(written 8 August 2016)
In the wake of the previous week’s experience of the recommencement of distribution after a short hiatus, we knew this too, would be a demanding day.
This was one of those times that things lived up to their billing.
Two days previously, the bulk food stuffs arrived in our courtyard, ready for the task of assembling the distribution bags. And so, on the previous day there were 17 from our fellowship including children (who genuinely helped), who were engaged in assembling the bags of food stuffs. The preparation is divided in to several tasks: some people grab a large bag and walk around the circle, while others stand in front of the various kinds of foodstuffs, rice, lentils, etc. and place the correct number in the bag being filled. The bag is lugged around the circuit until it is completed and then the bag is twirled and a cable tie is used to seal it and the bag is passed on to the person responsible for putting them into a pile that doesn’t spread over the whole courtyard nor go too high as to be hard to shift to the lorry and gently enough so as not to damage the food stuffs in the bags.
On the morning after, the lorry had arrived, and, as it seems is the norm, we were short handed when it came time to commence loading. We were blessed as an Ethiopian Refugee had come just to help load the bags on the lorry – her help was deeply appreciated.
All told, we had eight souls (seven of the team going out to do the distribution and one helper), just enough people to form a bit of a conga line. One person less and you could not form a conga line. The line begins in the courtyard where someone lifts the bag and swings it up and around, and, importantly, at the end of this swing, it is grasped and carrying on the momentum, it is with a pivot and swing, the bag advances to the next person and so carries on until it get to the last person standing at the back of the lorry. This person then has to swing and lift it up on to the lorry. For the line to work efficiently, the bag must never stop moving… for when it stops, you have to hold the dead weight and then get it moving again.
All tasks in the process are somewhat strenuous and unrelenting and as you are part of a process, you can not take a brief break when you feel the need, unless you are prepared to stop everyone.
From my perspective, as one who has been in every position in the line, the most difficult task, is the final lifting of the bags up on to the lorry. The second most difficult position is the initial lifting of the bags. But, all positions are demanding. A conga line is still preferred to lifting and lugging the individual bags, or carting them two at a time out to the lorry to then be lifted on to the lorry – that really is the most difficult way to load the lorry.
I guess I should point out at this point that the bags are a little over ten kilogrammes each, so not a tremendous burden in and of itself. However, when you have 250 to shift, that relatively light weight, over time, can become quite a burden.
I began the day at the end of the line, lifting the bags up and onto the lorry.
After a too-short period of time, my dominant arm weakened, and began making expressing of fatigue, so I shifted to using my non-dominant arm… I wasn’t sure how long I could keep up the pace nor how long I would be able to continue to do the required task.
Then someone suggested they take my place as I was labouring under the morning sun.
I gratefully accepted, not because of the sun, but because of my arms… they didn’t know that.
I then moved to the other end of the line and began lifting the bags into the line. This too, for me, was a strenuous task. When my dominant arm objected, I again switched to my opposite arm. The work carried on.
Let me openly declare, lest you think that being in the line is any easier, experience has shown that that, too, is wearisome… the bags keep coming and the task is to grab, swing, release, swing back and grasp the next one… and so on… As in all positions in the line, each is just a cog in the machine, you are tied to doing your task, non-stop as long as the bags keep coming…
In the end the lorry was duly loaded and headed off to our rendezvous point.
After prayer, and thanking our loading helper, we climbed aboard the Volkswagen Transporter and set out to the rendezvous point.
At our rendezvous point, a petrol station with very fine public convenience, we met up and made use of the said public convenience as this is the first and the last opportunity until the day’s work is done.
We also met up with a believing family who, although he is from this region, they now live in Istanbul. They wanted to come out and see and help.
We were pleased with their interest, although, in the distribution there are a fixed number of tasks and we came prepared to cover all tasks. They were more than welcome to join us, and as they had their own vehicle, they would be free to leave whenever they desired.
We headed out towards the first place on our list for the day…a place we hadn’t been to for, well, nigh on two months.
As we drove out towards the particular field this encampment is situated in, I turned on to a raised roadway, like an isolated levee or dyke (with no visible function – just a raised roadway in the midst of a broad plain). As we came onto the elevated, poorly asphalted road, we saw, stretching off into the distance, that the road seemed to be covered with some material.
As we got closer to this ‘material’, it became clear what it was. It seems that something had dug three deep furrows in the road surface and the gravel, pieces of pavement and soil so dislodged had been spewed up and onto the surface of the road. Of course, added to this were the three new furrows carved into the roadbed.
