We could all benefit from hearing some good news during the Coronavirus pandemic so I am so pleased to be able to share two uplifting stories from refugees.
Firstly some Syrian refugees settled in Surrey were delighted to receive a kind gift of several sewing machines recently, and they have been industriously making clothes for their families and friends. During the Coronavirus lockdown their council key worker encouraged them to make laundry bags for the NHS. They were really pleased to do this and said they were glad of the opportunity to “give something back”.
Secondly the refugees in Za’atari Camp, Jordan have been in a very secure lockdown and all outside humanitarian aid workers were not allowed to enter the camp. So the refugee volunteers in the Peace Oasis on the camp showed their resilience and innovation by organising themselves to deliver online training and education via video. This was difficult, they told me, as using the technology was a big learning curve for them and the internet signal on the camp is weak. Also not very many of the refugees have Smart phones or computers in their homes. But they managed to deliver online training for their sewing classes, IT work, and even Zumba classes and children’s education and games! So well done to everyone involved in keeping up this vital work!
Now the lockdown restrictions have eased and the aid workers allowed back in again so full programmes are running once more. These educational and pyscho-social classes are so important in building skills, confidence and wellbeing.
Teenagers love the music classes where they choose to sing Syrian songs to keep their culture and tradition alive.
The deaths of 39 people trapped in a refrigerated container lorry is shocking and tragic. Many wonder whatever made these people, and the other thousands of migrants fleeing their homelands, attempt such a journey and put themselves in such danger of their lives. There is always a reason, often a horrific one.
“we know that behind the headlines there is an unheard story of despair”
People are driven to these desperate measures by poverty, war and
violence, discrimination and persecution. Some people, possibly like the 39 in
the lorry, are exploited by people traffickers, and end up trapped into modern
Reading about the anguish of families who suspect that their loved ones perished in the lorry container, I was once again reminded that “the 39” were all individuals, brothers, sisters, even fathers perhaps. They undertook the dangerous journey to the UK with hope in their hearts that, despite the risks, they would eventually arrive in a safe place that would offer them a chance to improve their lives and the lives of the ones they had to leave behind.
What can we do? We can listen, welcome and respect everyone who comes to the UK in this way, and work to help all who are in similar need. Much good work to support refugees from Syria is being done here in the SE District of the Methodist Church. For example, churches in Knaphill, Horsham, Cranleigh and Guildford and many others are facilitating drop in centres, clothing banks and conversation cafes and social support.
The people behind the headlines are people like the rest of us, with families, livelihoods and professions.
In Jordan in 2015, when the war in Syria was at its height, I met Elizabeta and her two children, an Armenian Christian family, and heard her story. They had been forced to flee Aleppo, Syria, fearing for their lives, threatened by the violence of Daesh (ISIS). She and her small daughters had walked for days to reach the safety of Jordan, across desert, rocky gorges and under disguise when crossing through ISIS-held territory, terrified of being discovered.
Elizabeta was a teaching assistant, her husband owned restaurants,
they had a comfortable lifestyle in Aleppo. Now Elizabeta found herself in a
profoundly difficult and unexpected situation. The children were asking when
they could go back home and play with their toys. Elizabeta knew there would be
no going home. Her house and restaurants had been destroyed in the bombing the
week after they left. Now the family were living in a rundown tenement block,
subsisting on charity handouts. Her husband had been working in Saudi Arabia
when the family left Aleppo and was not able to obtain a visa for entry into
military operations increased in northeast Syria early in October, more than
130 civilians have been killed and more than 160,000 have fled, including at least
70,000 children, according to the U.N. refugee agency.
At last, a much needed childcare centre opens in Za’atari Camp!
It was in the process of being built in March 2019 when I visited but thanks in part to great support from the SE Methodist District for the All We Can Syrian Refugee Appeal, the amazing sum of £4000 has been raised towards the project. And this has been doubled by a generous supporter to £8000 enabling even more resources for the centre.
All We Can’s local partner LWF built it next to their Peace Oasis and named it The Smurf Centre. It is the only place on this vast camp of 80,000 refugees that offers safe childcare with plenty of craft and educational classes, play, toys, games and a safe outdoor space. The camp is crowded and hardly any play areas exist where small children can have fun, so this is a great facility.
