The boot on my back didn’t hurt, but it was firm. I turned over and looked up into the face of a West German policeman. It was 19 November 1989, and my friends and the East German refugees with whom we had shared a West Berlin shopping mall floor were being told to move on. It was a brief moment but I will never forget it.
My Canadian friend summed it up best: “I just wanted to have a sign around my neck that explained that I had grown up in a middle class family, I had a good education and I had a future ahead of me.” It was that humbling, and we weren’t even refugees.
My experience at the Berlin Wall that autumn still guides me today, on three levels. First, no one deserves to be a refugee, to have their most fundamental, God-given, freedoms taken away. It is scary and lonely to be totally dependent on the state and society of a place not your home.
Second, I was grateful to be woken by an accountable authority with the means to protect me: I didn’t know why we had to move that morning, at that time, but I implicitly trusted the police officer and was happy to comply. Knowing that there was “hard” power to protect my vulnerable position was quite reassuring.
Third, in retrospect, I would later learn and appreciate that my West Berlin experience had taken place against the much broader construct of an intentional vision – “A Europe whole and free” – that the American president at the time, George H. W. Bush, had laid out the previous spring, in several speeches, before the fall of the wall and well before the demise of the Soviet Union.
The meek management of the surprising suicide of an empire went so well that we have already forgotten it.
While no analogy is perfect, the “Arab Spring” was also a surprise, and it is far from over. The Middle East/North Africa is an extraordinarily complex region, and it is entirely unclear whether secular authoritarianism will yield to its religious variant, or to a nascent pluralism consistent with the best of Islam and international norms.
What we do know is that there has been no common vision let alone agreement among regional and global leaders on how to enable a preferred future. The same is true for religious leaders, some of whom call for Sunni to kill Shia, and vice-versa. It is hard to improve the state of the world when political and religious leaders not only lack vision, but are actively part of the problem. Syria brings this tragic lack of leadership into fearsome focus.
The Assad regime is strengthened. The death toll – which currently stands at 93,000 – is staggering, and there are more refugees as the innocent suffer. The UNHCR says that there are now 1,643,504 Syrian refugees across the eastern Mediterranean, over 1 million of them since the start of the year. They expect this figure to have reached 3.45 million by the end of the year, along with 6.8 million refugees within Syria’s borders.
Although the geopolitics are overwhelmingly complex, some Americans within my own faith community are trying to better understand and help Syria. In government, the recent report of an evangelical US Congressman tells of meeting a Christian refugee in Lebanon. When asked what message needed to be brought back to America, the former-doctor-now-refugee said: “We need to be treated as equals.”
At the grassroots level, Liberty University, the largest evangelical university in the world, recently sent one of its Vice-Presidents into the refugee camps in Jordan. He asked a Muslim man what America needed to hear: “Please tell them we’re people too, just like them. We’re not animals.”
So here are some questions that we should think about on World Refugee Day – profoundly aware of Syria’s complexity – as we remember those who suffer, away from their homes, scared for their families.
- Will a concert of leaders emerge that actually lead, providing a comprehensive vision for the region and Syria?
- Will Sunni and Shia theological leaders provide a different recourse other than jihad against each other, and show that the best of faith can defeat the worst of religion?
- Will faith communities self-organize to be in regular conversation with each other, and mobilize to live out the best of their faith, “welcoming the stranger” and serving refugees of all faiths and none?
While the political leaders dither, faith leaders can step into the vacuum, providing practical inspiration. What if, for example, American evangelical and Muslim women partnered to serve widowed Syrian mothers in the refugee camps? What if American churches and mosques partnered to holistically serve a particular refugee camp, promising to help them as best they can until the crisis is over?
The situation in Syria is so fluid that no one can make any predictions about the future. However, we do know two things:
- With no global and regional leadership, the situation will get worse, creating more refugees;
- Some day, the tragedy will end.
How Syrians, especially refugees, remember what was done for them – or what was not done for them – will sow the seeds of the future. If faith communities worldwide could act more in concert, with each other and their respective governments, then maybe a solution with and for Syrians might emerge.
Author: Chris Seiple is President of the Institute for Global Engagement and a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on the Role of Faith.
Image: Young Syrian refugees smile at the camera REUTERS/Majed Jaber.