Ariel Royer serves as a Global Mission Intern and her appointment is made possible by your gifts to Week of Compassion.
Many non-profit organizations in the Middle East are currently occupied with addressing the refugee crisis that the countries of the region are bearing. It is an unwieldy and difficult situation, but one that often feels other-worldly from the comforts of our homes in the US. I share the following observations and facts with you with the hope that this issue, and the general status of peace and conflict in the Middle East, may assume a clearer form despite the distance.
According to the UN High Commissioner of Refugees, there are more than 15 million people who have been forced from their countries of citizenship, living as refugees beyond their national boundaries in marginally safer conditions. Beyond this enormous figure, nearly 30 million are considered IDPs: Internally-Displaced People. They are living within the borders of their country of citizenship but have left the comforts of home behind in a desperate search for safety.
This population is easy to forget about, perhaps because the number is so large we see it as only that: a collection of tally-marks. For refugees, the months away from home slowly turn into years and, as is the case with several populations around the world, the years become generations. In countries like Lebanon or Jordan, these statistics begin to assume a grim reality: a country of 4 million, Lebanon cannot possibly host 2 million refugees without suffering from the burden. Hearing Syrian accents on the streets becomes commonplace as a new population of underpaid workers replaces whichever group previously held the dubious distinction of laboring in difficult conditions.
But both countries, Jordan & Lebanon, are veterans of previous refugee crises. The American invasion of Iraq in 2003 brought a wave of immigrants westward. However, the population which Jordan & Lebanon are most familiar with is Palestinians. It is worth mentioning that, of the previous figure of 15 million refugees globally, one-third of this population – nearly 5 million – is Palestinian.
The Palestinian refugee community is unique in the breadth of its diaspora and the length of its exile. The first wave of Palestinian refugees fled the Nakba in 1948, known as the War of Independence in Israel, which remains in the minds of Palestinians around the world as the “Catastrophe” which cleaved a homeland, crushed entire villages, and scattered its people. Palestinians who were forced to leave initially took shelter in camps established in the West Bank (still within Palestine but a displacement nonetheless for those who had come from the luxuriously Mediterranean areas of Palestine), Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria while many economically-mobile Palestinians moved further afield.
Over the last six decades, the Palestinian community has grown in number and in passion. Displacement from the homeland created a shared identity for a scattered people. The fervor for the land of Palestine assumes a dominant role rivaled perhaps only by religion. Pottery from Hebron, embroidery of the ancestral village, and even one’s family name all become cherished possessions linking the present-day displaced to their rich lineage.
There is a beautiful, simple line by Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, set to music by Marcel Khalife, which I often think of when trying to understand the tragedy of displacement. It captures the loss shared by Palestinians both within and beyond the borders:
I long for my mother’s coffee
My mother’s bread
In this sentence we find the thread that ties our hearts to home.
One of the most meaningful aspects of my time in the Middle East has been connecting with displaced people – Iraqi, Syrian, and Palestinian – as I strive to understand how they perceive their homeland. Without fail and regardless of the economic or social conditions they have found in their adoptive countries, the feeling is one of deep-seated grief. It is grief for their abandoned properties – sitting idle in the place in which the next generation should be playing - grief that they cannot replicate the experience of sipping a cup of their mother’s cardamom coffee, and most tragically and too common, it is a grief for the community of family and friends now scattered by the chaos of violence and uncertainty.
I often spend time thinking about home when I am away: I imagine with warmth the hours spent in my parents’ kitchen, the gentle rise and fall of a drive on Pennsylvania’s country roads, the jovial camaraderie between siblings and cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents. It is my comfort in times of stress to reflect on the good fortune of my past, present, and future.
These memories are my treasures. Knowing that I can go home to them is my luxury, one not available at present to the millions of refugees and IDPs around the world. The loss of the homeland is at once a spiritual, collective, and individual crisis. Re-locating mass populations around the globe is an insufficient treatment for the real sickness of the world: the contagion of violence and ignorance. Our efforts to welcome refugees in our communities may ease the trauma. But the real tragedy is that displacement occurs at all. While we reach out to uprooted families in our own communities, it is our imperative to spread an agenda of peace and coexistence so that they can once again taste the comfort of home.
Ariel Royer serves as a Global Mission Intern with the Department of Service for Palestinian Refugees (DSPR) in Lebanon. She works with the web page and assists in fund-raising and proposal writing. Her appointment is supported by Week of Compassion, Our Churches Wider Mission, Disciples Mission Fund and your special gifts.