by Anna Joy Thompson
Former Gordon College Student
The word “refugee” is on many people’s minds in my world today. The situations in which this word is associated with bring fear, confusion, and anxiety to many people. However, these people—these “refugees”—have a story. They have many stories. This past spring, I had the privilege to hear some of these stories.
My mother grew up in the mountains above Beirut, Lebanon, where her parents ran an orphanage. Years passed, she and her siblings grew up, and my Aunt married a Syrian man who had grown up on the orphanage after becoming a Christian and leaving his family. His family were Muslim Bedouin, who herded cattle and owned acres of apricot orchards. It was not until a few months ago that I met this extensive family, and that is where this story begins. The story of the Hamoud family.
In March 2011, the war erupted in Syria. Militias marched through towns and villages, knocking on doors in the middle of night and shooting bullets in the air to wake up the inhabitants. They ordered people to join their army or die—to kill for them or to be killed by them. Many people fled. Not everyone made it. Those who managed to make it across the border to Lebanon ended up in a refugee camp in the Bekaa Valley. They had left everything and fled to nothing, with nothing.
The Hamoud family was a very wealthy family. They had built their fortune and their family status over generations. When I met them in the Bekaa Valley in May, they had lost everything. Their apricot orchards had been burned, their homes reduced to soot. When I arrived, people ran out to greet me. The men shook my hand and the women kissed me on the cheeks. They were living in a tented camp, built in and around concrete walls and frames of crumbling buildings. They had swept every inch of the concrete floor before they invited me inside. The women sat cross-legged on the kitchen floor, rolling grape leaves and stuffing zucchini and eggplant. Pots of rice and chicken filled the tabletops. These people who had lost everything had somehow managed to put together an extravagant meal for someone whom they had never met.
While they prepared for dinner, my cousin led me around the camp to meet my distant relatives. They all welcomed me into their makeshift homes. They sat me down on cushions on the ground and would run to their neighbors to find something to give me, their guest. They would serve biscuits and tea and converse with me through the translation of my cousin. They told me their stories and my heart broke for them. Doctors, teachers, scientists, mothers and fathers who had been forced to live through hell and now the only title they are able to hold is that of refugee. I heard stories of soldiers marching through their villages, grabbing people at random and shooting them in the head in front of their family. Someone with a story, with a life, with people whom they loved and who loved them, was gone in the blink of an eye simply because someone had evil in their heart and a weapon in their hand. People’s worlds were shattered, and the soldiers marched away as if nothing had happened.
I heard stories of children who were born after crossing the border into Lebanon. They have no papers, no title, no proof that they exist. Without papers they come from nowhere and can go nowhere. Their world was shattered and they have no chance of fixing it. Women who lost their husbands in the war also have no chance of holding status in Lebanon unless they remarry, as Lebanon women are not able to become citizens unless they do so through their husbands.
I heard stories of parents hearing approaching soldiers and telling their children to run and hide in the woods in the dead of night. The children stay there, laying frozen on the ground, gunshots shattering the silence of the night, until the sun eventually creeps into the sky. They rush back to their homes to find the bodies of their parents lying in puddles of blood where their front door used to be. They are ten. Their siblings are four and two. They are the adults now, and they have nowhere to call home.
As I walked from tent to tent, I heard story upon story until my heart could bear no more and we returned to the main tent for dinner. I entered with a heart broken with sadness and overflowing with pity and anger. I was taken aback when I was once again greeted with hugs and kisses, smiles and laughter. They had lost everything—where did this happiness come from?
Spread on a cloth on the floor they had set plates overflowing with chicken and rice, stuffed grape leaves, zucchini, and eggplant. They had lost everything, and yet they sacrificed all that they had managed to gain back in order to treat their guests with hospitality and generosity. We ate and laugh as their shared their culture with us. Their happiness overflowed and spread throughout the home and the community.
When it came time to leave, we thanked them for all that they had given and done for us. As we got into the car to leave, they ran down to their cellar and came back with a large jar of apricot reserves. They had given us in abundance already, and yet they insisted we take with us, we who had everything this world could offer us, the last product they had from the apricot orchards. They had lost more than everything, yet they kept giving.
A story is a powerful tool. I denied people their story for years by simply identifying them based on the title the world had given them. That is a mistake I will never make again.