An Apology to Aleppo

A boy carries a bag of bread in al-Rai town, northern Aleppo, Syria December 25, 2016. © Khalil Ashawi / Reuters

A boy carries a bag of bread in al-Rai town, northern Aleppo, Syria December 25, 2016. © Khalil Ashawi / Reuters

I received an email from a friend from Aleppo. He works in Northern Iraq, serving the Yazidi refugee population who have been brutally displaced by ISIS, but he travels back home to Aleppo often to care for his family. He is gentle, devout, intelligent, and altruistic. The following is an excerpt from his email:

"Dear Stephan. What the hell is going on in US?! I am now so concerned and fearful of the future of Syrians and the world more than ever before. I hope that what I see on news is just a nightmare! Aleppo is becoming destroyed more and more day by day but hopefully, since we moved to our village which is close to the Turkish border in the north and west of Aleppo, my family can live in peace, relatively, as the village is controlled by SDF and YPG, who recruit children (under 18) to go for military. We all hope and pray to find a better life and get Syria back like before, peaceful and beautiful."

Somehow I believed the Administration wouldn't follow through with their threat to ban refugees. Surely the President would have, by now, met with several Syrian families from among the several thousand fathers, mothers and children we so valiantly embraced as a nation, their smiles reminding us of our own stories of refuge and immigration?  Our new President would have most definitely followed Bena on Twitter as she recounted her story of harrowing escape from Aleppo, the world hanging on to her every word, praying, hoping, believing she could live another day? And by now his Counselors would have explained who the victims are, and who the perpetrators are; that the number of Christian refugees admitted to the US in 2016 was about the same number as Muslim refugees, and; that Christians in Syria have ironically found a measure of protection under Assad's dictatorship, thus the reason for more Muslims victims than Christians so far? Surely our President is reasonable and wouldn't make policy that will further destabilize the Middle East and potentially expose us to more threat, not less?

To my friends in Aleppo, please forgive us. We know not what we do.

 

 

I am an immigrant and I married a refugee

I married a refugee, just two generations removed.

I married a refugee, just two generations removed.

I recently found my wife, Belinda, staring at a photo of her grandfather, Alexis Koshanov, or "Grandpa Alex," as Belinda knew him. Alexis, age 15, fled Lithuania just before Hitler's whisper campaign, but was turned away at Ellis Island because he was Jewish. He later immigrated into the United States via Canada, but his sister died in Auschwitz and his brother barely survived Dachau. "I am a refugee, just two generations removed,"  Belinda said, tears filling her eyes.  

In 1854, on a rural farm in Bischofshein, Germany, Heinrich, crammed everything he owned into a wooden trunk, made his way to Bremen on the coast, and boarded a ship for New York. Heinrich sailed past Ellis Island to the Castle Garden Immigration Processing Center on the southern tip of Manhattan. Upon disembarkation, he received a 6 second medical exam and his clothes were chalked with a mark indicating health. When he registered his name, he was told to drop an “n” at the end to make it read more simply: Bauman.

I am an immigrant—just a three generations removed.

I often hear about a church, neighborhood, or community opening their arms to an immigrant or refugee family. These people are heroes. Why?  Because they have chosen to open their hearts, their minds, and even their homes. As they do, the language of "refugee" or "immigrant" quickly fades away to become "brother" or "sister" and eventually "American." 

We are at our best not when we turn our backs or demand our rights or talk about walls but when we welcome the refugee, the sojourner, the immigrant, with our own histories engraved in our hearts and etched into our memories. We are at our best—as a people, a Church, a community and a nation—not when we fear but when we love. 

Half the Sky

Valonia, survivor, mother of 6, and heroine for helping her sisters overcome and avoid the violence she has suffered in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Valonia, survivor, mother of 6, and heroine for helping her sisters overcome and avoid the violence she has suffered in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Today at dawn, my wife, Belinda and 13 other women, summited Mount Kilimanjaro, the rooftop of Africa, in honor of women worldwide who face violence in conflict zones around the world. 

Belinda met Esperance while visiting the Democratic of Congo several years ago. Esperance watched her husband die at the hands of rebels and was violently raped. She would have died if her sisters hadn’t rescued her. Across a blank sheet of paper, Esperance had someone write the words: “Tell the world.” Then she stamped her thumbprint underneath. Esperance's thumbprint became Belinda’s mandate: "Violence against women in war is violence against me," Belinda says. 

