A simple but heartfelt statement shared by a Syrian woman with nothing to give but a promise will echo forever in a young American listener's ears.
"There is something called peace."
Sometimes you hear someone speak and their words ingrain themselves into the creases on your palms and the blood in your veins. They settle into your bones and stay there, rattling around in your thoughts and refusing to let you hear anything else.
"There is something called peace," the man before me promised, and in that moment, I knew these words would become a part of me -- present in the mist of my breath on cold mornings and the salt of my tears when I cried -- for the rest of my life.
Miles from the Syrian/Jordanian border on a chilly evening in the fall of 2014, my study abroad classmates and I were huddled together in a dusty patch of dirt between expansive crop fields and a small farmhouse, speaking with a Syrian woman, a Jordanian farmer who was allowing her and her daughters to stay on his land, and a translator who interpreted their words from rapid, tearful Arabic for us. The woman had recently fled war-torn Syria with her two daughters after the Islamic State (ISIS) had taken control of her neighborhood. The threats had become too stifling, too real, to ignore.
Danger came not only from ISIS but from her own family. Her husband, who had staunchly refused to flee and remained in Syria, had recently ordered that she and her daughters return to Syria to reunite the family, despite the certain danger that awaited them. ISIS's militant, extremist opinions make it difficult for Muslims who hold less extreme views to live in ISIS-controlled areas; the woman we spoke with explained, for example, that although she could make the personal choice to wear or not wear a hijab (a traditional head covering) in Jordan, she would be forced to wear one at all times in Syria or risk death. She had no choice, she explained, but to obey her husband's command and return. Soon, perhaps even the next day, she would leave the safety of the Jordanian farm and begin the journey back to her old home in Syria, crossing the nearby border and continuing deeper into the unstable war zone her country had become.
After she told us her story, she wanted to know more about us. We told her some of our stories, re-creating our journey for her in shared, translated bits and pieces. We were university students from all over the United States and several other countries, studying human rights with an organization called the School for International Training (specifically its International Honors Program sector). We were traveling around the world to hear firsthand stories like hers -- stories of injustices and tragedies but also of survival and endurance. We had spent a month in Chile, would now be in Jordan for a month, and would next travel to Nepal for a month before returning home in late December. We had spoken to survivors of torture, to international human rights lawyers, and to social justice artists and organizers. And now we were here to listen to her story, to learn what we could from her, and to take what we learned back home with us, if that's what she wanted -- to share her story, to increase solidarity with her people, to ensure that she would be remembered, somewhere, by someone.
After we had spoken with her for a while, she paused, and then spoke quickly and emotionally to our translator. Confused, we waited for an explanation, the woman's face difficult to make out as the evening darkened. Our translator hurried to assure her of something before telling us what had just happened. The woman had explained that she felt terrible that they weren't offering anything to us, and she had wondered if she should perhaps go to the closest grocery store to get us tea or something else. "We haven't done enough for you," she told us. Politely, humbly, we declined. She had honored us immeasurably simply by speaking with us.
"I will pray for you, for your safe return home," she told us as we concluded the visit. She promised us that she would pray for us as we had told her we would pray for her, that she would pray for us to return to our country safely as she hoped she, too, would be able to do, and I found myself fighting tears. This woman before us had fought bravely against an oppressive regime to keep her family safe and would soon return against her will to a country controlled by extremists who wanted her and her family dead simply for existing. Yet she promised to take time to bless us with prayers of safety as we, too, crossed unknown lands on our way back home.
Permutations of Prayer
I grew up being taught about the power of prayer. Be mindful about what you say, I was told. It was not just words but thoughts, song lyrics, whispered musings in the dark as you fall asleep -- everything you put out into the world has energy in its intention and power in its vibration. However you want to label it, whatever words you want to use to describe it, and whoever or whatever you choose to believe in is listening. Expression is sacred and meaningful. Wherever you are, whoever you are, and whatever you are saying, you are heard.
But growing up in the Bible Belt, even though I've seen religion do great things, I've also heard the promise of prayer used in a frustratingly intolerant way. The words might be "I'll pray for you," but the unspoken end to the sentence is often "because you need it -- because the way you are living is wrong." Maybe you don't attend the "right" spiritual institution, or you don't love the "right" person, or you don't have the "right" moral values, and so they promise to pray for you so you may reorient your life to align with their specific values. Somewhere along the way the assumptions ruin the sentiment, and it's hard to even hear the words over the roar of narrow-mindedness.
I packed up an overstuffed backpack and an unreasonably tiny suitcase sometime in August the year before, and off I went, trekking up volcanoes on the Chilean/Argentinian border, fighting off motion sickness in rickety busses hurtling down mountains surrounding Kathmandu, exploring passages crisscrossing under Istanbul's busy streets. I rode a horse, an elephant, a camel. I ate snails and yak cheese and the best hummus I'll ever find. I learned more than I had learned in 15 years of standard education, I grew personally more than I thought was possible, and I met people who were inspiring in ways I'd never even imagined.
And an entire world told me they'd pray for me.
I heard Chilean priests and Palestinian refugees and Syrian farmers and Nepali women tell me they'd pray for me, and not once did it make me think of anything but the incredible, somewhat overwhelming power of humanity -- the simplicity of people caring about other people. A woman stood with us on a farm near the border of Syria, peering through the night toward her devastated, exhausted country, and what she wanted to tell us was that she would pray for us. I will never forget the sound of those words, the way they tasted as I repeated them in my stories once I'd returned home, and the way they felt when I held them in my hands before me and wondered what I could possibly do with them that would honor their worth.
Planting Seeds of Peace
The man who owned the farm where the Syrian woman worked spoke up before we left that night. "There is something he wants to tell you, and he wants to tell you very honestly," our translator began. "He wants you to know: There is something called peace." There is something called war, too, the farmer had said, slowly and deliberately, speaking in Arabic for long minutes before the translator broke in to explain. That's why he wanted us to visit his farm and talk to the Syrian families he let live there -- because there are so many conflicts, and the war in Syria has been so appalling, and someone has to learn what is happening before the violence can be stopped. "But there is something called peace."
The woman told us again that she would pray for us, and we promised that we would do the same for her, and the city lights of a battle-scarred Syria twinkled on the horizon, and the night was very quiet, and I felt very small, and very big.
Wherever I go now, I walk a path paved with prayers for safety from one of the bravest women I'll ever meet. I go with the reminder that although there is war and danger and fear in the world, there is also peace.
I wonder sometimes where the Syrian woman we spoke to that night is now. I wonder if she crossed the border safely, if her two daughters are still with her, if her husband has reconsidered his insistence that the family remain in an ISIS-controlled area of Syria. I pray for her as she prayed for us -- pray for her, her family, and her country. I pray for the farmer who let her live and work on his farm -- pray that if students come to visit him again this year, he still tells them that there is something called peace. I pray he still believes that, and that he always will.
I believe him. There is something called peace. I know because I heard it, harmonizing with the hushed, lilting Arabic of a Syrian refugee woman who once told me she'd pray for me to return home safely.
This post originally appeared in the January/February 2016 issue of Unity Magazine.