Extremely talented young adults have learned it is OK to hope and plan for a future without feeling guilty.
When I reflect on the significance of the start of the Middle East Scholars Program (MESP) in Tbilisi, Georgia, the first thing that comes to mind is what a privilege it is to be part of a program that seeks to help a significantly marginalized population to dream again, to hope again, and to somehow become significant members of a community.
The political climate of the world is changing so fast we can hardly keep up. The program was intended to assist war-affected Syrian youth to get on a path to an academic career at the university level through provision of English language studies. It has been a challenge to get going with this group of young adults. Every time we think we have a “channel” for visa processing, we are quickly disappointed, and students are denied access to the program in Georgia (and Lithuania).
The students from Syria and Iraq who have been denied entry have not even dared to hope for a different future. They live every day with a tense reality that their present, and any future they can foresee, does not include university education, or even the possibility of dreaming or creating. However, there are a few who have been approved. In the process we have also been able to indentify another community of war-affected youth already in Georgia. We are beginning to serve them even as we continue to work with those still in Syria.
The few who have actually been approved, and those whom we have discovered, have pioneered the program with us and were part of the first cohort of students that began studies on May 16, 2016. At present we do have our first group of Syrian students studying full time at LCC International University in Lithuania. We also have a commitment from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Georgia to help with the processing of study visas, so we continue to be hopeful.
What I observed in the first month of the project was that extremely talented young adults have learned it is OK to hope and plan for a future without feeling guilty. I have watched as they write, paint, draw, sing and “work out” their pain through creative avenues. They can do this because we have provided a safe environment for them, one that accepts them as they are, one that encourages them to pursue goals and gives them a voice. In the program they are not marginalized; they are valued, and it has made all the difference.
In the classroom we talk about things like creating strategies for success. While we are learning the English language, we also discuss things like “my greatest fear” or “my beliefs and values.” Students give speeches about significant events in their lives and write about personal opinions while learning how to use transitional words and phrases and to communicate without misunderstanding.
And, yes, sometimes during a speech a student will exhibit PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) behaviour, or sometimes they will break down and cry in the middle of the class. At these times we are faced with a decision—one that will impact not only that specific student, but also the entire group of students. How do you minister love and compassion to the student who is clearly struggling while at the same time being sensitive to the other students who may want to forget the trauma they have experienced? How do you serve all the students in your classroom? The simple answer is that you can’t, really—except by allowing God’s wisdom to direct your words, and by being in constant prayer, believing that the Holy Spirit is able to provide what each student needs.
When in the classroom, we are always mindful that this is not a “normal” group of students, and while we do “normal” things, there is an underlying awareness that we must do things like limiting the topics we cover in class. We cannot enter into dialogue about current events, for instance, since on any given day the news carries painful details about home, family and friends.
The students themselves plead with us to pray for Syria. Or one might ask, “Please pray for my family in Iraq. While we may not be from the same faith background, the immediate response is “Of course, we will pray.”
One of the administrative staff members who is working with the MESP is herself from Syria. One afternoon during her initial visit to Lithuania (her first opportunity to be at LCC International University), we decided to take her to Kretinga for a walk and some fresh air. She told us that one of the things she misses most while living in Damascus is that she can no longer walk outside or enjoy the outdoors. During our walk through Kretinga, we visited a historic cathedral and climbed the several hundred steps to the top of the bell tower with a very gracious priest, who climbed the steps with us. When we were at the top, Anne* grabbed the hands of the priest and began to cry, pleading with him to please, please pray for Syria. Her emotional plea broke my heart.
Last week one of my Syrian students gave his final speech for the Academic Communication class. His topic was about what Syria has given to the world—the first alphabet, the first written form of music, and many other things. He finished his speech with a quote from the French historian, André Parrot: “Every person has two homelands … his own and Syria.” He then urged us to pray for peace, promising that when it came he would be honoured to welcome us as guests to his beautiful country.
The earnest pleas of these young students who have seen and experienced too much, yet dare to dream and hope again, are in my heart and my thoughts every minute of every day. I am humbled to be part of this unique ministry.
*Anne’s name has been changed to protect her identity.
Shelley (and Kirk) Kauffeldt are PAOC global workers at LCC International University in Klaipėda, Lithuania. LCC is a Christian liberal arts university that serves students from all over the Eurasia region. Shelley is a lecturer in the English department, and Kirk is the academic vice-president.
This article appeared in the January/February 2017 issue of testimony,
the bimonthly publication of The Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada