Sometimes hope comes as a stuffed animal

refugees, hope

Originally published in the Salt Lake Tribune, April 21, 2017

Adnan and his wife Amena

Adnan and his wife Amena had a life they enjoyed, with people that they loved in Aleppo, Syria. Adnan, an interior designer, his wife a cosmetologist, had their own car and their own home that they shared with their two young children.

Then, the bombing began. It began keeping their children awake at night. It began killing their friends. Adnan and Amena knew that to stay was to submit to a death sentence. They gave up everything they had and left, hoping for not only a better life but for a chance to live.

Joined by a new baby, the family now lives in a small container called an “Isobox” that has a toilet and room for a couple of twin mattresses in a camp of about 750 people. They cook with fire in front of their box home and they long for meaningful work, for a life of purpose.

I met Adnan and Amena this week in Greece, working in one of the camps about an hour outside of Athens. Adnan thanked our group for coming and for letting him help us. He told one of the volunteers in our group that his life for the last fourteen months has consisted of waking up, eating, and going back to sleep and it was making him sick and depressed. “No purpose for me,” he said. Then, “Thank you. You give me work. Thank you.”

I know some of the benefits of gratitude, based on personal observation and scientific research: improved resilience, improved self-esteem, enhanced empathy, reduced aggression and increased happiness, to name a few. What I have been reminded of this week is how amazing it is to see gratitude expressed for things that have never occurred to me.

In one of the camps we visited, the refugees aren’t allowed to cook – they are given rations three times a day, like it or leave it. They miss being able to cook for their families. Gratitude for the ability to work, for fresh fruit, for a place to play and a place to pray – the refugees we have worked with this week are grateful for all those things and more.

Many hands make light work

On Thursday, we saw how much gratitude parents can have when you can get their child to smile. On that day, our group worked alongside missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints to hold a “Build-A-Buddy” event. Two hundred children, from tiny babies to teens, got to build a stuffed animal of their choosing and then dressed their animal as well. Everything from turtles to elephants to bunnies and bears got dressed in princess clothes, explorer outfits and as baseball players – and many other unique and interesting combinations. The grins on those kids faces lit up the tent we were in like floodlights and their grins made their parents smile too.

The Build-A-Buddy project was followed by a magic show put on by Utah magician and motivational speaker, Mike Hamilton. The tent was filled with hundreds of camp residents, from the very young to the very seasoned and Mike quickly had them enthralled, cheering, whistling, clapping and laughing at the latest trick. For a brief moment, the outside world faded away and they could be caught up in something that made them smile.

After the show, a number of the adults wanted to express their gratitude and appreciation that we would take the time to come to Greece, then come to their camp and be with them for a day. They hugged us, cried with us, shared with us some of their stories and they thanked us, over and over and over, for bringing a bit of light and hope into their world. Desmond Tutu, who saw some very dark times in South Africa, said “Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.”

Sometimes hope comes in the form of a good day’s work. Sometimes it comes in the form of a stuffed animal and a magic show.

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