My heart aches. I am overflowing with words I do not have. I want so badly to inspire, to ignite and buoy the spirit, to imbue you all with hope, yet, I feel stuck, painfully despondent and torn between two worlds.
Somewhere along the way I’ve lost myself and I’m unsure of the way back. I don’t know where I went. My head and my heart need a map to each other. My spirit feels worn. I feel tired and I wonder, if I lay down now, will I ever make it back up? What has happened? It’s as if I came back from Turkey but I no longer fit. I feel friction at every turn.
What changed? Where did I go? What happened to us while we were away?
Echoes of ‘Come back, Hope. Please just make it back’ from loved ones before our departure to Syria swirl around inside of my head. Ironically, I now find myself saying it too…“Please come back, Hope”.
Just like the people we worked with, I am relentlessly fighting and willingly surrendering all at once. I am a walking contradiction. I isolate when I crave connection. My soul screams at me to write, to share, to release, to let the world know, yet, I can’t. I withhold, I question, I suffer. If I share it, does that mean it really happened? Does that make it more real? If I share it, will it begin to fade? I’m holding it all so close that I can no longer see it. I’ve lost myself within the storm.
--It was one of the hardest things I've ever done but this isn't about me. This is about them. I miss them deeply. I miss the kids and the people. I miss the simplicity of it all, how when unfathomable things happen, the unnecessary and mundane fall away and all that's left is resilience, compassion and a fierce love for one another.
Deep down, I know where I went. I know exactly where my head and my heart are. They are in Syria where we left them. They are on the Southeast border of Turkey, in the sleepy little, dusty 110 degree town of Reyhanli that’s overflowing with refugees who are being forced to live in the shadows of the mountains of their home country. They are so close that they can breathe the Syrian air. All that separates them is a border, a huge constructed concrete wall, barbed wire, and gunmen who are ready and trained to kill anyone who attempts to cross.
My heart is with the children, with their families, with the orphans, with the Karam staff and with Monas and Alis and Mohammeds. My head is with the ones who never made it out, and also with the ones who did. I feel discombobulated and disjointed yet I know my pain, confusion and suffering is nothing compared to what these children and the Syrian people and every other refugee endure every single day.
My heart breaks for them over and over and over again. Not because I pity them, but because I know their potential, their dreams, their desires and their unwavering strength.
I also know how our collective silence, inaction or complacency has directly and indirectly contributed to their pain, to their displacement. As humans, how are we capable of harming each other so deeply?
It would have been easier if this community of people who have been stripped to the core of everything they've ever known were hardened, jaded, cynical and hateful. It would have been easier if the people and children had rejected us or were unwelcoming. But they weren’t. In fact they were just the opposite. They were kind and gentle and selfless and inviting. Their eyes were tinted with anguish but their hearts were full of hope. I felt everything and nothing all at once. Their silence was deafening, but they didn’t need to speak. We knew.
It was disorienting. I couldn’t get a read on the room. I couldn’t breathe, it all felt so heavy. I sensed tremendous sorrow but only saw extreme tenderness, vulnerability and compassion. The children were somber. Their pain was palpable. Their quiet grief, collective trauma, and soft aching hearts coated the room like a thick blanket or heavy fog. Yet they showed up, day after day, earlier and earlier, ready and willing to participate, hungry to learn, work and play.
I couldn't grasp it. Their resilience was truly astonishing.
When you’ve lost everything, how do you continue on? When your family has been violently murdered, when you've watched your siblings drown under a capsized boat, when you are forced to leave behind your education, friends, lovers, job, home and everything you’ve ever known, what keeps you going?
When both your homeland and home have been demolished and ruined, when your culture has been destroyed, when your community has been decimated and your identity stolen, how do you persevere?
When you’ve walked so many miles that your shoes literally disintegrate, when you’ve been forced to leave behind all of your belongings, when you’ve been ripped apart from your family, watched your classmates get hosed down by gunmen and you finally reach the border only to realize that the world has turned its back on you, how do you not give up?
I heard stories of doctors, teachers, mothers and people just like me and you who were forced to wake their children in the middle of the night as they attempted to flee. “Take one book, one toy and one photo. Leave the rest behind” they said as they set off into the cold, dark night towards a bleak, grim future.
