If the sky was clear I would have been able to see Damascus. The hike up the mountain was not a particularly unique summertime activity, but the tension in the air made this hike different than anything I had ever experienced. After a steep climb in the Middle Eastern heat, I stood on top of Mount Hermon, the highest point in the nation of Israel. This mountain, located in the north-eastern corner of the Golan Heights (formerly the Syrian province Quneitra), is considered by some to be the location of Jesus’ transfiguration (Matthew 17). Throughout the last century, it has been an epicenter of conflict in the region. The hike fell within the third week of a six-week trip to Israel that was coordinated by TWU’s missions program, Global Projects. I had already experienced extraordinary things throughout my time there, but where I stood at that moment, gazing into Syria, Lebanon, and Israel, was nothing short of surreal. What I did not comprehend at that point was the lasting effect this experience would have on my life.
My decision to go on this trip was the result of a process that began in December of 2015. Following a challenging first semester of university where I was preoccupied with the drastic change of lifestyle, I began to think about the upcoming summer. Right away I knew that I wanted to travel and experience another culture. My degree is International Studies, and there is nothing more practical in applying and expanding my education than being able to interact with people across the globe. Without hesitation, my heart was directed towards North Africa and the Middle East. In retrospect, I can see why I was so quickly intrigued by this region. My generation was raised under the shadow of 9/11, an event that not only caused extensive political repercussions within the Middle East, but significantly altered the Western perception of Arabic people, Muslims, and Middle Eastern nations. I do not think that it is a far stretch or unreasonable generalization to say that, in the Western context, ‘terrorists’ are often described with the features of Arabic and/or Muslim men. Unfortunately, the recent United States presidential campaign only served to exacerbate this conflictual topic. The heated rhetoric of candidates surrounding immigration, Muslims, the refugee crisis, and extremist militias multiplied the negative connotation encompassing the people and nations of the Middle East and North Africa. My passion for global awareness produced a desire to develop my own understanding of this area through my own experiences. I explored a variety of volunteering options, but through the Lord’s guidance, I was directed towards TWU’s Israel-Palestine trip.
My team’s trip to Mount Hermon happened on a free weekend. The day prior we visited a number of biblically significant locations that were fascinating but crawling with tourists and pilgrims, a feature that starkly contrasted with our time on top of the peak. I had to be persistent for my team to agree to make this trek, and ambiguity shrouded our journey. The Golan Heights teems with military personnel and, other than armored vehicles driving by, we were the only people to be seen that day. It was a calm day and we were standing there, peacefully, staring into the expanse. Strangely enough, it was the calmness that made it so difficult to comprehend. Khan Arnabeh is a Syrian city directly across the Israeli-Syrian cease-fire line. The conflict of the Syrian Civil War has reached this city and is in a region that has been controlled by the extremist rebel group called Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria known as the al-Nusra Front). The United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) is a peace-keeping force tasked with maintaining the cease-fire line, and since the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War, they have been involved in a few violent altercations with extremist forces. This is the reality of the place I was staring at. I could see a plane flying in the distance and, frankly, I could only consider the worst. With all of this weighing down on the region and ravaging the populace, I stood there in peace, merely another foreigner enjoying the view.
Two weeks later I found myself standing in Aida Refugee Camp. Established in 1948, it housed Palestinians fleeing from Jaffa (modern-day Tel Aviv), and while the population and infrastructure of the camp has increased, the geographical size has not. Interacting with these people, albeit for a brief amount of time, provided a tangible image of the crisis I had heard about.
The rest of my trip provided even further opportunities to interact with Muslim and Christian Palestinians. While positive and negative generalizations are equally flawed, I can confidently say that during this trip I connected with some of the most hospitable and relational individuals I have ever met. The generosity of my homestay family was matched by complete strangers on the street who would talk with me, and invite me over for tea and desserts. In many cases, the image of these people that I was previously exposed to was destroyed. (However, people are flawed regardless of their culture, religion, or ethnic background. But I will willingly challenge the negative generalizations and stereotypes that surround Middle Eastern peoples). I left with a spot in my heart for Arabic culture; the food, the customs, the language, and the people were both interesting and educational. I also left with a desire to do more, understanding that there are issues surrounding this area and these peoples, most notably the refugee crisis that I saw first hand by seeing Syria and visiting the Aida refugee camp.
