“I hope you know that we are not all terrorists,” she said, staring me straight in the face. I cannot remember my response back, but her statement changed me.
Today I had plans to write about Summer movies. I even had a great quote prepared for “The Great Gatsby” (I left feeling projectile vomited on with glitter – and yet somehow enjoyed the movie more than I expected). But on my way to work this morning I was listening to the news and was reminded of the fighting in Syria. I couldn’t help but think back to my time in that country, almost seven years ago.
Back in 2006 I visited Syria and Lebanon. I suppose it was a “mission’s trip”, but it was unlike any trip I had been on. We came with very simple goals: to pray for the land, the people, and to love them. It was the culmination of a year spent working with a church in England. I still remember telling my mom that our end of the year trip would involve going to the Middle East. This is not what any parent wants to hear when your home country is fighting in multiple wars in the Middle East. I give my mom a lot of credit. She remained calm on the phone. I can only imagine the conversation with my dad following that call. Here they sent their daughter off for a year in England. Safe, tea drinking England. She even said to me before I left, “At least you’re not going to the Middle East.” Oops.
I want to let you in on a secret. Syria is amazing. It is one of the few places I’ve traveled to that doesn’t feel touched by the West. I’m sure there are other places in the world that have held onto their culture, but with the growing accessibility of technology and communication, the world seems to become increasingly homogenous. It was refreshing to be in a country that had zero McDonalds. I’m not exaggerating. McDonalds does not exist in Syria (or at least it didn’t 7 years ago). The shops would close in the heat of the day and everyone would go home to rest. I remember sitting in a courtyard with a fountain, covered overhead by layer after layer of leafy ivy vines. As I walked the streets, twisted down the various alleys of the markets, I had a glimpse of a place that echoed its past. It was like visiting another era in another world.
One day we were at the local university. It had been a strange day for the team. We were taken to university officials when we entered the campus (note: all of the university campuses we visited had guards at the entrances). We sat nervously in an administrative building. At one point, our bags were searched. I was especially anxious as my back pack contained all of the Arabic New Testaments (getting caught with Bibles in Syria didn’t mean a trip to prison, but it was a possibility that we could get kicked out of the country). We tried to play it cool, but I held my breath and quietly prayed as my bag was searched. The guard didn’t stop at my contents. Exhale. We were moved to another room and waited more. Eventually we spoke with a university official. He showed us around the campus and introduced us to a few English speaking students. We spoke briefly as the official politely ushered us off the campus. As we were about to get on the bus, the young women began to ask me about my thoughts on George W. Bush and the war. Then, she looked at me and said those words that stopped me: I hope you know that we are not all terrorists.
Those words stopped me because I realized in the moment that some parts of me believed that most of the people there were terrorists. My assumptions and prejudices slapped me in the face. I came to love the Syrian people, but these beliefs revealed parts of my heart that shocked me.
As the trip went on, these beliefs were constantly challenged. I was overwhelmed by the hospitality I received from strangers repeatedly. I was invited into house after house for tea and refreshments. It felt so surprising, especially since this is not a cultural value in the U.S. When’s the last time a stranger invited you into their house? At a certain point, I had this desire to shout, to proclaim to the world: These people, whom you have called terrorists, you’ve missed them completely. They are kind, they are welcoming. They are normal people just trying to live their lives. Why doesn’t this make the six o’clock news? Why is the only view we see of the Syrians tied into war or violence? With a gun or a bomb strapped to their chest?
I had missed them.
My eyes were opened.
My time in Syria was the final exam in a year of having my cultural beliefs challenged. It was a humbling season, but I am continually grateful for the ways that experience helped me to begin to see outside of myself and my home culture.
That year didn’t eradicate my tendencies to make snap judgments or generalizations. I still make them. I still cling to assumptions that are just plain wrong. I think I am able to see them more for what they are though. And sometimes I’m able to pause and ask questions, instead of pretending I have the answers.
People are usually surprised when they hear I’ve visited Syria. They cautiously ask what it was like. I know what they’re really asking. Was it scary? Was it awful? Why on earth would you go there? To be honest, I had a couple of scary moments, but what shouts the loudest was my experience of the kindness of the people I met. I’ve been saddened as I’ve followed the reports out of Syria. My heart breaks for the Syrian people. This is not the first war they’ve known, nor most likely will this be the last. There are deep reasons for the wars and violence there. I don’t know what needs to change there, but I so badly hope that something shifts.
As I listened to the radio this morning I knew I needed to share my little story. I struggle to name my hope for those reading this post. Awareness is good. But deeper than that is a desire that you would see beyond the generalizations. And pray.