Rim Bakir on living in boundless compassion as Muslim American & Syrian immigrant

When we create our stories each week, one of the most agonizing decisions is what to call people. How do you distill a life—in the case of our storytellers, an otherworldly life—into the three or four words of a title scroll?

When I think about Syrian refugees, or when they are discussed in the media, the focus, understandably, is on the humanitarian crisis. Another facet of the loss, that we must collectively reckon with, is cultural.

The hometown of this week’s storyteller, RIM BAKIR, is Aleppo, Syria, 70% of which has been destroyed in the civil war that has been raging since 2012.

What to me is a depressing headline, is to Rim a personal horror story. Daily she faces the news: her childhood pediatrician killed on his way to work by a sniper stationed on the children’s hospital rooftop. Or that the centuries old gold and spice bazaar—that her American-born son once proudly told his friends was a “living zoo” because donkeys, chickens, goats all roamed freely there—was destroyed.

As a young architect, she worked with UNESCO (United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization) to preserve the living museum that was Aleppo. Twenty years later, from her new home in America, she slowly watches it burn. Many aspects of our conversation surprised me, and this was the first: what cracked her open during our conversation was when she detailed the systematic leveling of her cherished birthplace.

This loss is not Syrians alone to bear. The cultural decimation is a collective horror for our global community. Aleppo is one of the oldest cities in the world, inhabited since the 6th century BC. It’s served as the Islamic capital of culture, played a prominent roll on the Silk Road, and held icons that connect three monotheistic religions. This heritage is being erased forever—these magical, labyrinth souks, these Great Mosques.

I first met Rim through her work as a spokesperson for the US-based NGO Narenj Tree Foundation, which ships emergency humanitarian assistance to Syrian refugees abroad. Our first brief meeting stuck with me. I’ve encountered many powerful advocates, but none that simply ooze compassion like Rim.

My friendship with Rim has brought the headlines to life. She’s a tireless champion driven to send money to much of her family remaining in Syria. Driven to urge her neighbors to send supplies to Syrians in desperate conditions in refugee camps. Driven to humanize the stereotype of the “Muslim American” with each person she meets. She combats prejudice, racism, and misunderstanding about Muslims with the essence of her being. She never gives up on anyone, meeting cruel comments and hurtful behaviors with patience, love, and understanding.

Why, then, does it still surprised me to hear Rim talk about the “Day of Dignity” she helps lead with the organization Islamic Relief USA? Why am I surprised that my friend’s heart is big enough to contain not just the shattered country of her birth, but to take on the suffering of her adopted homeland? That her ocean of compassion could simultaneously lap the shores of Aleppo’s forgotten and Philadelphia’s homeless?

Rim has endured more devastation this month than I’ve faced my whole life. When I look at the staggering devastation in Syria, I feel an unconscious veil come down over my heart. I don’t mean to pull away. BUT. IT’S. JUST. TOO. MUCH.

I’m fascinated with her resilience and wanted to explore where it’s born from. It begs the question: how far can we ask our hearts to open? What happens after they break? Can we trust our hearts to grow stronger, as when Leonard Cohen tells us, “there is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

It seems that for Rim, the line between “herself” and “the other” has become so blurred that it’s practically indistinguishable. She embodies the notion that until all beings are free, none of us are. Paradoxically, that by opening to the pain of her neighbors be they here, or half a world away, Rim is strengthened. Her power source is her compassion.

What if that power source could be activated in us all?

This week, reports have come that the Iraqi city of Mosul, another of our planet’s ancient cultural and historical centers, has been under siege. The refugees pouring out of that city for safety and shelter—where are they heading? After this conversation with Rim, I wasn’t surprised to read: Syria.

While I’m grateful for the technology that allows us to share these stories, this is one of those times I wish I could invite all of you into my kitchen to share a cup of tea and bask in the light that is Rim.

With disarming humility, this woman’s very presence transforms, awakens, opens. If our wisest prophets were embodied today, incarnated not as kings, but as the homeless, the exiled, might they look like a middle-age female Muslim immigrant walking the streets of modern America?

It’s possible.

Learn more about how you can help or get involved: http://narenjtree.org. Also, if you are in the Philadelphia area, please join us at Community Day of Service: Syrian Refugee Relief on November 12.

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