Thursday, June 29, 2017

When Starbucks and Syrian refugees collide

A little Syrian girl peeks out from behind the curtain of her tent
NOTE: All photos are from my iphone until the 'real' ones come out in a few weeks. 

What a burnt out Syrian school bus looks like before it gets bombed
So, for the last few years I’ve been feeling really disillusioned about the church in the West. Because from where I’m sitting, it looks to me like most of our Western churches care about things like building bigger campuses, installing better sound systems and tossing a few crumbs from our table to the poor when we feel guilty enough to do so. But before you get your knickers in a twist and all offended. Relax. I know many incredible pastors and churches - my Dad is pastor and not like this, our home church in NZ is not like this and countless others are not like this. But many are.

And so for years as I’ve held the hands of mothers in refugee tents with tears running down their cheeks I’ve found myself repeatedly thinking, “Where the HECK is the church? Cause we sure aren’t here. And I am so deeply sorry that we have failed you. Our Western church has failed you miserably. We’ve done a little, we’ve done ok…. but it’s not nearly enough. So you can only imagine how happy my heart felt last week when I arrived in Lebanon and I saw the actual church. Hands and feet of Jesus stuff. Christopher Wright sums it up,
“It is not so much the case that God has a mission for his church in the world as that God has a church for his mission in the world. Mission was not made for the church, the church was made for mission. God’s mission.”I don’t know about you, but for me, the Syrian refugee crisis has certainly captured my attention for the last four years. The chemical weapons attacks, the burnt out school buses and the images coming out of Aleppo are ones I can’t forget and so the opportunity to spend a week with the people who’ve escaped these horrors was one I would never miss. I’ve wondered what it was like for these people to be in a warzone.  I‘ve wondered what life’s like for them now. I’ve wondered if the money we’ve sent got there and helped. This trip was the chance to answer those questions. 

But first, a quick recap. Syria used to be a country of 25 million people. But because of the war, 11 million have either fled the country or been displaced within Syria. Most have gone via boat, bus, foot and car to the borders of Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq. Some have resettled in Western countries. For this trip, I was in Lebanon. Lebanon is a tiny country bordering Syria with 4.3 million people in it. But today, it has an extra 1.5 million Syrian refugees living in it too.  

25 day old Amina sleeps in her Mums arms as they wait
for a food box at the church

If you’re a Kiwi, Lebanon is approximately the size of Northland. Can you imagine if 1.5 million people showed up there? How would the public health system fare? The transport system? Employment opportunities - especially when Syrians are willing to do your job for cheaper. This is part of the extremely complex nature of a refugee crisis. Although it is good and right that Syrians are able to come to Lebanon, the host country has a big job. Especially when a mere 12 years prior, the Syrian Army had just ended its 29-year occupation of Lebanon. 

To now see Syrians turning around and knocking on their doors for help was an ironic twist of events. Many Lebanese—including church pastors—felt fear and hatred towards them. But as they chose faith over fear they began reaching out and providing food, blankets and support to their once oppressors. I was reminded of a quote by Dorothy Day, “Love is a harsh and dreadful thing to ask of us, but it is the only answer”.

Money that's been donated provides
mattresses and blankets

The Syrian refugee crisis is like nothing I’ve come across before, and quite frankly it messes with your mind. I think it was somewhere on the road between Beirut and the Syrian border where I found myself sipping on a Starbucks Frappuccino that I knew this trip was going to be way different. 

In my job I get to meet a lot of refugees, from a lot of different crises and the environments we meet in are, for the most part, the same. Formal refugee settlements, accessed through a security team, white tents in rows, long lines for food, and tens of thousands of people crammed into a small space. UNHCR provides shelter, World Food Program provides food and other NGO’s chip in here and there to make life better.  Lebanon is different.

