Guests are sacred in Syrian culture, so when a Missions team visited the desert camps there, we were invited to visit the home of their tribal leader, Abdullah. Before we entered his cinder block house, we removed our shoes, stacked them neatly on a rack and sat on cushions atop the floor rug. His wife and young daughter served us small cups of coffee as he offered his greeting and Suhail, a Zarqa church staff member, translated and explained the different camps.
In the Middle East, we soon learned, hospitality is the real deal.
The Refugee Story
Our journey to the Middle East had already been an incredible one, especially for those of us who had never been. Our hosts included Jordanian Missionary Sam Jordan and Middle East Coordinator Charlie Costa, who had invited us to attend Pastor Samer’s ministry center dedication. The next day, we drove to the Syrian border to visit refugee settlements and, despite their lack of resources, we received the same hospitality.
Beginning in 2011, Jordan became the primary destination of refugees fleeing the Syrian war. Because the country has no natural resources like oil, salt and water to fight over, Jordan has a fairly stable economy and no surrounding nations who want to pick a fight with them. Think about it: When was the last time you heard about Jordan in the news? Right. Pretty much never.
Jordan’s lack of conflict in the region has made it a safe haven for Syrians who cross the border with only the clothes on their backs. Though overwhelmed with the influx of refugees, Jordanians responded at first with immediate needs then later with more permanent structures including tents, cinder-block homes, one-room schools and pop-up medical clinics.
The Zarqa church’s ministry center dedication the day before explained the context of their outreach to refugees who flooded Jordan and found refuge in both border camps and Jordanian cities.
Mostly composed of women and children, refugee families are usually fatherless, so women are head of the home, which clashes with cultural norms. Syrian culture also dictates that girls are uneducated, so women don’t have work skills. In addition, children had to leave their schooling behind as they fled, so there are obvious gaps in their education.
To close this gap and help children catch up to their grade levels, refugee camps we toured have established schools with multi-grade classes for school-aged children. The goal is to prepare them for entrance into public schools. Their instructors allowed us to tour their “one-room schoolhouses” and the children were proud to show us their math skills and writing in both Arabic and English.
To close the employment gap for women, the BMA’s Middle East churches also conduct training and help them find job opportunities to support themselves and their families. Many traumatized widows and families now live in cities and receive rent-only funds from the United Nations. The following is one of those stories of desperation:
A Widow’s Story
Saba was on her way to the bakery for bread when an explosive barrel for demolishing buildings was dropped on her house. When she returned home, her family was gone, with only a finger and a ring to identify her son and nothing left of her husband and daughter. She is still in severe shock and Suhail sometimes doesn’t like to tell the story in front of her.
Saba left Aleppo, Syria all alone and traveled nine days with help from her neighbors. Just like other Syrian widows with no home and no place to go, she ended up in Zaatari, the largest refugee camp in Jordan with a population of 80,000. She eventually made it out of Zaatari, one of few people able to do so.
Saba provides for herself by foraging through trash to find bread and recyclables. She dries the bread and sells it mostly to shepherds or farmers who feed it to their livestock. Her cinder block house is crumbling and would be condemned by American standards. The place is dangerous, unhealthy, unstable and many relief organizations have stopped helping her and other refugees.
Accompanying Saba during our visit was a young lady who helps her with psychological needs and looks in on her regularly. Suhail says, “We also help her with job training, propane heat and blankets, and we’re looking for a new house, some food books for free food and help with medical and chronic diseases.” Now 60 years old, she is very lonely and cries all the time. Her extended family, which she will likely never see again, remains in Syria.
The Syrian refugee story is heartbreaking, but Jordanian churches like those in Zarqa and Ammon are meeting needs and offering hope. Please pray that refugees will notice that the church members serving them have a joy that they don’t, then ask why.