Six

stat 115th March marks the 6-year anniversary of the Syrian conflict. It’s crushing to read another report from Unicef, and to know that as I work on reports or proposals I’ll be updating them with these latest, still worse statistics.

And yet these overwhelming figures can somehow become meaningless to us. Stories like this one can be more heart-stopping:

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And I re-think the thought I have thought so many times in the last years: What if what we’re doing is not enough?

Usually I like to share stories of hope – of which there are many – often hidden, but significant beyond measure in this crisis. And these stories, and the people they represent, are what hold me precariously back from the brink of falling into despair.

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But in these last few weeks in Lebanon, I’ve seen and heard how many of these courageous and self-giving people are deeply feeling the burden of  what they do never being enough, never providing a complete solution: no place for a teenage girl to go back to school, no way to provide enough food for every family who needs it, no way to fully protect an abused child. These are the burdens of people I love, and so they are my burdens too.

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Are we satisfied to care only in sporadic, media-ordained bursts? To care about Aleppo for a week or two, sign petitions, perhaps shed some tears – and then move on until the news reminds us again (depending on how much of our news-space US politics and Brexit don’t fill).

And I know it’s not possible to care about everything, all the time, and that it’s important to recognise and be grateful for what we do have, and not to be motivated by guilt.

But I can’t shake the feeling that isn’t this something that could break our hearts continually?

Reading my friend Jesse’s blog post recently reminded me that there’s good reason for feeling like this – whatever arguments we might have to prevent us acting, these pale against the reality that, “When it concerns children, there is never such a thing as collateral damage.”

These passages show the posture that might be appropriate in light of the current realities of the way the world is for children:

‘My eyes fail from weeping, I am in torment within; my heart is poured out on the ground… because children and infants faint  in the streets of the city… their lives ebb away in their mothers’ arms.’

Lamentations 2:11

‘Teach one another a lament. Death has… removed the children from the streets.’

Jeremiah 9:20-21

This situation breaks the heart of God in every moment of every day.

And so, until there is peace, I think this situation calls for more from us:

More than a few days of feeling outraged a couple of times per year

Even though it’s not our responsibility

Even though it’s really complicated

Even though political change is needed and beyond our reach somehow

Even though there seems to be no end

Even though we don’t understand

Because in the end, these are our children.

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And what does that mean?

I don’t think it means feeling more guilty.

More likely it means seeking renewed compassion and taking an action.

Here are some actions I might try:

  • Pray intentionally. Set aside 10 minutes a day for a week to pray for Syrian children, using this Unicef report as your guide. Pray for an issue each day and ask God to help you learn to lament and to give you his compassion and the prayers of his heart for these children.

‘Arise, cry out in the night, as the watches of the night begin; pour out your heart like water in the presence of the Lord. Lift up your hands to him for the lives of your children.’

Lamentations 2:19

  • Give more than you’re comfortable giving (there are many organisations working with Syrian children but some I personally know well are Tahaddi, Merath, Tearfund, Embrace, Viva). Give up something you would have bought to give more than you planned to. While there isn’t a total solution here, more resources simply can make a huge difference.
  • Commit to reading news about the situation once a week or once a month whether or not the conflict has a high profile in the media.
  • Find out how your local area has responded to refugees and get to know them.

Whatever you do, and whether it is in this situation or one of the very many others, like Yemen or South Sudan, there is too much brokenness here to comfortably ignore.

And somehow, the more we lose – the more we lay down – the more we will find, as we become part of what God is doing to bring change and hope in the lives of children.

Includes pictures and quotes from Unicef’s current report available here

Get in touch if you are interested in taking action together or hearing more.

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Weaving the threads of change

How does change happen? Does it primarily come from decisions taken by presidents and the powerful, or is it something more subversive that springs up from underground?

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Having the chance to return to Cairo brought back happy memories of good friends from many countries, walking by the Nile, and unbroken sunshine in a place I loved dearly.

