Maya, age 7, loves bananas, cartoons and her pink teddy bear.
She had to leave the teddy bear back in Syria when her family fled to Lebanon to escape the worsening civil war. “It’s probably riddled with bullets now,” Maya said. She’s probably right: Homs, the city they left, is now essentially a pile of rubble.
At least she has a stuffed blue Smurf to keep her company. But she doesn’t have many human friends her age in the “home” she occupies with her parents and her teenage brother, Hammoudeh. For more than 1,000 days, they have lived with other Syrian refugees in the crumbling Gaza Hospital in Beirut. It ceased to be a medical facility during Lebanon’s own civil war decades ago, but has played host to generations of refugees from the region’s conflicts.
It’s more comfortable than the tents, sheds and hovels many Syrian refugees endure in Lebanon. But Maya – a goofy, giggly girl with tons of energy – feels like she’s growing up in a prison.
“I’m a kid! I want to have fun,” Maya complained. “Who am I supposed to play with? I’m surrounded by 10 walls. … When I get bored, I go outside. I don’t find anyone so I come back in. I keep going in, out, in, out. I drive Mum crazy!”
Syria’s civil war bled into a fifth year in March, and Maya has little chance of going home anytime soon. She doesn’t understand the larger forces that are destroying her homeland, or why she and her brother can’t go to school, or why her mother seems sad most of the time. She laughs and dreams and makes the best of an awful situation. But she knows something is wrong with a world that snatches a home and a teddy bear from a little girl. You can see it in her eyes.
Maya told her story as part of the Al Jazeera series “Life on Hold,” which presents five video portraits of Syrian refugees in Lebanon. In that series, you will also meet young Omar, who misses his assistant chef’s job and his sweetheart back in Damascus. He cares for a leg shattered by an exploding shell before he fled Syria, reads the Quran, prays, checks out the latest songs and videos online and waits.
Haifa, a widow who closed the hotel she owned in Damascus to seek safety for her three children, misses home so desperately that she wants to go back – even though conditions are far worse now than when she departed. “At least if I die, I die in Syria,” she said. Hajj, an older man who cares for his sick wife, wonders if his 200 olive trees have withered and died. He has lost 38 family members in the conflict.
Al Furati, an award-winning poet and former government worker, cries for lost friends, coworkers and simple pleasures back home. He worries about his children missing years of school, part of an entire lost generation of young Syrians. He sits in a tent with his wife and children, writing mournful verses late into the night: “Why is my country draped in the black of night? And why are Syria’s hands hennaed with blood? … Your children are now crying and your women are wailing, your precious soil is awash with the blood of your men. I feel your heart is breaking like the valley of lament, I know that your wound is too deep to heal.”
Those words reminded me of the lament of another refugee poet: “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion” (Psalm 137:1 NASB). Carried away into forced exile 26 centuries ago, the psalmist and his Israelite brothers and sisters could only remember their beloved land – and hope one day to return.
I’ve become acquainted with many refugees over the years, whether in dusty camps and border towns or after they resettled in other places – such as the city where I live. They include Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians, Cubans, Afghanis, Iraqis, Kurds, Palestinians, Burmese, Nepalis and Syrians. I’m proud to count some of them as dear friends. Before our own children came along, my wife and I were foster parents to two Vietnamese refugee kids for a time.
I don’t pretend to understand the refugee experience, however, or the trauma, despair, isolation and loss that come with it. It is impossible to fathom unless you have gone through it.
But God understands. He loves. And He gives hope. He commands again and again in His Word that we welcome and shelter the alien, the stranger and the outcast. Jesus Christ, who experienced rejection by His own that we can only imagine, calls us to befriend the wanderers of this world and to offer them the only hope that transcends the desperate circumstances of their lives.
Millions of Syrians have been driven from their homes since the civil war began. If you want to help them, or any refugees, here are 10 practical ways to do so. And here are a few more: Listen to their stories. Cry with them. Be a friend. Offer the hope only God can give.
Love transcends all borders.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Erich Bridges is IMB global correspondent.)