Sunday, December 18, 2016

I was a stranger.... but not anymore.....

Syrian refugees fleeing from Aleppo

On December 18, National Day in Qatar, a large screen of pictures from Aleppo's destruction was shown to huge crowds. The much anticipated holiday was cancelled to remember the Syrian crisis here in Qatar.
This past week as the world has grieved with Aleppo and watched the exodus of Syrian refugees leave their beloved homes and communities, it is hard to know what to do to relieve the pain and sorrow of the pictures I see. Right before our eyes on a screen real people are fleeing. Genocide and slaughter grow in a place not far from where I live now. A war is raging. Some of my friends here are Syrian. The atrocities I see only seem to make my own shelter and food seem extravagant--even though it may be simple to some. 

This week, in solidarity with Aleppo, Qatar cancelled much of its National Day celebrations. That is like cancelling New Year's and the 4th of July. The entire country has been asked, no matter your race or religion, to meet with clothes and food, in tow, for Syria. The gathering place is at a flag pole on December 18 in Doha. I know it is nothing much to bring clothes and food to give, but it is the only thing I know what to do to assuage my conscience. I put out a notice in my compound, and soon there was a carload full of bags to give.

It makes me wonder what would happen if the entire world were trying to alleviate pain and suffering..... So proud of Qatar today for their leadership in raising money for Aleppo
Today as I reached in some closets to choose some clothes to give away, I spotted a coat that I had bought more than a year ago. I had worn it only a few times. And besides, I live in the Middle East so down coats are definitely not required attire here. As my family pulled the clothes in our closets and the piles layered higher, I couldn't help but remember a ten year old girl who began my decades old practice of collecting clothes and food for others--especially in this season of Christmas. As I pulled the new coat off the hanger, I remembered another coat I gave away long ago to her. I think it was that coat that started this passion of mine to collect clothes and food for others. Somehow the colossal divide I see in the world is a little more equal when we share. 

I can still see her forlorn face as she entered our San Diego, California 4th grade class. The teacher placed the new girl, Athena, in front of me so her bedraggled appearance was always in my nine year old view--as I looked at the blackboard in front of me. Her hair was rarely combed, and her beautiful blonde hair was matted and rumpled. If I remember right, she wore the same frayed cotton dress every day, with sandals that barely fit over her ankles. I think the worst part to the people surrounding her was that she must have rarely bathed. There was always a conspicuous oder when she was near. Of course, no one wanted to play with her at recess or even talk to her. Worse, she was the brunt of cruel jokes; most everybody fled when she entered their periphery.

As the days got colder (and even in San Diego there are some brisk days), I noticed she did not have a coat. I don't think I was a particularly observant child, but I could not help but see that after we came in from recess, Athena had goose pimples all over her arms and bare legs. Some days she stayed in from recess because she was chilled--and maybe she knew no one would play with her.  I began to talk to her, and played with her out on the black top. In my nine year old mind, I thought it was inconceivable that I had two coats hanging in my closet at home, and she had none to wear at recess. I remember asking my mom if she could come over to play with me, and if I could give her the olive green corduroy coat I did not wear anymore. 

I can still remember her smile and joy when I asked her to come to my house to play. I gave her the coat, and said I thought she needed it. I told her I didn't want her to be cold anymore. We drove her home that day to a place called the "River Bottom"--a few shanty houses that were situated under a bridge. As she left the car with her new coat on, she turned back to smile at me. Her family must have been on the move because it seemed she left a few months later. Maybe they worked the tomato fields in the River Bottoms, I don't know. Athena came like an easterly wind, not staying long, but with enough time to leave an imprint on my heart and conscience forever. 

Although I was only nine years old, her short friendship was not lost on me. Now several decades later, my family and I have gathered and collected truckloads of food and clothes. Today when I told my son with autism that we were collecting clothes from his closet for the Syrian refugees, he said, "We are changing the world, Mom." I don't know about that, but all I know is that I am changed every time I give in my small way.  

I wish I could personally give the down coat to a refugee in Syria. I would like to see them turn around and exchange a smile--a nod that we are friends--and tell them I don't want them to be cold. Instead, I think I will put a note in the pocket and say, "I know this is a very meager and small gift to give a coat to you. But the world is thinking of you as the cold, easterly winds come to Aleppo. You are our friend. You are remembered and loved."

The letter that I tucked into the coat. I hope Syria knows there are people in this world who are horrified at what is happening in their country, and that we are praying for them. Also, that we will do what we can do help them.