I found the boys climbing on the cattle gate that is commonly used to control people movements here on the Balkan Highway. It was right after the dinner distribution and I had muttered more than 300 times, “A-salaam A-lay-kum” in an awkward accent to people with a bowl of soup and a piece of bread as they passed me by. How many times my roughened greeting brought both a surprised smile and a returned reponse ‘Wa-alay-kumu Sa-laam,’ I failed to count. But, there I was in a Belgrade park, doing my tiny best to humanize the steaming curried stew with ‘Peace be upon you,’ and trying not to notice the men at the end of the line who were surely going to be turned away.
‘Peace be upon you’ tastes so different in your mouth when its muttered through the ears of war.
Or when it is muttered to people who walk away with empty bowls.
Or when it is muttered to boys who will sleep in a public park through a cold night.
The boy in the red sweatshirt caught my attention first. A quick exchange and I learned that he was 11 and from Afghanistan. When I asked him why he left, he shrugged and said, ‘Taliban.’ The rest of his story quietly waited behind brown eyes. ‘Where are you parents?’ I asked, looking around for some responsible adult. He shrugged, “Parents – No. In Afghanistan,” and the story tumbled into the park to meet us there – his parents had remained behind in the midst of danger using their family savings to pay the smuggler-price to guide their son to western safety. Alone. Only enough money for one.
Sometimes words, like the curried stew, run out and you are left with desperate and silent pleas to God for something to fill the space.
Turning my attention to the boy by his side, a smaller version of an 11 year-old, I learned that he was Syrian. Afraid to hear the answer but somehow unable to stop the question, ‘Are you here with your parents?’
‘Yes,’ he almost smiled, and his eyes pointed toward a family siting on the grass, ‘The woman in the white hijab -my mother.’
Not so long ago, a woman in a white hijab would have birthed fear and hesitation in my heart, but that is not longer my experience. I followed his finger to her blanket.
On Smugglers and Shepherds.
Muhammad and H left Syria with their 3 children when the war made home too dangerous. They made it to Greece via smugglers after the mid-March EU-Turkey Deal. The repercussions of that deal meant that this family was left with limited options. They could seek assylum in Turkey or Greece knowing that, at best, their future stopped there, or at worst, they would be returned to Syria. Their other option was to pay the increasingly inflated prices of smugglers to take them all the way to Austria. The family of 5 paid $15,000 – a price that has more than doubled since the flow of refugees across the Balkans began in September 2015. Much of that price increase is due to the EU-Turkey Deal of mid-March.
The EU-Turkey Deal slowed the flow of refugees to the Balkans and it limited the media’s access to the situation, thereby defusing the public’s ability to remain aware of the inhumane conditions that continue. In Serbia alone, more than 2500 people sleep in parks and abandoned warehouses. Tonight, the temperature will drop to 6 C / 42 F. Camps are overcrowded.
“The smugglers are very dangerous,” H said. “We have gone days without food while trapped in the fields or forests. I worry about how this is affecting my children, but what other options do we have?” She shrugged and wiped away a tear, ‘The smugglers are our only way.’
“Oh, H., I am so sorry,” the sentence reached out but it struggled to know where to go or how to comfort. “Salaam. I pray for salaam for you, H.” Because what else does one mother with no hijab and a passport say to another mother with a hijab and no passport when they are sitting knee to knee on a blanket in a Belgrade park and the chill of night begins to blow through their jackets?
H., in her nearly perfect English told me all about the smugglers. M, in equally fluent English, and the children filled out the details.
It seems that smugglers, with their guns and their violence and their pricetags, are the only way a family of 5 from the Middle East can believe in a future that does not include child-sized body bags and rubble.
It seems that smugglers are the only hope for a family fleeing war.
‘Peace be upon you,’ tastes so different here.
The Story We Tell
We have a story, you and I, about a shepherd who leaves his flock of 99 to go after the 1. It is a pretty story that we tell our children to make them feel safe and secure through the night. ‘No matter what happens, Jesus, our good shepherd, will always go to find you. You are never too far away or too lost or too long alone.’
Unless you wear a hijab? Unless you claim another religion? Unless you – and suddenly I’m uncomfortable. You see, I have a dawning but dirty little suspicion that I’m part of the 99 standing in the pen. I have always imagined myself in the story as the 1 being sought. Or maybe, I saw myself outside of the story, watching and rooting the Good Shepherd on.
I read somewhere that in ancient days, shepherds made fences from whatever they could find and then they would sleep in the gap – becoming the gate, becoming the door. Protecting the flock from predators. The only way in.
‘On behalf of the 99, Shepherd-sir, when you leave to find the 1 … what about us, the 99? Who protects us while you search for that stray? You see, its a cozy story, for as far as it goes, but you can’t possibly mean to make ALL of us vulnerable just to rescue the One? Can you? Sir?’
‘And when you bring that rescued One back, then what? Are to we accept her – her danger, his disease? What if he threatens our safety? What if she does not call you Shepherd?’
Oh, the stories that we tell at night to chase away fear – true stories, but told and heard through only one lens.
I wonder how the 3 children of M and H hear that story when their first night in Belgrade was spent in a park being herded through a cattle gate to get food? Or when, on that night, their daddy fell into an exhausted sleep. Or when he awoke to find his trousers slit open, their phone, their money, their documents gone? Or when they hear people with passports and homes talk about ensuring security and safety with borders and walls?
I find myself wandering through and wondering about new facets of this story – like the sheep in the other pen that the shepherd mentions. How many borders does he cross to reach them? What paths does he take? Do they look like me? How does he speak to them?
Somewhere, sometime, I read another story about a man named Moses who wanted to stay silent because he was scared. He was a shepherd. But God said this, “Now therefore go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall speak.”
There on the cattle gate in a Belgrade park, I find myself in our story. I am a sheep. I am a shepherd in service to the Good Shepherd. And I think our story even says that when we open our mouths, God’s transformative presence makes each of us a mouthpiece – a clarion call of God’s voice to ‘Come home.’
I wonder, in the midst of debates and facebook posts and demonstrations if that message can be heard?
‘Peace be upon you.’ We speak those words in every language and in every place because we believe that there is no path where the Good Shepherd fails to find us. But here at the end of 2016, our faith does not stumble for the 1 being sought after. It seems that perhaps our faith trembles inside the gate. I wonder if we have forgotten that Our Shepherd is omnipresent? He does not leave or forsake us. His protection is faultless even as his grace is endless. And maybe, just maybe His seeking after the 1 does not make us as vulnerable as we think.
As faith-filled people, we are called into action with the Shepherd – to protect people from the smugglers on the path, to journey with them, and to work for safety and for peace. You see, we have the power to affect change in this situation – meet us at the cattle gate.
Wondering how you can speak words of peace?
- Women – next time you see a woman in a hijab … make eye contact and smile from the heart. Men – next time you see a Middle Eastern man … make eye contact and do whatever you men do to convey ‘welcome.’
- Follow the war in the Middle East using a variety of media outlets — not just one. Do you know what is happening in Mosul right now?
- Find an immigrant in your community, ask him/her to coffee, and listen to their story. Just listen.
- When you hear someone speaking of immigrants as a category, gently bring another perspective. Simply – not all people fleeing war in the Middle East are potential terrorists.
- Find ways to open the door into your social group for immigrants in your neighborhood – be the path by which others come to know them as people, not a category.
- Yes. You can give, although that is not the primary objective of this post. There is a need to help on the Balkan Route, so, if you are truly prompted to give:
And, if you would like to give to our PayPal account for Hospitality – there is a button on the right side of the page called ‘donate to family’.