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.
“And who is my neighbour?” asked the teacher of the law. (v29). In response to this question, Jesus tells the story of the traveller, robbed and beaten on his way from Jerusalem to Jericho. The man was left injured and bleeding on the side of the road. Who stopped to help him? Not the priest, or the Levite, passers-by who might have been expected to assist someone in need, but a Samaritan. He was the last person a Jew would have thought might help him. Jews and Samaritans harboured a deeply held hatred of each other.
Yet the Samaritan picked up the injured Jew, bathed his wounds, took him to a place of shelter and organised his care.
After he had told this parable, Jesus asked the teacher of the law which of the three was a neighbour to the assaulted man? The teacher answered correctly but could not bring himself to say the hated name “The Samaritan”, instead saying “the one who had mercy on him”. (v37)
“Who is my neighbour?” is a question we need to ask ourselves when confronted by the increasing numbers of migrants and refugees, people so threatened by war, hunger, persecution or discrimination that they have no choice but to leave their homes, livelihoods and countries behind and seek refuge in another country.
Our neighbours are global; it is a small world, brought together by technology that allows us to see and hear situations and people in faraway places. So refugees from Syria are just as much our neighbours as the family who live next door. The Rohingyas forced out of their villages in Myanmar and living in cramped and unhygienic conditions in Cox’s Bazaar are just as much our concern as the homeless man in a sleeping bag on our street.
Refugees run great risks and suffer enormous hardship to reach what is sometimes a fragile safety. They are on a journey to the rainbow’s end with hope in their hearts for a better future. Here are the stories of two such resilient refugees whom I met on a refugee training course for electricians** in Marka, in 2017.
Mohammed Shada Ayash is a 52 year old from Da’ra in Syria. He had been in Jordan four and a half years, forced to seek refuge in Jordan by the war and threat of terrorism. He was a car mechanic who owned his own garage in Da’ra so in the beginning it was difficult as a refugee, to have nothing. Mohammed suffers from cancer and is unable to do the heavy manual work which is the only (illegal) work available. So he took the chance to retrain as an electrician and hopes to find employment to enable him to support his family. His dream is to return to Syria one day when the war is over.
Mohammed Nazal is also from Da’ra. He is 16 years old. His father was killed in Syria. As the oldest child of the family he is the breadwinner for his five younger siblings and his mother who is unwell. He has some (illegal) work at a gas station. Most of his earnings goes on rent. His dream is to leave the Middle East and go to the USA.
Mohammed Shada Ayash and Mohammed Nazal
During the Coronavirus epidemic, refugees in Jordan have been caring for each other. In Za’atari Camp, Jordan home to 80,000 refugees, they are trying to ensure social distancing by marking out spots on the ground outside the camp supermarket and by making and distributing soap to ensure hygiene. (pic.twitter.com/vxrtWrJHwg (UNHCR @refugees March 29 2020). In Azraq Camp, Jordan, a drawing by Zeinab a 12 year old Syrian refugee, shows how the Taekwondo enthusiast plans on fighting the Covid 19 virus. pic.twitter.com/Gtlaswr8W5 (UNHCR Ireland @UNHCRireland 7 April 2020)
Our neighbours are next door, on the street, across the sea and worldwide. Jesus calls us to love them all, as we love ourselves.
At the beginning of April, one of the prescribed readings in the Methodist Church lectionary was taken from The Book of Lamentations in the Old Testament writings of the Bible. It seemed particularly appropriate for the dark times the world is living through at the moment.
There is much lament surrounding the Coronavirus pandemic. Thousands of people are ill; many, far too many, have died; countries’ economies are at a standstill as people endure the difficulties of lockdown, confined to their homes. It is a human reaction to lament, to grieve, at such a serious and widespread situation.
The author of Lamentations, Jeremiah “the weeping prophet”, had cause to lament. His nation of Judah had been defeated by the Babylonians, the Temple in Jerusalem destroyed, the people exiled. This had happened just as Jeremiah had predicted, a consequence of the people rebelling against God. The prophet’s tears were not for himself, but for his broken people.
