I never watch horror movies. My heart is too sensitive. There is no reason I would volunteer to do that to myself.
In many ways, that is how I felt about going to the epicenter of the Syrian earthquake zone, Aleppo. I felt like it would be a movie I didn’t want to see. Yet my name had been selected to go. Others in our group, really wanted to go, but they were not chosen. We could not exchange names. We could not fake passports or legal documents. Special permission had been granted for Darron and I to travel through Syria, from Damascus to Aleppo. Passing through check point after checkpoint with men armed with not so friendly looking machine guns. I steeled myself and decided that there must be a deeper reason for me to see what I didn’t want to see.
Clearly, seeing too much can have an impact on us. See the boy’s face above. A big part of my reasoning for not wanting to see and go, was the remembrance of living through the destructive flood in Papua, Indonesia (2019). The screams of people dying in the night. The sounds of massive water and rocks being moved through our campus, wiping out buildings. The hollow look in people’s faces as they tried to comprehend the loss in the days following.
But Papua’s flood did not prepare me for Syria’s losses. Kilometers and kilometers before we approached Aleppo, we drove past bombed out village after bombed out village. To witness such senseless destruction in such a vast region was so hard to take in. It doesn’t make sense and I don’t know what to do with what I saw. We would rarely see people in all those villages that once thrived. Nor were there many cars on the surprisingly well-maintained freeway.
We arrived in Aleppo at dusk. Went to the ADRA (Adventist Disaster Relief Agency) office and met with some of the staff there. These dear people had been working 12–16-hour days caring for many with supplying sanitation kits, food parcels, doing assessments regarding broken water supplies, temporary shelter needs and much more. What hearts of gold. They were tired. They were empathetic. They were not stopping…
We were taken to a hotel that fell quite short of my standard of cleanliness, but my husband reminded me that we too could be sleeping in a temporary school shelter with many other families that night and to be grateful. So, I was.
Morning arrived quickly and we met with the ADRA director and set out to see what I didn’t want to see. The first 3 or 4 stops were buildings that had collapsed from the earthquake or remnants thereof. Surprisingly, 2 of the buildings were only a few hundred meters from our hotel. Where one building (with 24 apartments in it) had already been cleared away it left the other beside it with half rooms, walls torn off, exposing peoples’ homes. We stood there watching a lady sweep her “home”, another home with laundry drying on a rack, and another home with a mural on the wall. We watched the people, like it was a movie set.
Arriving at another site, it was in layers like a stack of pancakes. Shorn off walls revealed three floors of lovely kitchens maybe at floor 4,5, and 7.
Yet another site was a building that the crews decided to tear down because they knew it was unstable after the earthquake and nobody was living in it. Water was leaking all over the road, which was why ADRA was involved. That water source needed to be repaired. Quickly a large crowd gathered around. Desperate people wanting to be HEARD. Their CRY was not for handouts, but their NEED for the entire infrastructure to be rebuilt and for jobs. We were there over an hour, listening.
Next stop, a temporary shelter. We arrived at a school. A building designed to hold 300 students during the day. Now, 900 people are living there. ADRA was doing an evaluation and would start distributing there the next day. In one classroom was 11 families. There were children running everywhere. I couldn’t help but think if I were a mom staying at that school, and those were my children, how unsafe I would feel it was for them. The cutest children. Babies were thrust into my arms for pictures with me. The bathrooms were not working. I kept having to choke back tears. I couldn’t let them see me cry. Two of the teachers begged me to follow them. They took me to a classroom where they had moved all the school models and manipulatives for learning into this “safe” place. Of course, all learning had come to a halt. There I met a newborn who was born 30 minutes after the first earthquake and was appropriately named “Earthquake”.
The school hands-on resources being cared for.
The two teachers who pulled all the school manipulatives into this classroom and are staying there with the people who need sheltered.
Meet “Earthquake”/ “Zezel”.
We climbed into the car waving goodbye to the children who followed us, and I wept.
There was more to see. Another temporary shelter. Another school. This one was more organized and here the amazing ADRA staff was handing out food parcels. Enough for 1.5 days of food for a family. Each family had a number and would come at a given time. It was much more orderly than the first school. Lice were an issue. Sanitation in buildings where there are not proper bathroom facilities for all those people was beyond challenging.
Honestly, I don’t know what to do with all that we saw. However, I would like to tell you my biggest take away message:
These precious people need us to advocate for them. For years more, when the world shifts its focus to the next dramatic events, Syria will still need help. Most of these people had no choice in what has happened to them and their country. But I saw more pain and sorrow in Syria than can be contained in a library full of books.
My heart feels compelled to press on with refugee work and help make people aware that we can’t stop seeing what we don’t want to see. Life is brutal for many, and for those of us who have been so blessed, we need to see, we need to feel, and we need to help.
By seeing what we don’t want to see, we can allow it to change us…. not to be hurt and wounded but to be compassionate and empathetic. To be a voice. And to be a lifeline to a better tomorrow. That is why I think I went to Syria.
Downtown Aleppo. Close to the hotel. An attempt to make everything feel “normal”.
“Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Sprit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you ot the interests of the others.” Philippians 2:1-3 NIV