Refugee Mothers from Syria Fight to Save Families

February 2, 2017

Indigenous missionaries in Turkey find Syrian women put their children's needs before their own.

A Syrian mother of three came weeping to a Christian leader based in Turkey whose ministry provides aid in unofficial refugee camps.

After her husband had died fighting for Syrian government forces battling Islamist insurgents, the Muslim woman and her three children had gone to Istanbul, Turkey where they begged in order to survive. Her 13-year-old son found work hawking newspapers, but soon he began using drugs and abandoned the family.

Unable to find her son after many days, and with her twin 4-year-olds getting sicker each day, she decided last fall to take them to the warmer climate of a makeshift refugee camp in southern Turkey. The winters bite there too, though, and as the twins' illnesses deepened, a friend suggested she turn them over to a willing family she knew. The mother felt she had to give up at least one child to keep both from dying.

"I stayed up all night thinking about which child I will give to this family," she told the indigenous ministry director, between fits of weeping. "I gave them the weakest of the twins out of necessity, and then I wondered which child this decision helped the most."

Her crying kept her from continuing, and then she said, "Now I have only one child. I've lost my husband and two children," and she doubled over in grief.

When she was able to speak again, she told him that God had forgotten Syrian refugees.

"She said, 'He doesn't love us – He only loves Americans,'" the ministry director said. "She was obviously expressing lots of anger over the unfairness. After patiently letting her express these emotions, we shared that, 'God hasn't forgotten you, because He is using those in Europe and America to give you food and is sending it to you through me.'"

The woman knew that the team providing food and other critical items were Christians, and she grew silent. Keeping her blotchy eyes downward, she silently left with the goods the team had given her.

"I'm sure she thought of what we said as she tried to sleep that night," he said.

Indigenous missionaries in Turkey find that many of the Syrian refugees are mothers who have lost their husbands to the civil war of the past six years. Team members have noticed that no matter how sharply they are suffering, they first ask for help for their children.

"They are more concerned about their children and ask us for milk, baby food and blankets for their little ones," the director said.

The mothers hope that, though they have little hope for their own lives, perhaps their children will be able to live a better life someday.

Six years of civil war in Syria has separated many children from their parents.

"They bring their children to us for prayer," he said. "We ask, 'What would you like us to pray for your child?' They say, 'May they grow up to live a better life, and be healthy.'"

The number of Syrian refugees seeking asylum in the Middle East continues to grow as Europe has slowed the flow to its borders. Whereas more than 1 million people seeking work or refugee status reportedly crossed the Mediterranean Sea to European shores in 2015, only 364,000 did so in 2016. The reduction was attributed to an agreement between Turkey and the European Union (EU) in which migrants in Greece were returned to Turkey, and the EU helped resettle Syrian refugees in Turkey.

Turkey has absorbed more refugees from Syria, nearly 2.9 million, than any other country in the Middle East, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. The total number of refugees in the Middle East from Syria, where terrorist groups such as the Islamic State (ISIS) are fighting alongside (and increasingly against) rebel groups, is more than 4.9 million – 1 million-plus in Lebanon, 655,496 in Jordan, and 230,836 in Iraq.

Only about 10 percent of refugees in the Middle East are living in camps; most seek shelter in cheap or abandoned buildings, as another Muslim mother of three did when she came from Aleppo three years ago. Unable to afford her apartment home, she too went to an unofficial camp in southern Turkey. Her husband, Mahmud, had stayed in Syria to fight against ISIS, but he became ill and reunited with his family last month.

Mahmud asked his wife who was giving the family food every two weeks, the ministry director said. He was astonished when she told Mahmud that Christians were bringing them help. He did not believe her. She gave him an Arabic New Testament the ministry had provided.

"I returned to the camp about nine days later and found this man waiting for me at the entrance, insisting that I come to his tent right away," the director said. "He said, 'ISIS has torn my family apart, messed up my job possibilities and ruined my health. I've lost my country, but you have watched over my family. You have helped them, and I want to become a Christian."

As the director wondered if he had really read the Scripture, Mahmud opened his New Testament to John 10:11, Jesus' declaring, "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep." Mahmud spoke at length about how good Jesus is.

"For years he was a neighbor to a Christian in Aleppo, but he could never have a relationship with them," the director said. "However, because of our sharing with them in their needs thanks to your generous giving, he has been blessed, and he has found salvation in Christ. This will be shared with his relatives and friends in other places, whenever they go back to their country. I thank you on their behalf, as you've been helpful in writing New Testament truth on their hearts."

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