Snapshot of Hope: Flowers of Lebanon
Syria became a contentious issue especially since 2011, when civil war struck the country. Though the numbers vary, the UN estimated the pre-war Syrian population was 22 million and by 2015, over half of the country’s population was displaced either internally or abroad.
Conservative numbers say 4 million were registered refugees abroad, 1 million unregistered abroad, 7 million internally displaced, and 250,000 dead.
Most Syrian refugees are in neighboring nations like Iraq, Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon. In 2015, the European Union struggled with handling so many refugees and migrants coming into their countries, and there were debates about controlling borders. In 2016, while several countries were beginning initiatives to better serve the refugees entering their nations (such as the Regional Refugee and Resilience Plan, the Jordan Compact, etc.), others began imposing stricter regulations–or worse. In 2016, the United States admitted 12,500 Syrians as refugees, and the goal in the White House was to permit another 110,000 in the next year. But in January 2017, President Trump signed his executive order banning the admission of any more Syrian refugees for 120 days. This was the beginning of a year-long back-and-forth between the Trump administration and many others in political power fighting over refugee rights.
As of December 2018, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported 13 million Syrian refugees are still in humanitarian need. However, because of the lack of support for refugee placement, since the time of the first executive ban in 2017 until today, only a little over 2 thousand refugees have settled in the United States.
The story you are about to read is based on true events. In 2013, Marco Frattini, a video producer for the World Food Programme, went to Lebanon to photograph some of the care given there for Syrian refugees. He made a video documenting his trip that really impacted me. It told the stories of two Syrian women living in Lebanon who had given up everything to survive. One woman made a point to put flowers outside her tent, and this really hit me. Even in the face of war, displacement, and trauma, people–especially children–are somehow able to create joy in the smallest ways. In I Thessalonians, Paul instructs us to rejoice always, but maybe it is not something that necessarily needs to be commanded.
Maybe it is more natural than we think it is . . .
Tira opened the flap of the tent and watched her children quickly run out, laughing and calling after each other. “Do not go too far! Stay where I can see you!” she called after them. She folded the sheet above the top of the small corner doorway they had made and stood for a moment, watching them play in the open area with the other refugee children. She saw how their rough soles matched the dirt they kicked up in the air behind them as they ran and laughed. Other mothers watched too, and she saw the same look on their faces that reflected the feelings in her own heart: how long would they be living like this?
She went inside to get the bowls from last night, and she took them with her to wash. She called her three children after her, and they followed close behind her as she made her way to a small river. The water was a murky brown, but she used her hands to wipe the bowls as clean as she could. The children dropped their feet in the water and laughed with the cool feeling between their toes. Tira paused to watch how they smiled. They had been in Lebanon for about two months now, but seeing their smiles reminded her of when they would all harvest the olives from their backyard vineyard in Syria. That was their business. They were expecting a plentiful harvest this year. But when her husband was killed as the violence ravaged through their home, she had no choice but to take the children and run. She had known other people who had fled. She joined them in the refugee camp, but she was sad for the life she left behind.
How could her children still smile?
To Tira, plants meant life; green showed verve, and flowers were natural beings of happiness. Fruit, nuts, and other gifts brought nutrition and energy. She thought it was a wonderful balance of life, to care for the plants and have them take care of you with their nourishing offspring. In Syria, she tended to a garden around their house, and she kept plants inside the house too. She loved when she and her husband tended to the vineyard together. She loved seeing the small green growths coming in on the vines, slowly becoming bigger and darker until they were ready to pick. The curly vines made fun, energetic swirls in their yard, and she thought that they represented her happiness, spiraling and hugging the posts that held them up. She could still see her husband’s smiling face silhouetted by the sunlight in the field. It brought tears to Tira’s eyes. She looked down at the pasty red-brown water that trickled through the fingers in front of her now as she scraped the grittiness against the dented metal of the bowl. What had happened? she wondered. Tira cried for her husband, for her children, for her family, for her home, for her vineyard, for her plants. All she saw now was brown, dirt, dust. There were no happy flowers, no curly vines, no fruit, no harvest. Now she begged for food, for mercy, for understanding, for answers.
She heard the children’s playing stop, and Tira quickly wiped her tears. She did not want them to know how upset she was. She had to be strong for them, but recently, they had been stronger than she. She wondered again, how could they smile and play? They silently watched her and knew her pain. They looked to each other and wondered what to do. Before they could act, Tira stood and took the bowls in her hands, saying, “Let’s go.”
They walked back to their tent, and Tira saw foreigners walking through the camp. A man came to her and handed her some pieces of paper like tickets. “These are for food,” he said. “If you go to a store that will accept food vouchers, this will buy food for you and your family.” Tira took the vouchers gratefully. The man smiled and nodded, though a sad look filled his face. They both listened to children’s laughter as some little ones came rushing through the crowd to Tira’s children. Her little ones looked to her pleadingly, and she allowed them to go play. They ran off happily. “Isn’t it amazing?” the man said. “Children have such an ability to stay positive even in situations like—” He looked to Tira and found it hard to finish his sentence. “Well,” he continued slowly, “I just wish I had a heart like theirs sometimes.” Tira nodded and pulled her covering closer to her body. The man could tell she was a little uncomfortable, so he smiled and nodded again before saying, “I pray for you and your family,” before walking back to his group to hand out more vouchers.
“Thank you,” she said after him. He turned and nodded to her. His words stuck with Tira, and she rolled them over in her mind as she watched the children play. She was thankful to have money for food that would give them energy. She looked down at the vouchers and held them close.
“One hundred Lebanese pounds will buy a lot of food,” one of the other mothers said as she came to stand next to Tira. “Why don’t you go into the town to buy some while you can? I will watch the children and keep them safe.” Tira looked to the older woman and saw trust in her dark eyes. She thanked her, kissed her children, and left for the town.
She was amazed at the food that she was able to choose from. Even though the store was crowded with the people also coming to buy food with vouchers, there was still a large selection. She had fruit, vegetables, rice, and beans, yet still had money left over. It made her happy to see her basket full with many colors of good food. As she was standing in the line to check out, she saw small flowers for sale near the checkout. When she saw that she had enough money for it, Tira felt a conflict within her: should she save money to buy more food later, or could she treat herself to something that would bring her happy memories from her home? She leaned in close to smell the fragrance and was overwhelmed with emotion. She thought of her husband in the vineyard again and felt her eyes well with tears. She thought about the man’s words again: “Children have such an ability to stay positive.” She looked at the happy faces of the flowers and thought to her children smiling and playing in the refugee camp. They knew how to find happiness in hard times.
Tira hesitantly put two bundles of flowers into her basket.
Though Tira didn’t hope to stay away from her home in Syria for much longer, having the flowers around her tent in Lebanon gave her some small joy. When she opened the flap of the tent and watched her children quickly run out, laughing and calling after each other, she understood now how they could still smile.
She leaned down to smell her small flowers and smiled a small smile too.
God tells us in Leviticus 19 to treat foreigners living in our nation as we would treat ourselves because we were also foreigners; and Jesus teaches in Matthew 25 that welcoming strangers, giving provisions to those who need them, and taking care of “the least of these” is like taking care of Jesus Himself and is worthy of God’s blessing.