I first noticed you when you were standing on the edge of the crowd of children clamouring around me. I wanted to scoop up each one of you but my arms were full and my skirt was being tugged in all directions. I spun around and laughed to see smiles break loose on the little faces peering up at me. My heart was overflowing. But I kept noticing you, standing on the fringes of the crowd.
By yourself. Quiet. Observing.
You just stood there, with your deep eyes looking inquisitively into mine. Darling curls framed your face and your eyebrows were knit, questioning me.
Your face told a story.
In spite of you reserve towards me as a newcomer, you were expressive, letting your eyes tell what was going on deep inside. You were quiet in the midst of chaos. You were taking everything in, your eyes wide to the world around you. You stood with your shoes on the wrong feet on this dirty concrete floor; the only place that’s been left uncrowded in camp for you to run and play. As I kept looking at you, I couldn’t help but wonder how it will affect you, growing up and realizing the irony of your childhood play happening within the confines of makeshift safety. Clanging gates and barbed wire fences frame your little world.
I couldn’t leave you there on the fringes of the crowd. So I went over to you, bent down on your level and looked you in the eye before scooping you up and putting you on my back. You nearly fell asleep that afternoon, as I walked around carrying you. But just before your eyelids closed completely, you jerked awake and quietly started scratching my back. Humming to yourself, humming to me as you ran your fingers over my back. Your mom stood by and smiled shyly and invited me to sit with her. She served me tea and fruit and welcomed me into your room with the warmth of friendship.
You were fully awake now and sitting in my lap playing. You said something in Arabic to your mom as we sat there together and she handed her phone to you. You smiled brightly as you pointed to pictures of your life before the war.
My heart broke for you, for your mom and dad and for all you’ve lost.
Home. It is just an illusion of the past now.
But Zaina girl, as I sat there with you and your parents, I was happy to realize that even in the middle of this overcrowded camp, you are loved. I see it in the way your parents delight in you. They gave up all they knew to give you peace. Ran from war so that you would be safe. They struggle to know how they ended up here for so many months in an over-crowded transit camp. This place that’s so full that you could slip out of sight among the crowd and disappear in a moment.
A few nights later I saw desperation, as your dad came running up the hill looking for you. “Zaina? Zaina?” He didn’t know the words in English to express how he felt at not knowing where you were. But his panting breath told me that he was frantic to find you. “No Zaina,” I told him, regretfully.
Later I saw him with you, dancing and laughing under a street light.
I was relieved to know that you were safe.
I know that leaving your homeland turned your whole world upside down. Your parents watched as brutal war crumbled all they knew and loved. Except for you, Zaina. They rescued you from that awful hell.
Zaina girl, I wonder if you know that because of your laughter, your parents laugh.
Because of your smile, they smile. Because of you, they have hope for the future.
But they see the questions in your young eyes. And I can see the bigger questions in their eyes. They want to answer those questions for you but the truth is, they have questions too. Questions that they don’t know how to find the answers for.
I walked into camp one day last week just like I had so many days previous, but what I hadn’t counted on is that you would be gone.
I wanted to be able to tell you goodbye. To hug you one last time. I still remember how last time I saw you, you came running down the hill to meet me just like you always did and then you motioned for me to sit by the gate next to you. You smiled up at me and then opened up your hand to reveal little treasures hidden inside your clenched fist. A whole handful of thin plastic hair bands. You grabbed my hand and slid them onto my fingers and insisted that I keep them on. And then grinned up at me with your infectious smile.
My heart sank when I heard the reason why your family left so unexpectedly; that your mother is ill. How could one more thing go wrong in your life, Zaina? I grapple with the questions your little heart must be asking. I know how it is to grapple with loss. At your age, my world fell apart too.
But Zaina, I’ve had to realize that the weight of your pain is not mine to bear alone.
I’ve had to let God carry it for me.
I think that’s one thing I learned through loving you, Zaina. That letting go is part of the process of loving people here on earth and loving them well. We must open our hearts to love. But we must be willing to let go. It’s difficult, I know.
I think the reason we fight against it so hard is that we weren’t created for this. We weren’t meant for loss, for separation, for war and death.
God created our beautiful world and called it good. Peace reigned on earth.
But then sin entered the world and ruined everything. The fighting and killing started way back then and it’s continued on into today. You know that far too well, Zaina.
You long for peace, for the life you used to know. You want safety, security. You miss home.
Zaina girl, I wish that I could protect you from all the pain of this broken world. I want to shield you from realities of war and hatred attached to the headlines in the news. I want you to be able to grow up in a world of peace. I want you to know a happy childhood.
But more than that, I want you to come to know the peace that passes all understanding. A peace deeper than any peace that this warring and angry world can offer. A peace that can live in our hearts even in the middle of war.
Zaina, His presence will go with you. He will give you peace.
That’s the reason I feel peace in letting you go, because I know that God is going with you. He’s holding you through all the changes and uncertainty.
Keep your eyes open, Zaina; wide open to all that is around you. And you will see, woven into the threads of your story, His love for you.