It was a cold and rainy day in February of last year. A gloomy day really, with that sense of dread that winter can bring me in Beirut. I was volunteering in Sabra and Chatila refugee camps at the time. After fighting taxi drivers and traffic, I arrived at work and Madam Aida, the Center’s director, needed to visit someone in the camp and asked if I would join her. I remembered debating it because I knew I would get cold and wet. But, why pass up an opportunity to visit with a Palestinian? More people to meet, more stories to hear and another chance to enter the camp with an escort. We passed through the busy market on Sabra Street, still wall to wall people on the sidewalk even in the pouring rain. Somehow the rain added even more chaos, which I didn’t think was possible. There was an always present, literal parking lot of cars on the street. Rain was pouring, horns honking, and people were dashing in and out of the downpour. We made it to the edge of the Sabra where it meets Chatila camp.
The building looked ominous and dark. No electricity. This old building was a hospital that was renovated into an apartment complex. So the old patient rooms were now apartments. As we walked up the stairs, I was overwhelmed with the sheer mass of humanity there. Children running around, people yelling and coughing, and TV’s blaring. I noticed that some apartments didn’t have doors, just makeshift curtains while the cold breeze flowed through the hallway into their homes. Then I turned around and saw this out of the stairway.
We climbed another floor and made it to our host. She was a 60 year-old woman, but looked much older than her years. She smiled and introduced herself, asked me where I was from and once I told her, I could see the confusion on her face of how to respond to me. We sat on folded chairs and I surveyed the room. Bare walls, with the exception of two pictures, I assumed they were of her husband and son circa early 1980’s. A few mattresses against the wall, this room served two purposes, by day, a salon, by night, a bedroom. There was one khazzani (think British wardrobe) in the corner. She shuffled into the enclave that was the kitchen/bathroom, about the size of a closet, to make us coffee. She had a propane tank with a burner above it as her stove and boiled the Arabic coffee.
She sat down and joined us, cigarette hanging out of her mouth. She told stories of her life, both her husband and son died in the camp wars of the early 80’s. She at one point worked for the same NGO I was volunteering at. But, now she was too old to do the work. So, the new headmaster pays her visits, partly as a form of respect, partly because she knows of her loneliness. At certain points of the conversation, I would drift, when the Arabic got too much. The reality that this whole woman’s life was this one refugee camp and in this one room with memories of her losses and pain. This was her life. The draftiness of room, the rain out the window, the darkness of the building made an eerie impact on me. The hopelessness. The despair. The heartbreak.
I remember leaving being really shaken by that building, the squalor and all the horrible things that probably happened and still happens there. Completely overwhelmed, where do you begin in a place like that? And there are many places, many hurting people, just in Beirut. I remember walking back shaking my head as to why I saw this? Why did I meet her? What was I supposed to do? I hoped to myself that on some level, just by being in that building I brought Jesus with me. That He would be among them bringing some sort of peace to the suffering. He would rest there. Maybe, that was wrong thinking on my part. He already DOES reside there. He is among the poor and the brokenhearted. Even if they don’t know Him by name, He is still revealing His love and peace because that is who He is. He is drawing them to Himself. Verse after verse in the Bible talks of His love and heart for the poor.
I counted 18 references to God’s heart for the poor in the book of Psalms. Just in one book! I’m not known for my precision, so it might be a few more…you get the idea though.
“But the needy will not always be forgotten, nor the hope of the afflicted ever perish.” Ps 9:8
"Because of the oppression of the weak and the groaning of the needy, I will now arise," says the LORD. "Then I will protect them from those who malign them." Ps 12:5
"You rescue the poor from those too strong for them, the poor and needy from those who rob them.” Ps 35:10
“He will defend the afflicted among the people and save the children of the needy; he will crush the oppressor.” Ps 72:4
“For he will deliver the needy who cry out, the afflicted who have no one to help. He will take pity on the weak and the needy and save the needy from death. He will rescue them from oppression and violence, for precious is their blood in his sight.” Ps 72:12-14
“Defend the cause of the weak and fatherless; maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed. Rescue the weak and needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” Ps 83:3-4
He must be among them. He was in that building. He was in that room. He was with that woman. I just happened to get a glimpse.
An interesting thing happened about a month later. I returned to Denver and by chance saw a video produced by UNRWA, the UN agency that works with Palestinian refugees. It was about a young man who is trying to follow his passion by being an artist. He lives in Sabra, JUST WHERE I WAS! Furthermore, he lives in the SAME BUILDING that I had visited and felt such despair. His story is one of hope, and breaks the stereotypes of what you might think about young Palestinian males. My heart swells every time I watch this and I think, God is present.