13.5 million is a number. It is the approximate number of people inside Syria who need humanitarian assistance.
13.5 million dreams of being a teacher or a doctor or a rockstar; 13.5 million first crushes; 13.5 million people finishing their favourite book for the first time and wishing they could stay in that world a little longer; 13.5 million people eating ice cream and swimming at the beach on a hot day.
For many New Zealanders, these are parts of our lives. For 13.5 million other people they are desperate dreams.
But if we want to understand the full effect of the Syrian conflict, we will not find it in the number 13.5 million. We might be able to begin to understand it when we remember that for each of those numbers between 1 and 13.5 million, there is a life, and the incalculable dreams, relationships and experiences that should come with that.
In a public conversation about her work reporting on the Syrian crisis, journalist Rachel Smalley flicks through pictures, on two projector screens, of people she has met through her work. Each set of eyes holds a life lived. She tells the story of Hind, a girl who dreams of becoming a teacher. Hind tells her how she misses the trees in Syria, the smell, every grain of sand. Hind has a special spirit about her, a spirit that paints a picture of hope, a picture that shows a 13 year old girl growing into an empowering, inspiring, and compassionate voice for Syria’s future. Hind wants to go back to Syria.
That was in 2013 and Hind has not returned home since. She has married and has a child, but she has not returned to sit under the trees, or smell the air, or soak in the warmth of the soft sand. All those moments in her life, that we take for granted, have been lived in a muddy, inhumane, reflection of human arrogance and lack of compassion that we hide in the terms ‘refugee camps’ or ‘detention centres.’
In New Zealand, we watch the lives on the projector pass over our faces and through our heads. In New Zealand, we sit and watch on, helpless, as we hear heartbreak pass through our ears. But are we helpless?
In 1981, for approximately 56 days, New Zealand let go of its innocence and protested the injustice of apartheid happening in a country miles away; and Nelson Mandela would later say that when he heard of the protests while in a jail cell on Robben Island, it was “like the sun had come up.” In 2010, ordinary doctors travelled to Christchurch to alleviate stretched medical professionals, school children baked cakes and wrote cards to a shattered and shaken city. And now, sitting far away in New Zealand, we look to the centre of the two projector screens. At the very centre of the projector screen, sits a cross. It reminds us that Jesus Christ lived and loved the most vulnerable, and that he struggled. He often stood alone.
Hind wants to go home. She is not alone. 13.5 million of our brothers and sisters from Syria want to go home too. In New Zealand, we are not Syria, but we are a home. “Naku te rourou nau te rourou ka ora ai te iwi: With your basket and my basket the people will thrive.” In New Zealand, we have enough in our baskets for people to thrive, to bring our Syrian whanau home.