"We Teach Life, Sir" Fear, Loathing, and Awkwardness in the Middle East

Awkward American photo, Chatila Palestinian Refugee Camp, Beirut, September 2014.  

Awkward American photo, Chatila Palestinian Refugee Camp, Beirut, September 2014.  

A few months ago in Amman I was talking with a woman who identifies as a missionary. The conversation seems extremely poignant given the backlash to the Muslim community this past month. 

Missionary: “Suzann, so you go to these camps* with a team right?” (*Palestinian Refugee camps in Jordan)

Me: “Well, kind of. I go with the employees of the NGO I am volunteering with.”

Missionary: “But, they are foreigners like yourself, right?”

Me: “No, all Jordanians and Palestinians. I am the only foreigner.”

Missionary: “But, they are Christians, right?” (in tones of increasing distress)

Me: “There are one or two Arab Christians, but 99% are Muslims.”

Missionary: “Aren’t you scared?”

Me: “Umm, no, are you?”

It was at that point I wanted to start pounding my head against the wall. This is a foreigner who gave up her life in her own culture to serve Muslims in the Middle East and she is too afraid to engage them. 

Does her question resonate with you?

It did with me, 10 years ago. 

It was on a day in September 2004 that I first entered Bourj Al Baranjeh Palestinian Refugee Camp in the south suburbs of Beirut. I remember it being extremely hot and extremely humid. But, I am from Colorado; the humidity of Beirut does me in. I remember entering with Palestinians who worked for the NGO I was visiting. I also remember my palms were sweaty, either from the humidity or my nervousness or both. 

Six months before, after being involved in international work for 5 years, I was made aware of the Palestinian refugee plight. I ferociously read anything I could get my hands on about what happened to the Palestinians, 1948, what their lives were like, refugee camps, intifadas, the history of Palestine, and on Muslims. It all led to finally entering a camp. Palestinian refugee camps are not the easiest to gain access to. I understood that, and it is something I understand to this day. It is a privilege to walk through a camp, be invited into homes, work with children, serve the women and engage average Palestinians. How many Americans do you know that have volunteered in Palestinian Refugee camps in the Middle East? Exactly. Which is why I take communicating and telling my Palestinian friends’ stories so seriously. Because it is a world that most in my country will never see and never understand. I was excited to enter that camp on that sweaty September day. But I was equally nervous. Maybe terrified would be a better word. 

My senses were on overload. I had already been in slums in Africa and Thailand; the poverty didn’t shock. My pounding heart and thoughts were what shocked me. Entering the camp was what I thought it would be -- pictures of martyrs, the call to prayer permeating the air, checkpoints with young men wearing kalashnikovs and fatigues, the smell of raw sewage in the street, trash everywhere, and the poverty. Everything that strikes fear in the heart of an American. All of the Palestinian stereotypes in front of my little American eyes, as actual proof they are all terrorists! 

What I didn’t expect was people walking past me with amusement at seeing a foreigner, some even greeting me with “ahlah wa sahalah” (welcome) on the streets. I didn’t expect the hospitality I found. I didn’t expect how gracious they would be with my awkwardness. And I was awkward. 

After the fear subsided a bit, what came over me was anger. Anger that 23,000* (presently, with the influx of Syrians, it is well over 30,000) people were living in one square mile. Anger that these people were permanent refugees. Anger that I didn’t know this just 6 months earlier. Anger that this is not talked about in my Christian circles. The misconception of exactly who the Palestinians are and our indifference to their suffering because we can write them off as terrorists. 

They brought me to a school that was on top of a mosque. I remember meeting the Imam. I had been coached earlier that you only shake hands with men if they offer their hand. If they don’t, you put your hand on your heart (think pledge of allegiance) as if to say, “hello, nice to meet you, but I respect you enough not to touch you.” When you walk into a room you personally greet everyone. Always. Without exception. I kissed the women (3 kisses on the cheek, sometimes more) and put my hand on my chest with the men. I made my way to the Imam and in a very awkward moment where I thought he was extending his hand but really he was putting it his chest as if to say, “Hello, American woman, I respect you enough not to touch you.” But my hand was already extended and at that point, he had to shake hands with me. Mistake number 23 and I had only been in the camp for 30 minutes at this point. 

The Palestinians I was with said they were going to follow me around and make a film of what not to do as foreigners. I was like a fish out of water, flopping around on the ground and gasping for air. I was also disappointed in myself for screwing up when I knew what was appropriate. 

Here’s what I have learned since this encounter:

If I am willing to face my fear head on, I will be able to cross over in another culture. If I lay aside my presumptions and stereotypes of Muslims, I might actually see the truth of who they are. I might just see their humanity. If I am willing to be uncomfortable, I might experience the beauty of another culture. If I am willing to make mistakes, I might learn from Muslims about their culture. If I am curious and full of wonder, I might just be able to cross over the barriers I have put up between me and anyone different. I might just have true friendships with *gasp* Muslims. 

How many of us are willing to be uncomfortable? To let go of our security blankets to engage a big wide world of diversity. To stick with a learning curve and feel stupid and make mistakes and learn an incredibly hard language and struggle and be frustrated and misunderstood and afraid. Because, in my experience, the result is not only falling in love with people with whom you seemingly have absolutely nothing in common, but they fall in love with you. 

“Peace is the fruit of love, a love that is also justice. But to grow in love requires work -- hard work. And it can bring pain because it implies loss -- loss of the certitudes, comforts, and hurts that shelter and define us.” ~Jean Vanier, Finding Peace 

Yes, I am still quoting that damn book. What do I want to define me? My fear? My hatred? No, I will continue to push through my fear and my stereotypes because what I want defining me is Love. Not success, not popularity, not wealth, but love. That I am deeply loved and that I love deeply. Especially in the midst of current events, especially in the Middle East. I want to teach life. 

10 years ago I was face to face with fear and stereotypes as I entered a Palestinian Refugee Camp for the first time. Today, after 10 years of screw-ups, wars, failures (note the plural), and heartbreak, I have found an inexpressible love and respect for Muslims and for the dear, lovely Palestinians. Ya habayyebi. Life really can be lived together.

Time, relationships, and love change everything.

Here is a poem from Rafeef Zaidah, a Canadian Palestinian artist. I’m posting this so you can hear a Palestinian express herself in her beautiful poem, “We teach life, sir.” Let her words sit with you and challenge. 


Suzann MollnerComment