20170204_085536-2But there was always more to life here than that, and with the focus of this trip meaning I have spent most of every day visiting people who are working with Egypt’s most vulnerable communities, I have been firmly reminded of how relentless a struggle life is for the majority of people living here.

And yet, as always, my work gives me the incomparable privilege of seeing hope emerging quietly but with strength in unexpected places. In our current political situation I have been thinking about how we might have something to learn from these people who have many years’ experience of continuing to work for justice and change in uncertain and turbulent times, and I believe their experience shows us some principles about how we might model the compassion and justice we seek to advocate for:

Get to know those you’re fighting for…

I visited a group of nuns who have been living and working amongst the zabaleen people on the outskirts of Cairo (above) for many years. Life for this community who make their living from sorting through and recycling Cairo’s rubbish remains difficult and dangerous, and poverty is pervasive. These nuns have been consistently present in the midst of this. By virtue of being there, they have built strong relationships and respect, and can notice and respond to deeper, more complex needs – currently they are working to develop anti-addiction programmes and providing catch-up education for working children.

20170204_143056-2… And stay there

I’ve also been challenged by the persistence and commitment of those I’ve met this week in Egypt, not just caring when it’s popular but in it with those they’re working on behalf of for the long haul. One project which began by supporting a single deaf child now works with children and adults with a myriad of different disabilities and at the same time still seeks to do the best for each individual to develop to their full potential. Alongside this practical work they advocate for the rights of people with disabilities in Egypt.

Work with people who aren’t like you

20170201_161045-2The most powerful forces for change I’ve seen are those which bring together people who you would never expect to find together in the same room. This week I met an interfaith, inter-generational, child protection committee which included children themselves as well as representatives of the local health department, education and government ministries who were seriously working together to improve children’s access to their rights in this one community.

Make space to hear the voices of the marginalised 

Over several years this child protection committee is now seeing significant change and impact through being there, being committed and working together. The children themselves have learnt about their rights, been trained in advocacy, and have gone out into their community to understand the needs of children. Over the last seven years, among other things, they have had a huge impact in improving the working conditions for the many children involved in child labour in the local workshops and factories; one teenage boy said,

“We learned how to deal with workshop owners, and now they will listen to a child; now we can deal with anyone.”

The impact of children themselves speaking up for change and seeing it happen is immense, and slowly but surely, change is coming in this community.


And so: what if, rather than responding in kind to acts and words of intolerance, we could break this cycle of violence with responses that embody the very compassion for which we advocate?

While it would be a wholly undeserved grace, I suspect a president is more likely to be disarmed by accepting a cup of sweet Syrian tea and a welcome from those he fears, than by a petition signed by 2 million against him; or that speaking gently and recognising and putting aside my arrogance to really seek to understand the reasons why someone can think so differently to me, might make more difference than sharing a facebook post ridiculing their point of view.

While the need to challenge unjust policies and practices remains critical and political engagement is essential, I have a feeling that the quiet stories of genuine compassion like those I’ve witnessed in Egypt this week in fact also have significant power to transform systems and policies. Beginning from the actions of people like these Egyptians, and like you and me, little by little something totally new is created from the seemingly insignificant threads of our actions weaving together. Let’s be part of this story.

 

Put your shoes on, drink tea, and move the bricks

“They work from 6am to 3pm in agriculture and take $3 a day. They are too tired, they are working too hard. A child doesn’t have the capacity for this, but he has to do it.”

“We have to be strong in front of our children, to let them feel strong. Maybe we don’t have enough support but we have to pretend.”

It’s somehow surreal to be spending my days hearing stories like this of a reality I can’t really comprehend which breaks my heart again and again – at the same time as the rest of the world also seems to be turned upside down in a very different way.

15068375_595689577284248_6119543924896866808_oThese conversations with Syrian children and families feel very far removed from the world of facebook arguments and article sharing justifying votes and views; and yet at the same time, these people and these conversations are in some way right at the centre of it all. Because here is where I meet the theoretical ‘other’ face to face – the family from Raqqa with a faith different to mine, the teenage boys from Aleppo who dream of a life with more opportunity – as they laugh, are listened to, and drink a cup of tea with me.

