The semester at Liberty University was barely over when I decided to fly half way around the world to see for myself what was happening among the world’s most war torn people -- the Syrians.
As Liberty University’s Vice President responsible for our Center for Global Engagement, it’s part of my job to further our mission to inspire and empower our students to make this world a better place. This year our students have provided medical care for impoverished people in Africa, taught English to young leaders in Asia, and have produced a thousand smiles on the faces of a thousand children around the world. From Rwanda to Bosnia, and in dozens of nations in between, our students they have helped people, and the students have been beating down my door for more than a year asking what more we can do for Syria.
So, I decided to find out for myself.
With the help of World Help -- an organization founded by Liberty University’s first graduate, Vernon Brewer -- I went into the heart of the Zaatari camp on Jordan’s border with Syria to investigate opportunities to serve.
I’ll never forget what I saw there.
Almost everyone I met had bullet wounds and scars.
Perhaps it’s what I should have expected being in a place like that … in a time like this.
The white, wind swept tents went as far as I could see, and then there were the children -- thousands of them – running aimlessly, everywhere. Almost all of the white tents had faded to a shade of brown as dark as the sand they were pitched upon, like the faded hopes of the families whose lives had been destroyed by a war they didn’t choose. These rudimentary conditions provided the only available shelter for the nearly 200,000 Syrian refugees living there, and I could taste their despair. Pain was atmospheric, even omnipresent. Everyone had lost someone, most of them had lost everything, and no one had any hope of having any hope to speak of.
It all seemed unreal to me until a Syrian man came to our fortified pick-up truck and started banging wildly on the window.
For a moment, I had no idea what was happening, and my heart started throbbing in my chest. The animated man was screaming something in Arabic.
The tension was palpable in the camp, and I had already been warned repeatedly to stay in the truck just in case some troublemakers started throwing rocks. “In fact,” they told me, “we picked this truck because it’s stronger, in case you’re stoned.”
That was nice to know -- just in case.
Our translator calmed our fears as he told us the man was asking us to “take a video of this place and show the world how bad it is here.”
So, we stopped the truck, got out, and began to meet wonderful, heartbroken people.
One man my father’s age lifted his shirt to show me the faded red lacerations that criss-crossed his back, and a man my age showed me the disfigured part of his leg where one of Assad’s bullets had entered and then blasted out.
Another man, whom I’ll call Abdul, even invited us into his tent. We sat there for almost an hour getting to know one another.
Abdul wasn’t poor when he lived in Syria. He had a fantastic job in a big city, and he and his wife and children lived in a beautiful four-bedroom home. They had hope and a future, and life was moving along grandly.
Then the war began, and that’s when the life they knew ended.
Assad’s army temporarily imprisoned Abdul because they suspected his son was fighting in the opposition. They had hoped they could get to the son by the father. This was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. In the cover of night, Abdul and his family left all they had behind for a terrifying journey to this camp of refugees. Now, they lived barely one tier above the beggars.
I asked Abdul if he would like me to send a message to America on his behalf. He replied without hesitation. He said, “Please tell them we’re people too, just like them. We’re not animals.”
The Syrian situation is enormously complex, and its complexities multiply by the day, but a few things are clear. First, these are real and regular people (just like you and me). And, secondly, Syria’s megalomaniacal leader was responsible for most of the misery I saw there, and it was abundantly clear to those people that he would have killed every one of them had he had the chance, including their children.
I’m not sure we’ll ever know why President Obama -- despite the advice of his Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and CIA director -- chose to leave Syria’s children groaning in despair, or why the President decided to redefine the meaning of “red line” as soon as evidence of chemical weapons use emerged. Of course, I understand there are sensitivities with Russia and a fragmenting opposition increasingly influenced by Islamic extremists, but I also am not sure I know how Obama would answer the question one refugee asked me to ask him about equally volatile Arab states: “Why does Obama care about the Libyans, the Tunisians, the Egyptians, and the Yemeni, yet he lets Syrians die?”
These questions are important, but they are bigger than most of us.
Politics and complexities aside, the Syrian crisis is the most dire of our time, and I do know at least one thing. We can all do a little to help those who didn’t ask for all of this. A twist of fate and any of us could have been any of them.
And that’s a lesson I want our students to learn. I want them to take personally the pain of the world they’re living in, and to not let the ambivalence of the powerful steal their passion to do a little bit of good. We’re going to do exactly that, whether or not politics stands in the way of what could be done.
We did take that video, by the way, and I promised that man I would tell the world what I had seen.
Now, I have.