A courageous woman talks about her daily call to minister in very dangerous conditions.
Each morning in Lebanon, when ‘Esther’ leaves her house and heads for the white refugee tent settlements in the Beqaa Valley, she does not know how her day will turn out. She does not know who she will help, how she will help them, or even whether she will come home to her husband and child that night. But it is a daily choice she makes.
Nine years ago Esther was the regional Director of an international Christian organisation working with families, but quickly saw the need to adjust her work to better suit local conditions and culture. She gathered a group of volunteers, and began a home-based ministry to families in need in her own area. Then with the influx of Syrian refugees four years ago, the ministry naturally responded to the brokenness in these families as a result of the war.
In Lebanon, prejudice against Syrians is strong. There is pressure on the refugees to leave, but they have no homes or communities to return to. With a population of 4.5 million, and an economy reliant on tourism, even before the refugees arrived, Lebanese unemployment was 15 – 20% as border violence and instability had turned away visitors. Now 2 million Syrian refugees are competing with the Lebanese for low-paid jobs in order to survive, but in a climate of racism, many are left to scavenge out an existence on the streets, foraging and begging for whatever they can lay their hands on. Some families live in tents in winter temperatures below zero, obliged to pay a ‘ground rent’; whilst other families pay extortionate rents to farmers to live in animal pens with makeshift roofs. Local Lebanese farmers have stopped farming animals, because it is more lucrative to let their facilities – one refugee family per chicken coop.
“The refugees are refused and ignored by everyone in Lebanon,” says Esther. “The government does nothing for them, the wealthy Lebanese ignore them, and whilst some Christians are willing to help, many don’t feel they need to.”
“Essentially people are either against what I am doing, or think I am crazy for doing it,” she says. But as a Syrian herself, and a follower of Jesus, she feels compelled and called:
“I identify with Queen Esther from the Bible. These are my people, and whilst they are unwelcome and unwanted here, I have to stand up for them and give them hope.”
But with calling, passion and determination, comes sacrifice and risk. Ministering to refugee families is dangerous. Esther and her team are Christians, living and working in a Muslim context. Contagious diseases (including TB and Hep B) are prevalent amongst the refugees because of the lack of running water, toilets and hygiene. There is the constant threat of ISIS raids, with the risk of abduction or even death. The border conflict is so near that the sound of rocket fire and explosions is easily heard, and Esther regularly goes into Syria and the war zone to minister to traumatised families.
“Other Christians say to me ‘Aren’t you afraid when you visit the refugees?’” says Esther. “But actually when I leave my house, I don’t think of Disease, or of ISIS, or of Danger. When I step out, I think of the babies and traumatised children and families who need love. I think, they need me, and I must go. I think of Jesus, who was our Suffering Servant and example. And when I go, I believe that God is over all of my life. It is dangerous where I go, but I believe my life is in God’s hands.”
Every week, Esther talks to Muslim people about Jesus. Every day, she has opportunities to practically share his love and kindness with people who have mostly experienced hardness and hatred.
“As followers of Jesus, we need to be a copy of Jesus. Whatever he said and did, we need to be saying and doing. We need to love in the same way. That’s what we try to do. It is not complicated; you just love the person who’s standing in front of you.”
Her pragmatic and childlike ministry approach is bearing fruit. There are families where everyone has invited Jesus into their hearts and been baptised. She tells how the Muslim refugees are deeply impacted by the practical love they get from her and her ministry team. It is in complete contrast to their experience of what it means to have a faith.
Recently, a young mother, an ex-Muslim, said to Esther: “Please never leave us or stop visiting us. I have no-one in Lebanon but you. You have shown our family such love. When I believed in Jesus my life changed totally. I never experienced this kind of love or care in my extreme Muslim community in Syria.”
Esther had another exciting discussion with a young Muslim boy who attends the school she is involved with. He asked, “If I call Jesus by his name without a title, will he listen to me?” Esther explained that we can all call Jesus by his name, and come directly to him. The boy excitedly said that now that he knows this, he calls Jesus by his name and feels him very near.
So whilst Esther might not know what each day will bring, she does know that Jesus goes ahead of her to prepare the refugees he loves, for loving ministry encounters. She says that the ex-Muslims now see that their decision is not about a change of faith, or even ‘swapping sides’, but actually about having a relationship with a real person: Jesus.