Much of the world has been flooded with the idea that allowing refugees into our respective countries should be feared. Some even suggest, Loving these neighbors boldly is just plain foolish. I recently spent time in the Middle East with Syrian refugees and here are some things I learned, first-hand.
UN statistics show 4.9 million Syrians have been forcibly displaced due to the conflict. Worldwide, there are over 65 million people who share a similar fate. That means 1 in 113 people on this planet fall into this very troubling category.
I was part of a team of 14 short term volunteers who partnered with a local organization that has spent the last 4 years providing relief and more to Syrian families seeking refuge in a town about 10 miles from the Syrian border.
We worked directly with long term volunteers who have committed much of their lives to Loving and serving their new Syrian neighbors. This has included providing much needed items like mattresses, blankets, pillows, heaters, cooking devices, food, water, basic medical supplies, and more.
Our responsibilities included supporting local efforts while spending time with Syrian families who were receiving aide. This allowed us access to meet with Syrian families, hear their stories, and share a bit about our own lives.
One family I met with had been shattered by the conflict and then divided by local polices in this relatively small town. I met the matriarch of the family, a remarkable 80-year-old grandma, who was courageous enough to share part of her story with me.
As the violence worsened in her hometown of Homs, her family was forced to make the arduous 160-mile journey to safety. Her family grabbed what they could and fled, mostly by the cover of night, going from town to town, dodging bullets, bombs and evil people who would relish the opportunity to take her young granddaughters.
Walking this distance (160 miles) would be difficult for most people, and in her old age it was impossible, leaving her sons to push her most of the way in a wheelchair. As she recounted the journey her eyes began to swell with tears as she told us how she beckoned her sons to leave her behind so they could reach safety sooner. And her voice cracked as she recalled the bodies they passed along the way that had to feel like her inevitable future if her sons granted her request.
They didn’t and thankfully God led them all safely to the town they now called home.
Unfortunately, because of local polices, she is now separated from her sons due to a lack of documentation that if discovered by authorities could force them back into one of the harshest, most dangerous places many Syrians fear, a nearby UN camp called Zaatari.
So now she lives alone, eager for the next brief visit from her family who can remain relatively unnoticed in a village about 30 miles away.
In the meantime, one of the long term volunteers we partnered with visits her as often as he can. Bringing supplies, and equally as important, a friendship that has made him like her adopted son.
Although her story was difficult to hear, and impossible to relate to, it was also impossible to miss the frequent smile that lit up her face. Often when she spoke proudly of her sons and grandchildren, or the relationship she found with the long term volunteer, there was a sparkle in her failing eyes that left me in awe. It was as if the hardships she had endured disappeared as she became a living example of how hope, Love and joy are often indestructible.
This lonely, but hopeful, old grandma taught me what it means to endure, persevere and continue to Love in the midst of miserable circumstances.
I met many families with very similar stories and there was one in particular that has not left my thoughts.
They were a family of five; Mom, Dad, two sons and two daughters. They easily welcomed us into their home with the indescribable hospitality that ripples throughout the Syrian community. When we arrived, the children quickly began playing games with my wife (who was also part of our team) while practicing English and Arabic and drawing what I considered Van Gough-worthy artwork. I can still hear their giggles and laughter.
As we listened to their story, and shared a bit about ours, I felt almost overwhelmed by the peace I felt in their home. I think it was a result of knowing the difficult life they have lived, and are still living, yet they somehow overflowed with Love towards us, total strangers.
Their Love was such a powerful experience that I felt as if we were lifelong friends, maybe even family. If we lived closer to each other I could see myself meeting with the dad for coffee, our families sharing meals together, maybe even catching a baseball game sometime. I felt like we were miles apart in our life experiences, cultures and religious backgrounds but that didn’t matter because their unshakeable hope, Love, and joy connected us in a way that seemed truly not of this world.
This Syrian family reminded me of the powerfully transformative effects of pursuing the way of Loving each other as neighbors. Sitting in their presence, I felt a deep gratitude that Jesus (in my belief) had intersected our lives.
But as the conversation continued I learned something else about this family that may not seem tragic but haunts me all the same.
Not long before our visit, they had received a call from the UN informing them they had been approved to begin the process of potentially coming to America as refugees. I was excited by this news, at first, then they told me they passed on the opportunity because they were afraid to come to America.
They went on to say they were concerned about coming here because it would be so different. They were worried about learning the language, getting jobs, adjusting to such a contrasting culture than what they had always known.
This was hard for me to hear, especially considering I started an organization in 2012 (www.thenations-dsm.org) that in large part seeks to help families like theirs adjust to life in America. So at first, I shared with them about how there would be plenty of people here who could help with their transition but I quickly, and intentionally, let the conversation move to a new topic as I drifted off into my thoughts.
The truth is, I too would be worried about coming to America if I was them. I realize there are many great people and many great organizations that are making huge sacrifices and committing significant resources to helping our refugee neighbors adjust and even thrive.
But at the same time, there are so many other refugees that are struggling with few or no friendships with other Americans. Sometimes even desiring to return to their troubled homeland just to connect with people again. This lack of friendships not only takes an emotional toll, it can also make it nearly impossible to master the language and adjust to the culture.
In addition, there is increasing ‘wall-ideology’ that is plaguing America, a country that was ironically built upon the unique attributes of immigrants. This ideology, in some cases, proposes literal walls to keep foreigners out but also spreads a fear based message that builds walls in our hearts and minds towards others. While fear is the foundation and fuel for this ideology, it is often cleverly masked with references to security, economy and even wisdom.
This ‘wall-ideology’ is captivating so many in America and is the antithesis to the way of Loving each other as neighbors.
When the time came, it was difficult to leave this families home. We could have stayed there for hours, even days. It was even more difficult to reflect on how accurate their fears about coming to America may be. How ‘wall-ideology’ has the potential to make America an increasingly unwelcoming place for remarkably Loving families like this. Could this really be the direction America is headed?
These two families represent a tiny fraction of the 4.9 million Syrians who have been forced to flee their homes. Millions of people who are struggling to find the basics for human living, like food, water, shelter, safety, education, healthcare etc. as their homeland continues to crumble.
As I reflect on this encounter, and the countless others I have had with refugees living in America and overseas, I can’t help but wonder what role humanity should play in all of this. Will we look back someday in horror at our lack of efforts and lack of support for our neighbors trying to survive in such desperate circumstances? I’m not sure.
One thing I do know, is that Love is often on display and bountiful in some of the most seemingly unlikely of places. A love that seems not of this world. And when it is given freely to others, as neighbors, amazing things start to happen.
Some might discredit the concept of Loving our neighbors, even enemies, as naïve, foolish or just ineffective or unrealistic. But over and over this simple teaching has been the foundation for transforming lives, while changing us and the world around us.
Much like what is being modeled by so many of our Syrian refugee neighbors.