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Tears in the Airport Lounge

Tears in the Airport Lounge”will be a memoir I write someday. It’s the place I sit at the end of each trip and write notes from time spent with refugees. It’s the place I finally let go because I’m alone. It’s also the place where tears give way to concrete action steps that lay the foundation for our programs; tears that propel us to action. Today’s stories were tough…

I try hard to smile with encouraging eyes, as I listen to young refugee girls tell their stories. I hold little Reem’s hand, who sits next to me, in an effort provide comfort. I know this is the very reason we are here; to walk with these young girls in their grief and trauma. The group I speak with today are all less than 15 years old. Many already have children of their own. They are brave. They are children.

Each girl speaks with courage and I listen as harrowing stories emerge:

“Poison gas killed everyone I know. I’m the only one left.”

“I was captured and raped many times each day. Sometimes I would lose consciousness. Now I’m left to care for the children fathered by my attackers.”

“All I could do was hold her hand. My mom died when a bomb hit our home as we were eating dinner. We didn't even have time to say goodbye.”

“It’s been five years since my sisters were taken. I don't know if they are dead or alive. My family is broken.”

And the stories keep going until everyone has had a chance to share. They are, sadly, stories I’ve heard repeated in many camps. All have experienced personally or witnessed violent sexual assault against someone they love. Their stories of trauma will never emerge in the spotlight of the media. They are well-hidden in the tent shanties that line the borderlands, forgotten by most of the world where they fight extremely hard just to survive daily life.

As I look around the room at faces so young, I struggle to find the courage to fight back tears. My throat thinks it’s time to cry, as I hold my breath to suppress the emotion fighting its way out. I have the impression that for these battered refugee children, there is a certain type of aloneness that may never be dispelled due to loss of family, friends, and virtue. For a while, we sit in silence; a thick silence that speaks a language of its own. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow once penned “there is no grief like the grief that does not speak” and I discover it’s every bit true in this moment.

I finally find my voice, although it feels weak. I’m compelled to talk about a hope that lies on the far side of grief; where everything seems rearranged, but in place. I make a commitment that scares me, a commitment to stick with them until they feel whole; a commitment to find friends who will also help. We leave with hugs and smiles, connected at a heart level that’s difficult to put into words.

As I reflect in the airport lounge, I know the journey toward healing will be long for many of them, but I’m committed to doing everything I can. That often translates into asking for help; something I’m not very good at. I ask for help from friends experienced in counseling. I ask for help from on-the-ground partners. I ask for financial help from friends and foundations so we can provide resources to support programs. I ask for help for myself as I pray for the resolve to never give up.