Finding heartache and hope in a refugee camp

By Brian Knox | Published Wednesday, December 9, 2015

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A backfiring car caused a young woman to begin shaking and crying uncontrollably.

The only thing those around her could do to calm her was to wrap their arms around her.

For hours, they held her tight.

Finally, she fell asleep.

The young woman was a 12-year-old Syrian refugee at a school in Jordan.

Brian Knox

Brian Knox

A lifelong friend of mine told me this story when she was visiting a couple of months ago. My friend, Michelle, spent nearly a month as a teacher at the school in the refugee camp.

This was just one of many heartbreaking stories she shared about her time there.

Her students were children who have experienced the horrors of war firsthand.

While many won’t speak of the atrocities they’ve encountered, Michelle said one boy in her class spoke about witnessing beheadings and the murder of his father and uncle.

“They’ve seen horrible things [that are] etched into their minds,” she told me.

Whenever a student needed to visit with a person in a principal-like position for a disciplinary reason, the student would leave the class.

The first time it happened, many of the young students began to cry and became very upset.

In their experience, having someone sent away meant likely never seeing them again.

The “principal,” who Michelle described as a physically imposing man but really a “big teddy bear,” would speak to the student in a loving way about how they should act and teach them that actions do have consequences. Then the child would return to class.

Whenever the student returned and apologized, the class would often erupt in cheers as he would be welcomed back to the group.

For kids who had seen so much violence and hatred in their young lives, a little love and kindness had a profound effect.

Michelle told me of another young boy who had not spoken since witnessing a traumatic event.

His communications consisted of grunts, and he didn’t smile.

For two weeks, that’s how he remained.

Finally, after much encouragement, the boy smiled. As he did, his mouth revealed one dangling, chipped tooth. It appeared the rest had been knocked out.

Although he knew only Arabic, he began trying to mimic vowel sounds in a song and then spoke two or three words in English.

The teachers considered it a breakthrough.

I couldn’t help but remember these stories as the discussion over Syrian refugees has intensified since the terror attacks in Paris a few weeks ago.

Some of our elected officials and presidential candidates have offered suggestions ranging from refusing to allow refugees into the country to not allowing any Muslims to enter the U.S.

When we think of “refugees,” the image we often see is a mass of humanity, perhaps walking right toward us.

Terror threats are real, and we certainly need to have a discussion about making sure we are not unwittingly inviting terrorists into our midst.

But hopefully we don’t lose sight of the fact that each refugee has his or her own story and individual experience like the ones my friend shared with me.

I pray our desire for national security doesn’t go so far as to refuse to help our fellow human beings, including children, who have witnessed so much horror and are simply seeking a chance at a better life.

If we must keep them out, I would hope our country can continue providing assistance in some meaningful way.

What better way to defeat those who would strike terror in the hearts of their fellow man than to show love and kindness to those who need it most?

Brian Knox is the Messenger’s special projects manager.

One Response to “Finding heartache and hope in a refugee camp”

  1. Skip Nichols says:

    There is no one I know with a bigger heart or more loving soul than my friend Brian Knox. In the midst of so much senseless fear and anger, Brian’s kindness and love of mankind renews my spirit. Thank you for your words of wisdom.


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