Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Hold on to that and never lose it

I don't often participate in the "What are you thankful for?" trends that pop up on social media these days. It's not that I am not a thankful person. I guess it's more because we're all thankful, or should be, so why should my story be any different than the next person's?

But this year I am thankful that our daughter sent us searching for her lost Social Security card. God can have his hand in the littlest stuff and I think he was working last week when Kelsey texted and asked for our help.

But back to that in a minute.

When I can, I attend a men's group on Tuesday mornings down at the church. This morning when we finished watching our video the conversation turned to the people in our lives that had most shaped us. Now that I look back, it seems like it might have been a cleverly disguised conversation starter for a more appropriate topic for the day: "Who are you most thankful for in your life?" Not surprisingly, most of the men at the gathering pointed to their fathers.

When it came my turn, I had the opportunity to talk about my dad. I usually don't pass up that opportunity.

I didn't appreciate my dad as much when I was an immature kid as I do now. I suppose that's what happens when the passing of time joins with the onset of wisdom to forge a greater love for someone after it's, well, too late. It's a cruel twist but it's better than not feeling anything when you know you should.

My dad and mom brought me up Baptist and my sullen teenage self somehow convinced them to let me sit on the back row of the church every week, away from them. Most often they agreed. At the altar call every week, my father's eyes would well with tears as people walked to the front of the church. Even when no one walked down, dad still cried. Being a cranky and petulant teenager, I never got that. And so I hid from it by sitting in the back of the church.

My dad never took credit for anything. He never bragged about anything if he was involved in any way. He would brag about my brother and my sister and me and our mom all day long. But the conversation rarely if ever turned to him, certainly not at his encouragement. Maybe one day I will pick up that admirable trait, too.

I also had a moment this morning to talk about my brother. I consider my brother a role model and for him I am also thankful. I didn't always consider him a role model. I watched him come from a troubled man, hopelessly addicted to alcohol to someone who found God and now admirably leads a non-profit center in Dallas. When he signed on to be that agency's new director, he had been on its volunteer board for several years. But when the past director was fired for questionable financial practices, my brother stepped up and took the job. For nothing. No salary. For a year. It was at his suggestion. Giving away salaries of dollars in salary to your employee just to make sure the doors stay open and people can continue to be helped ... now, there's a lesson for you.

My brother has never been a touchy-feely or overly emotional person. He's been nothing like our father in that regard. Yet here's the interesting rest of that story: At the agency he directs, every day he oversees about 140 developmentally disadvantaged adults of all sizes, shapes and colors. The clients, as they are termed, are paid small wages for repetitive motion tasks. It gives many of them a sense of purpose and a reason to get up in the morning and a joy for living.

I have visited the center often. I have watched my brother physically embrace almost every one of these people and call each of them by name — without benefit of name tags. I have watched every one of the clients embrace my brother, and shout out his name from across the room when they see him walk through the door. He is making a profound difference in lives. That's what heroes do. I know I am thankful for being given the opportunity to watch him become what he has become in the last fifteen years or so.

Seeing how the people at the center love him would have been enough to bring tears to my father's eyes. Now it does the same thing to me. And I am no longer afraid to admit that.

Our dad left his three children an appreciation for different things. My brother picked up a sense of fairness and decency, and how to treat others. My sister has a love for the outdoors and great compassion for others thanks to our father, but she was formed, I think, more by our mother. And that is a very good thing, too. My father left me a love for baseball, books and Big Bend. I came along with the baseball appreciation early on, but it took me years to develop that love for books and the outdoors. 

Big Bend is a sacred place to me. Some people probably think I'm nuts when I say that, and that's fine. Maybe I am, but I go there to see God and hear dad. I was there with him just once before he died, even though he had tried many times over several years to get me to go with him. 

I was on a mountain pass when a rare cellphone signal enabled a call to come through to me in 2009, one of the few areas in Big Bend where there was a signal at the time. It was my sister. She called to tell me doctors had found a tumor on dad's kidney and he would need surgery.

The night before he went in to the hospital, he gathered the family in the living room and he read a paper our daughter Kelsey had written about someone in her life she considered to be a hero. Instead of making the evening all about him — even though given the circumstances he had every right to -- he turned the attention to his granddaughter and what she had written. And then he told her he was proud of her. And all of us. He went to bed, got up the next morning and packed a bag for what he thought would be a simple surgery. Twenty-five days later he was dead. He was 84.