Esperance's story gave birth to One Million Thumbprints ("1MT)", a grassroots movement seeking focused on women who’ve been affected by violence in war zones. 1MT is advocating the UN and other governing bodies to follow through on resolutions and laws passed to protect women in conflict zones, and partnering with proven organizations like World Relief working in countries where women experience violence.

“I realized that no matter where violent conflict occurs, it has the capacity to destroy everything, from the tiniest baby to the infrastructure of an entire society,” says Lynne Hybels, peacemaker, catalyst, and visionary of One Million Thumbprints, having pioneered it's precursor, Ten for Congo. Lynne summited Kilimanjaro today to raise awareness and invite thousands more to join Esperance's cause.

Esperance from Congo inspired 1MT with her thumbprint and the words "Tell the World".

Esperance from Congo inspired 1MT with her thumbprint and the words "Tell the World".

Today is International Women's Day where we honor "half the sky" by remembering their plight:

  • One out of three women in the world experience violence in their lifetime.
  • More than 530,000 women die in childbirth every year even thought the vast majority of these deaths are avoidable with simple and cost-effective health interventions.
  • An estimated 100 million to 140 million women and girls undergo female genital mutilation/cutting each year and thousands more are at risk.

The most vulnerable people in the world are hands down, women. Esperance, Valonia, Lynne, Belinda and millions invite you to join them. Giving our lives to half the sky is absolutely a worthwhile call.

The 1MT Kilimanjaro team summited Kilimanjaro on International Women's Day to honor their sisters who suffer violence in war zones.

The 1MT Kilimanjaro team summited Kilimanjaro on International Women's Day to honor their sisters who suffer violence in war zones.

 

Source: USAID, The Straight Facts: The Plight of Women.

violence against her is violence against us

Image: Kate Magee

Image: Kate Magee

Several years ago, my wife, Belinda met Esperance while visiting the Democratic of Congo. Esperance watched her husband die at the hands of rebels. She was violently raped and would have died if her sisters hadn’t rescued her. Across a blank sheet of paper, Esperance had someone write the words: “Tell the world.” Then she stamped her thumbprint underneath. 

Esperance's thumbprint became Belinda’s mandate: "Violence against women in war is violence against me," Belinda said. 

Today One Million Thumbprints is a grassroots movement seeking to aid women who’ve been affected by violence in war zones in two specific ways: (1) Advocating the UN and other governing bodies to follow through on resolutions and laws passed to protect women in conflict zones, and; (2) Partnering with proven organizations working in countries where women experience violence. World Relief is the Campaign's implementing partner.  

This week One Million Thumbprints announced a "1MT Climb for Peace," a five day trek up Africa's highest peak, Mount Kilimanjaro, to raise awareness and support for women affected by gender-based violence in South Sudan, Syria, Iraq, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The team will summit the 19,341 ft. climb on March 8, 2016, International Women’s Day.   

“I realized that no matter where violent conflict occurs, it has the capacity to destroy everything, from the tiniest baby to the infrastructure of an entire society,” said Lynne Hybels, one of the climbers and co-founder of Willow Creek Community Church.

One Million Thumbprints invites all of us to join Esperance by helping her, and thousands like her, to stem the tide of violence in tangible ways. One thumbprint can become a hundred, a thousand, even a million strong.

To meet the team, give your thumbprint or a donation, please visit www.onemillionthumbprints.org.

 

the human face of today's exodus

See, The Refugee Crisis in Our Crisis, On Faith.

Also, take a look at how photojournalist Magnus Wennman captures the face of today's exodus...

Fara, age 2, trying to sleep in Jordan, loves soccer. Her dad tries to make balls for her by crumpling up anything he can find, but they don't last long. Every night he says goodnight to Fara and her big sister Tisam, 9, in the hope that tomorrow will bring them a proper ball to play with. All other dreams seem to be beyond his reach, but he is not giving up on this one. IMAGE: MAGNUS WENNMAN/AFTONBLADET/REX USA

Fara, age 2, trying to sleep in Jordan, loves soccer. Her dad tries to make balls for her by crumpling up anything he can find, but they don't last long. Every night he says goodnight to Fara and her big sister Tisam, 9, in the hope that tomorrow will bring them a proper ball to play with. All other dreams seem to be beyond his reach, but he is not giving up on this one.