Well, this was the most direct road to our goal, we were relatively close, and there really wasn’t a suitable place, on this elevated roadway, to turn about.
Truth be told, I didn’t really contemplate turning about, but, almost instinctively, ploughed on forwards. I moved the van onto one side of the ravaged roadway, I choose the left hand side of the road, one tyre on the old, cleanish road surface, not far from the drop off and the other bouncing and hopping about in the detritus of the shattered road surface.
The car with our visitors and the lorry were coming on behind me. They may have not approved my choice, but, like the morning conga line, not much can be done about it once it has commenced.
As we made our way along we caught up with the cause of this destruction, a grader, purposely and intentionally carving up the road surface. He stopped and pulled to the right-hand side to enable us to pass him by.
This, it turns out, was a fitting beginning to our days distribution.
We arrived at the first encampment, and on agreement with the lorry driver, the two vehicles were parked with their back ends side by side to establish a single, common point for distribution.
The encampment had more than doubled in size since we were last there. We were planned up for eleven shelters, and we were confronted with some thirty.
Immediately the back of the van was engulfed with a swarm of people; men, women, teenagers, children, babes in arms. This conglomeration of registered and unregistered people were pressing in around us, many with their ID papers in their hands each competing with their neighbour to put them in our faces….
It was somewhat chaotic….
The temperature was in the 40sº C in the shade….uh… and the only shade to be had, was under the open rear door of the (black) Volkswagen… and it had a large window in it, over which we laid some cardboard to establish a minimum of shade.
That was the sum total of the shade available.
Oh, yes, and it was quite warm…
Now our system is that we call the names of those registered on the database, verify who they are and then provide that which we have prepared for them.
Their system is to push in close, thrust their ID papers in our face and gain our attention, after which, according to their system, we would then find them on the database and process them and then they will receive their provisions.
This conflict of systems inevitably leads to inefficiency, confusion and a degree of tension on all sides.
We made our way through the registered individuals – remember there were only eleven previously registered shelters at this encampment. Then came the task of registering the ‘new’ folks.
This has been complicated because, in times past, new refugees entering Turkey were issued Turkish Language ID-like cards which we used for registration – all in beautiful Turkish.
However, for many months now, the powers that be no longer do this. This change has been done partly as a disincentive to Syrian Refugees, to dissuade them from coming over the border. The intention is that they would stay on the Syrian side of the border where camps have been set up to provide for the basic necessities of life – Turkey will continue to aid these newly minted refugees, but from ‘safe havens’ within Syria proper.
I guess these folks didn’t get that memo.
Anyway, now we are registering families and individuals using Syrian ID papers.
Oh, and naturally, Syrian ID papers are all in Arabic – a language unlike Turkish in grammar, form, vocabulary and and most importantly, script. Completely and totally foreign.
Being aware of this change and to address this need, we had asked a Christian Syrian Refugee who lives in Antakya to accompany us and help in reading the ID papers and registering these new-comers.
That is great!
But – don’t you just hate the word ‘but’ – but, he doesn’t speak Turkish, and has very weak English. So, he can read the papers and understand them, he can chat with the folks and ask questions and understand what the situation is. But, he can not easily communicate that to us.
But he can read Arabic which is essential, and he is very familiar with the ID papers being a Syrian himself.
So, now comes the truly challenging task. The Arabic names are read in Arabic, and the recorder, T. has to, accurately, transliterate that vocal Arabic into Turkish.
All this with the pressure of a crowd of people surrounding you, the sun, unmercifully blazing down, precious little breeze to offset the heat and a seemingly never ending mass of people to register… all clutching their ID papers and whenever possible thrusting them forward or tugging on your sleeve… T. is the focus of this activity as she is the one doing the physical registration.
To give you an example as to how it felt, our visitors who have been with us on site for about thirty minutes or so, came and asked if it would be acceptable for them to depart – the sights, heat and fierce sun was draining them of energy and emotion.
They had their insight into what we do; they had a tour of the encampment, saw the state of the people, the children, the babies, and the conditions they endure and what their daily ordeal is like. So, for them, they had accomplished all they really needed to. I sent them on their way with our blessings – directing him to go back via a different route avoiding the newly destroyed road we had come by.
But, let us not lose sight of this important fact, for the occupants of this and similar encampments, this is the ‘daily grind’; for them there is no escape, there is no relief. It is just each and every day being a repeat of the previous… heat, hard work, crude accommodation, no proper washing facilities. Sun, flies, mosquitoes and hard labour… this is their daily lot.