But in the midst of all this sorrow, there was a bright ray of hope. In his darkest moment Jeremiah recalled God’s promise of future hope and restoration through his grace and unfailing love. He found a chink of light that turned his tears to praise as he recognised that God would always be faithful to his people.
The British soldiers who liberated the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp exactly 75 years ago on April 15th 1945 found much to cause them to lament. The veteran war reporter Richard Dimbleby gave a graphic account of the horrific scene that the soldiers encountered – bodies strewn on the ground, emaciated faces at the windows of the wooden huts, starved people too weak to come outside.
Belsen was the first visual confirmation of the Nazi persecution of the Jews. The stories of those who survived, and those who perished, deserve to be remembered in honour and retold in ways that inform us today.
Six million Jews died at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators in the Holocaust. On April 20th their lives will be remembered worldwide in the annual Jewish remembrance day Yom HaShoah.
Many people who have lost relatives to Coronavirus are unable to grieve with their families and friends and share memories together while in lockdown. It is a time of lamentation for people and lives and time lost.
Jeremiah found some light in the darkness. The courage of Jewish Holocaust survivors, some still telling their stories today to inform the world of what took place and to guard against it ever happening again, is also a bright light shining in the dark.
The dedication of NHS staff and kindness of strangers during this pandemic is a beacon of light for all.
Let Jeremiah have the last word, for he found that even in the depths of his sorrow there was still reason to proclaim God’s unfailing love and grace.
Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
Who knows how many refugees are suffering already from Covid-19 ? If this virus takes hold in overcrowded and often unsanitary camps, where refugees have little or no access to medical care, the effect will be devastating. Refugees are some of the most vulnerable people in the world. Many have already experienced the terror of fleeing for their lives from war and violence. Now there is a new threat to their fragile existence with Coronavirus. How do you practise social distancing or self-isolation when “home” is a plastic sheet or a flimsy shelter crammed close to others in a cramped space?
In Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh, the sanitation and hygiene facilities for the thousands of Rohingya refugees are already inadequate. Handwashing is an impossible luxury for the million Syrians trapped on the Turkish border and living out in the open with no formal camp structure to protect them.
As countries shut their borders because of Coronavirus, asylum seekers may be turned away forcing them to return to unsafe situations. The UN High Commissioner for refugees, Filippo Grandi, has said that while countries are rightly adopting exceptional measures to combat the spread of the virus, including travel restrictions and cross border movements “wars and persecution have not stopped.” (Church Times online 24/3/20)
Christian Aid’s Senior Advocacy Adviser for Syria Iraq and Lebanon, Mairead Collins, has been quoted as saying “While this crisis is a global one, and all of us are impacted, we cannot take our eye off those who are in a much more vulnerable situation than us in this crisis.” (Church Times online 24/3/20)
Christians believe that prayer can change things. Please pray that the world does not forget vulnerable refugees and migrants. They need our help to protect and save them from the worst effects of Covid 19.
Lord, we pray for all refugees and displaced people struggling with the threat of Coronavirus. May those who are ill be comforted; those who are fearful, be calm and at peace. Uphold aid workers and humanitarian aid agencies as they seek to provide essential care to refugees in camps in difficult conditions.
People might think of the Middle East climate as being hot but in Idlib right now temperatures drop to -7C at night and there has been heavy snowfall. So in the flimsy canvas tents in makeshift camps the refugees from the fighting in Idlib province are suffering from freezing cold, little food and the terror of not knowing where they can go to feel safe.
On February 16th The Sunday Times reported the tragic death of a seven month old baby boy, Abdul Wahab in Atmeh Camp near Idlib. The camp doctor told the distraught father that Abdul had frozen to death.
The UN Secretary General confirmed that young children are dying from the cold in this region. Since December 2019 almost 900,000 civilians have fled for their lives to escape the bombing and shelling by the Syrian regime and its allies. Many of these homeless families have had to move on to seek safety more than once during the 9 years of Syrian civil war.
