Lord, make us instruments of your peace,” St. Francis prayed. “Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy …”
Today, as winter approaches, the European Union announced that this year more than 700,000 refugees have already fled to Europe — and that by the end of 2016 an additional 3,000,000 sojourners may make the journey.
In April 1993, my daughter and I were watching the dedication of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., and as we were listening to Nobel Peace Laureate Elie Wiesel address assembled guests my daughter asked:
“Daddy, will there be a Holocaust Museum for the Muslims of Bosnia someday?”
I was speechless.
I know kids absorb a lot more than parents think they do, but this was my first realization that my 8-year-old had been paying serious attention to my daily rants about how the world was standing by as ethnic cleansing and genocide was again bloodying Europe.
Just a year before, in April 1992, the former Yugoslavia had descended into civil war, fragmenting into three major political, religiously defined groups — mostly Catholic Croatia, mostly Orthodox Serbia, and mostly Muslim Bosnia-Herzegovina — and within it the Bosnian Muslims became the primary targets of ethnic cleansing, particularly by Serbs. Before the world finally moved to act against the genocide and end the war, over 100,000 had been killed, hundreds of thousands had been displaced or become refugees and at least 20,000 mostly Muslim women were targeted and victims of rape.
In response to my daughter’s question — her plea — we organized with friends a program to resist ethnic cleansing. Twenty-two years ago this month we welcomed Bosnian students to Exeter to live with American families and attend American schools.
Initially, nine Bosnians came to Exeter. As the program expanded nationally we found support for 85 students. All graduated high school; nearly all went to college and with few exceptions they returned to Bosnia. Today, they’re raising families, teaching in Bosnian universities, serving their government and creating high-tech startups. Most remain in touch with host families and friends.
Today, too, I again remember a 2011 moment at Phillips Exeter Academy when, while having dinner, one student asked about the Arab Spring erupting in Syria. “That scares me,” I answered. “If it happens it will be the longest, bloodiest, deadliest conflict of any uprising, with unforeseeable consequences.”
I was right, but as right as I was, even I could not predict — oh, how I wish I had been wrong — it would result in more than 12,000,000 displaced and refugee Syrians being forced to flee their homes. Even I could not predict that more than 250,000 would be killed.
Even I could not predict that Bashar al-Assad — and ISIS and al-Qaida and al Nusra and assorted terrorists, thugs and gangs — would wage such an unrelenting war of ethnic cleansing against Syrian civilians — against Sunni, Shiite, Alawite, Armenians, Kurds, Christians, Yezidis, Druze, Circassians, Jews and others — that formed the core and heart of a country I know well and love.
Even I couldn’t predict how complex, sad and tragic it’d become, how paralyzed we’d all become. For Americans, in particular, Syria has become the most awful form of blowback — the consequence of an avoidable series of disastrous military and political actions — particularly in Iraq — for which I believe, as I’ve previously written, we are morally obliged to take some responsibility.
The Gospel of Mark tells the story of the Syrophoenician woman’s faith where, near Tyre, a woman (“a Gentile of Syrophoenician origin”) whose little daughter had an unclean spirit asked Jesus “to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, ‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ But she answered him, ‘Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’ Then he said to her, ‘For saying that, you may go — the demon has left your daughter.’ ”
What inspired my daughter in 1993 is happening today in Syria. Today, 22 years after confronting the Bosnia genocide, we again witness genocide and ethnic cleansing, not just of Syria’s human, intellectual and cultural treasures but of our own common humanity and communal history.
What was tragic last month is worse today.
Today, as temperatures and snows fall and barriers against the sojourners rise, as walls of Aegean and Mediterranean waters rise to resist refugee efforts to shelter on foreign shores, we must ask who we’ve become.
Today, we’re all Syrophoenicians begging to be free — free of demons of injustice and inequity that afflict us all. Free from being reliant on oppressors’ crumbs that fall from the table — to raise and nurture children free from the afflictions of hunger, pain and fear.
Today, gathered in those sacred spaces where we dwell surrounded by all the beauty and evidence of creation’s gifts, let’s pray for all communities — not just those of faith — but all those of goodness to become instruments of peace — to together sow hope and love — to together cast aside the demons.
This column appeared originally in the Keene Sentinel.