Syrian stories need to be told

Sep 24, 2014 by

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Hadija is 10 years old. She wakes up at 6 a.m., climbs in the back of a truck full of children, and drives to a potato field in the Bekaa Valley where she will work for at least seven hours.

And Rami is 12 years old. Two years ago, he was in school in Syria, where his mom was a teacher. Today, he is in Lebanon, where he spends his day working behind a desk in a garage fixing tires.

Abdel is 7. He sleeps on a cement floor in a tent with a plastic chair, a bucket and a few blankets. His last meal was the day before. Some rice.

Dania is also 7. Under her Hello Kitty shirt is a jagged, stitched-up wound reaching from her belly button to her rib cage. Her legs are covered with scars from shrapnel.

Raeda is 15. She lost sight in her right eye after being hit by shrapnel.

There are over 3 million other stories just like these. Three million. That’s the population of Phoenix and Philadelphia combined. That’s more people than live in Chicago.

For the past several years, the Syrian civil war has grown in intensity and scope, leading to an historic humanitarian disaster. Over 6 million have been displaced, fleeing the violence; 3 million of those have fled the country to nearby regions.

According to The New York Times, the rate of diaspora of those fleeing the Syrian civil war has been characterized by the United Nations as the worst since the Rwandan genocide in 1994. According to UNHCR, 1.4 million have fled to Lebanon, 600,000 to Jordan, over 800,000 to Turkey, and the rest scattered throughout the region, creating a tremendous strain on infrastructures and economies in areas already stretched thin. They leave their homes, possessions and communities with little more than the clothes they are wearing. Over four in five refugees are struggling to make ends meet in urban areas, while almost 40 percent, like Abdel, are living in sub-standard housing. Three-quarters of the refugees are women and children.

The Lebanese government has opposed the establishment of refugee camps in their country, so the refugees fit in wherever they can. According to ABC News, there are some 600,000 Syrian refugee children in that country, and at least half of them don’t attend school. Many of them, like Rami and Hadija, work instead.

It is hard to wrap our minds around the staggering numbers and the immensity of suffering. That is why stories are important. They cut through the evening news and statistics and makes it personal. They confront us with real people. My son is six months younger than Rami. My daughter is a year older than Raeda. That makes my breath catch and my heart hurt — and it makes me want to do something about it.

And it should. That’s what Jesus did. He saw a blind man and took him by the hand, led him out of a village and healed him until his eyes are clear. He saw and was moved to compassion by a mass of people, hungry and desperate, so he fed them. He saw a madman, cast out a legion of demons and then sat and talked with him for hours. Jesus really saw people. He sat with them, touched them and met their needs — be it sight, food or dignity.

When we really see people, we are moved to act, too. But what can we do, half a world away?

We can tell the stories. As we learn more about the Syrian refugee crisis, we can tell others about it, speaking for those who cannot speak for themselves. God calls us to speak for those who have no voice (Proverbs 31:8-9) — and many in this region are just such people. Their stories must be told — and we must hear them and tell their stories to others. Stories like these give all those numbers the faces of real, individual people and those places a smell, a sound, a feel. And that can move others to act, too.

And we can support organizations that are making a difference:

  • Heart for Lebanon is a ministry my church partners with, which aims to be Jesus’ hands and feet to those who have been marginalized and rejected in Lebanon by providing long term and holistic care. One simple step? Buy a bar of homemade Lebanese olive oil soap and help sustain and create jobs — and for every bar you buy, one is given to a refugee family.
  • World Vision is partnering with the U.N. to serve those displaced within Syria as well as those who have sought refuge in neighboring Lebanon and Jordan.
  • There’s Mennonite Central Committee, who’s providing emergency food, shelter, household items, trauma healing and education support and peacebuilding and disaster response training in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon to address the growing needs of Christians and Muslims through partner organizations.
  • There’s also Samaritan’s Purse, Save the Children, the Red Cross, UNICEF — check out the charities you are familiar with and see if they are in need of additional support to make a difference in the lives of those suffering in these areas.

A few months ago, I saw this video by Save the Children, which imagines the nightmare a British child would experience if war hit England, driving home the experience of refugee children fleeing Syria. Last month, I sat in our church and heard about the refugees that Heart for Lebanon is working with. Like Danielle Dellorto, who tells Abdel’s story, I am overwhelmed by it all — and I resonate with the final words in her story: “I don’t know what the solution is. But I know there has to be a way to help Abdel and the thousands of others like him.”

Today, I’m beginning that journey.

Carmen Andres of Alexandria, Va., is a former editor of Christian Leader, the magazine of the U.S. Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches. She writes here, where this blog post originally appeared.

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