By mid-October, the Middle Eastern desert has baked for months, coating everything, roads and ruins alike, with sepia-toned fine dust. It’s hard to imagine anything sprouting from the summer-scorched sand – “it’s literally just brown” long-term worker Sally* described – but over the past two years, the stark landscape has been the backdrop to transformation.
Through weekly drives to remote villages, past occasional camels and flocks of sheep, and hours spent on the floor with the families in the community-based rehabilitation programme she volunteers for, Sally has grown in her capacity to love the people.
Ten pictures arranged in a circle on one of the walls inside Sally’s apartment show the biggest catalyst for her heart change: the children.
Within the honour-shame society, the children are often hidden away because of their diagnoses: cerebral palsy, down syndrome, Duchenne’s muscle dystrophy, microcephalis, encephalopathy, lissencephaly. However, Sally and her co-worker Melody* recognise the kids’ individual personalities.
“Each of them has a different character or personality quirk about them,” Melody said. “The thing I loved so much about this last year was discovering who they were as people… That was the fun part about working with them, showing them their own value by encouraging them to come out of their shells.”
Rahman*, one of the oldest children in the programme, can write the whole Arabic alphabet and solve some math problems. “His favourite thing to ask about is… [going] to school,” Melody shared.
Said* has five younger siblings. “As soon as someone new comes, they attach themselves to you,” she explained.
Farouq* has a “cute small little voice”; Ali* loves games; Khaled* is fun to work with; and Omar* likes banging on improvised drums made of empty yogurt containers, she said.
“God would use the kids a lot to bless us,” Melody stated. “We would come in and hope we were encouraging and blessing them, but they were also encouraging us.”
The ultimate goal of the project is for the children with disabilities to become contributors in the community. However, neither Sally nor Melody joined the OM Near East Field because of the programme. Sally said she had been touched by what she had seen of the project during an earlier trip and wanted to volunteer during her days of learning language and culture. Melody desired a natural way to stay connected to the community.
“From there, God just changed my heart with these kids,” Sally acknowledged.
For four months, an occupational therapist working with the project showed Sally and Melody how to do the exercises with the children.
“We were both going through a big learning curve,” Sally remembered. “I’m very much a person that is black and white. Things needed to be on time… I needed to know what’s going on, what’s happening next, particularly with the different exercises, what the plan was.”
Life in the village, though, is anything but planned.
During the first week, Melody made some visits by herself using a borrowed car. The alarm kept going off, and, without a professional medical degree, she struggled to establish herself as an authority figure in the homes.
As the women continued to visit the families and review exercises with the children, however, they also became daughters and sisters. “For the two or three hours you’re with the family, you’re part of the family. You do the exercises, you eat with them, you play with the other children. You cry with them. They become part of who you are,” Sally said.
“I’ve become gentler and softer because of these kids. I can’t say specific things of exactly what happened… For me, it’s more moments where I see progress… Those are small things that are so encouraging with these kids,” she enthused. “Where there was nothing before, suddenly you see change.”
“It’s because of them that God has opened up opportunities for truth to be shared with these families, to pray over these kids or sing Jesus songs with them,” she added. “I’ve been challenged to love people unconditionally based on how I’ve been loved by these kids.”
Six months in, one of the children passed away. A year later, two more died within a week of each other. “The one thing they don’t tell you in training is how much you will fall in love with the people you will serve,” Sally noted. “It was at that stage where I realised the depth of the pain that you experience is the depth of the love.”
When the women visited one of the children’s mothers, they prayed for her. At the funeral, Sally and Melody circulated pictures of the boy among those gathered, remembering his life and accomplishments. “We were able to both mourn with them, but at the same time connect with the kids,” Melody said. “It was a beautiful moment of sharing life with the family. That is how we share who Jesus is, sharing that life and the ups and downs, praying with them, and letting them be who they are.”
When Sally recommitted her life to God six years ago, she asked God to, ‘Break my heart for what breaks Yours.’ “Because of my past, I was very strong always,” she shared. “These kids bring vulnerability into my heart and that brings softness. You begin to flower.”
“I’ve seen her soften and relax and trust that God is going to do it, but do it in His way. I think she has been surprised by how the Lord has given her such a deep love for the children,” Sally’s team leader affirmed. “The way she is around kids is beautiful. She is spontaneous, she is relaxed, she is loving them.”
“Those who sow with tears will reap with songs of joy. Those who go out weeping, carrying seed to sow, will return with songs of joy.” – Psalm 126:5-6 (NIV)
That passage of Psalms is Sally’s motto. Serving is hard work, not easily tilled ground, she said. But “I’ve grown so much, seeing God doing His work… God has shown me small, beautiful things through these kids. I’ve been taught thankfulness.”
Looking forward, Melody anticipated a more complete team by spring. “I know every new season is different,” she mused. “I’m excited to try new things out in the village and to see us reaching out to the community and being able to connect with the community… People know who we are. Let’s see how far we can go, both for the project and also for sharing, breaking down those walls. [Pray] that we’ll start seeing fruit.”
“The most beautiful thing is to see spring,” Sally said. “To see the desert in bloom.”
*Name changed for security
Nicole James is a world traveller and writer for OM International. She’s passionate about partnering with fields to communicate the ways God is working across the globe.