She was just one of so many young women at the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. She has a name. Shaza (above on far left in purple). To call where she lives a camp is woefully inaccurate when compared to the reality of it. Bigger than many American cities. The look and feel of the bleakness would be soul crushing for anyone. Monotony is how they live. No home to return to. It doesn’t exist anymore. No future to offer hope. Not now. Not with fear on the rise. Just this place every single day. So, why is she smiling? Why are her eyes lit up like candles?
No, I don’t know Shaza personally and I have never seen anything of the Zaatari refugee camp where she lives except in photographs. But, my daughter knows her. My daughter has been to Zaatari and spent time with Shaza and a number of other young Syrian women who have fled to this place to escape the terrors of war; the actual terrors. Not the political rhetoric of hyped election fears masking a cruel xenophobia.
If you ask my daughter about Shaza, she is likely to become tearful when she tells about her trip to Jordan. Meredith is the Co-Founder and Executive Director of Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls. She was in Jordan to make a connection, any kind of connection, between the young women she relates to daily and the girls and young women who live in the Syrian camps. “If you will tell us your stories, we will tell them to the world.” That is what Meredith promised them. She has kept that promise.
As parents, we were terribly afraid for Meredith and cautioned her against going. Being afraid for your kids is not something you give up when they are all grown up. She reassured us about her safety and the precautions being taken on her behalf as well as the others participating in this effort. So, like we did when she was much younger, we simply suspended our worry only for the exact time she would be away. That’s one of the ways parents cope.
We wondered what Meredith could bring into a place that is so beyond the imagination of most of us. What could she offer to people so unknown to us? She did workshops in journaling and activities in story telling. But, what she offered was hope. She let them know that people as far away as America care about them and care about what will happen to them. She had them write down on small pieces of paper things for which they could hope. The answers were simple and heartbreaking: “I wish I can live in a house with my husband and children. I want to see my parents again and hug them.” “I need to secure an education for my children.” signed, Syrian mother “Hello, my name is Fatima, 30, from Damascus. I hope for a better life for myself and my people. If there is no hope for return, we need a better life than living in a metal caravan. I don’t think this is a safe and secure life. Our children need a future. I wish you can help us. Waiting for a answer.”
Just before Meredith was to leave the Zaatari camp, Shaza came up to her and wanted to thank her for making such a long and difficult trip. She wanted to thank her for offering such evident care and bright compassion. So that Meredith would remember her, she took off the necklace she was wearing and gave it to Meredith. That’s why Meredith gets tearful when she tells of her time there. Someone with so little and so little hope offered what she had in a simple gesture of gratitude. That great distance between cultures and religions was bridged, as always, by two people who wanted that bridge to be there.
If you want to know why our family believes that the banning of Syrians from coming to America indefinitely is cruel, thoughtless, fearful, and brutal, all you have to do is look at the face of Shaza. I have looked at that picture countless times recently. I wonder, worry actually, what will become of her. Or ask Meredith. She was much more brave than the cowards who traffic in fear mongering. They stoke our fears to promote their bigoted ideology. Either they don’t know or they just don’t care that the lives of real people are at stake. Real people are the victims of terrorism, not the perpetrators. Their lives are already scarred by the death and destruction that continues to reduce their country to rubble and countless lives left in tatters, now living in a “metal caravan.”
Our history is most often a beacon of light for a better life, a place to seek and belong. Sometimes our history is darker, more fearful, and closed in mind and spirit. Fearing the other. It always makes us less than we were meant to be. It makes other people less than they are meant to be. It denies their dignity, their value, and our common humanity. When we are overcome by fear, hatred cannot be far behind. And where there is hatred, violence becomes our illogical conclusion. We need to be better than the sum of our fears. Of course, we have a duty to work effectively for our security. Always. Dangers are real. So, our need for prudent security measures is also real. But, that security should never lead us to betray our core values. That need for security should never allow us to become inhumane.
Am I afraid? Sure, I am. I have to trust that the people on the front lines in keeping us safe are vigilant and prepared. But, I am afraid, not of the people who want to come be part of us, adding their gifts to the common good here. I am afraid of what we might become, in following the voices that make us as narrow and bigoted as they are. If we do, we are the ones who should be ashamed.
The Rev’d Jeffrey H. Walker