As I was leaving Sarah’s room I received a text message: “All-Staff Meeting – Immediately – Cafeteria – Mandatory”. Curious as to why a mid-day meeting would be called, I hurried to the cafeteria. There are five full time staff from the U.S., and another five from several different European countries. It had been fascinating to learn about so many different culture and customs as we all came together around a common calling. Local volunteers also came in at various times to help with meals and other needs, so in all there were about forty of us that kept the house running. This meeting was just for the full time staff though, so the ten of us were sitting around one of the dining tables when Jim walked in the room.
Jim ran the shelter for the relief organization that sponsored us from the States. He was from a suburb of Chicago and had been in the trenches supporting refugee camps since this started a couple of years ago, well before the world acknowledged what was happening. A former college football player, who was rumored to have turned down an offer from the NFL, Jim was a big guy. His size served him well as it could be intimidating when needed, but also made everyone feel safe. It was in fact misleading, as Jim was a kind and gentle man who led with a firm but fair hand and acted as a father figure to many of us. Today, as he walked in the room, we could see he was upset.
He started talking as soon as he walked through the the door, “Thank you all for coming in so quickly, sorry to pull you away from your work. I’ll try to keep my part short, but we will take as much time as you need to talk. I wanted to pull you in here to let you know about a shooting that has taken place in California. We don’t have a lot of information yet, but we do know that both shooters pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, or ISIS, prior to carrying out the attack.”
Everyone shifted in their seats and looked around the table, but no one spoke.
“As you know, this comes on the heels of 28 various attacks around the world by ISIS. They seem to be increasing their activities. They continue to primarily focus their attacks on Muslim populations, but there are attacks on Christian populations as well. We’ve had lots of discussions around the attention given to these Christian targeted shootings. It is simply a fact that the media is going to cover the attacks that take place in western countries more than those that take place in the Middle East targeting Muslims. Our organization is putting out as much information as we can to show the full picture and we encourage you to share those articles. Never the less, this has heightened the rhetoric back in the Unites States and increased the already polarizing positions around the world in regard to helping the refugees. We know that the camp already knows about the shooting and we have seen a couple of papers going around with the various talking heads blasting their opinions. We need to be ready to talk about the situation back in the States,” Jim paused as we processed this new information.
Finally a young man broke the silence, “Jim, I’ve been here a couple of months. I know I’m still kind of new, so forgive me if I’m asking things I should already know. How does this really impact what we are doing here day to day?”
Jim looked to one of us who had been through the process before to explain what happens.
“Well,” I began, “first the refugees inside the shelter will start worrying that we will close. We need to reassure them that we are here for the duration. Funding is always a concern but I believe we have a 12 month span already funded, right Jim?”
“Yes, right now we know we have enough funds to remain open for 12 months. And, so far we are still getting additional donations, which just expands that timeline each day,” Jim explained.
I continued, “After they know we are not packing up, they will want to understand why they are being treated like the people they are running from. There are a lot of different emotions – some get scared, some get angry, but most are just confused. We have to help them work through the emotions. The most important thing is to listen and provide a safe space for them to talk through their concerns. We want to be very alert to anyone who seems to be getting disenfranchised to the point that they could become a target of ISIS recruiters. ISIS loves to use the fear of the refugees and Muslim’s in general as a recruitment tool. They will find the young men who have been refused help or turned down for asylum. They take them under their wing and twist the Muslim teachings to make them feel like these are signs that they should join the fight. Much like our radical Christian hate groups in the U.S. use scripture to recruit more white supremacists, and the like. They may provide safe haven for their family, or help them find shelter, anything to enforce the feeling that the west is evil and they are not. We have to let Jim know immediately of any recruitment activity in the camp. That’s true always, but anytime there is an uptick in media coverage there is an uptick in recruitment as well.”
Silence took over the room again. We had all seen so much damage created by these terrorists and we continue to learn more each day about their intentions. It was exhausting to watch people inadvertently add fuel to the fire, but that is exactly what was happening.
Jim interrupted the silence, “Listen, I’m going to walk back through a few things. Some of you have heard this before, but we do have a few new team members. Would that be ok with the group?” Everyone nodded their heads in agreement and Jim continued, “Let me give you guys an overview of one of the theories we have as to what ISIS is doing. ISIS believes they are working to usher in the return of Jesus – how many of you knew that?” A couple hands went up from those of us who had been through this education before. “Well, it surprises a lot of people that the Qur’an actually has a prophecy of what they think are the end times and it includes the prophet Jesus returning for the righteous. They believe if they can set up a caliphate and follow the prophecy, they can actually bring about the end times. A caliphate is an Islamic State, an actual occupied land where they can appoint a caliph to lead. The caliphate adheres to the strictest version of Sharia law. The prophecy predicts a certain number of caliph’s will lead the caliphate prior to the return of Jesus. In addition, they believe that they need to destroy as many infidels as possible. This includes both Muslim’s who are not in support of their views, as well as non muslims. They are actually killing many more muslims than christians so far, and we expect that to continue. The final culmination, and goal, is to provoke the super powers of the world to converge on the land they have occupied for a final epic war. Only a few thousand are expected to survive. This is obviously a very high level synopsis and no doubt leaves out many details, but this gives you an idea of what they are working towards. The more hostility and fear they can provoke, the more successful they believe they are.”
