“later that night i held an atlas in my lap ran my fingers across the whole world and whispered where does it hurt? it answered: Everywhere everywhere everywhere.” ― Warsan Shire
My wife, Patricia, and I have lived overseas for 37 of our 57 years. During those years we have seen humanity at its most loving and perhaps at its least. We have held babies decimated by AIDS. We have walked the raunchy red light districts to meet women longing to turn their lives around. We have been robbed. And we have been treated so generously by many of the locals. For 22 years our home was Thailand, a land where more people were involved in the industry of sexual exploitation than there were born-again believers.
Just nine months after our arrival in 1991, we experienced the first of two military coups. Scenes of angry protests, the burning of cars, and more tragically, the shooting of live ammunition against unarmed student protestors filled the nightly news. The second coup d’etat, occurred in 2006, and was more divisive. The following years were filled with accusations and violence between the red (pro-democracy) and yellow (pro monarchy) shirts. One morning in 2008 we woke up to the news that the yellow shirts with bats and clubs had seized the International Airport in Bangkok. It became a prison and a dump for a week as they held control for what they believed would lead to a final showdown. The real turning point came in 2010 when the the red shirts decided to blockade the downtown core for several weeks. The army was called in to disperse them once and for all. I remember too well the panic in my wife’s voice as she exclaimed over the phone, “They are sending tanks into the streets, Peter!” The red shirts fled, but not after torching dozens of important government and commercial buildings in their wake.
We moved to France in 2014, thinking life would be calmer. But anti-semitic riots broke out less than a month after we arrived. This time we encountered riot police, smelling the tear gas and burning tires as we zigzagged our way to join our two teenage daughters in the apartment. Six months later we heard never ending sirens signaling a deadly terror attack at the offices of Charlie Hebdo. A dozen were left dead and others injured. Nine months later came another well-coordinated attack, this time on the famed Bataclan theatre and a few bars. It happened just as Parisians were settling down for a calm evening with friends. The death toll was over a hundred. And then, six months later, after a short vacation, we left Nice only to find out upon our return that a man drove a large truck into a crowd of people celebrating Bastille Day crushing to death over 80 pedestrians! Add to these horrendous events the brazen attack on an 85 year old Catholic priest who’s throat was slit while performing his duties in front of his Catholic congregation. Understandably the country of France lived in paranoia believing the enemy lurked everywhere and the easiest group to identify came from those seeking refuge from all the wars in the mideast.
The Somali poet repeated the same word thrice, “Everywhere, everywhere, everywhere.” My work required me to travel from time to time. I personally became aware of a divided world, everywhere its systems broken and lacking. This reality sunk deepest when in 2017 I travelled to Iraq to be with some of my American friends who worked for Preemptive Love Coalition. They were struggling with daily death and violence they had witnessed. I went to be a friend for them, but deep down I wanted to see, smell and be moved by the brokenness.
When Matt sent me a possible itinerary of where we would visit I was most excited and afraid of a planned trip to Mosul. He asked if I would be up for that, to take part in a food delivery? Of course, I was. However, when I got there I breathed a simultaneous sigh of disappointment and relief when the team was told by American Intelligence that it was unsafe to go in. Instead we spent hours in a large camp called Arbat where thousands of displaced people lived in non-descript cement block rooms. There workers with Preemptive Love Coalition had made many friends and created opportunities for self-sustaining. It was there I was reminded of the need to show up and do something. This group lived out generously their slogan:
“We are the first to show up and the last to leave…”
I returned to France where I was introduced to a young Syrian named Khaled. He had been largely depressed and rarely liked to leave the tiny one room apartment he lived in. The first time I met him was over a coffee. After the formalities, he blurted something that surprised me, “I hate all religion!” That was pretty well his opening line. I think I might have said, “Ya, me too!” And then he told me his story, how he loved his country and how he joined the peaceful student revolution with high hopes to bring about needed change and freedoms. And then the government turned on them. Soon after the country imploded into sectarian and religious violence. Now I’ve known Khaled for over a year now. We have become friends. He has helped me get insight as to why people in that part of the world and in any part of the world would hate religion, one word, hypocrisy.
Everywhere. War, violence, persecution, hatred and poverty continue to wreak havoc on our globe. Since World War 2 there has never been a time on our earth when so many people have been forcibly displaced. The UNHCR reports that at present 68.5 million people worldwide have been forcibly displaced. That’s an astronomical amount. Syria, now in its eighth year of a civil war, accounts for the greatest number of people fleeing. Almost 65 percent of its population is either internally displaced or have fled elsewhere in search of safety and a new future. Other countries like Afghanistan, South Sudan, Yemen, Eritrea, Venezuela, or even Colombia have broken down. The famines in the reclusive country of North Korea are starving it’s most vulnerable. While the genocide in Myanmar that dominated the headlines for weeks is sadly forgotten by most. Thank God for the many relief organisations worldwide that provide relief to the weary and broken. But the never-ending need has stretched most them to their limits.
Of course solutions never come easy. Until our politicians and leaders are stirred by the present crisis, our weary world will continue half-heartedly to use hit and miss strategies. In the meantime the need for resilience on the part of refugees has never been greater. After treacherous journeys over mountains, deserts and seas they find themselves in strange places where language, money and boredom are their daily grind. They battle on with a lack of belonging and no neighbour to call when they need help. Their futures point to a bleak life on the streets and not much better in overcrowded refugee camps. The demanding solution requires all of us, just like the various organisations and associations, to show up and do something.
Perhaps the most virtuous thing we all could do is to provide hospitality to those who no longer have a home, a culture or a sense of belonging. I love a new program dubbed 100 Nights of Warmth that one of the churches in Paris is creating. Nightly, twenty men, all refugees, will have a warm space to spend the cold winter’s night. They too need more volunteers to show up. And that is the lifeblood of our world, caring people who volunteer their resources, energy and time so our world will thrive into the future.
And so, here we are, now 37 years of living in countries not our own. My wife and I are in some small way displaced people, but by choice, and with a roof over our head, a salary and comfortable with the local language. But we understand, to a degree, the culture shock, the adapting and the feelings of being lost. Perhaps this is why our hearts are being turned towards the despair of the Syrians, Afghans, Iraqis, and other migrants of poverty and war. We want to show up by living out a story of generosity. If we could, and it’s in our heart to do so, we’d create a space here in Paris where those who were chased by bombs and bullets, those who don’t belong, the broken and afraid, could sit and be safe and find ‘home.’ It will be a beautiful place where Hope is resurrected and Dignity gets restored. Travelers from a far-off country will come and be embraced with the a message of sonship and daughtership. It will be for many a happy place and maybe of new beginnings.