Thursday, April 6, 2017

They Were Like Birds

Tuesday Syrian President Assad's coalition forces used a chemical agent on civilians living in the Idlib Province. Official counts of the dead now exceed 80. Including 22 members of Abdel Hameed Alyousef's family. A picture of him holding his two dead babies is all over my social media and news feeds. The world is weeping at such grotesque tragedy, weeping for Abdel, weeping for the 28 other children and 20 women who were killed in the attack. Most died foaming at the mouth, choking, suffocating from the sarin gas. These are war crimes. These are crimes against humanity. 

A year ago I was in Greece. Working in the north near the border with FYROM at the refugee camp called Idomeni. There I met hundreds of Syrians running from Assad's 4 year assault on his own people, running from ISIS, running from a war with too many factions and not enough heroes. The drawing above was given to me by Razan, an 11 year old from Damascus.

One very cold morning I got to the camp early to find protesters all along the rail tracks that used to provide unfettered train access to FYROM for trade and passengers alike. 

The presence of protesters wasn't anything new, a daily occurrence for a beleaguered population of 13,000 whose lives were stuck in limbo while politicians pulled their strings from warm boardrooms thousands of miles away. But this morning the signs were different, this morning the mood was especially somber. Protesters seemed hopeless, far away in their stares. They were looking homeward, but through a thick fog of grief. Aleppo had fallen after almost four years of fighting. By the end of 2016 the battle for Aleppo would have become one of the longest sieges in modern warfare, 31,000+ people dead and 36,000+ buildings completely destroyed. 

Picture from Business Insider

Sitting in the tents of Syrian refugees, listening to their stories, the string of tragedies that had become their story, I found myself sharing chai and tears with total strangers. I will never forget their words. The Syrian boy below was shot in the leg by a sniper. His mother suffered from PTSD, her husband had been murdered by ISIS. Wet-eyed and weary she recounted both incidents, showed me the pictures on her phone. Showed me the decapitated child that was her daughter's best friend. Her little body left in the street as a warning to submit or be killed. This trembling mother had left before her children shared their father's fate, or before they became another lifeless example, lying in the road.

Above, the photos of Rostem, a young man shot in the head as he walked home from work in Damascus. His mother Amina wept as she told me about him, how she didn't know if it was Assad or IS that had killed him. She'd fled Syria with her daughter, to get her to safety anywhere. And then she teared up again, apologizing that she had no food to offer me, and then with great pride said if you were in my country, at my home, I would feed you the biggest meal. Her husband Omar smiled for the first time, but only for a moment as he told me of Amina's brain tumor. His words were slow and anxious. He he couldn't lose her too.

Now another year has passed. There are thousands of other stories to add to these. Refugees still pour out of Syria and other war torn countries. Still make treacherous journeys with their young, the infirmed and elderly, for the hope of safety. Thousands have died, drowned in cold seas off the coast of Turkey, Greece, and Libya. Thousands more will drown. Stories like that of the chemical attack Tuesday reveal what these people are running from, what's at stake.

I'm angry, I'm heartbroken. I hear the politicking, the rhetoric. I hear the hard-hearted diatribes against refugees, read the ramblings of those that have never tasted terror. I understand the complex nature of this issue. I understand the scrutiny and vetting of refugees, of governments being safe and responsible. But what I cannot understand, what I cannot stomach are the accusations levied at these families fleeing from terror. Accusations, some of which are made by people calling themselves Christians. Accusations of people they've never met, whose stories they've never heard, whose lives they've never had to live. Accusations like:

"They should stay and fight." "The men are cowards for leaving." "This is opportunistic migration." 

Stay and fight? While their families are being picked off by snipers, mowed down by air attacks, gassed with chemicals? Stay and fight and send their families along the treacherous journey to safety? Where many women are raped, many children exploited, many never make it at all. Stay and fight for who? With who? In a war with no rules, no boundaries. Where is the hope for defeating so many enemies on so many fronts? 

Cowards? These people have lived in these conditions for years, bravely, defiantly. Where is the cowardice, the opportunism in wanting to get your family out of harm's way? Get them to a life without war. What kind of coward, what sort of opportunist braves human traffickers, frigid waters, and years mired in refugee camps for freedom? I'd say that people like that have incredible internal fortitude, anything but cowardice.

To be sure, this is not the face of cowardice. This is shock. This is a father who has lost his 9 month old twins, Aya and Ahmed, and 20 other members of his family to a chemical attack from his own government. This is what staying gets you. A mass grave with 22 members of your family.*

Are there opportunists? Yes. Are there terrorists lurking in the ranks of this great throng of the dispossessed? Sure, probably. Will we stand before God and give account for the selfishness and self-protection that kept us from helping the hurting huddled masses? You know in your heart we will. 

Let us remember carefully the words of our Savior. "For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me." (Matthew 25:25-36)

We don't have to be anti-American to be pro refugee. We don't have to work against the security of the state to obey the mandate of Scripture. We don't even have to demand our government do anything but we have to. As a Christian our personal safety is not paramount, as a disciple it's not really even an option. What is paramount is our expressing the love and mercy of God is. Our obedience to His Holy word is. Our citizenship is in heaven. Our allegiance is to Christ. Our job is to build His kingdom not our own earthly one. And this is how we begin:

Get on our knees. Let us repent of failing to weep for the children of Syria, of Iraq. Let us repent of choosing self-preservation over fighting for the sanctity of these lives. Let us ask God to show each of us what to do. How we can be a light in this darkness? How we can welcome the refugee into our homes, or go and meet their needs where they are? This is our solemn duty and sacred trust. And it's the right thing to do. These are image bearers of their Creator. Let's not live in fear of hostile takeover, or religious subversion. We have not been given a Spirit of fear but of love and power and of a sound mind. We have been given the same power that defeated hell, death and the grave. We should be the bravest, most selfless and loving people on the planet. We have the perfect example. We, of all humanity, have the precious gift of Jesus. Love like He did. Even if it costs us our lives.


*Another member of the family, Aya Fadl, recalled running from her house with her 20-month-old son in her arms, thinking she could find safety from the toxic gas in the street. Instead, the 25-year-old English teacher was confronted face-to-face with the horror of it: a pick-up truck piled with the bodies of the dead, including many of her own relatives and students. “Ammar, Aya, Mohammed, Ahmad, I love you my birds. Really they were like birds. Aunt Sana, Uncle Yasser, Abdul-Kareem, please hear me,” Ms Fadl said, choking back tears as she recalled how she said farewell to her relatives in the pile. (from an Independent UK article)

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