It was in the airport in Frankfurt, Germany, while waiting for my next flight, looking at all the people doing the same thing — en route from somewhere to somewhere—when a simple but profound realization came over me: human beings are the same everywhere. Why do we not have peace in the world if we are so much alike?
I was on my way to Lebanon, part of a Catholic Relief Services (CRS) delegation that would visit refugees and migrants who are being helped by CRS. These are the same people who are now drawing the world’s attention as tens of thousands of them reach Europe. As my trip found its way to Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley, I admit I was afraid – I had read so many stories of ISIS surges – but also hopeful. My first encounter buoyed me. It was at a center for Syrian refugee children run by the Good Shepherd Sisters.
In the classrooms, I did not find the gloomy, sad, pitiable, ragged looking children I expected, but instead excited, enthusiastic, smiling faces full of life. It reminded me of my days in elementary school. There was real joy here. They might have been refugees, but more than that, they were children, much like children all over the world. In the camps, the story was different as the children’s parents narrated their stories of exile. There was a young nursing mother whose child needed heart surgery. She told us that she would have loved to return to Syria for the surgery, but she cannot because of the war. “Can CRS help me?” she sobbingly asked. Fortunately, we had on the delegation a healthcare provider who examined the child. CRS staff promised to help. Hope emerged, just as it did outside that tent. Life in the Beqaa Valley is not comfortable for the exiled, but nearby was an okra garden, a spot of green with fresh tender vegetables on its vines. Hope.
I found hope in another place, Adyan, a Lebanese foundation for inter religious studies and spiritual solidarity. In a part of the world where religion is so often used to divide, Adyan promotes and fosters sustainable peace among the diverse religions through cross cultural education on peacebuilding. They teach that diversity is not to be shunned, but welcomed as it enriches us by generating mutual understanding and intercultural citizenship; by letting us learn the lesson I saw in the Frankfurt airport, that we are indeed all alike. I took this hope with me to a shelter run by the Catholic charity Caritas for some of the 200,000 migrant workers in Lebanon. Though the women in this shelter came to this country with hope, supposedly legally recruited to work, they found themselves exploited and abused by employers who had paid an enormous amount of money to in-country agencies to get them. They told similar stories of arriving in Lebanon only for immigration officials to house them in a secret room at the airport. Their employers picked them up and seized their passports. Their jobs turned out to be forced labor. Any minor altercation with an employer—usually regarding pay—would result in police arrest with underground detention at city jails. They had no access to legal protection.
Many who escaped from their employers to the moderately furnished secret Caritas shelters were waiting to get their legal battle resolved—fortunately with the help of Caritas and its partners. These women, though trapped, live with the hope of returning home. And their lives showed the hope for the Middle East. Though from diverse cultures with different languages and religious affiliations, they live freely and peacefully in this shelter, sharing bathrooms, dorm-style bedrooms and kitchen in common as friends. These beautiful young women deserve freedom, a right to work and a just wage. But even in their dire circumstances, the smiles on their faces reminded me of the ones I saw on the children at the center fun by the Good Shepherd Sisters. It was the smile of life, gained, not lost because of the help of committed volunteers, Caritas and CRS staff.
In many ways, I was a refugee in Lebanon, escaping from my own preconceptions and fears. My hope is that the people of Europe, as well as the United States and Canada and the rest of the world, will shed their own preconceptions and fears and welcome these people who proved to me that what I realized in Frankfurt was true: human beings are the same everywhere
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