IMAGE: MAGNUS WENNMAN/AFTONBLADET/REX USA

Iman, age 2, in a hospital bed in Jordan, has pneumonia and a chest infection. This is her third day in this hospital bed. "She sleeps most of the time now. Normally she's a happy little girl, but now she's tired. She runs everywhere when she's well. She loves playing in the sand", says her mother Olah, 19. IMAGE: MAGNUS WENNMAN/AFTONBLADET/REX USA

Iman, age 2, in a hospital bed in Jordan, has pneumonia and a chest infection. This is her third day in this hospital bed. "She sleeps most of the time now. Normally she's a happy little girl, but now she's tired. She runs everywhere when she's well. She loves playing in the sand", says her mother Olah, 19.

IMAGE: MAGNUS WENNMAN/AFTONBLADET/REX USA

Mahdi, asleep in Serbia, is one and one half years old. He has only experienced war and flight. He sleeps deeply despite the hundreds of refugees climbing around him. They are protesting against not being able to travel further through Hungary. On the other side of the border hundreds of police are standing. They have orders from the Primary Minister Viktor Orban to protect the border at every cost. The situation is becoming more desperate and the day after the photo is taken, the police use tear gas and water cannons on the refugees. IMAGE: MAGNUS WENNMAN/AFTONBLADET/REX US

Mahdi, asleep in Serbia, is one and one half years old. He has only experienced war and flight. He sleeps deeply despite the hundreds of refugees climbing around him. They are protesting against not being able to travel further through Hungary. On the other side of the border hundreds of police are standing. They have orders from the Primary Minister Viktor Orban to protect the border at every cost. The situation is becoming more desperate and the day after the photo is taken, the police use tear gas and water cannons on the refugees.

IMAGE: MAGNUS WENNMAN/AFTONBLADET/REX US

Back home in Baghdad the toy train is left behind; Lamar, age 5, often talks about these items when home is mentioned. The bomb changed everything. The family was on its way to buy food when it was dropped close to their house. It was not possible to live there anymore, says Lamar's grandmother, Sara. After two attempts to cross the sea from Turkey in a small, rubber boat they succeeded in coming here to Hungary's closed border. Now Lamar sleeps on a blanket in the forest, scared, frozen, and sad. IMAGE: MAGNUS WENNMAN/AFTONBLADET/REX USA

Back home in Baghdad the toy train is left behind; Lamar, age 5, often talks about these items when home is mentioned. The bomb changed everything. The family was on its way to buy food when it was dropped close to their house. It was not possible to live there anymore, says Lamar's grandmother, Sara. After two attempts to cross the sea from Turkey in a small, rubber boat they succeeded in coming here to Hungary's closed border. Now Lamar sleeps on a blanket in the forest, scared, frozen, and sad.

IMAGE: MAGNUS WENNMAN/AFTONBLADET/REX USA

Abdullah has a blood disease. For the last two days he has been sleeping outside of the central station in Belgrade. He saw the killing of his sister in their home in Daraa. He is still in shock and has nightmares every night, says his mother. Abdullah is tired and is not healthy, but his mother does not have any money to buy medicine for him. IMAGE: MAGNUS WENNMAN/AFTONBLADET/REX USA

Abdullah has a blood disease. For the last two days he has been sleeping outside of the central station in Belgrade. He saw the killing of his sister in their home in Daraa. He is still in shock and has nightmares every night, says his mother. Abdullah is tired and is not healthy, but his mother does not have any money to buy medicine for him.

IMAGE: MAGNUS WENNMAN/AFTONBLADET/REX USA

exodus

This week Washington Post columnist, Michael Gerson, captured the words of Syrian children stranded in Lebanon: "My home is all broken in Syria," said a little girl. "A rocket came and hit my father in the head," said another. One boy drew a picture of a bomb. 

Someone once said, "It's not the millions that move us, but the one." The crisis in Syria has certainly proven this to be true.

My colleagues in Syria, Jordan. Iraq and Turkey are exhausted from responding to the escalating crisis. But they also express an unequivocal gratitude: the world has finally chosen to embrace the plight of refugee families in what is being called the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II. And we know millions more call themselves refugees, not just Syrians—about 60 million globally. We are living in an age of unprecedented migration of people, a global exodus.  