For starters, there are no formal refugee camps. So when a Syrian refugee crosses the border they are left with little other options than to ‘rent a tent’ or rely on the kindness of a stranger to set up some kind of shelter on their land and pay rent that way. If one particular orchard owner allows it, you may see up to 15 or 20 tents on one piece of land. These refugees also have to truck in their own water and provide for most of their own food. They are unable to work legally and are encouraged to go back as soon as they can. All very hard for a family who’ve just fled a war zone and come with nothing.

But what messed with my mind the most was the urban refugee situation. In central Beirut you’ll find hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees living in garages, unfinished buildings, back rooms and abandoned houses. These refugees are given little to no assistance, are surviving hand to mouth and yet could easily live next to a Dunkin’ Donuts. Lebanon is fondly called the ‘Paris of the Middle East’ and so shops like H&M, Zara and Topshop sit in malls next to buildings riddled with bullet holes (from the Lebanese civil war). And inside those bullet-ridden buildings are, you guessed it, Syrian refugees hanging out their washing. Some of the tents I visited were even using billboards featuring ads for Pizza Hut or shampoo as the external covering of their house. It is SO weird to interview someone about ISIS with a picture of a mouth-watering pizza behind you. My two worlds collided. This isn’t how it was supposed to look.

And don’t even get me started on the fact that our field car was not the large white eight seater UNHCR vehicles I’m used to. Ours was a Kia. The Syrian crisis was also the most personally challenging environment I’ve ever had to photograph in because hardly anyone wants to show their face for fear of serious repercussions. Faceless portraits are certainly not an area of expertise for me.

I was there to photograph the work of three different organisations serving Syrian refugees. But the one I want to talk about right now is the one that is using the local church network to reach Syrian refugees because my goodness, I was blown away by them. I walked into churches on a weekday afternoon to find the pastor and his volunteers buzzing around like bees in a bee-hive doing food distribution to 1500 Syrian refugee families.  And that’s for a church with approximately 80 members. I found another church doing clothes distribution to those who came with just the clothes on their backs. Yet another church is giving diapers and milk to stressed-out young mums. I saw the church in action, doing what it was made to do. Not sitting around pointing fingers, judging or offering help with an agenda. Simply being the hands and feet of Jesus.

But the coolest thing of all was that the ones actually giving food to refugees were Syrian refugees now attending the church and working peacefully alongside Lebanese locals. The dignity in that was really beautiful. You see, many Syrians came from middle to upper middle class backgrounds. But when bombs started hitting their towns and cities—they left everything behind and ran.  To humble yourself to receive a food box or a blanket is hard. But knowing you have nothing left to support your family as someone stole it or burnt it is harder.

The Syrian crisis has layers upon layers of complexity woven through it and there are no easy answers. The geo-political climate is a historical nightmare to wade your way through and the cultural differences run deep. I don’t know much, but I do know that the Syrians I spent time with were some of the sweetest people I’ve ever met. Survivors of a war they want no part in. As my plane took off this verse was ringing in my heart.   “Do you know what I want? I want justice – oceans of it. I want fairness, rivers of it. That what I want. What I really want.” Amos 5:24 Message Version

I interviewed a 70 year old lady with a tattoo.
She's got serious street cred in my books.

Monday, June 19, 2017

20 photos that bring to life what the USA is doing in Uganda

Earlier this year I was thrilled beyond belief to be given a job working for USAID as their photographer. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) is the United States Government agency which is primarily responsible for administering civilian foreign aid. Their budget is a cool 31 billion each year....My job was to bring their work to life through photos. #nopressure

Together, with my colleague, AnneAckerman, we spent the next two months travelling around the country photographing their work here. Considering they deliver a whopping USD$865m in assistance to Uganda every single year, we certainly had our work cut out for us! Each week we'd take turns heading out to the field visiting a selection of their projects in every region of the country.

In total I think I personally visited about 28 projects. It was so incredible to see the work they are doing with so many different partner to do their part to help build a healthy, prosperous, inclusive, educated, empowered and stable country. In total I delivered 1700 edited images from about 10,000 that I took. These are a small selection of some of my favourite photos from our time together creating the Report to the Ugandan People from the United States Mission to Uganda.

Full report can be found here.