Global Engagement

Smiles from the Inside

Lynne Hybels, center, with Syrian refugees and staff at the Za'atari U.N. camp. (Photo by Christine Anderson.)

I'M DREAMING. Ten young men about my son’s age are singing me a Mother’s Day greeting to the tune of “Happy Birthday.” I recognize the melody, of course, but the language is foreign. Still, I’m delighted; I clap and laugh.

Oh, wait. It’s Mother’s Day 2014 and I’m not dreaming. In a refugee camp in Jordan, 10 young Syrian men are singing beautiful Arabic words to me and two other visiting American moms. It’s our last stop in an intense week of refugee visits; it feels good to be laughing.

The singing men, and the young Syrian women who joined us as we toured an educational compound in the Za’atari U.N. refugee camp, were bright university students in Syria before the war—future historians, mathematicians, teachers, agricultural engineers; some just months from graduating—when the violence of Syria’s civil war forced them to flee.

“But when you end up in a refugee camp,” one of the young men explained, “people treat you like idiots. Like you understand nothing.” Herein lies one of the great refugee tragedies. Living at the mercy of others and with little respect, no decision-making freedom, and no control over their future often fuels anger and hopelessness in young refugees.

Curt Rhodes, founder of Questscope, an NGO dedicated to empowering marginalized youth, says, “Perhaps the most dehumanizing thing that can be done to an individual is to take away his or her ability to make choices. ... [We must] increase their personal agency to make positive change in their lives and the lives of others like them.” Recognizing the innate human need to contribute positively to the future, Questscope trains young adult Syrians like the ones I met to be mentors, caseworkers, and teachers for younger children in the camp.

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To the Women of Syria

I wish I could sit beside you on a cushion on the floor and have a cup of tea with you. I would like to snuggle your baby in my arms. I would like to hear your story. I know you have a sad story, and if I heard it, I would weep.

I know you are good and loving women. I’m sorry you have lost so much. I’m sorry you had to come to a country, a city, and a house that is not yours.

I can imagine you in your own country, strong women serving others. I can imagine you making beautiful food and sharing it with your family and friends. I can imagine you caring for your mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, sisters and brothers and friends. Just the way I do.

Because that’s what women do. We are compassionate. We give. We serve. We protect. We work hard to make the world better for the people we love.

Wherever I go in the world, I discover that we women are very much alike. We may have different clothes. Different languages. Different cultures. Maybe our skin is a different color. But in our hearts, we are the same.

That’s why we can look into each other’s eyes and feel connected. We can talk without using words. We can smile. We can hug. We can laugh.

And sometimes, we can feel each other’s pain. I have prayed that God would help me feel your pain. I wish I could remove your pain. I wish I could help you carry it.

Last night while I prayed for you, I remembered a story about Jesus Christ. In the story a woman who had been suffering for many years came to Jesus. She was sick, and nobody could heal her body or comfort her mind. People had given up on her. But she believed that Christ could heal her, if she could just touch his robe. So she pushed her way silently through the crowd that followed Jesus. And finally, she touched his robe.

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Protecting the Innocent

AN UNQUENCHABLE demand for sex, coupled with an endless supply of vulnerable children, creates a seemingly endless cycle of child exploitation.

During the Vietnam War, the U.S. Department of Defense contracted with the Thai government to provide “recreation and relaxation” for U.S. soldiers. Sex tourism was organized and expanded into a major industry. Today, sex tourism is a huge source of income for Thailand: The country remains a hub for tourists who can get anything they want at a very low price. Many children are trafficked into Thailand from surrounding countries or are fleeing military genocide. Others are pressured by their own family members to contribute to the household income. Uneducated and hopeless, these desperately poor boys and girls help feed the sex trade industry’s insatiable hunger for children.

A friend of mine recently traveled to Thailand. “I’d read books and watched documentaries about the sex industry in Thailand,” says Jennifer Laine VanBeek. “But nothing prepared me for Bangkok. Even beyond the red light districts, the sex trade is impossible to ignore. I was defeated by the sheer volume, the visible presence, the young ages of the exploited girls and boys, and how engrained it seemed to be in Thai culture.”

Jennifer visited Thailand—often called “Disneyland for Pedophiles”—with her Westmont College friend Rachel Goble, president of The SOLD Project, an organization that works to prevent child exploitation. Early in 2008, Rachel moved to Thailand’s Chiang Rai region, whose lush landscape and laughing children belie the harsh reality: Generations of women from this village have been and continue to be exploited by Thailand’s sex trade.

Young men in desperately poor families such as those in Chiang Rai can bring honor to their families by becoming monks, but girls are expected to provide financially. Traffickers understand this vulnerability, prey on it, and easily lure girls into life in the brothel.

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