It takes time to register the new comers. As the registration process continued, and we distributed food stuffs to the newly registered, people noticed that the odd tractor would arrive and drop people off, and the odd car would pull up and disgorge people or the odd motorcycle would appear, coughing and sputtering and one or more individuals would alight and then come up to be registered.
The ‘gangmaster’ of this encampment, the one in charge of organising the labour, providing a place for their shelters to be erected and transportation to and from various fields, is an individual that our past interactions has caused us to doubt his integrity and honesty. Some ‘gangmasters’ are a delight and seem to be genuine individuals who actually care, not just about the work but the workers. Others, like this one, appear to have their own, rather selfish agenda and try as they might, it can not be hidden.
He was in the midst, kind-of organising the process – this unmitigated chaos – and he was ‘vouch safe-ing’ various people.
It is in this context that various conveyances are arriving and ‘new registrants’ are joining the melee.
The fear and the very real possibility at this particular encampment and with this particular gang master, is that these new ‘registrants’ were in fact ‘ineligible’ people or ‘cheaters’ or even his relatives who were being brought in to receive ‘free’ food stuffs.
These new-comers very well may be ineligible or cheaters or relatives….
But, just to complicate things, it must be acknowledged that by the same token, if I lived in any particular encampment, during the daytime, I will not be in the encampment, but out working in some field somewhere… if news reaches me that there is a distribution and I need to be there with my ID, then it is only reasonable that I will arrive by tractor or vehicle or motorcycle…
This arrival by various forms of conveyance after we commence is not uncommon – and it is fraught with questions and introduces an element that is hard to discern truth from fiction.
At this, our first encampment of the day, with the seemingly never-diminishing crowd around the back of the van and with this particular ‘gangmaster’ there, I freely admit, that the potential for ineligible people and cheaters in amongst them was far greater than at other encampments.
Most troubling, some reported seeing the newcomers departing the area with their bags of food stuffs – something you would never do if you were truly resident in this encampment. I did not personally see this – that would be a red flag to me.
Our procedure is to register by ID papers combined with visually looking at the photo and the holder of the papers. This is good as far as it goes… But someone can be living at a distance, working in the field while not living ‘under canvas’ which is one of our requirements for assistance. There are no means to verify where they live. Often, when asked, they will vaguely point at the cluster of blue tarpaulin shelters indicating ‘one of them’ without any way of actually verify it. If the gangmaster is a person of integrity, his word is sufficient. If you question the veracity of what the gangmaster says… you have no means to confirm.
Now, ultimately, we are serving Sovereign God who knows all hearts, and as scripture says He causes the rain to fall on the righteous and the unrighteousness alike. In this natural world, God Himself provides for people irregardless as to their personal integrity or honesty. So, in one sense, we need to be alert and take proper precautions, but, after all is said and done, it is the Lord’s concern and not ours…
Of course, in the course of this confusion, mistakes will be made. Not can be, or will possibly be, but they will be made… that, too, is a part of life.
At the same time, the recipients are desperate people, and I include all the recipients, even the ineligible and cheaters, and field work is tough and for the ones we are endeavouring to aid, they are living a hand-to-mouth existence, living in rude shelters, living in barren fields, without proper water provision and no proper toilets or washing facilities, with children and babies, in the unrelenting daily heat storm and at night persecuted by the onslaught of hordes of voracious mosquitoes.
What some may find incongruous is that people in such a desperate state, when they are receiving ‘grace’ (unmerited, unearned favour) – whether they acknowledge or recognise it as such or not – they can respond with an ‘entitlement’ attitude, as if they have ‘poverty and need’ and they ’trade’ that commodity for assistance, hence a feeling that they are ‘entitled’ to assistance. Where this attitude exists and I’m afraid, it is not as rare as one may think or wish, you may very well encounter in the place of ‘gratefulness’, a ‘grasping’ even ‘demanding’ attitude.
At this encampment, whether the bona-fide recipients or the suspected ineligible:
Not everyone was satisfied with what we provided.
Not everyone felt they had received their ‘right’… (?right?)
Not everyone felt, or at least, displayed, a modicum of ‘thankfulness’ nor ‘gratitude’… Some did for sure, but, in this encampment, this was by no means universal…
And one individual even proclaimed a ‘beddua’ – that is they pronounced a ‘curse’ upon us. Something to the effect of ‘may you be infected with cancer and die’. I’m not sure of the exact words used, but there was no questioning what the intent of what was said was… It was a curse to our detriment.
Now my colleagues who have been doing this work, non-stop since the beginning, have encountered this in the past and their response is well established.
However, for me, this was a somewhat new experience – I’m not aware of being routinely cursed…
My initial response to such a one who made this statement was being freshly considered.
