Perhaps it is not well known that the late Duke of Edinburgh was once a refugee. As a baby he was carried into exile in an orange crate and endured a hard and lonely childhood far from his homeland, Greece.
Like many refugees forced to flee their homes, Prince Philip knew family tragedy early on his life. His grandfather King George 1 of Greece was assassinated. His father Prince Andrew’s life was threatened by a military coup. The family escaped to an impecunious life in Paris. Eventually even that precarious security dissolved. The Prince’s father abandoned Philip and his sisters. Their mother suffered mental health issues and was confined to a clinic. The young Prince was sent to boarding school and parcelled out to various relatives in the holidays, signing visitors’ books “of no fixed abode”.*
Aloneness and homelessness is a hallmark of being a refugee. Such difficult experiences shape human lives, sometimes building resilience and sometimes trapping people in despair.
In 2015 Yisabet, an Armenian Christian from Aleppo, Syria, was forced to flee her home, terrified by bomb raids and the violent war. She and her two young children trekked on foot over difficult terrain to reach safe refuge in Jordan. The family had enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle in Syria. Now their temporary home was shabby and rundown. The girls constantly asked when they could go home and play with their toys and were teased at school for always wearing the same dress. Yisabet was lonely, bereft, uncertain what the future would bring.
A recent Red Cross survey found that nearly half of young Syrians had a close relative or friend who had died in the war. One in six had a parent who was killed or seriously injured. **
At the age of 16, the Duke of Edinburgh tragically lost one of his sisters, her two children and husband in a plane crash which left him devastated.
Three year old Aymen’s father was a soldier, killed in Syria. Aymen was living with relatives in a tent in the desert near Mafraq, northern Jordan. The little boy did not speak, possibly traumatised by bombing which destroyed his home in Homs in 2012.
Khalid’s father said the seven year old’s hearing was damaged through bombing. He was now profoundly deaf. His older brother Salmah was suffering from Bell’s Palsy as a result of trauma. A distressed neighbour in the block of flats in Mafraq said she had a blind son who had been arrested and tortured in Syria and her husband killed.
Such deeply difficult events are life changing. Yet they can also invoke an amazing and admirable resilience in those so badly affected.
Asma fled her home in Dera when her ten year old son was shot and injured. A refugee in Amman, Jordan Asma was determined to to make a better life for herself and her family. She was a qualified librarian and teacher in Syria, but not allowed to work legally in Jordan. Undeterred she volunteered at a local community project. She could cook, she said brightly, so was hoping to enrol on a business start up course and set up her own catering business.
Since the war in Syria began in 2011, it is estimated that 6.7million Syrians have fled the country, with over 1.8 million hosted by Jordan.(UN figures) The needs of refugees are ongoing as they seek to build new lives in a different country.
Christians remember that Jesus commanded his followers to love our neighbours as ourselves. All We Can’s work with Syrian refugees in Jordan and Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazaar enable us here in the UK to reach out to some of those who are lonely, homeless and far from the lives they knew before war and persecution uprooted them.
Jesus himself was an exile, the family fleeing to Egypt to escape King Herod’s murderous threats. The family returned to Israel when Herod’s death made it safe for them. It may never be safe or possible for thousands of exiled Syrians to return home. Yisabet’s house was destroyed by bombing as was Khalid’s home and family business.
An estimated 30% of homes are damaged or destroyed, livelihoods ruined and the Syrian economy broken.*
Since 2015 the UK has welcomed 5000 Syrian refugees under the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme. Many refugees have found support and a new life here. The UK’s plan to turn away any migrants and asylum seekers crossing the English Channel in small boats is not so hospitable, despite the desperation of their situations that drives them to take such risks.
Being exiled from your homeland is a lonely and isolating experience. The music class of young people in Za’atari Refugee Camp, Jordan did not want to sing modern songs. Like the Israelites exiled to Babylon who lamented their loneliness in psalms, the young Syrian refugees in Za’atari wanted to sing the traditional songs of Syria, to keep their heritage and memories of their homes alive.
*Quoted in The Times April 12th 2021
** Quoted in The Times March 15th 2021
By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
How can we sing the songs of the Lord…….
while in a foreign land?