us. I wouldn’t curse them as Jesus taught us not to kill or take revenge…May God put mercy in their minds and hearts. May they become believers and may the devil leave them. May they learn to love their Christian and Muslim brothers. I hope the persecution will finish soon. They don’t know what they are doing. They kill, slaughter and harm with explosions. The devil is leading them. I hope they would be set free and become believers.”

I can’t imagine the heartbreak Maryam has experienced, especially as a mom who longs to protect and nurture her children. However, all that pain hasn’t quelled her prayers. Her prayers echo those of Jesus on the cross—recognizing those that kill him know not what they do. Mercy facing down murders. Hope nose-to-nose with hatred.

God, give me the faith of Maryam.

NAJAF

I also meet Najaf at mass. It’s evident straightaway he is a leader in the midst of this cobbled together community. He helps Father Raymond by leading the singing. And so I am not surprised during our interview to learn he has been serving in the church since age nine.

Najaf shares that the Bishop in Mosul had become his spiritual mentor as well as friend. The Bishop had told him again and again not to fear persecution and to trust in Jesus no matter what. Then the Bishop was assassinated. This loss was cataclysmic. Yet, life would get worse.

In June of 2014, ISIS issued the Christians in Mosul an ultimatum: convert, or pay a large tax, or leave or die. They then wrote on Najaf’s house: This house belongs to ISIS because you are a Christian.

He and his family fled and have been living in a small room in the church in Jordan with other relatives. Their little space is not even a hundredth of the size of their home in Mosul.

Najaf had been a successful businessman in Iraq, but he isn’t allowed to legally work in Jordan. His kids can’t go to school either. He is deeply grateful for a safe refuge; but life is far from ideal.

What he has experienced has stirred hard questions: “Where is Jesus in the midst of the bombings and threats and killings?” And yet his doubts have taken him on a journey to truly forgive. He tells me that his struggle to forgive has been a tough one, but if he had forgiven quickly his forgiveness wouldn’t be real.

And yet his fight to forgive has carried him to this place:

Jesus taught me in the Bible to love my enemies. Our faith teaches us to be patient and to have hope, to love our enemies and neighbors as we love ourselves. If I didn’t do that I would look like ISIS but in a different way.”

Najaf has been chased from his home, his church, and his business. He doesn’t know how long he will live as a refugee. And yet, he has made his true home in the teachings of Jesus—determining to fight for forgiveness, to war for love no matter the cost.

God give me the faith of Najaf.

SARA

Later in the week I meet Sara. She is an Iraqi Christian living in an economically marginalized area in downtown Amman. She shares with me how her husband and son were kidnapped and how she and her two other sons fled to Jordan. The layers of her loss have been great, but what she insists on sharing is her growing love for Jesus. She has discovered a community of Christians in Jordan that have become a new family for her.

Then she tells me this:

Honestly, I pray for those who kidnapped my husband and my son. I pray a lot now for ISIS, that the Lord will touch their hearts and bless them and give them love and peace. May Jesus remove the scales from their eyes, and Jesus become their Lord and Savior. May the Lord use them for His glory, and may they preach Jesus’ name everywhere. I pray that just as the Lord removed the scales from Paul’s eyes, He would do the same to every member of ISIS. I am sure God is going to make a miracle with ISIS and change every one of them for His glory. I pray a lot for ISIS and I recently found out that three members of ISIS have accepted Jesus in their lives. I am grateful that three of them have accepted Jesus in their lives, and I am sure God will change every one of them for His glory.”

 

If I hadn’t met Sara, it would be hard for me to believe her prayers. Yet, I saw her as she sang in the kitchen, and beamed talking about her love for God, and told me more than once how much she enjoys helping other refugees.

God, give me the faith of Sara.

FATHER RAYMOND

This most striking feature of Father Raymond is his laugh; it’s as if he’s on the verge of laughter at all times. He’s certainly not unaware of suffering—he daily enters into people’s deepest pain. That is his call. He is the Vicar to the Refugees; a vocation he revels in and a title he has on his business card.

I ask him how he does it, how he serves with such vigor in the midst of overwhelming needs.

He replies by saying he sees himself as a “little Jesus.” He takes joy in the humility of service and in the power Jesus gives him to hope on a daily basis.

He has to rely on Jesus to give him this daily hope—not only for the refugees but also for himself and his own family. He is from Aleppo, Syria. His homeland has been shattered by war and his family endangered. Yet he, like Maryam, Nijah and Sara, finds a love in Jesus greater than the hate of any enemy.

God, give me the faith of Father Raymond.

I am still processing my encounters with these refugees. I’ve yet to fully understand the magnitude of their loss…and even more challenging—and enticing—to comprehend the expanse of their faith.

Here’s a confession: I had not even thought to pray for ISIS until encountering these refugees. If they who have suffered at the hands of ISIS can pray for God’s mercy how much greater is the Good News of the Gospel than I have banked on, how much more powerful is Easter than I ever have imagined, how much more real is Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.

There’s not only more hope for my own questions and longings, there’s more hope for the whole world.

May I—may we—live with such hope.

Resurrection means that the worst thing is never the last thing.” Frederick Buechner

 

 

INVITATION TO PRAY

Please pray for the refugees–for their physical, financial, emotional and spiritual needs. They are desperate to be truly settled. Let’s also be praying for the thousands and thousands of Christians and Muslims who are suffering under ISIS and the multitudes who daily face violence from harsh regimes.

I had incredible interviews with Syrian refugees as well; I will write about them in an upcoming installment.

A Morning Offering by John O’Donohue

I bless the night that nourished my heart

To set the ghosts of longing free

Into the flow and figure of dream

That went to harvest from the dark

Bread for the hunger no one sees.

 

All that is eternal in me

Welcomes the wonder of this day,

The field of brightness it creates

Offering time for each thing

To arise and illuminate.

 

I place on the altar of dawn:

The quiet loyalty of breath,

The tent of thought where I shelter,

Waves of desire I am shore to

And all beauty drawn to the eye.

 

May my mind come alive today

To the invisible geography

That invites me to new frontiers,

To break the dead shell of yesterdays,

To risk being disturbed and changed.

 

May I have the courage today

To live the life that I would love,

To postpone my dream no longer

But do at last what I came here for

And waste my heart on fear no more.

 

From To Bless the Space Between Us

The Rothko Sky and the Slow Movement of Hope

A friend recently enlisted me in a photography project; the first assignment was 2D photographs. Yesterday I stuffed my iPhone in my pocket as I went for a hike, occasionally shooting my shadows (confession: I’m easily mesmerized by my shadow).

 

IMG_5143

 

Then I looked up. At first glance the sky looked like a flat blue, one of those double-coated paint jobs. It seemed a bit too bright and boring for an Ash Wednesday.

But then I kept looking.

It wasn’t until I snapped a photo that I really began to see. The blue moved slowly across the frame, rivaling the finest of Rothkos.

By Mark Rothko

By Mark Rothko

I was reminded of the power of framing things—framing seasons in life, framing perspectives, framing hope.

 

I can so easily lose sight of hopeful shifts, of growth, of actual transformation. I live in a world where things can change. I embrace a faith where hope invades, even if ever so subtly.

 

Lent creates a forty-day frame. One where we’re invited to pause, isolate a time for certain prayers, look for light, and see the slow movement of hope—hope in the Story of God, hope in our own hearts, hope in the flat blue of a world around us.

 

God, teach me to see.

 

Page 3 of 1112345...10...Last »