Safe and secure childcare means that parents can be confident leaving their small children in the hands of trained volunteers to have a break for a few hours or even be free to work, if jobs are available. The centre itself was designed, built and painted by refugees and offers opportunities for other refugees to take up positions as teachers, helpers and security personnel.
Looking forward to going back to visit and seeing all the happy children enjoying this brilliant Smurf Centre!
Enforced incapacity due to a broken ankle has given me the opportunity to read these two books. They are very different, but both reflect some of the deep physical, practical and emotional challenges facing those who have to flee their countries, and are intensely moving.
Friends from church gifted me “The Beekeeper of Aleppo”, a fictional account of a Syrian couple’s harrowing journey from Aleppo to the UK. Nuri is a beekeeper, and Afra his wife, an artist. They live a simple life surrounded by family and friends in the beautiful city of Aleppo until war destroys the city and their home and their son is killed. Afra loses her sight, Nuri is threatened by militia, and they have to leave. Their journey is full of danger, deprivation and fear, and the impact of their loss is profound. Yet Nuri and Afra keep going, in the hope of refuge in the UK with their beekeeper cousin Mustafa.
Although this is a novel, the author Christy Lefteri, herself the daughter of Cypriot refugees, writes with authenticity. She bases her book on her time working as a volunteer at a Unicef supported refugee centre in Athens.
This is a compelling story, delicately and compassionately told. Read it, and be ready to be deeply moved.
In contrast, “No longer strangers” is a true story. Written by a persecuted Christian, Javed Masih, he tells how he was forced to uproot his family from their home in Pakistan and seek asylum in the Netherlands. Throughout the hardships they experience, the inhumanity of the bureaucratic process, the emotional and practical issues they have to face every day, the family find inspiration and encouragement through their faith and the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.
One example of the need for hope was when Javed, his wife Nasreen and two children found themselves at a new hostel, miserably cold and hungry in a tiny cramped room and desperately missing their home. The heating didn’t work, there was no food and Nasreen was forced to beg at reception for teabags so they could make themselves a hot drink. Then Javed reminded the family of the story of the nativity, of the lack of proper shelter and care for Mary, and Joseph. Despite the hard conditions, the glory of the birth of Jesus filled Mary and Joseph with happiness and thankfulness to God. Through the retelling of this Christian narrative, Javed and his family found hope and comfort to help them in their difficult situation.
While this book is a real and uplifting testimony to the family’s Christian faith, it is also an uncompromising account of the impersonal and often uncaring asylum process. Reading it gave me a better understanding not only of the complexities faced by asylum seekers but also of the tremendous courage and tenacity any asylum seeker needs to get through it all, whilst at the same time coping with the loss of their home, former life and country and the profound loneliness of being a stranger in a foreign land.
Europe’s “welcome” to refugees and asylum seekers has not always been wholehearted. Javed’s story shows the tremendous strength it takes to cope with a different way of life, an unknown language and a cold climate and should prompt us to do all we can to help.
Singing is therapy as well as art! I was humbled and delighted to hear these young Syrian refugees in Za’atari Refugee Camp, Jordan singing so beautifully together. Their teacher, a Syrian refugee himself, told me that they didn’t want to sing pop songs. Instead they chose to sing the traditional Syrian songs of their culture and homeland. They sang from the heart, a lament of exile like Psalm 137. Yet as well as sadness and pain, there was hope and shy pride shining through as they sang together.
These young people were being given an opportunity to express their feelings through music at The Peace Oasis, Za’atari Refugee Camp, Jordan which houses more than 80,000 Syrian refugees. Many of the families fled Syria in fear of their lives four or five years ago. Their homes and livelihoods in Syria have been destroyed by the prolonged war; parents wonder what the future holds for their children.
Since 2015 I have been visiting refugee projects in Jordan supported by All We Can (an international development and emergency relief organisation with its roots in the Methodist Church). I can testify from personal experience to the difference these projects make to the lives of refugees.
If you share my passion for this work, and want to support more young people and children by giving to All We Can, you can double your donation to the Syrian Crisis Appeal helping children in Za’atari. Thanks to a generous supporter, every £ you give will be matched by another £, up to £5000.
Go to allwecan.org.uk/refugeeweek to give online or call 0207 467 5132 and help the songs to be sung with joy! Make sure you specify the refugee appeal when you give.