What I Learned from a Syrian Refugee by Richard Stearns

About a month ago, I had the perfect excuse to avoid a trip that I really didn’t want to take. I had long planned to visit World Vision’s work in Jordan, where we are caring for refugees from the crisis in Syria. The crisis is getting worse with two million refugees now living outside of Syria, and World Vision’s efforts to assist them are accelerating into high gear. I needed to go, but frankly, I wasn’t up for it.

So when my doctor told me I needed to reduce the stress in my life, canceling my trip to Jordan seemed like a no-brainer. I had developed a painful pinched nerve in my shoulder, and stress was a prime culprit. There are few things that add stress to a person’s life more than international travel followed by the heartbreak of traipsing through refugee camps. Now I had the perfect excuse to stay home.

Thankfully, I didn’t. I needed to see firsthand the suffering these war refugees are experiencing. I needed a little discomfort. And I needed to overcome the distance between my world and theirs. Unfortunately, we often find it easier to extend compassion when we have suffered a little ourselves.

In my first book, The Hole in Our Gospel, I quoted journalist Susan Moeller, who said, “In the news business, one dead fireman in Brooklyn is worth five English bobbies, who are worth fifty Arabs, who are worth five hundred Africans.” Unfortunately, I think the equation has changed for the worse here in the U.S. After two wars in the last decade, uprisings and revolutions with no clear good guys and bad guys, and the complex mix of religion, politics, and terrorism, I’m afraid we are experiencing what Moeller called “compassion fatigue.” Today, we may be even less interested in the suffering of people half a world away.

Just as I wanted to avoid another international trip, I understand why many Americans want to avoid even thinking about the tragedy happening in Syria and the surrounding countries. My trip didn’t make me more comfortable. It was hard, in fact, but it helped me move from confusion to compassion. So let me share what I heard from girls at a school that World Vision is supporting for refugee children. Perhaps, their stories will make you a little uncomfortable, as they did me.

On my visit, a nine-year-old girl named Rahma read a letter to me. She said,

“In the name of God, I don’t know how to start or where to start. Should I start talking about my country or speak of the children of my beloved country, Syria? Should I start with the children who were killed and slaughtered? Or should I talk about the children who were tortured in the meanest ways? Should I talk about our home that burned down or speak of my room, my toys, or my notebooks?”

As a father, I couldn’t imagine hearing words like those from one of my own children. I was heartbroken. Now, it wasn’t only the travel that made me uncomfortable, but these words as well.

All of a sudden, the complexities of this crisis made me realize that I may not understand everything about this crisis, but I can do something about it. More than six million people—children, mothers, and fathers—have been made homeless from the civil war in Syria, their suffering is tremendous, and we must do more to help them.

Rahma finished her letter to me with these words. “We hope that you hear us and help us for our sake and the sake of all the children. Please give us our rights to be children.”

As Christians, we are called to love our enemies and to welcome the stranger. This means that we sometimes have to invite the discomfort that comes with getting to know those who are strangers to us. We have to let our hearts be broken—as World Vision founder Bob Pierce said—by the things that break the heart of God.

Then we discover that, unlike in the news business, God loves all people equally. He doesn’t pay more attention to a firefighter in Brooklyn than to a Syrian refugee. And neither should we.