If you’re like me, you’ve listened to news about conflict in the Middle East for decades. And you are weary of it.
Bombings, ceasefires, house destructions, nuclear threats. After a while, the news reports are as normal as the hum of the refrigerator.
The war in Syria would have probably fit into the same hum-drum Middle East newsfeed for me, except for one reason – last fall I was in Jordan and met people from Syria who were forced from their homes by heavy artillery, soldiers who use rape as a weapon and the terrifying reality that their children might die if they didn’t run. I was privileged to meet with these refugees because I was reporting for Mennonite Central Committee’s (MCC’s) magazine, A Common Place.
These were people a lot like me -- middle class families who owned houses, whose children attended school. Dads who worked; moms who were homemakers. Families that got together on Friday nights for big meals. People who want to be happy, to make a good life for their children, to live in peace.
I tried to imagine what it would be like if tanks rolled into my neighborhood and started shooting indiscriminately like they did in Fasel’s in Homs, Syria. The 28-year-old mother (she asked that I use only her first name) made her four children lie on the floor, covered them with a mattress and pushed a bureau against the window.
And even that situation is mild in comparison to the beheadings, throat slittings, rapes and other violence refugees witnessed. I want to dismiss these realities as I can a movie that clearly isn’t real, or as isolated incidents. But this is war.
Like the Syrians I spoke with, I too would seek a place where I thought my children would be safe. But how would it feel when my family arrives in, say, Canada, and I’m herded into a camp by the military because I have no visa? How would it feel to live in a tent in the winter with no toilet, electricity or running water?
If I was lucky, I’d instead use my savings to rent whatever space I could find, but I’d probably discover as the Syrians have that prices rise with demand and savings vanish. Finding a job would be difficult, not only because I can’t legally work, but also because hundreds of thousands of other refugees are also looking for work. Without a job, I would have little choice but to throw myself on the mercy of strangers for all my needs. My gratitude would most certainly be mixed with shame.
“It’s extremely difficult to rely on other people,” said Marah (not her real name), who left Idlib, Syria, to bring her 1-year-old son to Jordan for safety. She was sexually assaulted along the way. A Caritas Jordan worker discovered them huddled under an outdoor staircase in Mafraq, Jordan. Caritas is a long-time MCC partner.
Caritas workers found them a room, painted it orange to make it more cheerful, and gave them food, blankets, a cook stove and an MCC relief kit.
Even though her new neighbors treat her like their daughter, Marah wishes she could take care of herself. Relying on others and not knowing if she will ever be able to go back home is disempowering and humiliating. But the worst part, she said, is being alone. Her husband stayed behind to fight and she has not been able to contact him. Her parents refused to leave. Her brothers have been arrested.
Many Syrians manage to keep their cell phones, even if it means selling supplies they get from charitable organizations to buy minutes. It’s the only way to stay in touch with their friends and family members. But when calls go unanswered, there’s little to do but worry.
From a distance, it is easy to be unsympathetic about the war in Syria. I wonder why Syrians seem to be destroying their own country. I try to grasp the complexities of the conflict as a playing field for larger geopolitical interests, as explained to me by J. Daryl Byler, an MCC representative living in Jordan, but the politics seem so cold and untouchable.
Instead, I look beyond the politics and focus on the people I met. I remember the baby I held in my arms, born after her mother arrived in Jordan, and the smile and worry in the mother’s eyes.
Like me, this mother just wants to live in peace. She wants to go back home. She wants to control her own life: to get up in the morning, have coffee, send her children to school, laugh with her husband, visit with friends and provide for her family’s needs.
In one apartment that was converted from an office building, Walid (I’m using just his first name to protect his identity) rolled around in a comforter MCC had distributed through Caritas. His mother and grandmother talked about the relief kits MCC distributes and the milk and diapers that had helped them at critical times.
I explained to them that people in Canada and the U.S. who made those blankets and packed those relief kits did so because they care about people who are suffering and that they sent them hoping they will bring comfort and dignity. I think they appreciated that sentiment.
Next time I am tempted to dismiss news from the Middle East, I am instead going to write a check to Mennonite Central Committee and its Middle East crisis response, not because I work there, but because through MCC I can show God’s love and compassion for all.
I know that MCC’s trauma healing work and peacebuilding training has stirred the hearts of many toward peace and wholeness, even if we don’t hear that on the news. My contribution supports that too. And I can write a letter to my congressional representative and senators, asking them to seek a peaceful solution to the Syrian conflict.
Ultimately though, I believe that deep change comes when God works in the hearts of Christians (and people of all faiths) to love God and their neighbors and to seek peace and pursue it. I will pray, asking that God will continue to nudge people into action, starting with me. Maybe it won’t change the actions of nations, but it will send a message that I care.
Linda Espenshade is news coordinator for MCC U.S.