As I talk with people across the country, I encounter two prevailing emotions. The first is compassion. The image of Aylan, the child who washed up on a beach in Turkey, tipped the world's collective conscious towards empathy. Aylan gave us a glimpse into the pain of those forced to flee their homes. We identify with Aylan's mother or sister or brother or aunt or cousin. For me, I feel the anguish of his father.

Our compassion spills over to families fleeing ISIS in northern Iraq or to the millions fleeing war in places like South Sudan, Congo, or Yemen, to name only a few. People are rising to the biblical call to "welcome the stranger," an indispensable ethic for anyone choosing to follow Jesus of Nazareth who once set out on the refugee trail himself. Churches are coming together, too, to reach out to refugee families in Forth Worth, Seattle, Boise, Durham, Chicago, Los Angeles, Highpoint, Atlanta and so many other cities. And communities take notice when people live out their faith in the public square.

But the second emotion is fear. Fear rises in us when we talk about welcoming Syrians or Iraqis here in the United States. Many are concerned about creating a gateway for terrorism. Their fear is understandable. But a bit of history and data can go along a way to assuage our concerns. The United States has resettled over 3 million refugees since the late 1970's. None have been terrorists. World Relief, the organization I serve, has resettled nearly 250,000 refugees since 1978. None have been terrorists.

There is good reason for this: the vetting process of refugees who qualify for resettlement is extensive. The FBI, State Department, national intelligence agencies, and Department of Homeland Security are all involved in a process that takes upwards of 18-24 months with significant clearance hurdles. Refugees are not the threat that some try to make them out to be.

It turns out that refugees are a good investment too. Most people believe refugees are a burden to the countries that receive them. But the opposite is true. Studies show that welcoming refugees often has a positive effect on a host country's economy and wages. Germany is being talked about at the new "land of the free and the brave" because they are accepting upwards of 800,000 Syrians. While we applaud Germany's moral courage, they are also smart. Their decision is as much economic as moral. 

Our global exodus is also personal. We all have our own stories as immigrants or refugees, whether first generation or several removed. I recently found my wife, Belinda, staring at a photo of her grandfather, Alexis Koshanov, or "Grandpa Alex," as Belinda knew him. Alexis fled Lithuania just before Hitler's whisper campaign, but was turned away at Ellis Island because he was Jewish. He later immigrated into the United States via Canada, but his sister died in Auschwitz and his brother barely survived Dachau. Today's new exodus reminds Belinda of another exodus not long ago: "I am a refugee, just two generations removed," she said, tears filling her eyes.  

Almost everyday I hear about a church, neighborhood, or community opening their arms to a refugee family. These people are heroes. Why?  Because they have chosen to open their hearts, their minds, and even their homes to refugees. As they do, the language of "refugee" quickly fades away to become "brother" or "sister" and eventually "American." "These people are friends," my colleagues say. "As a nation, we can do more."

We are at our best not when we turn our backs or demand our rights or talk about walls but when we welcome the refugee, the sojourner, the immigrant, with Alyan's image engraved on our hearts and Alex's history etched into our memories. We are at our best—as a people, a Church, a community and a nation—not when we fear but when we love. 

courage is found in unlikley places

Photo credit: World Relief, South Sudan

Photo credit: World Relief, South Sudan

The next few months are especially critical in South Sudan. The UN is saying nearly 5 million people are “severely food insecure” and, with harvest still three months away, the situation is likely to deteriorate further. In his latest column about South Sudan, "Starvation as a product of war," Nick Kristoff describes what happens when kids begin to starve:

They show no emotions: They do not cry or smile or frown, but simply gaze blankly, their bodies unwilling to waste a calorie on emotion when every iota of energy must go to keep major organs functioning.

My colleagues in South Sudan say World Relief is only NGO still operating in Koch county, which is near the epicenters of the conflict. We plan to continue to serve the needs of the population in accordance with our mission providing we can continue to do so within our defined boundaries of security for our staff. My colleagues in South Sudan are profoundly dedicated to serving those most affected by the war.

They inspire me.

