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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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Relearning to Read

DREAMS CAN serve a powerful purpose. Jacob dreamed a ladder and was renamed Israel. Joseph dreamed the sun and moon and stars and was sold into slavery. The magi dreamed a warning and returned home by way of another road.

Years ago I had a dream. I sat, a child, on a dirt floor. Around me paced a horse, saddled, ready. In front stood an immense door, cathedral-tall and brooding. And though open, the space within was dark. I was holding a light. And in the dream, I knew we were to bring light into that darkness. And the darkness—the darkness was the church.

In Truth Speaks to Power: The Countercultural Nature of Scripture, Walter Brueggemann, professor emeritus of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary, bears light to the exegetical (seminary lingo for interpretive) work and examination of the interplay between truth and power found in both familiar and less familiar narratives of Old Testament scripture. Rigorous in content, the read is nevertheless accessible to scholar and novice alike.

Brueggemann's concern with the interplay of truth and power rests on the observation that far too often truth, even biblical truth, is found colluding with and legitimizing the self-serving and self-preserving agenda of totalistic and monopolizing authorities. To use biblical imagery, truth sides with the Pharaohs and the Solomons of the world and not with those on its margins and periphery.

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Homeless, Not Helpless

THE RED, RUN-DOWN, two-story frame house on Morris Avenue in the West Bronx that houses the Picture the Homeless offices looks much like those around it, except for the organization’s blue banner that hangs from the porch. The youths (there are older members too) who log in to their homeless blogs and look for jobs on the computers upstairs, surrounded by images of Zapata and the Selma freedom marchers, are mainly black and Latino, and they could be almost any of the young people you see on the street. Picture the Homeless is seamlessly embedded in this New York City neighborhood, where the new poor from Africa and South Asia join the long-established poor from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.

Picture the Homeless (PTH) combines social action, advocacy, outreach, and community and is run almost exclusively by homeless and formerly homeless New Yorkers. The organization’s name references the importance of challenging widespread stereotypes about people who are homeless. “Don’t talk about us; talk with us” is a PTH slogan, and it claims as a founding principle that “in order to end homelessness, people who are homeless must become an organized, effective voice for systemic change.”

Kendall Jackman, in her 50s, one of PTH’s housing organizers, lives in a women’s shelter not far from Morris Avenue. The former postal worker from Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood—“No matter where I live, I will always be a Bed-Stuy girl,” she said—lost her housing two years ago when the building she was living in was foreclosed on.

“Of the 72 women in my shelter, 69 of us either work or go to school,” Jackman said. “With no low-income housing available, shelters are now the homes of the working poor.”

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