In this current project, with this one community, we’re trying to listen and learn together about the ways that these children are not safe and how together we could make them safer. More than ever I am recognising these people as just that – people – not ‘refugees’ but a community, individuals with stories, neighbours.

I love to share stories of how the church in Lebanon is acting and working to change the situation of those who have fled war in Syria – and undoubtedly they are, and they’re in it for the long term.

But it’s not easy.

The reality is that they do this amidst a sea of intractable and seemingly insoluble problems; among these, a registration system which prevents most Syrians from having legal refugee status, making life constantly insecure and rooted in well-founded fear; and an inescapable lack of money which means families increasingly use coping strategies like sending children to work, removing them from school or accumulating increasing debt. This is a complicated story, and we somehow live and work amidst the tangled knots.

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And as I’m thinking about this, we suddenly arrive at one of the settlements. Way past the edge of town, past the vineyards and agricultural fields, past brick factories and through clouds of dust. And out of sight amidst the piles of blocks and stones, brown earth and grey air, a cluster of tent and brick homes and children, outside, playing with pieces of cement and stone.

Like the rows and rows of bricks piled neatly one upon the other are the challenges and apparent hopelessness of the child’s world who lives here –the child who must be growing up knowing only brick and dust – can anything really change this?

And in the same way, there is so much that needs to change from the top down for things to really be different – for war to end, for justice to be done, for resources to be shared, for the most vulnerable to be seen and valued.

While this doesn’t happen, the losses continue: today bombing restarts in Aleppo, and so it continues. More children will die, and I don’t think anything will happen to stop it. For one group of children we spoke to this week, children who have lost someone in their family was the most serious problem they identified.

And yet, in these communities beyond anywhere, on the edge, the church we’re partnering with is including these children, who no one else has cared about, in their education project – they’re going to school when they weren’t before.

img_0598-2I struggle to imagine how the church members first decided to come out here, to overcome fears and give up comfort, to make contact with people so apparently not like them, to talk and to listen.

And as children listen seriously and share ideas with wisdom and kindness, I recognise the deep privilege it is to be here.

Later on this week we’ll have a meeting to present all the information and ideas that have been shared and to try to decide together on ideas for projects we could develop together for children.

I’m under no illusion that there’s huge potential for miscommunication and misunderstanding, and that faithfully listening and acting and matching resources to dreams and hopes is far from a simple thing.

But whether or not it ‘works’, I’m glad to be trying. Despite all the things that seem impossible, wrong, and incomprehensible, I’m glad we have this chance to put on our shoes and take some steps together.

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So, even though perhaps it seems that the bricks are piled especially high at the moment, as well as grieving and seeking for justice on a higher level, let’s also put our shoes on, go, listen, understand – and who knows, maybe we can be part of building something totally different together that we haven’t yet imagined.

 

Requiem for All Souls

Passing the college at evensong, I go inside

Take a seat behind hushed voices

Candlelight, expectant

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All Souls Day: Let us remember

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He slowly recites their names

Henry, Peter, Hugh – those they’ve known and lost:

But I want to remember you

You, the child crushed as the classroom fell down, brought to rubble

A damaged classroom is pictured after shelling in the rebel held town of Hass, south of Idlib province

You, Aleppo’s son, home and body shattered

You, daughter of Homs, caught by sniper’s fire

You, child of a mother whose weeping knows no end

Let us remember you

Earlier, a flurry of wind prompts a shower of autumn leaves

Amber-red, crimson, gold

Twirling dancing ground-wards

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And now I wish I could wait here, perpetual in this stillness

And hear each of you patiently called by name

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But like the leaves you are too many

Each one once created and singing its beauty now falling, dying, crushed

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Let us remember

And as I remember you

I also remember him:

The one who knows each leaf, each child by name

Not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care

The one who weeps with us, and calls us:

Arise, cry out in the night, as the watches of the night begin…

Let us remember

Each one that falls goes back to the heart of God

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Let us remember

People not skittles

Donald Trump Jr.’s analogy comparing refugees to skittles this week seemed to set a new low in the level of disregard for human life it reflected, and provided a frightening indication of the attitudes fear can legitimise.

