Syrian Families Fleeing War, ISIS Languish on Turkish Border

June 25, 2015

Syrian refugees arrive at Turkish border town of Akcakale.

As fighting for a key northern town in Syria grew fiercer on June 14, thousands of Syrians rushed to a fence at the border with Turkey, with some passing babies and belongings over barbed wire before pressing into the throng moving through a hole in the barrier.

They hoped to gather up their offspring and belongings after passing through to Akcakale. Whatever awaited them ahead had to be better than what lay behind – Islamic State (ISIS) and Al Nusra jihadists fighting Syrian Kurdish soldiers and others in a bid to keep the border town of Tal Abyad, and U.S.-led airstrikes providing cover for the Kurdish advance.

"Many of them broke the fence trying to save their lives and children," said the leader of a ministry native to Turkey.

He said some people didn't make it through the fence.

"About 15,000 of the refugees were there waiting to cross the border and enter into Turkey, because they were escaping from ISIS, but when they came to the border, the Turkish government didn't let them in," he said. "Then ISIS terrorists came to the border to return them back to their houses. After that we don't know what happened to them, but we know they brainwash people to use as suicide bombers."

The desperate refugees overwhelmed the Turkish military stationed in Akcakale, though troop reinforcements later kept them from going deeper into the country. Thus a new refugee center spontaneously emerged in Akcakale.

A team from the indigenous ministry working in refugee camps in Adana, about 25 miles from the Apostle Paul's hometown of Tarsus, visited the refugees in Akcakale last week, assessing their needs, bringing them water, praying for them and sharing the gospel with them. Most said they were fleeing from the terror of radical groups such as ISIS and Al Nusra among the rebels battling the government forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

"They told me that if you are Shia Muslim, Christian, or Yazidi you get killed because you are in the wrong and your penalty is death," the ministry director said. "Also, if you are Sunni Muslim and obey ISIS and support it and fight for them and live like them, you can be safe, but if you are Sunni and you don't want to fight for them, your penalty is death as well."

After four years of civil war in Syria, more than 1.5 million Syrians have fled to Turkey as ISIS has seized territory for a caliphate to which the militants demand all Muslims swear allegiance. Refugees report that chaos reigns in that proclaimed caliphate, the director said.

"People just wanted to save their life from the brutal ways of ISIS terrorists, who are taking freedom from their hands and doing whatever they can do to them," he said. "They are leaving everything behind and running away from the country. Also, some of them had to leave because they were stuck between the regime and the rebels."

Kurdish forces and the rebel Free Syrian Army this month succeeded in retaking Tal Abyad, a key transit point for supply to ISIS, whose stronghold in Raqqa lies just 50 miles south. ISIS had seized Tal Abyad in July 2014.

Refugees arriving in Akcakale use whatever they can find for shelter.

One young Syrian man at Akcakale told the ministry leader that when ISIS was controlling Tal Abyad, the militants reserved every Friday to behead or shoot to death those who did not meet the requirements of the caliphate. The refugee had fled to Akcakale with his brother and sister, but he said their parents were unable to run to the border.

The ministry plans to provide urgently needed tents to the refugees at Akcakale. At $390 each, the team leader would like to provide 87 for a total cost of $33,930. Assisted by Christian Aid Mission, the ministry also seeks to provide food (230 boxes at $35 each, totaling $8,050), clothes, baby formula (106 at $33 each, totaling $3,498), diapers (106 at $28 each for total of $2,968), women's sanitary pads (250 at $7 each for a total of $1,750), medicines (150 at $12 each for a total of $1,800) and Bibles (150 at $12 each, totaling $1,800).

In three refugee camps in or near Adana, the indigenous ministry is also providing food, medicines and Bibles. There are two camps in Adana, and because the third camp was recently relocated about 30 miles north in a remote area next to a polluted river, the ministry would like to install a water treatment system.

"One of the kids is in the hospital now because she went to bathe and swim in the dirty river, and she got an infection and a virus," the director said. "The kids can't take a shower even for weeks sometimes."

The ministry seeks four water treatment devices to serve 300 families; each system costs $6,800, for a total cost of $27,200. Providing for basic needs has helped open the door to gospel proclamation.

"Providing humanitarian relief has been and continues to be an effective bridge for this ministry and for the local church to reach refugees with the gospel," the director said. "Conversions have happened, leading to further discipleship and adding members to the local church or house churches."

One refugee family that came from an area controlled by ISIS arrived with nothing in hand; they were living on the ground without a tent.

"The father has a son who lost his mind, because where they were living, war planes were always flying very low," he said. "The boy's mother cried while we talked with the father, a Christian, about the kids. My heart was breaking when the father was telling me the story."

Christians among the refugees cannot openly read the Bible because of the presence of radical Muslims in the camp, he said. When the ministry team began to share the gospel with one refugee family, a Turkish Muslim approached and told them to stop.

Nevertheless, some families have responded to the gospel and put their trust in Jesus as Savior, he said.

"We have reached 100 families, but we're going slowly because in the camp there are radical people as well, and we don't want that they hurt the families or kick them out of the camp," he said. "I think we are showing them the love of Jesus by feeding them and providing for their needs. They respond very happy since we keep helping them."