An Insider’s Glimpse into the Syrian Refugee Crisis
October 24, 2013
Many Syrian refugees who escape across the border into Lebanon end up living in ramshackle camps like this one in the Bekaa Valley.
Much has been reported about the plight of Syrian Muslims who are fleeing their country, but how has the war impacted Christian refugees? In an emotional interview with Christian Aid Mission staff, the leader of a Lebanon-based ministry shares refugee accounts that broke his heart—and gave him hope for a brighter future.
Q: How do you minister to the refugees given their very difficult circumstances and challenges?
A: Most of the time we sit and talk and we pray with them. It’s really hard. I know we can’t save the world, but we do as much as we can. We just do whatever we can. People come knocking on the door and say “Please, let us in. It’s okay; we will sit on the floor. Give us just a roof. We don’t want anything else.” Or people will say, “Do you have any clothing for us because we left Syria with nothing.” As we are able to serve meals, we do it. We try to do it weekly. If we are able to offer more food, we do it. We never provide meals according to a schedule. We never store food on the shelf. Whatever we have, we cook, and the refugees help us.
Q: What is the current situation inside Syria and with the refugees in Lebanon?
A: What’s happening now is the persecution that the Christian people are experiencing, especially in the areas of Maaloula and Aleppo. It’s a huge problem now. So they leave Syria with whatever they have on them. They just leave. A country like Lebanon is very small and there’s nothing that the government is doing to help the refugees. Where we work in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon, there are no more empty spots available. The fields are full. It’s overwhelming with all the children and families. A huge disaster.
I visited one of the families. There were about 25 to 30 people. When I came in the room, I literally thought they were having the Lord’s Supper, the way they were eating. They were handing each other a slice of bread and each one was taking a piece. This is how bad off they are. In Beirut too, any house that already had one or two refugee families living there, now they have more people in the same house.
I have lived through war, I’ve lived with disasters, but I have never seen it this bad. The main thing now is to stand with believers that we know are being persecuted.
Q: How are Christians in Syria coping?
A: The hardest thing is communication. They don’t go out much. There is a big loneliness; they feel that they are alone and nobody thinks of them. They are scared and they think they are alone in this whole situation. One man said, “Someone burned the Koran and they [the media] made a big story out of it. We have people we bury every day who are Christians. Why can’t we do something about that?” It’s true we are not the kind of people who are an "eye for an eye" and a "tooth for a tooth." No. The encouraging thing is we are seeing God working, even though things are hard.
Q: Can you share with us the personal stories of some of the families?
Perhaps the greatest tragedy of the war is its effect on Syria’s children.
A: This is a very conservative number I’m saying, but I met at least 15 to 20 kids with no mom and no dad left for them. Their parents died when they were in Syria, and the children were taken out by others who were fleeing. One Christian brother in Lebanon mentioned his mom didn’t want to leave Syria because she told him, “If we leave, they’re going to take everything.” He tried to convince her and other family members to leave. He couldn’t. By the time they were talking about leaving, men came into the house and killed them all, just because they are Christians. They were wonderful believers, a wonderful family. This man lost his whole family. His mom, his dad, his grandma, and all his brothers. Nine people were killed that day.
They were killed in a part of Syria that was supposed to be safe. Any area where Christians are, they are being targeted. They [rebels] come in, they massacre people, and they leave. The same thing they did in Maaloula. They came in for two days, they massacred people, and then they left. Maaloula is an area where there are Catholic and Orthodox believers. There’s no fighting there. I don’t know. It’s hard to say where there is a safe area for Christians in Syria any more.
Q: Are the rebels targeting Christians differently than they would Alawite or Shiite?
A: Yes, because they slaughter Christians. They don’t shoot them. That’s how you know the difference.
Q: Do you recommend Christians just leave Syria?
A: In situations like this, you cannot recommend anyone leave or stay. For two reasons. When you leave, you lose everything. I remember every time we left our house during the war in Lebanon, it was broken into and people took everything. That’s really what the rebels want people to do. They want to scare people out, and when families are out, the rebels steal. That’s why they kill families, to scare the neighborhood. They want to make people leave. And at the same time if they don’t leave, they are jeopardizing their lives. And what do you do when you have two kids, three kids, babies? You don’t want to go to a place where you can’t find work, where you’re not welcome, where nobody’s doing anything to help you.