When Kelsey called us last week to ask for help looking for her Social Security card, we never did find it. Instead, I found this in my same important paper box:

"Hold on to that and never lose it," both Kelsey and Karen told me when I showed them what I had found.

So yeah. That's what I'm thankful for this year. And every year.

-- jimmy

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Whenever You Helped the Least of These: Love of family, country trumps all else for Syrian refugees (Pt. 7 of 7)

By Jimmy Patterson

   AMMAN, Jordan — Tears are prevalent here. They come from the eyes of Syrian refugees driven from their homes by the violence of the Assad regime and the forces that oppose his rule in their homeland. In two years of fighting, the bloodshed quickly escalated and grew into the deadly conflict it is today. The latest numbers are startling: Over 2 million have fled the country. Of the ones who stayed, more than 115,000 are now dead. Those who escaped are left to face a future of uncertainty. No one knows when or if they will ever be able to return home. Or if they will ever see their family members who stayed behind to fight for Syria.
   In America, our greatest uncertainties can amount to what time a soccer game begins or when a spouse will get off work so that dinner can be on the table and warm for the family. So many of us have such minor problems in comparison.
    The killing in Syria is not unlike the stories of war and brutality we’ve heard for as long as any of us care to remember. War has been with all of us for most of our lives, it doesn’t matter our age. We have not learned.
   Certainly next to those who give their lives or suffer injury, and their families, the people who lose so much in war are the peaceful among us; citizens, such as the Syrians in this case, lose so much; they are forced to give up their homes, husbands and sons. Forced to trade lives of security for the unknown. Peace-seeking people are left out of the political equation of war. People like us and Syrian refugees — who are like us — are all one, perhaps especially so when part of the body is hurting.
   I learned a lot in the Middle East. Most lessons came from people who say they are hopeless, but who still hope anyway.
   When I left America on October 4, we were embroiled in much bitterness. Disgust flowed from our lips and anger through our Facebook status — our modern day stage and soapbox. We were faced with the bleak reality of having a government in tatters, unable to pay its bills and its people but continuing to spend. When I returned home, we had traded a government shutdown for a healthcare lockdown. The rage remained, only the object of the rancor had changed.
   I learned a lot from the people I was fortunate to meet from Syria and Jordan. Like many people in America, nothing is more important than love of family and country. Many Syrians step out in courage instead of understandably suffering through pain and depression. Just that one attitude can teach us a valuable lesson.
    But there’s also this:
Love your family. Anyone who has survived a fire or a natural disaster knows what it feels like to lose everything, When family emerges from the rubble, they know what it feels like to have everything. People driven from their homeland know both those emotions in an especially compelling way.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Whenever You Helped the Least of the These: Church Pastors Serve as Living Witnesses for Refugees (Pt. 6 of 7)

Jordanian priests walk the walk in helping Syrian refugees, children navigate through impossible time

By Jimmy PattersonEditor / West Texas Angelus

   KARAK, Jordan — Watching Syrian refugee children flock to both Fr. Elie Kerzum and Fr. Wissam al-Massadeh is a powerful story of witness. As the two men walk into the courtyard of the schools they oversee, scores of elementary- to high school-age children crowd around them. The two priests look truly like the shepherds they were ordained to be.
   The jobs these men are tasked with aren’t easy. Both confessed to having initial reservations until prayer and guidance led them to the positions they finally accepted to lead the refugee children along with their own Catholic students for the greater good of love and solidarity.
    Fr. Elie serves the Jordanian town of Zarqa, a larger urban area near the Syrian border; Fr. Wissam is tucked away in the small southern village of Karak, 129 kilometers south of Jordan’s capital city of Amman. A generous donation by anonymous Midlanders is helping both priests — along with priests in three other Jordanian cities — provide education, counseling and care for the Syrian children they and their educators oversee.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Whenever You Helped the Least of These: Refugee overcomes depression to help other displaced women (Pt. 5 of 7)

Her home reduced to rubble by air strikes, Tehane
left Syria, and then sank into a lengthy depression