Jim continued, “As you are all aware, the majority of Muslims do not support this ideology and they fear for their lives just as so many in the U.S. and around the world. They are just as much a target as non-Muslims. There is no doubt that this group is a serious threat. I don’t want to sugar coat what is going on and I certainly don’t agree with the idea that those of us who support the refugees are naive stargazers who don’t know what is going on in the world. I am probably ‘preaching to the choir’ as we say in the states, but as you know – sometimes I just have to say all of this out loud. We have a problem. A global problem. There are people who threaten the peace and well being of every person on the planet. They are filled with a zeal which they believe to be holy and right. But the fruit of this zeal is murder, pain, destruction, de-humanization of entire groups of people, and gruesome acts of terror. It is anything but holy and just.”
Jim paused while he controlled his emotions, “But….and this is what is so important for you to know… they have already lost. They. have. already. lost. Right? We know that. We know that because of what we believe to be righteous and just. Our faith informs our actions and it says that Jesus came for everyone, to usher in the kingdom of God. His kingdom is near and those of us who do His work are already victorious. We have nothing to fear. We are here today loving and caring for these people because we have nothing to fear. It doesn’t matter if we are harmed while doing this work, it matters that we continue to do this work. What we don’t believe…what we don’t want to happen…we don’t want to become like those who seek to destroy and harm. We don’t want to allow fear of the other to destroy our values and our faith. That is exactly what has happened to ISIS. I implore you – come and talk with me when you are overtaken by fear. It will happen, it is human, but I am here to help walk you through it. You have all battled that fear countless times to be here today, and you will continue to do so. Remind our new friends that everyone is battling fear – some are winning and some are not. But they are here despite tremendous odds, just as each of us are here despite tremendous odds, and we will walk with them however far we are able. We will not leave them.”
By this point we were all crying. It was so hard. It was hard to be here because we were scared that ISIS could have infiltrated some of the camps. It was hard to be here because so many of us had friends and family members who believed that we were being foolish in God’s eyes. But mostly it was hard to be here because there were thousands of people just outside our doors who didn’t have the luxury of fearing potential future threats. They were too busy fighting off the very real and present fear of death this very night due to starvation or exposure to the bitter cold. They were too busy fearing that their family couldn’t be found because their boat capsized and they would never know for certain what had happened to their mom, grandfather….children.
Fear. It would kill us all if we let it. It was the one thing that we all had in common – including ISIS. We were all so afraid.
Some took their fear and created weapons and terror – they would overcome their fear by destroying everyone not like them. They could not see that their fear was destroying their humanity.
Some took their fear and hid. They would create fortresses to keep out every threat even if that meant keeping out some who were not a threat. They, too, could not see that their fear was destroying their humanity.
I had decided to take my fear to God. Every morning I connected with my God and told him how incredibly scared I was – of almost everyone. And every morning I felt in my core: “Don’t be afraid, I’m right by your side. I am for you. I will help you, and I will give you all the strength you need to get through this day. When you falter I will pick you up. If you love your neighbor, love me, and, don’t forget, love yourself – you will be ok. You will know you are doing my work when you feel love from other people, when you are joyful and have peace. You’ll know you are close to me when you have more patience, when your default response is to be kind. I’ll give you a good and faith filled life and you will be gentle with people and with yourself. You will persevere and overcome these fears. This is who you are when you stay connected to me. So when you get angry or scared, when you feel out of control, let that be a sign that you have pulled away from me.
After some time, Jim stood up and went to each staff member. He whispered to them, gave them a hug, and moved to the next. I was last, “Addy, I love you and I am for you. You are doing good and important work. You bring a spirit of joy and peace everywhere you go and I am so thankful you are here.” He wrapped me in one of his famous hugs and I would have swore that Jesus himself had his arms around me. I’d never felt such comfort, as he echoed the very words that I heard each morning during my prayer and meditation.
Slowly we all made our way back to our jobs. We played board games, chased little ones, cooked meals, and listened to our brothers and sisters as they explained the terror they had survived. We did what we could that day to spread the love and mercy that we all so cherished in our own lives. And when we went to bed we slept a peace-filled sleep.
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