Q: What are you and your ministry doing to help the refugees? What are some specific ways that you are providing assistance to them?
A ministry in Lebanon is reaching out to both Muslim and Christian refugees to provide food packages, medicine, bedding materials, and other essentials.
A: We are opening now several camps that I know of but the only thing is we cannot open them too much to the public because we will be suddenly overwhelmed. But some of the places we are keeping for believers. So far we have more than 6,000 people who are Christians that have tents and small places to stay where they are sharing bathrooms and such. This is in the mountains in Lebanon. We are trying to help them as much as possible with food and medical assistance. The other area where we are working is in the Bekaa Valley. We have some Christians there—around 2,000 people. There are no places left in Beirut. It’s horrible there. Refugees that went to Tripoli in northern Lebanon are fleeing now because of what’s happening there between the Sunnis and the Shiites. So they are either going to Beirut or into the mountains.
Q: In your mind, do you see the refugee situation as something that is bringing many thousands, even hundreds of thousands of Muslims to Christ?
A: I wouldn’t say hundreds of thousands, but I have seen thousands personally. On a recent trip I prayed and I cried with so many people—more than in my entire life, my entire ministry. That’s for sure I can tell you. We have meetings in several churches. You see Muslims coming on Wednesdays, on Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. They want to be a part of it.
One Sunday when I was there we had 200 people in a room. We said, “Okay, you know that we are Christians and we believe in Jesus and we would like to pray for you.” We shared the gospel with them. I’ve never seen so many people praying at the same time in my life, ever. All of them were Muslims. We said, “Do you want to give your life to Jesus?” They said, "Yes," and they prayed. I don’t know if it’s because we were there, but I know they need Jesus. That’s all I know. That’s the maximum we can give them.
Q: Do they tell other Muslims they are Christians, or do they keep it to themselves?
Christians face intense persecution as the war rages on in Syria.
A: It depends where, with whom. I was in Beirut visiting with one of the Syrian families. There were about 35 to 40 people in that small house. A guy came in and said, “You are the one who is converting them to Christianity.” He was angry with me and he was looking at everybody and shouting at them. That gives you an example of how they share with others what they have seen and what they have prayed. That’s how it is happening. Some people share their faith, some don’t. But a lot of them come back to us and help us out.
Q: How do you share your faith with the refugees?
A: We definitely share the gospel with them. We offer them a New Testament. If they say no, we don’t give it. Some are saying, “We don’t read.” This is when audio materials are useful. Sometimes we visit carrying nothing and say, “Hi, I’m just here to see you.” One Muslim man said to me, “Can you come and pray with my wife. I think she is going into labor.” I didn’t know what to pray for. She was in labor. I said, “We will have to take your wife to the hospital.” Of course they cannot afford it. I said, “No problem, let’s go.” So I was praying with her on the way. We got her to the hospital. She had a boy. Guess what they named him? Yes, my name.
Can you imagine? And this was a Muslim family. (choking back tears) All of this is really too much [to handle]. But God is good. We should focus on that. God is good. We need to stand next to the believers. We are there for them. We are there.
How you can help Syrian refugees:
- For refugee families, as they have experienced the horrors of war and face immense challenges in the countries where they have relocated. Pray that their hearts will be open to hear and receive the love of Jesus Christ.
- For encouragement and strength for the Lebanese ministry workers who feel emotionally overwhelmed.
- For Christians who have chosen to remain in Syria—for their safety, for God’s provision to meet their physical and emotional needs, and that they will be lights for Christ in the midst of the darkness that surrounds them.
- Food package for one family for a week ($80)
- Mattress, blanket, pillow ($50)
- Shoes and clothing ($10)
- Medicine ($5)
- Plastic tarp ($300-$500). Families use this covering to waterproof their tents, which are made of wood and scrap metal.
- Heaters ($30-$40) depending on whether the appliance uses diesel fuel or wood. Cold weather will be setting in soon. The ministry is requesting at least 200 heaters, one per family.
- New Testaments/CDs ($5 each). Believers still living in Syria would like to use these materials for evangelism among the rebels.
- Monthly living expenses for gospel workers in Syria