By Jimmy Patterson

   ZARQA, Jordan — The day Tehane left Homs, the Syrian town where she had grown up, the warplanes thundered overhead. From one came a bomb. The percussive boom, fire and collapse of her home served as the moment everything changed for the 25-year-old university art student, who, in a single moment, became a “refugee,” on the run from an unchecked civil war that was destroying her homeland.
   Following a lengthy journey across Syria, the neighboring country of Jordan became Tehane’s new home. She, her husband and their two small children arrived in Zarqa like over a million others who have walked days through deserts into often dank, dimly-lighted living quarters in unfamiliar cities of Jordan and Lebanon, two of the several countries in the region that have opened their borders to the refugees. Zarqa is an industrialized town in the north central part of the kingdom that, by American standards, was poor even before the refugees arrived. But it was now home for the family, and together they would make of it what they could — as soon as Tehane could bring herself to accept her new life.
   Severe depression froze her every move for months.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Whenever You Helped the Least of Me: Children suffer from assorted emotional scars after war breaks out (Pt. 4 of 7)

Fear of breaking glass, slamming doors, lack of desire to get out of bed in the morning just some of the difficulties Syrian refugee children experiencing since start of war

By Jimmy Patterson

    AMMAN, Jordan — Many Syrians who have made the journey from their home country to Jordan seeking safe haven from the violence in their former neighborhoods often bring with them only the clothes they are wearing.
   The children displaced by the war often bring much more, say psychologists, counselors and social workers with Caritas Jordan, a humanitarian social service agency of the Catholic Church in Jordan.  They see many psychological and emotional issues in children, not uncommon for the kinds of brutal violence many have witnessed.
   Caritas Jordan offers therapy sessions, both group and individual, to those who have made the trek here, and who bear the emotional weight of trauma, grief and depression. The relief programs they take part in are supported by the American-based Catholic Relief Services (CRS).
   The trained specialists caring for Syrian refugees say there is much work ahead to get the children through this the most trying part of their young lives.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Whenever You Helped the Least of These: A Love Story (Pt. 3 of 7)

 Syrian couple's bond unlike many others in Middle East

By Jimmy Patterson

    ZARQA, Jordan — To reach Azhar and Halah’s front door in Zarqa, a visitor must squeeze through a narrow space between two buildings, perhaps no more than three-feet wide, cross a damp alley where water drips from a pipe above and runs under foot into a drainage ditch, and duck under a staircase where a non-descript heavy, metal door waits. Inside, the home smells musty. It is dim and non-descript. There is no furniture. When visitors arrive, they remove their shoes, and one of the couple’s children pulls out a mattress, little more than a piece of foam, covered with a gently-worn sheet. The guests in the home lean back against a living room wall for comfort, and listen as the couple begins their story.
   Azhar and Halah’s history is unlike many of the other refugees who have come from Syria since the fighting took over their once-peaceful country in the Middle East.
   Back home, Azhar drove a taxi on a regular route from Syria to Saudi Arabia, a long trip across an often bleak desert region. He met Halah on one of those drives and they ended up getting married — and that is where their story takes a turn that many here do not.
   “I am 24,” Azhar said.
   “I am 33,” Halah added.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Whenever You Helped the Least of These: Helping refugees who have lost faith a big task for Caritas Jordan, director (Pt. 2 of 7)

“If anyone will take the trouble to compare the moral teaching of, say, the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Hindus, Chinese, Greeks and Romans, what will really strike them will be how very like they are to each other and to our own. — C.S. Lewis

