Damascus, Syria - 14 October 2008

A letter to my supporting congregations
Damascus, Syria - 14 October 2008

Dear friends:

Milad plays his violin every day in the dingy apartment he shares with
his parents and three sisters here in Damascus. He was a concert
violinist back home in Iraq, but since the family fled to Syria last
year, the 24-year-old only plays inside their cramped apartment, except
for the one time a week he plays during mass at the nearby Chaldean
Catholic Church. His father told me Milad only plays sad songs these days.

Throughout the Damascus neighborhood of Jeramana where Milad and his
family live, tens of thousands of families live with the same deep
sadness. Forced to flee Iraq’s warring madness to save their lives, many
would like to be resettled abroad. That’s how Milad’s girlfriend ended
up in Tennessee, and he and his family are hoping they can be resettled
in Detroit. He asks me how many hours it would take to get from Detroit
to Tennessee. He chats with her every day over the internet, and the
strain of distance nurtures the poignancy of his music.

Yet resettlement quotas will allow only a small number of the refugees
here and in neighboring Jordan, Lebanon and elsewhere to be relocated to
safety. As violence currently escalates in Mosul, the city in northern
Iraq where Milad’s family lived, they certainly won’t go home any time
soon. They laugh when I ask them about an ambitious repatriation scheme
launched last week by the Iraqi embassy here. As hard as life is here in
Damascus, where they aren’t officially allowed to work, life back in
Iraq remains even worse.

It wasn’t always that way, and they recall life before the U.S. invasion
with a certain nostalgia, despite the problems then with international
sanctions, the Kuwait war and the bloody conflict with Iran. Saddam
Hussein was a brutal thug, but they and other religious minorities
enjoyed certain protection during his regime. The gangsterism with a
religious face produced by the U.S. occupation has made any semblance of
normal life for Christians impossible in most of Iraq. While some
Christians have found sanctuary in the Kurdish north, many have been
forced to flee, along with their Muslim neighbors, to foreign places
like Jeramana. Somewhere around 2.5 million Iraqis currently live as
refugees outside their homeland; an equal number are internally
displaced within Iraq. Many are well educated, the middle class
professionals that Iraq needs if it can ever start rebuilding. Yet most,
like Milad and his family, are simply waiting, in limbo.

I’m wrapping up three weeks in the middle east. I’ve interviewed and
photographed refugees in Egypt, Lebanon and Syria. It’s been a difficult
experience, listening to dozens of families tell me their stories, how
they were threatened and beaten, their loved ones kidnapped and
murdered. I’m emotionally drained.

One family I visited in Lebanon was formed by a widow, Rana Ramzi, and
her three children. Rana’s husband was killed in February. He was an
assistant to the Chaldean Catholic archbishop in Mosul, who was killed
after he encouraged residents not to pay protection money to the
gangsters who control the city. Rana’s husband was killed in the attack
on the archbishop, and she and the kids fled to Beirut in May. I went to
interview her, and while my translator and I were talking in the main
room of her apartment, she came out of the bedroom with her two-year-old
daughter Faris, who was staring at me with wide eyes. Rana explained
that when Faris had heard my masculine voice in the next room, she had
looked hopefully at her mother and said, “Daddy?”

There are many themes that overlay the refugees’ plight. One is the slow
but steady shrinkage of the Christian population throughout the middle
east, something that worries church leaders. If current trends continue,
in a few more decades Christianity here will be reduced to nothing but
churches serving as museums. The living stones of Christian faith will
have all fled. That means that in the case of Iraqi refugees, for
example, the church is forced to encourage people to linger longer in
limbo in the hope that someday they can return home. Otherwise, there
will be no one left: families who return to Iraq may be killed, and
families that resettle abroad won’t return. So they counsel patience, a
frustrating message to hear for someone who has education and talents
that go to waste in fruitless exile..

There are other themes that repeat in every family’s story. There’s a
almost universal frustration with the U.S. government’s unquestioning
support for Israel’s continued occupation of the Palestinian
territories–a conflict which remains the linchpin of resolving tensions
throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds. And there’s a often-voiced
frustration that U.S. policy in the region is inconsistent at best,
ignorant at its worst. As one priest in a small village in Egypt told
me, “In the United States you didn’t care about us until 9-11 happened,
but now all of a sudden we exist for you.”

That’s true on many levels, but not when we look at the many ways the
church is involved in mission, insufficient as our efforts may be.
Ministry with poor people at the margins of the world’s economies has
been the center of church life since the beginning, and telling their
stories across arbitrary borders of class and nation and race has been a
critical element of being the church ever since St. Paul set off from
this city to spread the Gospel abroad while crafting epistles that
reported, chastised, and encouraged. For us who proclaim Jesus as our
savior, the poor must be the focus of our mission, regardless of the
arbitrary and violent policies of our governments. We don’t wait for our
governments or their media allies to tell us where to go; we go where
God leads us.

The refugees I’ve spent these days with may have been driven from their
homeland by a war our government started, but they’ve been met in their
host countries by efforts of compassion organized by Catholic,
Protestant, and Orthodox churches. I visited church-run programs that
provide emergency housing and food to people who fall through the cracks
of the United Nations’ refugee programs. I personally witnessed how the
church reaches out in a variety of ways, doing everything from training
women in marketable hairstyling skills, to providing legal aid to
migrants held in underground detention facilities, to providing safe
shelter to victims of human trafficking.

Unless there’s a dramatic shift in my government’s policies in the
region, I am not optimistic that things will get better. And even with
new, intelligent approaches, it will take decades to even begin to
recover from the frenetic destruction of lives and cultures in recent
years. But I’m also cautiously hopeful, or at least encouraged, by the
dedicated witness of people of faith who insist that there are no
borders to compassion and solidarity. In a landscape of terror, there
just may be hope that Milad may once again play joyful music.


Paul Jeffrey

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