2018 Holiday Letter: Waiting in Hope
Today is going to be a day of waiting. As I write, I am sitting on a plane in Athens waiting for my first of two flights back to the United States to depart. Over the next 12 hours, I’ll be waiting for flights, waiting to deplane, waiting for luggage, & waiting for immigration and customs. There is nothing remarkable about all of this waiting, of course; it is an expected, though unpleasant, part of international travel.
But waiting has been on my mind a lot over the past few days, and not only because I’ve been spending time in a bunch of airports this past week.
Four days ago, I had chance to visit the Moria Refugee Camp on the island of Lesbos, Greece. Images of the camp’s horrendous living conditions are haunting. Thousands of refugees from countries such as Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan have taken harrowing and often deadly trips on rickety boats to escape the horrors of war. The refugee crisis that reached its climax in 2015 has been described as the single worst humanitarian crisis in Europe and the most daunting challenge faced by the European Union since the end of World War II. Lesbos and other European entry points are simply unable to absorb the refugees and so inhuman camps were established in a feeble attempt to stave off starvation and disease on a mass scale.
The tragedy of thousands of refugees and migrants living in deplorable conditions in Lesbos, Calais, Italy, Jordan, and elsewhere remains wholly unsolved and largely unseen by the world. About 4000 refugees and migrants currently live in the Moria Camp alone, a small fraction of the number of displaced persons worldwide. These individuals subsist in makeshift tents with meager rations of food, unreliable electricity, no schooling, no work, no clean water, and no place or nation to call home. The photos above provide a tiny (and sanitized) sense of what the camp looked like just a few days ago when I visited.
Apart from the most basic human functions of eating, sleeping, and personal hygiene, the refugees spend their days and nights waiting: waiting to fill out EU forms in the hope of being granted refugee status; waiting for an interview with bureaucrats; waiting for a decision about their fate that will issue from an impersonal governmental machine; waiting for news that will hurtle them again into new rounds of waiting.
For the lucky ones, a refugee may receive permission to live legally within Greece. Most will be forbidden from ever living or working outside of Greece, however, even if they do receive permission to stay.
And if a refugee receives permission to live within Greece, they will be sent to some Greek city, where their waiting will begin again: They will wait to find a place to live; they will wait to find a job, unlikely as that is since even refugees who speak English and who have skills or education are unlikely to be hired before Greek citizens who are also desperately looking for work in an economy that never recovered from the Great Recession. These refugees will wait for a school to send their children to, for a meal, a kind gesture, or a chance somehow and against all odds, to start again.
This waiting is incomparable to the waiting many of us endure – whether to board a plane, get through traffic, or renew our driver’s license. Refugees’ waiting is laced with terror, without status updates or approximate departure times. It is open-ended, seemingly endless, full of trauma.
With this depressingly bleak backdrop, meet Ali, a 23-year refugee from Raqqa, Syria, with whom I had a conversation last Wednesday. Ali left his parents, his younger brother, his career, his decimated home, and his war-torn nation to make the harrowing trip from Syria to Lesbos, via Turkey, 18 months ago. His only companion along the way was a schoolmate from his town, who tragically lost heart on the way to Lesbos, tried to return to Syria, and was killed on the journey back to Syria.
After arriving to the camp alone-in-the-world, Ali – who spoke neither English nor Greek -- filled out the required forms, submitted to the mandated interviews, and waited 16 months to receive permission to remain in Greece. During the period of waiting in Lesbos, the Syrian Army visited Ali’s family’s home and forcibly conscripted his 14-year old brother to fight in the Syrian military. Ali showed me the picture of his brother, dressed in military garb, holding an AK47.
For most, this endless waiting would surely have destroyed us.
But not for Ali. He discovered the International School of Peace, an amazing oasis in the midst of a living hell, established by the cooperative efforts of Israelis and Palestinians, for the purpose of working with this migrant and refugee community to co-create a space of learning, support, and hope. There Ali learned English from scratch and became one of the school’s teachers. When I met him, he was working with little children, teaching them math and English. He loves his work at the school but knows he must leave soon to avoid being sent back to Turkey and deported back to Syria.
So his story of waiting will begin anew.
For so many, 2018 has been a year of hard and arduous waiting:
· for mid-term election returns;
· or gun control legislation;
· or a sensible immigration policy;
· or, in other cases:
· for clarity in a job search or a new direction;
· or pregnancy
· or the arrival of a newborn;
· or improved health;
· or a suitable life partner;
· or, in still other cases:
· for humility;
· or courage;
· or forgiveness
· or hope;
· or healing;
· or peace.
At times, such waiting makes us feel powerless. And hopeless. And overwhelmed. The waiting for ‘what’s next’ can be crippling.
As I toured the Moria Refugee Camp this past week, I felt for those few hours the weight of all the world’s Waiting being concentrated in the crucible of this one grotesque and godforsaken place on this tiny out-of- the-way island: The waiting for justice, the waiting for peace, the waiting for freedom, the waiting for goodness and righteousness: All the endless waiting for Love to come, once again, with trumpet fanfare and angels singing Glory to God in the Highest, seemed concentrated in that tiny refugee camp in Lesbos.
Yet in the midst of this enervating waiting was Ali, keeping faith, doing good, pressing onward, sharing his story and his hope, as if to say, “Do not be afraid. Wait in hope.”
Ali chooses hope over fear; action over surrender; resilience over victimization: He learns English and teaches others; he laughs and plays with refugee children; he keeps vigil with those in the dark who Wait in Hope in the Moria Camp.
At a historical moment when storm clouds of darkness and fear gather, and as we wait for what comes next, Ali inspires me.
He reminds me of the importance of Waiting in Hope. We do this by choosing service, joy, and laughter; by standing in solidarity with the poor and the broken; by remembering the Hope & Light who, himself, was born a refugee, in a barn, surrounded by cold and the stench of wild animals.
As the liturgical season of Waiting comes to an end and the season of Hope and Light begins, may all your waiting this year – whether for a new love or a fresh start, for a speedy commute or a big lottery win, for healing or for love – be done in wonder and in hope.
Whether this is your 28th holiday letter from me or your first, thank you for being a part of my life. I hope that we will connect in the year ahead! May you have a very Merry Christmas, a wonderful holiday season, and a hope-filled 2019!
 Out of respect for the people who live in this camp for whom this camp is their ‘home’, I did not take any pictures of any refugees. The one person who appears in a photo above was part of the team who accompanied us on our journey.
Moria refugee camp, lesbos greece