Where can they go? The fighting is pushing civilians towards the Turkish border but Turkey cannot take in any more refugees. Relief efforts are hopelessly inadequate for the vast numbers of needy people. Without stoves or fuel, more children will die of the cold.
The UN Secretary-General is calling for an immediate ceasefire. This is a humanitarian tragedy on a huge scale.
These suffering people are our neighbours, they’re like us, families with children, older people, teenagers with aspirations and dreams, but who are all struggling just to survive in a desperate situation.
Jesus calls us to “love your neighbour as yourself” (Mark 12.31).
Make your voice heard and call for an end to their suffering. Write to your MP, to the Prime Minister calling for stronger advocacy from the British Government and support for the UN. Give to the All We Can Syria Refugee Appeal (www.allwecan.org.uk) to support their work with refugees .
Pray for an end to this bitter conflict that continues to cause such immense suffering to so many people.
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.
The South East England Faiths Forum (SEEF) 2019 Annual Conference took place on 16th September 2019 at the University of Surrey. Speakers from different faiths and none offered faith and belief perspectives on our common environment and responsibility for our planet.
Rabbi Alex Goldberg, Co-ordinating Chaplain, University of Surrey welcomed attendees and Kauser Akhtar, Chair of SEEF introduced the speakers.
John Paul from the Ecological Conversion Group works with the Catholic Church looking at the spiritual aspect of the ecological crisis facing our world today. In Laudato Si, Pope Francis has addressed all people about the need to seek a sustainable environment .
Buddhists’ perspective on climate change is expressed in the phrase “dependent origination”. That means, explained John Marder, Interfaith Officer for Network of Buddhist Organisations UK, that all things exist in relationship to each other. So our lack of caring and our selfishness results in global problems. We have individual responsibility to do what we can to safeguard the environment, now.
Cosmic interconnection is one of the ways in which we connect with the environment, one energy flowing through the whole the planet, one creator God in everything everywhere, so that a Sikh regards everything as holy and sacrosanct. Kamal Preet Kaur, Sikh Missionary Society spokesperson, told the conference that Sikhs were conscious of the consequences of their actions and tried to balance needs and wants.
Jeremy Rodell, Dialogue Officer Humanists UK , expressed the golden rule of treating other people as you like to be treated yourself. He found little difference between religious and non-religious views on climate change. Humanists believe that science is the best way to understand facts about the world and do not believe in any supernatural creator being. Pressure by both faith and other organisations on governments to prioritise action on climate change is useful.
Rabbi Jeffrey Newman of Finchley Reformed Synagogue asked a question : how does what you have heard make you feel? Grief, anger, despair, concern for the future …………..We are not separate from nature but part of it. What are we able to do together to effect change? Rabbi Jeffrey advocated peaceful direct action as being most effective. He recommended reading “Deep Adaptation” by Professor Jem Bendell.
There are 2 billion Muslims around the world who need to make connection with the environment. Kamran Shezad from the Islamic Foundation for Environmental and Ecological Sciences told us that the Qu’ran 40.57 taught humility, that humanity is not greater than the creation of earth and heaven. While corporates have a huge responsibility individuals also have a responsibility, for example with food, how we obtain it, what we eat.
Finally Dr Justine Huxley (CEO, St Ethelburga’s Centre for Reconciliation and Peace) talked about spiritual ecology – building a better world, and resilience, preparing for social and ecological collapse. She asked what is the spiritual opportunity in this problem? The climate change disaster could be viewed as a doorway into transformation, living the story we all want to see.
This Conference was an insight into the various ways faith, and non-faith, communities view the urgent issue of climate change. The speakers found many similarities of views and approach, albeit through different faith and non-faith lenses. All agreed that action now was needed. The Conference ended with pledges to do what we can as individuals and communities, to address climate change honestly and with hope.
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.