By Jimmy Patterson
   AMMAN, Jordan — In his book “Mere Christianity,” C.S. Lewis argues that we all want the same thing: to be treated with dignity. Now, or centuries ago, Lewis says it is the one human law that has really never changed. Jew. Christian. Muslim. All have their differences in the way they practice their faith but the fact remains that most everyone wants to be treated the same way they would treat others.
   The law of treating others with dignity is what Caritas Internationalis is based on, and those characteristics are exemplified through the actions of Wael Suleiman, director of Caritas Jordan.
   Soon after the Syrian civil war began two years ago, King Abdullah II, no doubt guided by the foresight and integrity of his father, King Hussein of Jordan, opened the kingdom’s borders to those suffering the atrocities of that war. As a result, Jordan saw an average of 3,000 refugees cross into its country from Syria every day. That flow is now at 500-600 a day. Caritas Jordan and the country of Jordan, where it is common to see Christians and Muslims working side by side for the betterment of the lives of those refugees, embody Lewis’ notion that people must all work together.
   Under Suleiman’s leadership, Caritas Jordan has served what is believed to be 150,000 refugees. The humanitarian organization has provides education; psycho-social services, such as counseling; food; blankets and other examples of life’s most basic essentials to the Syrian people. He expects that number to climb to 200,000 in 2014. Suleiman’s objective is to provide food for everyone and educations for as many as possible. Perhaps most importantly and most difficult, though, is to re-
instill in the people of Syria that God still loves them.
   “When we took in the Iraqi people in Jordan, we did not experience what we are experiencing now,” Suleiman said. “The Syrians have lost their faith. In other wars, people have lost everything but their faith. Not this war. This war, the Syrians are asking us, ‘Is God still there?’ For them, God doesn’t exist anymore. It is something new we are facing.”
   Suleiman said he spoke with a young boy, no more than 6, who admitted that after he saw his father killed in front of him, he no longer believes God is there for him.
   Convincing people who have lost so much and whose lives are filled with uncertainty and heartbreak that God is still above, taking care of them, is perhaps one of Caritas’ greatest challenges in the region.
   “I talked to one mother who came from Syria and she has psychological problems because when she came from Homs, she took her children with her to come to Jordan but when she arrived here, she realized that she had forgotten one of her daughters in Syria,” Suleiman said. “She looked at her children who had come with her and it wasn’t until then that she realized one was missing.”
   The family left Syria in such a hurry and under such emotional duress that the mother left her 2-year-old asleep in her bed. There is no way for the woman to return to Syria to check on the child, or to ever learn what happened to her.
   “Nothing is possible to that mother,” Suleiman said. “She is living in a very bad moment. She is thinking, ‘What if my child has died?’ We have no words to help her. I cannot tell her that God is there. That God loves her.”
   Suleiman’s uncle, Michael Suleiman, was a professor at Kansas University, and an educator in America for 40 years. His uncle’s book, “Arab in America,” was a widely read work on his experiences of being Arab in the United States. The same questions his uncle once had, Wael Suleiman has long had. Suleiman learned at an early age of the disparity in the way people are treated. As a young boy, he was rarely, if ever, exposed to anything that could be considered a preferential option for the poor. One day when he was just seven, Suleiman came home from school in Jordan and asked his father why rich children were treated differently than the others. His father told him to go out and play like the other boys and girls. But the younger Suleiman persisted, and by the time he was 10, he had taken himself out of private school and enrolled in the Jordanian public school system so he could interact with children of all types.
   Suleiman said he is working on his own book, which he is calling, “Noah’s Ark.” The book is his dream of building a bridge between not only Arabs and Americans but between all people. He recently wrote a letter to Jesus asking him to come again, a second letter to the United Nations and a third letter to unborn children telling them what they should expect when they enter into the world.
   What those unborn children will experience, and what Suleiman would want for them are different worlds that he wishes he could join together peacefully.
   “We are one human family,” Suleiman said. “It is our responsibility as human beings – you have brothers and sisters in the world and they are a part of us all. And in the end, we are created by one father. Christians, Muslims, Jews, we are all one people. The only solution is solidarity. With solidarity, people can feel love. With solidarity, maybe the people feeling that God is no longer there can feel that He is there and that there is still love.”

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Whenever You Helped the Least of These: The Church's work with Syrian refugees in Joran (1 of 7)

Schoolchildren in Karak, Jordan (Photo by Andrew McConnell for Catholic Relief Services).

Anonymous Midlanders funding educations of almost 1,000 Syrian refugee children

By Jimmy Patterson

      MAFRAQ, Jordan — When Fatima left her home in Aleppo, in the northwest part of Syria, seeking a peaceful place to settle her family, the thought of her children’s education never entered into her decision as to whether she and her kids should escape the country and set out on a 335-mile journey. There were far more important things to worry about: Would her husband and oldest son survive the ongoing civil war in their homeland? Would they have a home to return to when the conflict was over? Or would they even be able to return to Syria, home or no home?
   Although Syrian families place a high priority on their children’s schooling, how her youngest son, Samir, and daughter, Wafa, would continue that education was unknown.
   For most of the millions of Syrian children forced from their once-peaceful homes and schools, educations have ceased. Many spend their days now in what passes for a home. Some have not been able to attend school for over two years. Although the public schools are open to Syrian refugees whose families are registered with United Nations and who have the proper paper work, there is very limited capacity.  Initially only 75,000 seats are available in the public schools for Syrian children, far below the needs.  
    As a member of the Caritas Internationalis confederation — the network of Catholic international humanitarian organizations from more than 200 countries — Catholic Relief Services closely collaborates with its sister agency Caritas Jordan to make up the gap in education available to Syrian refugee children.