Monday, January 29, 2018

The Departure Lounge

12.The Departure Lounge (28 January 2018)
The third of four groups of carolers in
front of our (and the neighbor’s)
door in the wee hours of Christmas
Day (6 Jan. 2018 – Beirut)
            We were enjoying our “last supper” with Lara, waiting for Hovig to take us to the airport for Lara’s return trip to Armenia. It had been a relaxing, fun, all-around great eight days of family time together. Suddenly, the neighbors across the hallway burst out of their apartment and began pounding on our door, hysterically screaming, “My!!! My!!! (in Arabic, “Water! Water!”). I rushed to their apartment to see what was burning, while Maria ran to our kitchen to grab a container to fill with water to douse the flame. When I reached their kitchen and saw a 26-year-old flat on her back with the family gathered around trying to rouse her, I rushed back to our place, grabbed the water from Maria and told her to go immediately and help them. That’s something I’m trained to do, after 38 years (this month) of marriage to an R.N. I consider it a finely-honed skill.
            The neighbors across the way were a Syrian-Armenian family from Damascus, who had come to Lebanon because they had been accepted by the Australian government to be relocated to Australia, albeit to a city where there is no Armenian community. Neither refugees nor tourists here in Lebanon, they consist of a widowed mother in her 50s and her three children in their 20s. Her fourth, the eldest son, had already escaped to Germany, and is working on obtaining a law degree there. They had been staying a few days here and a few days there for a month, until one of our pastors arranged for them to remain in a single place while they tried to get their affairs in order before their departure.
If it looks like we’re happy to be together, it’s because we are!
(3 Jan. 2018 – Beirut)
            Christmas Eve (January 5, that is) rolled around, and we were excited because Lara was going to bravely go out (only her third day in Beirut) with complete strangers from one of the church youth groups, to carol hither and yon in Armenian all night, something I used to do with my church’s youth 40 years ago back in Philly (albeit in English), something that stopped when members were no longer living in the vicinity of the church. We were also excited that four different churches were going to send their carolers to us, and in that way our temporary neighbors, burdened with fears from having lived in a war zone, along with the uncertainty about their impending relocation, would also enjoy the good news of Christ’s coming as each group showed up to sing (the last one arriving at 3 a.m.). And their faces were joyful! That night marked the transition from saying “hello” in passing to becoming “neighbors” in the local sense, where you stop by at any time, no invitation needed or expected, to talk and have a cup of (Arabic, of course) coffee.
            Oh, sorry… I left one of the neighbors passed out on the kitchen floor.
            So, Maria was doing her best to help this young lady wake up, while her younger sister and brother were yelling her name, and her mother was just yelling. Hysterics, in the not-funny sense. I stood at the ready, doing whatever Maria needed me to do, trying to calm down the mother, and eventually they got her up, onto a chair, and eventually into bed. But why had she passed out? Probably from not sleeping for two or three days. They had been going to a variety of local government offices for documents needed by the Australian embassy to grant them passage out of Lebanon, but they also had to travel back and forth to Damascus to get documents from there. They did that last trip to Syria in 24 hours, there and back. Lack of sleep, lack of proper food, and there you are on the kitchen floor.
Excursion with Lara to Jbeil/Byblos. Can you spot her in
this picture? (7 Jan. 2018 – Jbeil)
            Yet sharing this moment of crisis drew us even closer, as we listened to whatever they felt they could tell us. At first it was about their experiences in government offices here, trying to get their papers in order, and returning day after day, waiting from morning until evening, then being told to come back the next day. Later, they shared a bit of their past, and some of what they experienced during these seven years of war in Syria. Their neighborhood was surrounded on three sides by terror groups, giving them an unwanted front-line war experience. The mother said that one day a couple of years ago the army showed up, handed out guns to the men in her building (including her older son) and told them to defend it if Daesh (IS/ISIS/ISIL) broke through their defenses. This is a woman who had built her home bit by bit, saving up and doing improvements (like a roof and walls) as she was able, a woman who had the grit to study and sit for governmental exams at age 45 in order to get her high school diploma. She knew that this very real danger would soon reach both her sons. She called a friend who drives a taxi and told him to come by right away and whisk her older son away, out of the country, quickly, however he could. Eventually, she also sent her younger son to Lebanon, and then a few months ago, along with her daughters, joined him.
            As we sat and visited, and as they shared more and more with us, we spoke about how their lives were going to change radically in that “Western” country they were headed to. They would have peace and security, they would have cleanliness and order, but they would also be very lonely. I shared, “It’s an individualistic culture, where age, experience, family, and culture – aside from their own culture – are much maligned.” They were aware of this, and aware to some degree that they would need to adapt in many, many ways, including mastering English and gaining an education. They laughed as they related the story of a father sitting in a preparatory class given by the embassy, teaching about how to treat your children, Western-style: you musn’t hit them when you want them to do something, but explain to them why it is important to do this or that, etc., etc., etc. Yes, yes, yes, the father said he understood. But taking his child by the hand and leaving the classroom, as soon as they were outside the door, he soundly smacked him on the head for his disobedience!
For those who were worried that we haven’t yet gotten a set of
wheels, worry no more. (28 Nov. 2017 – Beirut)
            A few days ago we made another trip to the airport, this time taking this family, their eight suitcases and four carry-on bags, to leave them there to await the embassy agent who would guide them through until they boarded the airplane to their new life. It was a tearful parting, because they – and we – knew that they were not just leaving newly-found friends, but were also leaving a place of familiar comforts and terrors, and heading toward the unknown. I told them, “I’m happy for you, but I’m sad for our community. Each person who departs takes something away from us.”
            I often get the feeling that I’m living in a departure lounge. People are milling about me, doing the various tasks that are part of their daily lives, and their church and community life. But their one ear is on the public address system, waiting for their flight to be announced. Today after the worship service a fellow said to me, “You know, they all have their escape planned. All of them.”
            And now, a year after arriving, people are still asking us, “So, you’re planning to stay?” And we wonder how it is possible to be committed to a people and a place when you are mentally living in a departure lounge. Meanwhile, some, far away, are, as it were, sending text messages from those dreamed-about places to those in the lounge, saying, “What are you waiting for?”
LebCat 11: Sophisticated tastes, obviously, on
display in a jewelry store. Next to a falafel
restaurant. (28 Apr. 2017 – Burj Hammoud)
            Fortunately, there are many others here who know that a departure lounge is no place to live. We have cast our lot to be with them, to live and serve alongside them. Taking all the uncertainties and deprivations of daily life here into account, and realizing that the ill-advised and arrogant declarations of the rich and powerful elsewhere in the world are dealing crushing blows to people of all faiths and conditions in this part of the world, we are focusing on doing what is of lasting value. And there is so much to do in so many areas! …educational, cultural, environmental, and on, and on, and a great need for people who will keep their ear on God’s word, not the public address system.
            We came home from the airport that night feeling empty, feeling that loss. The day after, when the family had arrived in Australia, we sent them audio and text messages to encourage them. And we carried on with our week, praying for them, and we continue to do so. But we are resolved not to live in a departure lounge.   [LNB]

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