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Guest blog by Bruna Kadlez, Associate Fellow of St Ethelburga’s

In the middle of 2012, the battles and bombs reached Aleppo, once Syria´s second largest city and the country´s economic centre. In that time, Myria Toukmaji was a senior student of Fine Arts at the University of Aleppo and a teacher at her mother´s wellbeing centre, the Tree of Life. She became a refuge of creativity and art for children affected by the Syrian War. In one summer afternoon, while teaching Latin dance to her students, a bomb dropped in the neighbourhood, trembling the building. The room was filled with children and their first reaction was to fall to the floor, crying in despair.  After a few minutes, Myria´s natural instinct prompted her to rise from the ground and call the children to stand up with her. With tears running down the faces, they followed their beloved teacher and continued to dance.

Myria wanted to create a safe haven for her students and teach them to stand tall in spite of the adversities, to carry on even when they´re afraid. She didn´t want the war to paralyse them.

Her courage speaks to another brave woman I met recently. Jessica is from Uganda and was only 14-year-old when a local militia invaded a girls´ school, kidnapping her and her friends. Jessica was kept in captivity for nearly ten years.  In the early 2000´s, she managed to run away with her four children, but during the escape, two of them were brutally killed. In our conversation, I couldn´t feel any emotional connection in her voice, part of herself was distant and cut off. The pain was raw. For a long time, she couldn´t smile. As expected, Jessica is still very hurt and traumatised. Yet, her courage, resilience and survival instinct are remarkable. When I asked how she could endure so much suffering and violence for such a long period, she replied saying all she wanted was to live, to protect her children, to see her family again. This instinct guided her throughout the years.  

These stories are part of a book I´m working on – Conquering Frontiers: the courage of refugees. The intention propelling the book is to humanise our perceptions on refugees, portraying the newcomers in our societies as sources of strength, seeking opportunities to contribute rather than problems to solve or threats to fear.

The stories in the book invite the reader to reflect upon a simple yet powerful shift: what if instead of perceiving refugees as problems and threats, we recognised them as potential re-builders and human beings with the capacity to teach, learn and contribute.

We live in a world on the edge of climate breakdown and societal collapse, and refugees have much to teach us on how to live through this messy time. Refugees are seed keepers for the painful transition ahead of us. They carry in their bodies the scars of war, violence and collective trauma, as well as the seeds of courage, strength and resilience.

When I read Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee´s latest blogpost for St. Ethelburga´s, Radical resilience: An inner shift, I thought about the life changing lessons I´ve learned since I started connecting with refugee communities in different parts of the world. Particularly where the Sufi teacher writes, “collapse and transition can co-exist.”

On one level, refugees know societal collapse and suffering like no one else does.  Many of them come from places where the social and economic fabrics have been torn apart, where climate breakdown is already a living reality. When they´re forcibly displaced from their homeland, they´re also displaced from their identities and ways of living, having to recreate themselves in the place where they settle in. This process demands courage, resilience, surrender and trust.

At the end of our conversation, Myria told me she wanted to leave the war to start a new life, but the war never left her. The Syrian War is an integral part of her life. These days, she is invited to speak to audiences, to engage and share her story with young people and inspire them. Because she carries courage and resilience in herself, she´s able to light up hearts with the hope needed for the time being.

I´m aware of the dangers in romanticising the experiences of refugees. In listening and sharing these stories, I´m just trying to realise how these narratives fit together with a larger global narrative and how we could respond to our global predicaments from a place of higher understanding which connects to the lived reality of millions of people.

This practice opens space to see from different perspectives. Each one of the people I meet and speak with holds their own personal stories, full of nuances and individuality, suffering and breakthrough. And when these stories are weaved together, another one is revealed. A story of how to live through scarcity and still be generous, how to literally lose everything but hope for a better future, how to face difficulties with grace, how to value small and simple things from a place of real gratitude, how to accept that which you cannot change.

In the darkness we´re in, we must look for sources of light and inspiration to guide us through. I find these stories illuminating the path for embodying deep adaptation and catalysing social change.

The radical resilience needed to live through our turbulent times lies latent within us. I learn to connect with it and cultivate it with the support of my refugee friends.  

I also feel refugees come to us with messages which point to new ways of being and relating to one another. They point to how to engage with oneness in a very mundane way. Diverse and multicultural societies reflect the creativity and enormous power within creation. Despite all differences and challenges in getting along well, there´s something greater that bonds us together. When the refugee plight is politicised, when nations close borders aggravating humanitarian crises, when people lock the doors and contract in fear and hatred, they´re missing such a unique opportunity.   

Within the hearts of refugees, collapse, transition and new beginnings co-exist. This is an important lesson to embody. If we are to embrace a changing world, we must embrace the totality of it, including its struggles and sacred nature.  

Bruna Kadletz is an Associate Fellow of St Ethelburga’s Centre for Reconciliation and Peace. She is Director and the co-founder of Circles of Hospitality, a Brazilian organisation whose focus lies on reclaiming a culture of peace and deep hospitality in times of polarisation and intolerance against the other.

St Ethelburga’s Centre for Reconciliation & Peace will be launching a new programme on radical resilience in November 2019. More information to follow. 

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