Former students in their last year of university shared that they now have educations that they cannot prove and that no longer exist in the eyes of other countries. Families with elderly or disabled members spoke about how they carried their loved ones the entire way while others tearfully shared that they were forced to leave them behind. A mother cried because she lost not only her husband, but also both of her son’s to the regime. “I don’t know if I can even call myself a mother anymore” she tearfully groaned. A little girl who was the sole survivor of her schools bombing recalled in graphic detail images of her classmates stomachs falling out, her teachers head getting torn off and her best friend vomiting blood as her body was blown to pieces. The children constantly reenacted drowning scenes and violent murder scenes when they were given free time. This wasn't because they prefer these things, this isn't because they are monsters, it is because this is was and is their reality. This is all they've known. This is the world they live in.
When we explained creative thinking and the importance of the use of the imagination in improvisation and life, we received puzzled looks. These people were so oppressed by the regime that they were never allowed to think outside of the box or for themselves. Ever. --Thinking for yourself resulted in death.
When we said, “Imagine a car in the middle of the room, what does it look, smell and feel like?" We were met with blank stares and frustrated responses like “but there is no car there! It doesn’t exist! How can we tell you if nothing is there?”
"My god", I thought. "What are we doing?" Was I insane? How did I think that the most traumatized population on earth was at all ready or willing to laugh and play? How was I so self absorbed and unaware that I thought this was a good idea and that somehow it would actually work? How could I have been so foolish and presumptive? I could feel myself beginning to crumble.
"This is all so much bigger than me. This runs so much deeper than I ever imagined. I don’t know if I can do this. Maybe we were wrong to come here. What have I done?” Insecurity, fear and shame began to take over.
Just then Mohammed, a small, lively, lovable and extremely animated young boy shouted, “It’s blue!”. “With a fuzzy steering wheel” Tukka added. “And it only has 3 wheels” Ali declared. Laughter floated throughout the room and effortlessly began to puncture the impenetrable cloud of heaviness that had previously enveloped the kids.
Every day my heart grew bigger and softer. And every day the kids laughed harder and became braver. By the end of the week, boys and girls were working together side by side (something that's not allowed) and the children were able to put on their own comedy show. They performed with and for each other and even invited family members. They laughed and played and were able to be children again. They seemed lighter, their spirits fuller, and their hearts a little more whole. The sadness and grief was not gone, of course, but it had shifted. They were able to carry it together now instead of alone.
In our last therapeutic process group during our debrief, we asked the kids what, if anything, they had learned. After a few moments of contemplation, someone spoke up, “We learned that we can’t do this alone, that we need each other and that we have to support and take care of each other”.
My heart swelled and my throat caught. I glanced over at Katie. She was already crying.
Ali, one of the older, more wise young men who had seen more than the others gingerly stood up and softly said, ‘We learned how to trust again”.
My heart shattered into a million tiny pieces.
When you have a heart for the world and you give it all away, often times one can experience what I like to call ‘supreme heartache’. When you live deep, choose to be authentic, and realize that there is so much more than the frivolities we are surrounded by, when you choose to remain open and sensitive and vulnerable, it often hurts.
I’ve learned that if you really listen, if you are awake to the poignant beauty of the world, your heart breaks regularly. It’s both beautiful and painful at the same time and there is a sort of heaviness to it. It’s the strangest combination of being able to hold deep sadness and deep contentment at the very same time.
Just as the kids learned something, we too learned something that day. We learned that our capacity to harm each other is far outweighed by our capacity to heal each other. We learned that we all desire to live in harmony, to be valued, seen and heard. And we learned that humor finds a way where heart and reason have given up.
People grow when they are loved well. If you want to help others heal, love them without an agenda.
And just like Mohammed said, We learned that we need each other and that we have to support and take care of each other. We absolutely cannot do this alone.
I encourage you today to stand for someone else, to let them lean on you, to show up without expectation and to love them through their pain. We could all use a little more of that. Great acts of love are done by those who are habitually performing small acts of kindness. Don't give up on each other.
Give me everything mangled and bruised,
And I will make a light of it to make you weep,
And we will have rain,
And begin again.
- Deena Metzger