The Art of Getting One’s Butt Kicked…Repeatedly (A Survival Guide to Beirut, Jordan, Palestinian Refugee Camps, Syrian Beggars, and the Like.)
The past three weeks have been the terribly hard for me, both professionally and personally. Welcome to the Middle East. As the title above suggests, it’s been three weeks of getting my butt kicked, getting back up, and then having it kicked some more. Repeat cycle. Actually, my entire seven weeks in the Middle East have been like that; currently I am not on Plan B, it's more like Plan H.
I had two meltdowns in the past three weeks; that’s not bad for me. On Christmas Eve, I was crying on a bus ride back to Beirut, just like a typical foreigner. It had been an emotional day in which I was overwhelmed by the need around me. I had a young girl (as soon as she saw me) ask me for money for an operation for a family member, and another family asked me directly to help them. Try telling a desperate family that you don't have the resources they expect you to have as an American and you cannot help them and do that in Arabic. A major work plan that day was falling apart too. So, I sat on the bus crying, feeling it was the worst Christmas Eve on record. No Christmas Eve church service because I was working, no Christmas music, no Christmas cheer, no cookies, no friends, just me in a minivan flying dangerously fast down the highway toward Beirut. I was aware of my own pain this holiday season and hyper aware of my inadequacy in the face of all the unending need.
The week before that, I was walking down a busy shopping district after a long day of work, trying to catch a taxi to meet friends. This area is known to have Syrian beggars lining the streets because it is a wealthy area. A dirty little Syrian girl approached me telling me she was hungry and begging me to help her. As I walked along she hung on to me, her pleas getting louder. That’s when my tears the started. Uncontrollable tears. All I could think was it was too much, it's just too much, all of it. Part of what you need to know is that these beggars are usually part of a gang/mafia hired by a kingpin, leader, manager (whatever you want to call him) and sent out to the streets to beg. The money will then go to the gang. Great way to use vulnerable children and pull on your heartstrings at the same time. And just in case you don’t believe that this is a well organized operation, these same kids had Santa hats that they were wearing and selling on Christmas Eve.
I have a no money policy with Syrian beggars; maybe that makes me cold-hearted, I’m not sure. But, in West Beirut, they line the streets of shopping areas and main intersections. A lot of women with their babies and small children. Often, when they see me, a foreigner, they tell their kids to go to me and ask for money. It’s hard to know the whole story. Sometimes I’ll give them food, sometimes I’ll talk to them. But, I am honestly not sure what to do past that. One morning right before Christmas, I gave a woman and her baby the food I was carrying. I proceeded to pass six more beggars on the same street within 10 minutes. What should I do? I haven’t even mentioned the Palestinian refugee camps where my work actually is. This is in my off-time, so to speak.
What would you do? There is part of me that gets why Americans don’t want Syrian refugees in America. (as a side note, it's not just Syrian refugees on those boats to Europe. Those haunting pictures include Palestinian refugees from Lebanon and Syria, as well as Lebanese. All of them looking for a better life.) To accept all of those refugees would get you out of your comfort zone. It’s uncomfortable to see such need and such trauma knowing you can’t help them all. You have to face your own misunderstanding of the refugee crisis, war, and refugee camps. It's better not to have to see it. It's better to keep those suffering away from you. It's better to keep those from another culture and religion away from you because it seems weird and foreign and threatening. It might force you to be the one to build a bridge and to learn. It’s better to hide away from all of it -- the poverty, the need, the suffering -- because it forces you to face your own need, you own inadequacy, your own suffering. You can see yourself in them. Worse yet, as a Christian, you can see Jesus in them. Then what? Then there is a certain responsibility, isn't there?
Survival Lesson One:
I've learned it's not about keeping yourself safe. It's not about hiding from the pain of others. That means being in uncomfortable situations -- physically, emotionally, and spiritually. It means moving past your comfort zone. It is about engaging with others, different nationalities, different religions, and their suffering. The cost to that is that you see your own poverty, and you become incredibly in touch with your own suffering and your own guilt. The benefit is that someone is seen, heard, and valued. Their pain and their suffering is seen. It doesn’t mean you can meet all of the needs, but you could have the privilege of reflection their worth and value to them. Think about just how powerful that is. Is there anything greater in life?
Survival Lesson Two:
Stay focused. Why am I here in the Middle East? What is my life-purpose? Who is my priority? It’s easy to get distracted. There is so much need coming from so many angles -- Palestinian, Syrian, Iraqi, domestic worker, abuse, human trafficking. It is overwhelming. Some days I feel like I get pulled in 4,000 directions. The purpose, the focus of why I am here, is to make a documentary. People invested in this. I have a responsibility to my sponsors but more importantly, I have a responsibility to Palestinian refugees. Young male Palestinian refugees. They are my focus and the reason why I am here. I keep reminding myself when I get overwhelmed, you are here, Suzann, to share these young mens’ stories.
We have been working hard the past 7 weeks in Palestinian camps in Jordan and Lebanon. The movie project has been more challenging than I ever dreamed. It has tested all of my capabilities and, most days, has left me feeling like a failure. We are currently on Plan H. Not Plan B or C or D, Plan H. With all of the frustration, heartbreak, and disappointment, we are moving forward. We have interviewed so many young men, their faces run through my mind as I type this. Their stories, their hopes, their disappointments. We went through a lot to get to the point of having someone willing to sit down with us. We have had stuff thrown at us in the camps, been made fun of, had bullets flying over our heads, and been mistrusted as foreigners. I even had a little boy run up to me and hit me across the chest one day.
We have also experienced such gracious hospitality. I will never go hungry or be without caffeine in a camp. There will always be people who invite me into their home and ply me with coffee, tea, Nescafé, and whatever they have. Whatever they have, they share it. It is humbling. We also have meet fascinating people and gotten a peek into their lives. I have met so many young men with whom I am impressed by their desire for a better life and their willingness to sacrifice for it. So many people want to help
Through all of this, beating the streets in how many different refugee camps, because we were willing to go out of our comfort zone, we found hope, we found stories, we found life in a place you would least expect it. I write this with tears in my eyes; it was worth all of the pain, disappointment and failure of the past two months to have the privilege of sharing these stories. I wish I could go into more detail but I really want to hold a space in my heart for the people in the camps. I struggle with what to share, how to share it, and how to honor their stories. But know -- they are worth it, they are worth it all.
Survival Lesson 3:
Get back up again. Get knocked down. Get you ass handed to you over and over again. Wallow in your frustration and failure. But get back up again. Keep getting up. Because these people that I have been uncomfortable for and stayed focused for are worth every ounce of fight I have.
For sure, there is more frustration and disappointment ahead for me, and my butt will be kicked possibly even more severely.
I will get back up.
“Sin and forgiveness and falling and getting back up and losing the pearl of great price in the couch cushions but then finding it again, and again, and again? Those are the stumbling steps to becoming Real, the only script that's really worth following in this world or the one that's coming.” ~Brennan Manning