This passion did not wither when I returned home. The Global Projects program challenges students to let their trip continue to impact their lives and the lives of others in practical ways. I returned home with a desire to make a difference in the refugee crisis, but I had no idea about what I could do. It all started with Googling what the refugee crisis actually is. My understanding of the crisis expanded from Syria to the global crisis as I began to see what people and groups were doing to make a difference. Still, I had no clear idea of what to do. Brainstorming sessions with my mom allowed me to see the opportunities, and I continued to explore and evaluate my options. The big, audacious dream for me was to sponsor a family, but I doubted if it would be possible. I also wanted to engage the entire TWU community, as I recognized a tremendous amount of potential to make a change.
In the middle of August another image left a lasting impression on my heart. I woke up to go to work and saw a notification on my phone about the bombings in Aleppo with a video attached to the article. I opened the video to see a little boy, around four or five years old. This little boy, named Omran Daqneesh, had just been pulled out of a bombed building and was carried through a chaotic group of responders to an ambulance. He was placed on a chair and was left alone as the group continued to search for more survivors. In complete shock, Omran sat there covered in blood and dust. Too traumatized to cry, he raised his left hand to his head only to pull it back and see blood. He rubbed his hand on the seat in an attempt to wipe the blood off, but he was covered. As I watched this video, emotions welled up inside of me. The image of Omran is a harsh reminder of the terror and instability that refugees around the globe are trying to escape. Right then, I made a commitment to do everything that I could to make a difference. I knew that millions of people were watching this video and I know that so many of them are capable of making a difference, but only a small percentage are actually acting. I refuse to be part of the populace sitting idle.
School started in September, and life became flooded with studies, dorms, and sports; however, God did not let my desire to help refugees slip away. Ideas kept bouncing around in my head, and I continued to explore what people and groups were doing. When October arrived, I knew that if I wanted to engage with the crisis it was time to take a practical step. So I drafted up a document outlining my idea to sponsor a refugee family with the support of TWU and booked a meeting with the head of my department, Paul Rowe. This was terrifying for me. I recognized how unqualified and unequipped I was (and still am) to be proposing such an idea, but I was convicted and was willing to put in the time and effort to learn how to accomplish my goal. It is true that God does not call the qualified but qualifies the called. I asked Professor Rowe if my ideas were realistic, how they could become realistic, or if I should be pursuing other ways to make a difference. Professor Rowe can be counted on to provide an honest opinion, and when he affirmed that what I was proposing was doable I almost fell out of my chair.
Since that meeting this dream has blossomed. Trinity Refugee Awareness Campaign (TRAC) has become a group of eight students pursuing varying degrees and backgrounds, unified by a common passion to make a difference in the global refugee crisis. Our foundational purposes are to a) raise awareness about the global refugee crisis, and b) provide opportunities for action to all components of the TWU community (students, staff, faculty, and alumni). Our first few months were a major time of development where we grew to understand our unique capabilities and limitations to engage in an opportunity that maximized our potential to assist refugees and incorporate the entire TWU community. We continued to educate ourselves as I arranged meetings with different organizations and experts to gain a comprehension of what is required. The process has been monotonous at times, but when my motivation wavers I remind myself of Omran and remember that he is not an isolated incident. I also look to the future, to building relationships, learning from the people I will meet, and seeing how God will use my interactions to reveal his glory.
After meetings, discussions, and research we have decided to partner with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) to sponsor a refugee family through the Blended Visa Office-Referred (BVOR) sponsorship model. Our goal is to raise $34,000 and to have the family arrive within a year.
The world is a dark place, and it is easy to advertise the corruption and evil proliferating around the globe. But there is hope. When you recognize that there is hope and understand that you have the ability to make a difference, your world can change, and you can change the world. I have learned through this process that dreams have power when you allow them to grow and flourish and that people should never underestimate the impact that they are capable of having. You can make a difference. We can make a difference. I firmly believe that as a unified whole we can pursue positive change in this world and be the salt and light that we are called to be.
With passion and purpose,
“Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”
-1 Corinthians 15:58 (ESV)