Refugees Face Growing Crisis as ISIS Caliphate Expands

June 11, 2015

Syrians account for the vast majority of the 1.25 million refugees in Lebanon, a country with a population 5.9 million.

The Islamic State (ISIS) took over important cities in Iraq and Syria in the past month as refugees in Lebanon faced a new obstacle to survival in a country where the government has done little to help them.

The humanitarian crisis deepened throughout the region as ISIS rebounded from earlier losses and took the Iraqi city of Ramadi on May 17 and the Syrian town of Palmyra on May 21. In Lebanon, where nearly 1.2 million refugees from Syria alone have arrived, factions within the government have balked at providing refugee camps. About half of the refugees have found shelter with families, community groups or in tent camps set up by Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs); the other half have scrambled for any apartments and jobs they can find.

Earlier this year, a new problem emerged. The government began requiring refugees over age 15 to pay $200 every six months to renew their permission to stay in Lebanon, the leader of a ministry in the country said. Predominantly Sunni Muslim Syrians who have suffered the loss of loved ones find themselves struggling to survive in a land where Shiite Muslims are the largest religious group, and elements of the (Shiite) Hezbollah party within the government are likely behind policies to make the refugees pay, he said.

"Around Easter time several refugees were arrested," he said. "They had a kind of safe card that allowed them to stay that you renew every six months. So they went to the border to renew the paper, and they were supposed to pay the $200 and couldn't pay, and they got arrested for that."

The tax is part of a broader Syrian effort to more closely monitor refugees, as authorities and Hezbollah vigilantes who have raided make-shift camps have found some refugees were armed Syrian rebels. The director of the indigenous ministry said the tax has burdened both the refugees and the ministry.

"It did create a burden, because most of those refugees, if they have a job, they are paid very low," he said. "Guys cannot walk around because they don't have their papers, or they cannot come to the Bible study, or they are scared. Emotionally it affects a lot; it is a burden. They are becoming poorer and poorer, and we cannot support them financially."

The growing number of refugees has stretched the resources of the indigenous group, which has provided extensive aid for refugees though it was founded as a church-planting ministry.

"A couple of days ago, I got a phone call asking if we could help one lady who was about to have a baby," the director said. "In the end the lady had the baby in the tent, because she couldn't pay 2 million Lebanese pounds, which is something like US$1,300, for the hospital. You hear stories like this all the time, every single day."

The ministry provides food and clothing, along with medical and employment help, and its gospel outreach to mostly illiterate people is centered around recordings of the New Testament for distribution on MP3 players, CDs and audiocassettes. The leader said he had 25 former Muslims waiting to be baptized. In order to keep up with house churches that have sprung up, the ministry conducts training sessions to equip new Christians to plant and lead new churches.

The rapid growth in both refugees and new Christians has led to overwhelming demand, he said. He and his team can train only 80 people at a time for church-planting, but most recently 150 expressed interest in attending.

A refugee girl in Lebanon finds the right article of clothing at ministry center in Lebanon.

"I said, we can have no more than 80," he said. "So on one side it is a plus, but on the other it's a negative – it's heavy work. It's a heavy ministry."

As an indigenous ministry the group has the advantage of blending in culturally without arousing unwelcome notice, and it differs from large NGOs in that its smaller operations offer more personal care in the name of Christ, he said.

The need for personal care is intense. In Aleppo, Syria, a young father of four children, one a newborn, had put his trust in Christ and was reaching out to Muslims through a ministry to their children, the director said. Within three months of beginning his ministry, thousands of mostly Muslim people were coming to outreach events to hear biblical preaching.

The Christian's ministry and his background as a former Muslim did not go unnoticed. An unidentified man came to the young father's home and killed him.

"The widow immediately contacted us," the director said. "We had no option but to get her to Lebanon. Who is going to help her with food and lodging? Who is going to help her to emotionally deal with watching her husband get killed? Who is going to help her raise her children and provide school for them?"

All refugees have experienced trauma, he said. Many refugees have watched as family members were killed or maimed. The indigenous ministry team members have been trained to listen to their stories, to pray with them in the name of Christ – which they welcome, he said – and to refer them to other help if the ministry is unable to provide what they need.

"The refugees prefer personal attention, not just a hand-out," he said. "They often request a New Testament and want to hear the gospel and to attend meetings. Indigenous Christians showing care opens up hearts to true help."