Pictured: Pio, a 2017 World Vision and Sanitarium Youth Ambassador, stands inside Azraq refugee camp in Jordan.
15th March 2017 marks the sixth anniversary of the Syrian war.
This conflict became what is today known as the worst humanitarian crisis of our time. To date, more than 11 million people have been killed or forced to flee their homes. The world watches on to see how this refugee crisis will continue to develop.
We live in a time when the term “refugee” is thrown around by politicians, activists and social media commentators like they are a faceless object. Ask anyone on the street they might have a vague idea of who the refugees are and where they come from. Some will add that they want to keep them out, while others wish to openly invite them in. It has become an issue that divides societies around the world. But beneath all that, have we forgotten we are talking about real human beings?
Amidst the shouting, advocating, and fighting for rights or for security, it’s easy to miss the quiet, muffled voices from the lips of the very people we’re speaking about.
I had the privilege of joining a team from World Vision New Zealand on a trip to Jordan in January where I was able to hear the stories of the some of the millions affected by the Syrian refugee crisis. It was confronting to speak directly to the humans whose lives have been turned upside down by this crisis.
Pio talks with a Syrian family who recently fled the war.
We spent some time within the white tents of Azraq Refugee Camp with a number of Syrian families who opened up to us and shared with us their stories of fear, sacrifice and escape. The words they spoke and the emotions that accompanied those words were chilling. It was one thing to read an article outlining the painful story of a family who had to flee their bomb-stricken home in the darkness of night, and another thing entirely to hear that same story from the mouths of a mother and her children.
We asked each family if they had a message they would like to pass on to the people of New Zealand. This is what they had to say.
They wanted to tell us that they were people too.
They simply wanted to live in the safety, security, and dignity they were forced to abandon when they fled from the conflict at home. Try to put yourself in their shoes. If you were forced great distances from your home and everything you had ever known, wouldn’t you want nothing more than to simply be able to return to the life you once lived? To your home, your own family…Wouldn’t you want nothing more than everything that was taken from you to be returned?
One Syrian father gracefully reminded us that, “We are all fingers on the same hand of humanity. Some people try to divide us, but in times like these, we must unite as one humanity.”
They also told us to look at the children. When I looked into their eyes I realised how fragile and innocent they were in a situation so beyond their control. The parents of these children told us that their own lives have been crushed by the tragedies they had faced, but it was their constant hope that their children would simply be young enough to forget. What overwhelming fear must have been endured for parents to relentlessly pray for their children to forget parts of their own childhood?
Pio draws with Syrian children in a Child-Friendly space inside Azraq refugee camp.
These children have spent much if not all of their whole lives knowing only war, violence, and fear. Many of them learn how to take cover from bombs, and how to flee in the night to avoid being shot, before they even have the opportunity to learn how to read and write. Older ones may have once known of a family home, with home cooked meals and a chance of education and friendships. But when they were forced to flee, they were ripped straight out of the normality of the life they once lived. Can we simply look on as a generation of Syrian children grow up without the opportunity to get an education, absorb their culture, instead replaced with fear, uncertainty, war and hate?
The final message we received caught us most off-guard. After some time, the families we spoke to simply sat up, turned to us, and told us that they hoped that we would not know the pain they faced. They hoped that we would simply live in peace and prosperity. They hoped that our dreams would all come true. These were weary people, who had metaphorically walked on fire to find refuge in a small white tent, atop the soil of a country that was not their own. How could they have the grace to look us in the eye and wish that our lives were filled with everything that was taken from them? That seemingly simple, but profoundly difficult act spoke volumes about the resilience of the human spirit.
At the end of the day, the only thing that separates us from them is the country and situation we were born into. We are simply fortunate enough not to be the victims of the conflict that affects them. But that doesn’t mean we can turn a blind eye. Long gone are the days when we can truly justify the separation of “us” and “them”. The world is more connected than it has ever been, and we can no longer make excuses like “I never knew,” or “it’s not my problem.” It is within our power to be a voice for the voiceless. We need to speak of them as human beings who genuinely matter in our society, not just the faceless millions who submissively move here and there based on the decision of our governments.
If the world is ever to recover from what is the worst humanitarian crisis of our time, we must adopt an attitude of relationship and rediscover the common humanity that we’ve always shared.