In fifty years, we’re going to look back at the first half of the 21st century and remember again that the Syrian crisis—the apex of larger regional and international conflicts—was the defining struggle of a generation. It’s a crucial moment not only for Arabs, but for the world.
What is happening today—and over the last five years in Syria and neighboring countries—will shape foreign policies, humanitarian aid, international alliances, religious and ethnic sectarianism, and borders and governments in the Middle East for decades to come. In this kind of crisis, swallowing tens of millions of people and billions of dollar and spanning some of the great divides of the modern world (e.g. East and West, Sunni and Shia, fundamentalism and secularism), naiveté is not an option. You can read, you can write, you can give, you can serve, you can pray, but you can’t do nothing.
For me, I took an opportunity with a North American NGO in Beirut as an Emergency Response Assistant. Basically, that means I wrote stories, researched project proposals, and helped partners in the field responding to the nearly two million refugees in Lebanon (1.5 million Syrians and 300,000 Palestinians) and the 13.5 million people in need within Syria. It was an up-close and personal window into the swirling vortex of terror and the tilting of superpowers.
Every day I heard stories from Syrians. Every day I saw the reality of trauma, a reality I used to view with skepticism. Some days I even felt the reality myself. And this, I think, is healthy. Sensing trauma, feeling sadness, knowing grief—these are signs that at least you are not completely numb.
Not long ago, a friend of mine told me her family’s house in Aleppo had been hit by a mortar. It’s the kind of thing I could once imagine for movies, but not in real life. It’s the sort of story you might see on the news, shake your head, and flip the channel. But to hear it from people I live with and care about, to see their faces, to sit beside them and literally hear their accelerating heartbeats—all of this proves to me the necessity of being involved, here, now.
Most North Americans will never set foot in the Middle East, and that’s okay, but that doesn’t mean you can avoid this developing hinge of history. We need to call it what it is. It’s not a big civil war; it’s a small world war. Fighters from nearly 100 countries are in combat. Proxies of NATO and Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia are in play. Political profiles from the Middle East, Europe, Russia, and North America are being defined by this issue.
It’s easy to feel that the problem is overwhelming. Because it is. It’s easy to sense that you can’t fix it. Because you can’t. Not alone. But that doesn’t mean sit back.
For a few years after university, I followed what was happening over there, watching and reading always with what I imagined was the proper dose of empathy, the right amount of compassion. But I knew it wasn’t enough to feel things. I wanted to do more, but didn’t know how. At least, I told myself I didn’t know how.
The truth is, I did know how—just like you do. I knew I could do more, it was just too daunting to do it. It would be too hard. It would require too much. But then I considered how much it would cost to not do the hard things. You can’t always say, “Tomorrow,” because there are real deadlines. Things are happening on the ground today, now, this second. You can’t always say, “When I have enough money,” or, “When the chance comes,” because you’ll never have enough and the best chances have a way of becoming clear only in hindsight. There is no such thing as being completely ready. There is, however, such a thing as being completely committed.
Committed to what? To any number of things. To writing blog posts and writing congressmen. To attending lectures and attending rallies. To welcoming new ideas and welcoming refugees. To volunteering, to donating, to sacrificing. To studying history and economics and politics and development and theology. And, for some of us, to working for NGOs at home and abroad. To get positively dirty.
In fifty years, kids are going to read in history books about the upheaval in the Middle East that is happening now. They’re going to watch documentaries and write theses about the millions of refugees flooding wherever the tide allowed, about the Middle East’s emptying of Christians and other minorities, and about the changing hue of global politics. They’re going to ask, “What did you do?”
We need to have an answer, and hopefully a good one. So do something.