Editor’s Note: The face of our article’s subject is obscured for his privacy and protection. 

By the time we arrived at our destination, I had mostly lost my geographic bearings. As best I can recall, we were somewhere south of Tripoli, Lebanon, with the blue waters of the Mediterranean still visible in the distance. We turned into what appeared to be the driveway of a cement house, but as the car pulled in farther, I could see that the lot behind the home had been converted into some sort of settlement (if it could be called that).

The first thing I noticed was a cluster of makeshift structures consisting of upright wooden boards draped with tarps or sheets of plastic intended to serve as walls. Additional planks and tarps were laid perpendicular to the first to form the “roofs,” with a few strategically positioned tires on the top to hold them all in place. The second thing that caught my attention was the hill that rose directly behind the settlement. It boasted a handful of starkly contrasting luxury homes with upper windows that faced the sea but at the same time were broad enough to admit a clear view of the dwellings below, if any of the homeowners happened to glance downward.

Our hosts informed us that this was one of many locations to which they periodically delivered food, hygiene supplies, and fuel purchased with humanitarian funds that had been donated by the Church. Anxious for us to meet some of those who were benefiting from this aid, they invited me, along with the volunteer couple serving in Lebanon, to follow them along the dirt path that ran between the tarped partitions that served as home to multiple Syrian families. I ducked beneath power cables and clotheslines as we wound our way through the miniature maze until reaching an open space which was apparently the designated gathering spot for the complex. A few of the men and women were already congregated there; others emerged from their compartments as they heard guests arriving.

From previous visits to the Levant, I knew that, no matter how humble their circumstances might be, the residents would receive us with the effusive hospitality that characterizes that part of the world. This occasion was no different—we quickly found ourselves surrounded by men of varying ages whose excitement to welcome a new set of visitors was evidenced by their wide grins and their animated chatter. Relying on our hosts for interpretation, we responded to the usual inquiries about where we were from and what we were doing in Lebanon, but as adeptly as we could, we gradually shifted the questioning away from ourselves and toward them.

By this point in my career, I was no stranger to refugee camps and settlements, and I had come to understand that one of the greatest services we could render was to ask about the residents’ stories…and then to genuinely listen. The food and other supplies were critical from a physical standpoint, but beyond those basics, I had learned about the gift of personal connection, especially for those who are frequently viewed as outsiders—and sometimes even as a burden—to their new societies. We listened as they told us about the towns in Syria they had come from, the events that had caused them to flee, the family members they had left behind. We asked how long they had been in Lebanon, how their wives and children were faring, what their greatest challenges were. They would frequently talk over one another in their excitement to answer, and despite the difficulties of their circumstances, we even found a few things to laugh about together.

When the opportunity presented itself, we assured them that there were many in the world, perhaps more than they realized, who had heard of their situation, who empathized, and who were continually seeking ways to help. Whether or not they believed that could be possible, they seemed appreciative of the sentiment. Listening to their accounts, I was struck by the thought of just how easily any of us, with a sudden turn of affairs, could be similarly thrust from a situation of peace and comfort to one of trauma and turmoil.

Throughout our interactions, I had noticed that one young man continually inched closer to me until he eventually managed to find a spot at my side. He seemed too reserved to compete for his place in the discussion, but it was clear that he wanted our attention. I finally found a lull in the conversation to ask about him, but before he could say anything, the older men were quick to answer for him. It turns out that he was a bit of an anomaly in the group. While the others had at least some of their immediate family members with them, this young man had been left on his own. When I questioned why, it was again one of his older companions who responded.

For reasons I failed to fully capture, his father and mother had separated years earlier. As a result, his mother had remarried after she and her children had been in Lebanon for some time. While her new husband was willing to assume care of the younger children, his offer did not extend to her eldest son, whom he felt should be able to fend for himself. The child in question was our new friend, who was about 15 years old—the age of my own son at the time. His name was Noor, meaning “light.”

Noor had been watching us intently as we listened to the others tell his story. When I returned his gaze, he made a beckoning motion, and one of the men informed me that he wanted to show us his quarters. Noticing my assent, Noor’s eyes brightened, and he led us partway back through the maze until we reached a small partition—no more than 50 feet square—which was furnished with a single foldaway cot. At first, I assumed his intent in showing us his space was to evoke our sympathy, but I could see from his expression that he actually took pride in it. This gave us our first real opportunity to speak with Noor directly.

We learned that several of the families in the camp shared their meals with him, but that aside from that, he was responsible for his own living—including the rent charged by the landowner for Noor’s tiny section of the plot. To earn enough to get by, Noor stood at busy intersections in town for hours a day selling small packs of tissues, waiting for an occasional driver to roll down his or her window and make a purchase. This was a seven-day-a-week job, and it was only by pure coincidence that we happened to find him at home that day, as he sheepishly admitted that he had needed “a little break.”

As grateful as I was that we could contribute to his temporal support, my heart ached for his personal circumstances. As I stared at him, I found myself instinctively voicing a question for which I risked having no adequate solution.

“What is it that you need the most?” I tentatively inquired, expecting to hear a plea for at least a few material comforts. His actual answer caught me off guard.

“I want someone to teach me to read and write,” he replied, almost in a whisper.

It silenced me. I assumed his focus would be on his immediate needs, but what Noor most desired was the hope of a better future. The war had disrupted his education just as he was reaching his formative years. I looked at our hosts, knowing that their organization operated a school for refugee children in Tripoli, but they likewise remained silent.

As we eventually made our way out of the settlement and said our goodbyes, Noor continued to stay close to us, finally mustering the courage to ask if he could take a picture with us before we left. We readily obliged, wondering what life would hold for him and so many others like him.

Noor followed us with his gaze as we slowly drove away. We had barely left the driveway before I began pressing our hosts about the possibility of enrolling them in his school. “He’s too old and too far behind,” they informed me. “He won’t stay with it.”

“He might be the exception,” I countered, with an expression that communicated how serious I was about my suggestion.

“We’ll try,” they finally consented, and they were true to their word. They arranged for Noor to attend their school on a stipend, but culturally they understood more than I did. After a few months, they informed me that he had dropped out and was back to engaging in subsistence-level jobs.


I hesitate to write about stories that have not yet found their happy ending, but somehow I feel that Noor’s is one that needs to be told—if for no other reason than to draw attention to the millions of displaced children across the world who are now facing similar circumstances, exiled from their homes and struggling to find their place in a society that is not their own.

My plea, on Noor’s behalf, is that we will do all we can within our own communities to welcome these children, to integrate them into our schools and help them succeed while they are still young, and to give of our time and means to support the various organizations who serve them.

Hope burns in their eyes, and our individual responses to their plight can either help to brighten that flame or allow it to fade. I pray we will choose the former.


To learn more about the Church’s humanitarian work among the many displaced populations in the world, visit https://www.latterdaysaintcharities.org/what-we-do/refugee-help?lang=eng.