When I review the last twelve months, I find few constants and many variables. I have had the good fortune to travel to several countries, spend time with different groups of friends and family, and work in a variety of contexts. And yet, there is one word, accompanied by many memories and encounters, that has been present in my mind throughout the year: refugees.
The year started in Jordan. Perhaps you will remember the plan that went awry: I returned to Israel/Palestine after a short trip away to renew my visa. However, when I arrived at the border crossing between Jordan and Israel/Palestine (the Israeli government controls the borders of Palestine), I was flagged for inspection and ultimately denied entry. Driving back to Jordan in an empty bus, the bus driver tried to be sympathetic, telling me it happens all the time. It was hard to turn my back on a place that I love, especially not knowing when I would return. The consequence is a longing for Jerusalem and Israel/Palestine in general. I wonder at how many people, and how many faiths, ethnicities, and languages have shared this feeling in the last two millennia. I join the ranks of those yearning for that holy city.
I was off to a new assignment after only a few weeks of treading water in Amman, Jordan. As soon as my mind shifted away from a return to Israel/Palestine, I was eager for the next opportunity: Beirut, Lebanon. Global Ministries’ partners welcomed me warmly upon my arrival and quickly found ways for me to be involved in the work of the Middle East Council of Churches’ Department of Service for Palestinian Refugees, registered as the Joint Christian Committee for Social Services in Lebanon (JCC), and one of their satellite centers: the Sabra Center on the outskirts of Beirut. For more than 60 years, JCC has provided a multitude of services to Palestinian refugees marginalized by Lebanese society.
Many of the students I spent time with came from families who had been forced to leave the northern parts of Palestine in 1948. They were people who held in their hearts a deep affection for Palestine. Each of the teenage girls at the center had a quick reply when I asked her which town she was from in Palestine. These young women had never seen the land they spoke of, but the cultural memory of an unreachable oasis had been passed down during decades of exile. Many of these girls had dropped out of school at a young age for various reasons: some were deemed lost causes due to health or attention issues, there being no assistance for struggling students in the inadequate schools of the refugee camps. For all of the young women, JCC’s literacy program offered not only the opportunity to learn, but the chance to be part of a learning community.
Living and working in Lebanon strengthened a resolve to bear witness to the struggles of the Middle East by following the lead of Global Ministries’ partners and striving to internalize what I could of the situation. The refugee crisis was unavoidable in Lebanon, especially when my commute consisted of a long walk through the crowded capital city. Every day brought a new encounter with a Syrian child begging on the street or a Syrian parent selling a tiny inventory of Chiclets. It seemed as if these individuals were struggling to be seen by society; I helped a woman across an alleyway one morning and was taken aback when she thanked me profusely for this small act. When I asked her why she was so grateful, she replied, “Because you talked to me.” I found it most difficult at times to simply keep my eyes open to witness suffering. Calluses can develop around our hearts if we let them, but this is a choice that we each make individually.
Conversations with Global Ministries partners often address the nature and importance of relationships between individuals as well as between institutions. They often underline physical presence of visitors who come to witness the Middle East as an important means of being in relationship. Yet we cannot delude ourselves in our thinking: the experience of spending time with partners in the Middle East is a gift they give us, not the other way around. The time I have spent under their care has been an opportunity to learn about the injustice and inequality of the world. Our partners gaze at us, their friends in North America, with an understanding that we have a lot to learn about today’s global troubles. They know that the crises will continue to ripple outward and they, the faithful men and women who have continued their uphill work in the region, are the resource that we need most going forward.
When my overseas service as a Global Mission Intern came to a close in September, I then returned to the United States for a period of traveling among United Church of Christ and Disciples of Christ (Christian Church) churches. Ostensibly, I was on a journey to connect with congregations and to share the work of our partners, although the period was a fruitful time for me to gradually process my experiences and readjust to my home country. The timing was powerful: I returned just after Western attention for Syrian refugees had increased exponentially, due in part to the image of a Syrian toddler washing up lifeless on a Turkish shore.
Congregations I visited shared their distress over the crisis and asked time and time again what they could do to help Syrian refugees. I was able to direct their attention to Global Ministries partners abroad and to the refugee resettlement agency that is a domestic partner of both Global Ministries denominations, Church World Service.
The crisis of today will not abate tomorrow, and it will require the collective compassion and determination of millions of people to extend care and concern in an appropriate way. But this is a determination that I have found reiterated in the mission of all five of the Global Ministries’ partners I have been honored to work with in the last 3 years. Their accompaniment will be vital as we move forward into a new stage of global partnership.
Ariel Royer served as a Global Mission Intern with the Department of Service for Palestinian Refugees (DSPR) in Lebanon. Her appointment is supported by Week of Compassion, Our Churches Wider Mission, Disciples Mission Fund and your special gifts.