For most of us, our ears perk up when we meet someone who turns out to be familiar with—or even FROM—a place that we’ve spent some time in. A common thing is discovered; a connection is made. An interesting thing happens in those meetings: two strangers become, well…less so.
I experienced that today while out with my friend, Grace, tagging along to a few of her visits to Syrian and Iraqi refugees that are now here in Beirut. Grace is a social worker with Our Lady Dispensary, which is supported by the Middle East Council of Churches and Heart For Lebanon. Grace is particularly excited today because she gets to deliver “Smile Boxes” to the children on our stops.
“Smile Boxes” is kind of like the Christmas boxes filled with necessary kid items and treats given out by Samaritan’s Purse, except this effort comes from a single person, a graphic artist who personally designs—and fills—each gift box. I love seeing what can happen when one person simply decides to do something.
Both of our visits today were with families from Qaraqosh, a large city outside of Mosul. Prior to being taken over by Da3sh/ISIS in the Summer of 2014, Qaraqosh was entirely Christian. I’ve actually never been there, but during my two weeks of living alongside refugees in October, I ate a lot of meals and drank a lot of tea with people from Qaraqosh—so I’ve heard all about their home. One of my treasured memories from October was visiting a Qaraqosh family in their converted Sunday school classroom living space, only to have one of the daughters disappear—then reappear a half-hour later after having whipped up for me a batch of pastries only made in Qaraqosh—what were they called? “Qaraqosh.”
Needless to say, people from this city are dear to me.
Our first visit was to N and his family. They and their two kids share a small $800/month apartment with another family, which isn’t ideal but even that is more than they can afford. The schools just finished Christmas break, but their youngest daughter is home, battling a throat infection that clearly isn’t being helped by the drafty apartment.
N is still trying to find work, even though he speaks six languages. He was a theology teacher in Iraq, but hasn’t collected a paycheck since he left the country. In Iraq, they had a villa, a good life, and actively gave their money and energy to people in need. From that life, the only thing they were permitted to leave with was a pile of blankets that N points to in the corner.
Before escaping Qaraqosh in 2014, N’s brother was killed by a car bomb in Mosul. After fleeing, the family spent three months in a church-provided room shared by seventeen other families. At that time, this was very common.
N confides that life is hard for them in Lebanon. He wonders if it would be better to live in the uncertainty and volatility of Iraq, but be near family.
Our second visit was with T’s family. T, her husband and four kids also share an apartment with another family. They were fortunate, somewhat, in that they were among the first families to flee Qaraqosh in the Summer of 2014, so they were able to take their car and some valuables with them.
“But when we left, we thought it would be only two days,” T says, explaining why all of their photos and family heirlooms were left behind. “We had no idea we would never return.”
Grace brought a Smile Box for the youngest of T’s four children.
She’s just over a year old, which means T was pregnant when Da3sh/ISIS drove them out of Qaraqosh, and she delivered in the middle of those insane first few months when hundreds of thousands were in the streets. And here is her daughter, healthy and whole. “Hamdalla/Thank you, God,” I say to myself. I know of many pregnant mothers at that time who did not fare as well.
Yes, we did talk about the challenges that T’s family is facing. It is hard, and she is really tired, but the struggle wasn’t the dominant note I heard coming from her.
There was also life, and a quiet joy.
“Thank God, we still have our lives,” she says.
T became animated when we started talking about the Bible. “Every day,” she says, “We read the Bible together. And we pray. Even when I’m so tired, the children insist on doing it every night. They are so excited to learn.”
“And every night the children insist that we pray for R.”
R is the mother of the family, also from Qaraqosh, that shares the apartment with Thaera’s family. R’s husband A and two teenage girls join us, but R stays in bed. She’s 46 and has battled a form of early-onset dementia for several years now. She recognizes A, but not the girls. They say they understand it, but they seem numb. They have stopped attending school in Lebanon. Grace later says that, socially, it can be very painful here for Iraqi Christians.
Before we leave, Grace asks me to do something that—she tells me later—she rarely does on these visits.
She asks me to pray.
Praying in the home of a family who a year and a half ago was living a really comfortable life, in the city they’ve lived in their whole lives, in their own house, with a good job, with family and friends and church all around—and now all of that is gone, and you’re dependent on the charity of others, and there’s nothing clear about what step to take or when it will get better or IF it will get better.
BUT they still bow their heads to pray. And they still say “Hamdalla.”
Later, after our two visits, Grace takes me back to the office in time for the men’s Bible study.
It’s something that Heart for Lebanon sponsors. This is a group of Catholic Iraqi refugees. Every week these men meet to study Scripture and to pray. Every week the room is packed.
There is so much loss here, and the loss is huge and rotten, but the loss doesn’t seem to be getting the final word.