Last week, my colleagues in South Sudan were able to reach Koch County by helicopter with survival kits, high-energy biscuits, and medical supplies. Tragically, last week, the team was ambushed during one of these humanitarian drops. Three men were killed, and another 12 were seriously injured. Among the injured was one of our colleagues from the Koch County Health Department, Mr. Stephen Gatkoi. Stephen is a nurse and was assisting World Relief by providing medical care to people in hiding. He suffered a bullet to his left shoulder and lost a significant amount of blood. Thankfully, he and the other injured were able to be lifted to a Red Cross hospital and are receiving treatment. Stephen is expected to fully recover.

War brings out the worst of humanity, but it also brings out the best. The courage of my colleagues in South Sudan is stunning. So is their love for God and their fellow people. Their perseverance and fortitude in the face of overwhelming evil gives me courage too—courage to pray, give and tell the story of South Sudan. JRR Tolkien says, "Courage is found in unlikely places." True for South Sudan, and true for you and me too. 

Click here to learn more about the tragedy in South Sudan, as well as Word Relief's response.

where is the outrage?

Man wounded in Jonglei State, South Sudan. Photo, Camille Lepage.

Man wounded in Jonglei State, South Sudan. Photo, Camille Lepage.

I couldn't sleep last night because I was thinking about what it would be like to be a father in South Sudan. I was thinking about a father in South Sudan who watched his three young sons bleed to death when government soldiers castrated them. I thought about another father who watched soldiers tie his children together, torch them, and burn them alive in their home. If I had daughters, I would be thinking about the soldiers who gang raped girls, some as young as 8, before tying them together and burning them alive in their homes.

Some are saying South Sudan will be a failed state soon unless something changes. I think the state has already failed its people. The everyday guttural wails of grief by fathers, mothers and siblings tell the truth.

The world celebrated when South Sudan became a nation. We took joy in their new birth. Real, tangible hope was within reach for our brothers and sisters. But, now, four years later, in their hour of suffering, we are on vacation. 

I am meant to be on vacation next week but how can I stop thinking about the fathers in South Sudan? If our sons and daughters were in grave danger, our friends in South Sudan wouldn't stop thinking about us.

All this began when South Sudan's president, Salva Kiir got into a power struggle with Reik Machar, the Vice President. Their fight over power quickly turned tribal: Kiir is Dinka and Machar is Nuer. Now the country is split along ethnic lines and somehow violence is meant to solve the problem. Diplomacy has failed, perhaps because some of the conveners from East Africa are not neutral to the conflict. I am told some are financing one side of the civil war. The UN and our State Department have decried the failed peace talks. But the international community, including the United States, must do more than advise. We need to roll up our sleeves and join the diplomatic efforts.

I have been working in humanitarian aid for more than two decades. I wish I could say that compassion is impartial. But it's usually not the case. Where we put our resources is a good indicator of our compassion. Or, to put it crassly, compassion follows money. And money, in the form of humanitarian aid, tends to follow CNN.

But we don't have to wait for CNN. If tens of thousands of churches all across our country begin praying for South Sudan each week, people will rise. If people like you and I begin writing, talking, Face-booking and tweeting the simple question, "Where's the outrage?," we will see a groundswell of interest that will influence the press and governments.  

We celebrated with the South Sudanese during their first birthday four years ago. Now its time to suffer with them in their great hour of distress.

saving south sudan

Today's is South Sudan's birthday. It's been four years since the world's newest nation was born. But it's on the brink of collapse. More than two thirds of the countries 12 million people are in need of humanitarian aid and upwards of 4.5 million people are at risk of starving. Nicholas Kristof gives a horrific account from his recent visit there: “Survivors report that boys have been castrated and left to bleed to death. … Girls as young as 8 have been gang raped and murdered. … Children have been tied together before their attackers slit their throats.” Last week a headline from BBC read, "Army raped and torched girls."

My World Relief colleagues living and working near the epicenter of the conflict confirm the atrocities. One of our own team members died from injuries sustained when a shell exploded where he was seeking refuge. A staff member from our health partner in Unity State "ran from the fighting until he could run no further and, there, unable to catch his breath he collapsed and died."

After tweeting about South Sudan, someone said to me, "Where is the outrage?" A valid question for sure. South Sudan is fighting for its very survival. Joining our South Sudanese brothers and sisters now by lamenting, praying, advocating, shouting or giving, can make the difference between whether a nation becomes a failed state or lives to celebrate happier birthdays. We owe it to the South Sudanese. Now is the time to save South Sudan.