It was almost midnight on that cool evening nearly two years ago in Istanbul when I felt a gentle poke on my hip. As I turned around my eyes locked with a dark-haired little girl who was about six years old. After two weeks in Turkey, for a cross-cultural experience with my seminary, I immediately knew who this stranger was that was seeking my attention: a Syrian refugee.
When I turned around the little girl smiled, but it didn’t feel like a real smile. It was more of a fabricated grin, done as a gesture to ascertain my reaction to her interruption. When I smiled at her she realized that she had my attention. Her once phony smile turned genuine. She appreciated that someone was paying attention to her.
I tried speaking with her but quickly realized that she didn’t speak English. Through gestures I asked her if she was hungry, to which she enthusiastically nodded. During our back-and-forth sidewalk charades she noticed that I was holding a cellphone. She pointed to my phone and motioned to my face, then made a rectangle with her fingers in front of her eyes mimicking a camera – she wanted me to take her picture. She stood perfectly still, looking straight ahead, and smiled. This is her picture.
After the photo we walked across the street to an all-night grocery stand. As we made our way to the store the little girl darted down an alley and returned a couple of minutes later with her mother and little sister. While the six-year-old girl was relatively well dressed and maintained for a refugee, her mother and three-year-old sister were clearly not as “fortunate.”
The four of us shopped at the grocery stand, filling up bags with pre-packaged food and their favorite Turkish snacks and beverages. Both little girls beamed with joy as they picked out a couple bags of candy. After paying the clerk I handed the bags to the mother and received smiles from all three of them. Before walking away, the mother placed her right hand over her heart and gently bowed – a Turkish gesture of gratitude.
As the three Syrian refugees walked away I turned back to the clerk and extended my hand for my change. The clerk’s body language, words, and actions quickly conveyed that he was not pleased with the refugee’s presence nor my charity. He angrily smacked the coins into my hand as he indignantly muttered his disapproval. His rant continued as he pointed at the refugees and then waved his hand at me, shooing me away, as he shook his head in disgust.
Due to the bloody civil war raging in Syria and the occupation of ISIS, 12 million innocent Syrians have become refugees. The majority of the 5 million refugees have fled to Turkey, while some have gone to Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon and Iraq. Another 7 million are displaced within Syria.
This little girl, her mom, and her sister are just three of the millions seeking a place in which they can survive. They once had a house, a community, and country that they called home. Instead of cooking dinner and sending their children to school, their lives are relegated to living on the streets, begging for food and money at midnight.
Amidst the political rhetoric and internet memes these suffering people get relegated to a partisan issue and a xenophobic punch line. Meanwhile refugees hope to be welcomed and supported so that they can live a life of liberty, similar to what we enjoy.
Unfortunately, refugees aren’t welcomed. All too often refugees and immigrants get taken advantage of while attempting to survive in a foreign land. Instead of experiencing hospitality they experience hostility. In Turkey, for example, refugees must go through a lengthy application process with the tyrannical government in order to receive a work permit, which often takes years and usually gets denied. Without a legitimate form of income, the refugees are forced to do whatever it takes to provide for their loved ones. Those that have experienced the trauma of war become re-victimized as refugees. They become exploited as they fall into horrors such as human trafficking, prostitution, and indentured labor.
I don’t claim to have the answers to the Syrian refugee crisis, let alone the worldwide refugee crisis. What I do know is that each of these refugees are a person, a human being just like me. When I looked into that Syrian girl’s eyes and noticed her Dora the Explorer shirt, I immediately thought of my own children. The only difference between her and my daughter, or her family and my family, was that by chance I was born in the United States and she was born in Syria. She and I are both made in the same image of the same God, we both bleed red, and we both need air to live, yet our life circumstances couldn’t be any more drastically different.
Every time I read a crude refugee joke on Facebook or hear a politician stereotype Syrian refugees, I think about this little girl that gently poked me that night in Istanbul. I think about the picture of her that was unintentionally taken with the “wrong” settings. The exposure stayed open longer due to the low lighting and captured a picture that expresses the microcosm of the Syrian refugee’s life as it currently exists. As she stands perfectly still and smiles at me, hoping for attention and hospitality, the world swiftly walks by – maybe forgetting, overlooking, or intentionally neglecting, or quite possibly looking the other way as we are unsure of how to help this child.
Whatever the reason may be, this little girl and all of the Syrian refugees are still there asking for help as we go about our lives. They are still people. People that are cold, hungry, and scared. People that are traumatized and suffering. Let us remember that as we discuss, post, and vote. Instead of demonstrating our humanity with hostility, let us do so with hospitality and dignity.