Crushing Walls, by Shelby Mathis
I returned from my first trip to Israel/Palestine four years ago. I had seen sacred places and discovered holy faces and witnessed real suffering. I didn’t get to avoid conviction or leave unchanged. Since then, my heart has only grown for Palestinians and those caught in the crossfire of the question of the Holy Land, and most notably and heart-breakingly, Palestinian refugees.
It was once I returned home that I got a grasp on just how many Palestinians were forcibly removed from their homes, land, jobs, and lives over 70 years ago. Now, 3 generations of Palestinians -- sometimes 4 -- live in refugee camps across the Middle East. Many of the 5.4 million Palestinian refugees are concentrated in UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency) camps in Jordan and Lebanon. Many Palestinian refugees rely on UNRWA programs for healthcare, education, food resources, and employment for survival and livelihood. Recent cuts to UNRWA programs threaten to further devastate already-vulnerable refugees, so the work of non-profits and individuals that work in ways fill the gaps is more critical than ever.
The work of Beirut & Beyond is more crucial than ever. And these camps are where I have been asked to reenter on-the-ground work with Palestinians.
I’ve been invited to join Suzann in Amman, Jordan, and Beirut, Lebanon for 3 weeks in August.
I left the Middle East in 2015. Since then, I’ve done design projects for Palestinian-owned businesses and ventures in the West Bank and the U.S., volunteered for a handful of Palestinian-serving non-profits, attended peacemaking summits and asked lawmakers for humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip, got involved with the Albuquerque and Denver Palestinian- and refugee-serving communities, and am co-leading a missional community on Middle East Understanding & Peacemaking. As an outlet and a way to share my heart, I've made art about my trip and my hope for peace and for Palestinians.
In other words, I’ve been all over the place.
All along, I’ve dreamed of returning to the Middle East, to Palestinians. But you don’t get to go on a second “witness trip”. And I didn’t want to go back without a good reason, real work, sure purpose. I wouldn’t go back for my own gain. I know it can be a fine line between helping and hurting.
As I’ve searched for meaningful, impactful, longer-term ways to plug in and contribute to the fight to bring dignity and hope to some of the world’s most vulnerable, I’ve discovered that partnering with Beirut & Beyond is it.
The work of Beirut & Beyond is holistic, contextualized, and above all, grounded in sincere love and commitment to human flourishing. The work is helping without hurting in ways that are intentional and careful.
With Suzann's 15+ years of experience, relationships, and deeply fierce love for the Palestinian people.
My role on this trip will be a Beirut & Beyond volunteer, but really, I’ll be a student.
In cities I’ve yet to explore, in camps I’ve yet to enter into, for projects yet to unfurl, with Palestinians I’ve yet to meet, I can only look forward to the ways my own heart will be broken open and reshaped for Palestinian refugees, and Beirut & Beyond’s partners facing increasingly overwhelming and challenging conditions.
Although I go a student, I don’t go unprepared. I will be armed with my camera and pen. I plan to tell stories and share what I’m learning, and offer my skills and time as a photographer, graphic designer, and writer to Beirut & Beyond and Palestinian-led partner organizations in the camps.
I want to use my work it as a tool to fight oppression, seek truth, find hope, all the while mindful of the power of an image or sentence, conscious of the truth that I am but a shutter close from abusing the power I hold as a storyteller. As long as I am creating, I am always listening.
As long as I am storytelling, I am always trying to present a way of hope.I know we can build bridges and crush walls because we have a hope that transcends borders and conflicts and politics and languages and cultures and that hope demands that we belong to each other. That reality -- that we belong to each other -- can free people to tell you their stories the way they want them told. There’s the bridge. There’s the in to a heart often ignored or even silenced.
We all belong to each other, and we don’t fight alone.
Newly arrived to Denver, I weeded through the advocacy and peacemaking groups to find a place to invest and commit. I’m not overly critical, but even so, nothing “clicked”. Eventually I was encouraged to meet Suzann Mollner of Beirut & Beyond who was known and respected for giving her life to serve Palestinian refugees.
We find our people when we fight for what we believe in.
We don’t fight alone.
We can’t work alone, and wouldn’t want to. We are more effective together. I want to invite you in to this peacemaking work, and ask for your commitment to Palestinian refugees by supporting Beirut & Beyond and helping me with travel expenses to work alongside Suzann and Palestinian-led organizations as a volunteer in camps in Jordan and Lebanon.
Will you be a part of this story of hope? Will you fight with us?
Here are a few simple ways to donate to benefit my fundraiser as a Beirut & Beyond volunteer:
Head to beirutandbeyond.org/how-to-give to make a one-time, tax-deductible donation (please denote “For Shelby” in the memo/instructions.)
I’m having a photo print sale. Check out my art on shelbymathis.com/printsale and see how you can make a donation in my name by purchasing one of my “Crushing Walls” photo prints. More than I wanted to make striking, well-exposed, wonderfully composed, beautiful pictures, I wanted to offer us ways to explore and reflect on themes of freedom, reconciliation, and hope. I wanted to dream of a better, brighter future for those living in the shadows of walls we construct with our biases and fears. I wanted to start conversations, rather than end them .It’s a series about dreaming of a world where we’re all free.
I created a book of my “Crushing Walls” photo series and accompanying artist statement, a story of hope. It’s a beautiful, professionally printed 22-page, full-color hardback book with my photographs, writing, and design. Visit shelbymathis.com/book for details on the book and how to join me in celebrating art and reconciliation work!
Shelby Mathis is a creative and communicator who has worked and traveled across the U.S., Europe, and the Middle East. She now sojourns in Denver with her filmmaker husband. She is passionate about design, storytelling, and community. Follow her work at shelbymathis.com.