Family and friends anxiously awaited my return from a recent trip to Morocco and welcomed me home with open arms. One by one, they ask, “How was your trip?” Their faces are expectant, smiling, hopeful. I pause. “Well, it was . . .” my voice trails off as I search for words. “Good,” I mumble hesitantly, knowing some don’t have time for my vagueness. Wanting to be honest with folks who have time to talk, I usually say, “It was hard.” I notice their looks of discomfort. “Oh, all the travel must have been tough.” Or they think perhaps the accommodations weren’t the best. Or that the heat was oppressive or the culture itself was difficult.
Without sounding overly dramatic, what I really want to say to those who ask about our experience is that I have come to understand human suffering in a new and deeply disturbing way, along with my own complicity in it. And that my heart is aching and tender for the young men, women and children who are barely managing to eke out a living in a country that will not even acknowledge their existence. And that my mind is reeling with the intricacies involved with the refugees’ situation and that despite our will, our benevolent desires and our resources, dramatic changes in their circumstances are unlikely or maddeningly slow, at best.
How can I explain the pain I heard in Stephen’s voice as he told the story of living in the forest near Oujda or the anguish in Benjamin’s simple plea that they be treated with human kindness and dignity rather than as if they were animals. How can I respond to Elizabeth’s appeal that she and her children, Sarah and Jacob, be given some measure of hope for a better life?
My mind turns to the refugees we met in Fez, most of whom were from Cameroon, one after another sharing their heartrending stories with us. Patrick stays near the train station and though he has only been there one month, has already been sent to the Algerian border three times. He never dreamed how difficult it would be in Morocco and is desperate to return home. Joshua is the only one of three friends who left Cameroon together who has survived their arduous journey and subsequent beatings while imprisoned. He has been in Morocco three years and though he attends church regularly, has not asked for help until now. His only request is for pots with which to prepare food. Peter lost his parents at a young age and walked for nearly two years before arriving in Morocco. He needs medical attention for the facial wounds he received from his latest encounter with the police. And 12-year-old Phillip looks tired and bewildered as he explains how he and his brother are simply trying to survive day by day. I desperately want to gather him in my arms and find a way to take him from this hellish existence.
Then there are the kids at the Bible school we helped provide in Rabat. Reflecting the dreams and hopes of their mothers, their given names are Wisdom, Success, Destiny, Blessing, Gift, Heaven and Peace. The children are not accustomed to a structured environment and they stretch our inner and outer resources in unimaginable ways (ask Joe Phelps about it!). But there are glimpses of their namesakes as we corral, cajole and comfort them with stubborn love. And we sing together and make beautiful, lively music and pieces of art and learn stories with their moms. On our last day with the women, two things happened we had not expected or planned. Karen had brought body lotion to share, so we gathered with the women and used it to gently massage their hands and necks and shoulders. These were simple acts of love and compassion and though they could not solve the women’s problems or reduce the hardships they endure daily, it was a powerful time of connection and solidarity. We ended our time with worship. The women dramatized the story of the Good Samaritan with flair and humor and concluded with an impromptu time of singing and praising God. As the song says, heaven came down!
Now I am left with these images and thoughts and desires to “make a difference.” With a clearer understanding of the complexities involved in addressing the injustices the refugees face, I sometimes feel overwhelmed and sad. Yet I am also determined in a new way, too . . . to lament the injustices and keep them ever before myself and our community, to write and speak about them. To dream and imagine and pray and work for God’s will to be done on earth . . . in our own neighborhoods and towns and in far-off places like Oujda and Fez and Rabat . . . as in heaven.