A letter from Elmarie and Scott Parker, serving as Regional Liaison for Syria, Lebanon and Iraq (Elmarie), and as Associate for Ecumenical Partnerships (Scott), based in Lebanon
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Last Spring, I (Scott) asked a group of refugee kids to draw a picture of something SAFE. One of the boys drew a picture of the Iraqi flag (his home country) on one side, and all the cousins he left behind on the other. In Arabic he wrote “I Want Iraq.” That simple exercise opened the door to honest talk about feelings of loss and longing. These feelings are real and unique to each person, and part of my work here is to create a space for these emotions to be ok to express.
Elmarie and I have just returned from about four months of speaking and visiting partner churches in the US. It was a rich, productive and valuable experience, but I’m glad to be back in Beirut to continue an important project we began last Spring with the Middle East Council of Churches. It is called “Strong Kids/Strong Emotions”—a play-based emotional resiliency program for Syrian and Iraqi children who have become refugees by ISIS.
In my four years of living in the Middle East, I have been struck by how devoted parents here are to their families. They love their kids just like we love ours—and they want their kids to have a future. Living in the middle of war and terrorism puts a big question mark on that future.
Two years ago, I was taking pictures of kids in an Iraqi refugee camp, and they were laughing and having a blast. But when I got back home and was editing a string of quick-succession photos, I noticed that in between shots of big smiles, the camera caught their faces after the smiles dropped, revealing pain, and sadness, and even anger. Wounds that can remain for a lifetime. We can help them rebuild their homes, but how do we help them restore their hearts?
I’ve learned a lot spending time in the camps, especially when I bring this little puppet we call Rocko. What I’ve learned is that there is this important connection between safety and play. Maybe you’ve seen one of those nature videos where animals are playing in the wild. I saw one with a polar bear running on a frozen lake, then stopping fast to sliiiiide on the ice—then going back and doing it again. Well, when do animals play like that? When they feel SAFE.
And that’s the purpose behind “Strong Kids/Strong Emotions.” To use art and music and drama and even puppets to create a SAFE PLACE for refugee kids to begin to identify and express and process the difficult emotions they have collected by living through war in their formative years.
Our weekly gatherings follow a curriculum that teaches “emotional intelligence and resilience,” along with Scripture content and teachings about the love of Jesus. All of this is done in relationship with peers and adult mentors, a vital ingredient for emotional health and healing.
This past summer, we ran a pilot version of the Strong Kids program in Beirut with a group of 12 Iraqi children whose families fled the region surrounding Mosul in 2014 after ISIS invaded.
An interesting thing happened in June on the last day of our month-long pilot program. While parents were picking up their kids, one of our adult leaders said, “Scott! You have to come see Sandy (one of our kids).” So I ran into the kitchenette to find Sandy #1 and Sandy #2, her identical twin sister—with whom she had been switching places for an entire month because Sandy so badly wanted to share this experience with her sibling. Not the marker of success I was expecting, but we’ll take it.
So, we’re expanding the Strong Kids program with a launch date set for the first part of 2018. With a twice-weekly, year-round kids club format, we plan to reach upwards of 100 Iraqi and Syrian refugee kids from Muslim as well as Christian backgrounds.
We at the Middle East Council of Churches are grateful for your prayers, gifts and partnership as we continue this journey. Strong Kids/Strong Emotions is still in its young stages, and we will continue to learn and expand, but the call and the need to come alongside refugee families exists right now. I hope you will consider how you can partner with this effort to come alongside this ministry to the families of the Middle East.
Elmarie and I, along with our colleagues at the Middle East Council of Churches, are grateful for your prayers, gifts and partnership in this continuing journey. We invite you to consider making an additional year-end financial gift to our work so that we can strongly finish out this year and move with confidence into the ministry opportunities of 2018. Thank you for all you have already done to support us—not only through your financial gifts, but through your prayers, visits, and friendship. You have helped to make our Lord’s love and care visible to us, to our partners, and to those whom we seek to serve together.
As we prepare to once again enter into this Advent Season, we pray that each of you may receive afresh the amazing gift of Immanuel, God with Us. We remain so very grateful for you and for the privilege of sharing together with you in this work of making visible the love of God through Jesus Christ.
Scott and Elmarie
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