Refugee Life Takes Psychological Toll
May 26, 2016
The landscape for Middle Eastern war refugees is dank and dark.
After five years of warfare in Syria, restless refugees with children who have gone years without school are sapped of hope – the very thing indigenous missionaries offer.
Ministry workers in Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Syria note that people displaced by war in Syria, some of them highly educated, cannot find steady work or are underemployed at best. Many refugees have lost husbands or wives; one native Christian leader in Turkey estimated 25 percent of refugees are widowed.
"Widows cannot work even if they find a job, because they have nowhere safe to leave their children," he said. "There are also many orphaned children."
Rebel forces backed by the United States are fighting to unseat Russian-backed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in a conflict with no end in sight. Caught in the cross-fire and trying to evade atrocities of Islamic extremist groups such as the Islamic State (ISIS) and Al-Nusra, the refugees have suffered the loss of their homes, livelihood and loved ones. At makeshift refugee camps outside Adana, Turkey, they are far from jobs in the city, and farm labor is irregular and grueling.
Syrian refugees in Lebanon benefit from critical supplies.
"If they are fortunate enough to find a job, they work more than 12 hours a day, and they work under very harsh conditions," the director of a ministry based in Turkey said. "If they are lucky, they can get paid $10 a day for 12 hours of work. Many of them wake very early in the morning to stand in the human market, hoping to get work as a coolie or in construction. Most of the women and children beg at traffic lights."
With limited financial resources, the ministry faces the daunting challenge of providing most of their daily needs for baby formula, diapers, medical care, clean water, shoes, clothes, mattresses and the Word of God, he said.
"We can see on their faces that there is no hope," he said. "But whoever hears the Word of God has hope in their life. We tell the people that the Lord Jesus will never leave you alone; He will never turn His face from you. Whoever accepts Jesus has hope."
Most of the more than 2.7 million Syrian refugees in Turkey do not enjoy the benefits of the government's official camps. At the makeshift camps outside Adana, indigenous ministry workers can see on refugee faces that there is no hope, he said.
"Our daily goal is to provide their basic needs to survive – when we can provide for these needs, they do not have to worry about their kids, so they will have time to think about the Word of God," the ministry director said. "Our weekly goals are to preach the gospel and explain the Word of God."
In Jordan, where registered Syrian refugees number more than 651,000 and the total Syrian population tops 1.3 million, it was illegal for them to work until the government recently allowed them to take jobs in agriculture, construction and basic services. Jordan also plans to establish industrial zones employing Syrians to produce goods for export to Europe under an agreement with the European Union. An indigenous ministry leader said they long for jobs.
"It's a different feeling when a man comes home and he has some food in his hand, some bread for his children, chocolate or chips – that feeling is missing; their life has changed with this new status," he said. "They say, 'We're like prisoners. We want to feel like we're human. We'll work at whatever we can get.'"
It is still difficult for Syrians to find work in Jordan, which has 14 percent unemployment (30 percent among youth), and the indigenous ministry plans to help churches establish cottage businesses on their premises marketing consumer items such as women's scarves – and employ Syrian refugees to help produce and sell them.
The dignity of work would help heal their traumatized souls, which would complement the counseling that indigenous ministry workers provide, he said. Refugees tend to store feelings inside that they're not even aware they're concealing, the ministry leader said. One day something may trigger release of the pent-up trauma, and they won't know why they feel no control over what is happening to them psychologically, he said.
Though the ministry is short on trained counselors, ministry workers do what they can to address refugees' emotional wounds, he said. The ministry offers individual counseling, group therapy, music therapy and play therapy at available venues but seeks a central facility for such services.
"It's especially important for children," he said. "It's heart breaking – there's bedwetting, nightmares. One of the important things is to have a center for them and have some game therapy and play therapy. The family can bring them and have counseling as the kids play."
In spite of dire prospects for peace, most Syrian refugees do not want to talk of the impossibility of returning to their country one day, he said.
"They still have hope to go back," he said. "Some people are still thinking, 'Maybe tomorrow I'll be back, maybe next week.' They're not realistic. They're upside down. When we tell them the Good News in Arabic, they get new breath, new hope. That's why they keep calling, wanting us to come and visit and talk with them about Jesus. They say, 'There's peace when you visit us. We feel peace and hope when we hear your stories.'"
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