Hope is Still the Most Powerful Force
It is hard to believe it has been more than eight years since the start of the Syrian crisis. Eight years of communities devastated, the economy collapsed, families traumatised, and entire neighbourhoods reduced to rubble.
As the world seems to have moved on in many ways, the fact remains that for millions of Syrians, the crisis is still their daily reality. Still. More than eight years later.
For those who remain in Syria, every day is full of challenges. For the ones who have fled across borders in search of refuge, life is a struggle to survive.
For almost 25 years, David Verboom has seen the effects of conflicts and large-scale disasters first-hand. He has listened to the countless stories of refugees and survivors. David’s work in humanitarian aid has taken him to places like Sudan, the Middle East, and across Asia before leading him to his current position as CEO of the international emergency relief and recovery organisation, Medair.
Still, each new story he hears affects him deeply. “I have heard so many heart-breaking stories and have come to realise that suffering takes on many different forms. Being exposed to the hardships people face during crises is something that is difficult to get used to. Every new story I hear still touches me.”
So when David travelled to Lebanon to meet with Syrian refugee families and learn more about how Medair is supporting them, he was prepared to be moved once again.
The Syrian crisis is so complex it is difficult to imagine a resolution any time soon. As a result, lives hang in the balance. Refugees who have fled to Lebanon live with the tension of not being able to return home safely to Syria and not being able to prosper in a new life in their host country.
Most refugees residing in Lebanon have lost their livelihoods, used up their savings, and are struggling to survive. In fact, close to 70 percent of Syrian refugees have fallen below the national poverty line and become poorer with each passing year. Without a formal refugee camp system, many live in tents or substandard buildings. And with Syrian refugees accounting for around 25 percent of the Lebanese population, services accessible to refugees are stretched dangerously thin.
Rashid, a father of five and husband to Ousa, welcomed David into their temporary shelter – a shed-like structure made out of wood and tarpaulin. Rashid recounted his family’s harrowing story of surviving the violence in Syria and their treacherous journey over the Syrian mountains into Lebanon in a desperate search for safety. Now, two years later, they are living in a tented refugee settlement in a foreign country, unable to work and struggling to meet their most basic needs.
To make matters worse, one year after they arrived in Lebanon, Rashid suffered a stroke and is now partially paralysed.
“As a father myself, I was really concerned about how this father was coping,” said David. When David asked Rashid how he was doing, Rashid’s face creased with concern. “I can’t provide my children with what they need. We were happy in Syria, but now I feel depressed,’ he told David.
Rashid now relies on crutches to walk, even for short distances, and yet this isn’t the family’s first experience with physical disability. One of his three daughters, Amira, has cerebral palsy – a disorder that severely affects her movement, muscle strength, and coordination.
Living as a refugee is daunting for everyone, but living with a disability is even more challenging. People living with disabilities face more barriers to accessing basic services, appropriate assistive equipment, and traditional schooling.
Asked what she envisioned for Amira’s future, her mother wrapped her arms around her daughter, and tears started rolling down her cheeks. She said, “I hope that one day, she will be able to stand up and be able to play like any girl.”
David was deeply moved. “As I watched this mother cry for her daughter – like any mother anywhere does when their child is struggling – it hit me. I thought about my own children and how I would go to extreme lengths to protect and provide the best for them.
“Refugees like Rashid and Ousa are no different. They have the same dreams for their children. Yet, none of us can predict the future,” continued David. “So just like that, one unforeseen change of events dashed the dreams this family had for themselves forever. Ultimately, it could be any of us.”
Years of living in crisis mode severely stretches people’s resilience and capacity to cope. Fear, anxiety, and haunting memories become part of daily life. It is not uncommon for refugees to suffer with severe and untreated trauma, grief from the loss of loved ones, and a lack of basic needs, such as clean water, safe shelter, and health care. These basic services are paramount, but so is access to mental health services if refugees are to have a chance of recovering from what they’ve endured.
That’s why in addition to providing refugee families with health care and safe places to live, Medair organises peer support groups where women can come together in a safe place to share and process their stories. The dire displacement conditions, the stress that comes with day-to-day survival, the uncertainty about the future – all contribute to deteriorating mental health. Talking about their trauma helps the women begin the healing process and to learn how to help their families begin to heal too.
During David’s visit to Lebanon, one of his travel companions visited a Medair support session for women. The women were asked to make something through which they could share some of their story.
Mariam, a 40-year-old mother, created a colourful doll out of fabric and cotton. Mariam explained it symbolised a three-year-old girl named Sadir, who was found amongst the rubble. She was taken away to the hospital, but her parents didn’t survive. With no other family, this young girl is now being raised by Mariam’s relatives.
Mariam carries with her daily stress because of the previous and current hardships she is facing. She is strong, but life also comes with many challenges as she raises her children alone in Lebanon while her husband is still in Syria.
“It is clear that the crisis has left its scars. Yet, I’m hopeful that through support groups like these, families will be able to begin the recovery process and rebuild their minds and hearts,” observes David.
While emotional wounds can run deep, none of us are defined entirely by our traumatic experiences. And so it is for refugees.
“I witnessed a remarkable level of resilience among the people I met and a strong drive to overcome adversity. I remember another young mother who lost her husband to the violence in Syria. Instead of giving up, she chose to rise above her adversities. She was actually encouraging the other women with such passion to stay strong and hold on to a future that is not lost. She reminded them that there is still hope amidst their circumstances.”
It is this hope that a better future is still within reach that enables Medair’s relief workers in Lebanon to hold on to hope too and to continue working hard to meet the overwhelming level of need.
This was the case with Rashid and his family. Seeing that Amira was frequently housebound because of her disability, Medair installed handrails and tiled the area outside their shelter, levelling the tiles carefully so that Amira could move safely with less assistance.
Her mother Ousa commented, “Before Medair installed the handrails, it was hard for her to interact with other children because she couldn’t easily go outside. Now, she can walk a bit and watch the other children playing.”
That’s what it’s all about for David and his colleagues — making life just a bit easier for families who are overwhelmed and overburdened.
“At Medair, we believe that each person is made in God’s image and is therefore uniquely valuable. Our faith inspires us to give our best in all circumstances as we walk alongside families in their suffering.
“We cannot change people’s experiences and we cannot end the Syrian crisis, but by coming alongside them, we can relieve some of their burdens, support people during this difficult time, and help them to stand tall with dignity,” said David.
“If there is one thing I’ve seen consistently over the past 25 years, it is that despite their hardships, people will keep going. This resilience, strength, and bravery that we find in people, no matter the circumstance, is what inspires me time and again,” he concluded.
With no clear end in sight, the future for nearly 6 million Syrian refugees remains uncertain. But relief and hope in the midst of an uncertain future is still possible.
To learn more about the work Medair is doing in Lebanon with Syrian refugees, visit:
www.medair.org/lebanon or donate today at: https://donate.medair.org/ to bring urgent relief to families living in crisis.