In March 2016, Muslim extremists carried out a terrible attack in Brussels, Belgium, killing 32 innocent people and injuring more than 300. Two days later, on Holy Thursday, while Europe was still reeling from the bombing and anti-immigrant/Muslim sentiments were on the rise, Pope Francis washed the feet of twelve asylum seekers, including Muslims from Syria and Pakistan. “Today, at this time,” said the Pope, “let us all make a gesture of brotherhood, and let us all say: ‘We are different, we are different, we have different cultures and religions, but we are brothers and we want to live in peace.’” It was a powerful expression of what can only be described as radical welcome.
About a year and a half ago, while I was writing the Middle East section of the Peace Heroes program, I started researching the life of Jawdat Said, a Muslim sheikh from Syria who has been preaching nonviolence as an essential proponent of Islam since the early 1960s. I knew, as we all do, about the war in Syria, but my research took me deeper into the dark realities of what is possibly the greatest human crisis in our world today – at least in terms of the number of lives affected by it. I remember being completely stunned by the fact that half – half – of Syria’s population has been displaced in the past few years. That’s over nine million people who have lost their homes, their livelihoods, their security – everything – becoming refugees against their will (either within Syria or outside it). Said was one of the leaders of the nonviolent resistance movement that sprang up at the beginning of the war (and was largely inspired by the success of other nonviolent movements that catapulted many of the surrounding countries into their Arab Spring). But the brutality of the violence (on both sides) quickly quashed the movement and brought hope of a nonviolent revolution to an abrupt end.
One of the most disturbing aspects for me in writing Said’s story was its end, because it was, quite simply, unknown. Like so many of his fellow citizens, Said was displaced by the fighting, and fled (with the masses) in the direction of Turkey, which is the closest porthole to Europe. At the time of my writing, no one knew what had become of Said. He had simply disappeared into the void, with some reports saying that he had made it to Turkey, and others saying he was still in Syria. The war made it impossible to know. Like the vast majority of refugees, he had seemingly been wiped off the map.
Around the same time, I got involved in the complicated process of trying to help an Eritrean refugee living here in Israel to get to Canada. He has been in Israel for ten years, devoid of any status, with the constant threat of deportation hanging over him. My mother sat with him and helped him articulate his story in English. I then filled out the (many) application forms by typing out his answers to a multitude of questions. It was through his story that I learned about the dictatorship in Eritrea, which might very well be one of the most oppressive regimes in Africa today; I learned how young men are conscripted into the army, where they will most likely remain for the better part of their lives, unless they defect, which many of them do; I learned of the unbelievable risks many young people take for the mere possibility of freedom, trekking, on foot, across deserts and war zones on their way to Libya, which is one of the gateways to Europe where they hope to find asylum; and I learned the terrible fate of so many who are kidnapped in Egypt by Bedouins and are taken to torture camps in the Sinai desert, where they remain until they are either killed or their families scrape up enough money to pay for their ransom. I also learned how those fortunate enough to survive the camps are driven – in the dead of night – to the Egypt-Israel border, where they are dropped off and told that their only chance for survival is to make it across the three fences that act as a barrier between the two countries. Amazingly, this young man made it through to Israel. But his fate has been hanging in the balance ever since.
As I read, researched, and listened to these refugees’ stories, several things became very clear to me. First was the fact that the refugee crisis is a global one. The more research I did, the more I realized that there are refugee migration patterns that span the continents in much the same way large currents move across the oceans in a predictable pattern. I also realized that in discussions about the refugee crisis there is often a general confusion about language and definitions: I was surprised by how many people did not understand the basic distinction between a migrant and a refugee – a distinction that, for many, is the difference between life and death. But the thing that stood out to me the most was the way the refugee crisis is shifting borders all over the world. Or rather, that borders are becoming much more fluid so that in some places it is no longer possible to speak in terms of national identity.
For the millions of displaced people, the country of their birth is no longer what defines them; instead, their identity is in their homelessness, their lack of a country. There is a deep irony in this obscuring of national identity, in the sense that in many of the more secure countries – the ones the refugees are trying to get to – we are seeing a shift towards a much more fundamental nationalism, a turning inward and away from those who are losing every bit of their own national identity. Broadly speaking, there is the sense that the world is moving in two opposite directions, with many people living their lives in one extreme or the other. Recent political developments around the globe should not surprise us, but they should most definitely challenge us – challenge us to ask the harder questions about our own position on this shifting map, and whether or not we are being swept away by the current of fear.
One of the core values of the Peace Heroes program is its ethos of welcome – the act of turning outwards, of facing the “other” and inviting him or her into our midst with open arms. Peace heroes are those who step over borders and boundaries, those who purposely smudge the lines in an effort to touch the humanity of the person on the other side. Peace heroes are those who are secure enough in who they are to be able to step across the divide without the fear that this extension of welcome will obliterate their identity. Peace heroes are those who overcome their fears for the sake of love. And love – in its essence – is boundless. It has no borders; no stop signs; no inherent law that says “thus far and no further.” On the contrary: the nature of love is to grow, not diminish. Peace heroes are those who understand the worth and value of all life, and who are propelled to action by the desire to restore dignity to a broken world.
We teach the students about peace heroes because we want to challenge them to become such heroes themselves. But it is a meaningless endeavor if we do not take up the challenge ourselves. It is not easy to choose the way of peace – it requires a constant questioning of our own fears and persistent awareness of the struggles and hardships of the people around us. Peace is, by its very nature, outward looking – it desires encounter, seeks the face of the “other,” and says, like Pope Francis, “you are welcome here” to the people it meets along the way. Peace is not for the faint-hearted. To choose a life of radical welcome is to choose, more often than not, the hard work of swimming against the current. But if this is the way to begin restoring all that is broken in our world, then perhaps it is an effort worth making.