The numbers can overwhelm me. I need something more concrete to get out of my head and into my heart.
One-half of all Syrians have been displaced by conflict in their country: 11 million people on the move. Four million of those have left Syria entirely, primarily through Turkey and Lebanon, as well as Jordan and Iraq.
The Syrian conflict has been churning for four years. We’ve heard only a sliver of the crisis, centered in the atrocities of ISIS and the inconveniencing of Europe.
Consider this: the exodus has swamped tiny Lebanon. Its population of 4.5 million is stressed by what the UN says will be 1.8 million Syrian refugees by December. Each refugee receives $13 a month of food assistance on a debit card. It used to be $25 each, but donor countries cut back and it had to be reduced. The political and economic structures of Lebanon are quivering under the strain.
I’d like to claim I’m a particularly careful follower of international news, so I know the story of Lebanon. Instead, I know because I happened to be there last December, and it was the topic. On Christmas day my family and I drove through the Bekka Valley. On the outskirts of every town and village, usually near where locals dumped their garbage (the symbolism was unmistakable), were small encampments of Syrian refugees in shelters of plywood and tarp. That was concrete. That took me past the numbers.
The UNHCR estimates that nearly 60 million people were either internally displaced or refugees in 2014. (People are classified as internally displaced if they haven’t left their home country, and refugees if they have. It gets more complicated, but that’s enough for now.) It’s the greatest dislocation of people since World War II. Afghanistan rivals Syria for the greatest number of refugees and displaced people. Somalia, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo round out the top 5.
When a small group from the Diocese of Olympia was forming to visit Turkey and Iraq to see some of the refugee situation first hand, I felt called to go. I wanted images and experiences more concrete than the statistics. Like my experience in Lebanon, I wanted to learn about the questions I didn’t even know to ask. Behind the staggering numbers and political calculations, I wanted to see the real people with real bodies whose lives and dreams were at risk. Out of it all, I hoped I could find a way to be useful, with God’s help.