I was glad to see so many people responding to show why this is not an appropriate analogy – especially those pointing out that if in fact these skittles represent men, women and children who we can save from horrific situations of conflict and violence, then we should in fact eat as many ‘skittles’ as we can because of the value of human life they represent.

And yet even this response has something lacking when I think about the Syrian people I’ve come to know and work alongside here in the Middle East.

Undeniably the situation in Syria is continuing to deteriorate and is something that people should be rescued from; what’s happening right now in Aleppo clearly shows that. Stories I heard this week from Syrians working with children in conflict-affected areas – stories of parents suddenly lost in explosions, children who have seen things they should never have seen – mean that yes, we need to do all we can to bring peace and an end to this conflict in which the most vulnerable continue to lose the most.

But still, there is something missing in the counter argument to the ‘skittles’ analogy which casts us in the west as the selfless heroes who take action to save these ‘helpless’ people, despite the potential cost. Certainly selflessness and a willingness to disregard the cost are good things for us to aim for, but when these qualities are all on our side, this doesn’t even come close to telling the whole story about the people I’ve spent the last few years working alongside here. In fact, selflessness and courage are qualities I have seen much more clearly in these men and women than in myself.

2016-09-21-15-18-44-copyThis week I spent three days with the Syrian child friendly space teams we work with in conflict-affected areas, and once again was overwhelmed by their compassion, heart and willingness to remain for the long term in dangerous places when there are so many other, easier, much less costly choices they could have made.

One of them living in an area currently often under bombardment explained, “A good thing about that is you learn to face death and not to fear it.” Day by day, month by month, children are loved, valued and cared for when no one else is there. And this is the courage not of a moment but a patient, persistent, tenacious courage.

The week before this, I met Fares*, a young man who had left Aleppo only one month ago, and told me in a matter of fact way how his role in Syria in the last few years has been working to give aid to people in the city, going into ‘hotspot’ dangerous areas to find out people’s needs and help to provide support – risking his life on a daily basis. Fares joked that having this job was the reason his English is so good, since he had plenty of time to study as he didn’t feel like going out of the house in the evenings after spending his whole day going out into dangerous places.

img_0432-2Fares is hoping to complete his studies, but in the meantime has taken on a teaching role in a non-formal education project for out-of-school Syrian children in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Many Syrians are partnering with Lebanese churches and NGOs and working as teachers or volunteers in projects like this.

In another of these schools which I visited a few weeks ago, it was clear that there is a significant impact on children and their families. Children who were out of school for several years now know how to read and write, they have become less isolated, and it’s clear to see that joy and hope are being restored through the commitment and passion of these volunteers.

Far from being a homogeneous group of helpless “refugees”, these are in fact the most courageous, the most persevering, the kindest, the least selfish group of people I have ever met.

To continue the inappropriate analogy, I would be happy to have a whole bowlful of them.

Rather than us needing to selflessly eat the skittles to rescue people in need, we should recognise that in fact these are people who, after all they have been through and with all that they bring, are people we could instead choose to welcome and receive as a gift.

It’s not just that refugees are ‘people not skittles’, true as that is – their identity also does not primarily lie in the label ‘refugee’. In today’s world, where fear is allowing lies to pass for truth, selfishness for logic; having the opportunity to know men, women and children from Syria, hearing their stories, developing friendships, living life alongside one another – this could be a significant way for us to reclaim our humanity.

I wish we were in a place where there was no ‘them’ and ‘us’ – but until then, I’m becoming more and more convinced that we need them as much as they need us.

*names changed

Beatitudes for Syria

Empty ground, nothing left

A boy in an ambulance, a boy on the beach

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Who dares to dream any more?