What do I want to do in response?
What do I feel would be the appropriate response?
Let me confess, my initial response wasn’t all that it should have been…
It seems that Jesus not only encountered this in His own life and ministry, but He knew that we, His followers, would as well.
He said, unequivocally, that we are to “bless those who curse you”.
I don’t think He was referring to a glib, cheap and cheerful, verbal, “God bless you”.
I believe, the Lord Jesus, the ‘Lord’ not the Suggester, or the Advisor, but the LORD, meant that we should actually do something that ‘blesses’ them.
It is inconceivable that we could just pray or say “God Bless you” and then go on our way, thinking that the will of God has been fully done…
For the Lord Jesus expressly states that if your enemy is thirsty, give them something to drink.
At no point, anywhere, will you find the Lord telling you that if your enemy is hungry, and they are ungrateful, and curse you and do not realise that what you are doing is an expression of the Love of God, you are then exempt from helping them, you are free to abandon them and leave them to their situation so that you can then concentrate on those who ‘appear’ to be grateful and provide for them…
The Lord Jesus Christ said: “if your enemy is hungry, feed him”.
Not a lot of wiggle-room there.
Some will say, “Well, we have no enemies, we love everyone,” – but that doesn’t absolve us of any of this responsibility – quite the contrary, it double downs on it – if we are to feed our enemies, then how much more should we do for those we do not consider ‘enemies’.
This momentary exchange at this encampment confronted me with an example of ‘Basic Christianity’. How I act and react in a situation such as this depicts clearly if I am acting according to Kingdom of God principles or according to this Worlds principles and the way of the ‘natural man’. My colleagues had long since been confronted with and dealt with these issues properly.
The intuitive, human response, when so cursed, is to write them off, to accept what they say, and let the natural consequences of their actions, of their words be their portion. The natural, human response is to leave them, not necessarily to verbally curse them, but to move on to those more receptive and who we think are more grateful.
We do not verbally curse them, but by denying food assistance, we are physically cursing them.
The lady so involved, for indeed it was a lady, did not ‘harm’ us in her vindictiveness, but if we end our aid, merely on the basis of words flung at us in her desperation, then we would inflict real harm on her, and her neighbours, and the children and the babies…
We would turn her empty curse, for it has no power over the children of God and repay it with a physical curse that will affect all in that encampment.
If anything else is needed to be said on this topic, let me turn our focus on how God treated us when we were enemies of God, when we were going our own headstrong, independent way, when we said whatever came into our mind and thence out our mouths, cursing and denying and defying Almighty God which was our norm….
What did God do, in the face of our repeated actions and declarations and rebellion? What was God’s response to us as we acted, repeatedly, doggedly, emphatically in this manner?
He sent His one and only Son to give Himself as a propitiation for our sins with the sole purpose to reconcile man, let me emphasise, ‘sinful man’, let me add ‘by nature a child of wrath’ man, let me say ‘spiritually dead in our own sins and transgressions’ man, His goal was to reconcile mankind with God……
That was His response to our rebellion and cursing and insurrection against Him.
Are we not called to be like Him?
If they curse us, should we not redouble our efforts to love them, serve them, and demonstrate the Love of God to them, whether or not they see it, accept it, acknowledge it and, indeed, to carry on in spite of their ‘cursing’… is that not what it means to be ‘like Christ’, is that not what it means to truly ‘serve’, is that not what it means practically, to love our enemies?
But this is particular encampment is rendered doubly complex, doubly convoluted, doubly difficult, for in this particular encampment and especially, with this individual gang master, it is rendered difficult, bordering on impossible, to distribute assistance in a fair and equitable manner.
If we suspend our activities with this encampment it is not because of empty words and a vindictive curse, but because of the dishonesty, cheating, misrepresentation and, let’s call it what it is, theft of the limited supply of food stuffs available for Syrian refugee field workers living under canvas.I said it was ‘rendered difficult’ and, well, life is difficult. I did say it was ‘bordering on impossible’ which is not the same as calling it impossible.
Once again we are reminded that it is our responsibility to follow our own guidelines – leaving ample room for mercy and grace – which means when we register people we need ID and also to see their face (of each person to be registered) – papers without a face will not be registered. We need to redouble our efforts to establish where people are living, maybe even taking the food stuffs to the various shelters.
Wisdom, as always is needed to know the way forward.
Our goal is not to hoard the assistance. Our goal is not to return to Antakya with ‘left over’ bags. Our goal is for all the essential food aid to be distributed to those in genuine need and according to our guidelines (always allowing for mercy and grace).