The lonely, the broken, the hopeless

A mother lost by chance – wrong place, wrong time

Unbreakable silence of rock and stone

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Somehow you’re blessed – kingdom comfort

And a child is welcomed, a family known

Grass springs up from broken soil

Undemanding, unnoticed, underfoot

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But strong, resilient, green with life –

As a child’s laughter breaks through

You’re hungry and thirsty for things to be different

Each child safe, each child known

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You take them by the hand and show them grace

Grace that fills you and flows through you

And as you turn your face towards the sky

Mercy falls and makes things new

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As you make things new for the child who had no one

You are her someone

Pure heart – you shine with a light you know now

more intimately in this darkness

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Light that fills you and each space you move in

And the space you’ve created for the child who was lost

And suddenly in this ‘hopeless’ place

Beauty springs up, unexpected, unasked for

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Blessed are the peacemakers, heralding the birth of something new

You who welcome children – the children of God.

 

Illustrations created with Syrian caregivers working with children in conflict-affected areas of Syria

Remain

Yesterday morning I was taken aback by quite how deeply sad I felt to wake to the news that we are leaving the EU. My sadness stemmed in part from the realisation of quite how separate we can become from people who seem to think differently from us; as the day wore on, I had the same conversations and saw the same expressions of feelings of loss, disappointment and astonishment. Missing were the voices of the almost equal proportion of people who voted the other way. A referendum in its nature is designed to split people in two, and this one appears to have been particularly effective at catalysing and strengthening division.results

I’m especially saddened by this sense of increasingly sharp and painful division since recently I’ve actually been seeing incredible examples of the exact opposite of this phenomenon.

IMG_0183In Lebanon, we’ve started a network for churches who’ve begun informal education projects for Syrian refugee children, a much needed response where more than half of Syrian children remain out of school. Lebanon isn’t a place where working together across churches and denominations always comes easily, and in fact it feels somewhat miraculous that people are so excited about meeting together and helping each other.

Closer to home, I spent the two days before the vote at the NSPCC’s annual conference. I was shocked by the huge and rapidly growing scale of the issue of online child sexual abuse; in the last year alone, the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) removed 68,000 separate URLs containing images of child abuse. But what was encouraging was the scale and depth of the response to this issue; sitting on the discussion panel were representatives of the police, IWF, Google, and an academic, whose united response has made the UK now one of the most difficult places in the world to access child abuse images.

In both of these situations, we’re witnessing people who shouldn’t or wouldn’t normally choose to connect with each other, overcoming that which could divide them because they recognise that the issues they are faced with are worth tackling, and can only be solved, together.

In our current situation I think it’s important not to become closed off from what we might be tempted to see as a group of ‘other’ people totally not like ‘us’. It seems to me that one of the factors at the heart of the EU debate was a sense of anger and distrust because of a growing distance between politicians and people, a sense that decisions are made which don’t have the best interests of the most vulnerable at heart, and a frustration that it feels that there’s little we can do about it. Oliver James, an author and child psychologist speaking at the NSPCC conference commented,

‘There has to be a total change in our society… we need to become a nation that puts wellbeing ahead of greed.’

I hope that however we voted, we can choose to look beyond the pervasive rhetoric of fear, anger and hate, and begin to untangle the knots and find one another again. I hope we can make a choice to connect with people we wouldn’t normally interact with, and take this opportunity to listen, talk, understand, reach out, and not simply close off. I would like to choose to remain engaged, remain caring, remain hopeful, and remain in relationship.

Syria CFSThe most compelling example of remaining in difficult circumstances I’ve known in recent months is that of our team in Syria running a child friendly space in an area that is deeply affected by conflict and insecurity – they have chosen to stay and continue to engage, where many others would have left. And one year in, we are seeing remarkable evidence of impact in the lives of the children they care for day in, day out.

To me, this team of young people represent hope in a situation that many see as only filled with despair. Let’s not let this week’s decision take us away from focusing on the issues that are really important and really demand our attention, thought and action, and let’s look for ways to remain connected and work together to ensure that our society is one that is good news for those who need it most.