LeaDev-Langham’s Finance Manager John Corban talks about his life-changing experience of meeting Syrian refugees
Last month, I travelled to the UK. A Langham Partnership colleague insisted I come and visit him, and my country of ancestry – Lebanon. I agreed (how ‘cool’ to discover my roots) and set off for Zahle, a city 40 km west of the Syrian border, unaware that my outlook on life would be forever changed.
I realised that, I had ‘forgotten’ about what was happening in Syria – or perhaps more accurately, had not directly engaged with it. But visiting my ancestral land, I had no choice but to personally experience news headlines, as my hosts took me on a tour of what is their daily, tragic experience of life: thousands of white refugee tents sit on the outskirts of their city, and just a short drive away, ISIS forces are camped on the border with Syria, with the Lebanese army, along with Hezbollah keeping them out of the country. Zahle is close enough to the conflict that with a decent Easterly wind, you can hear the sound of rocket fire and explosions.
Face to face with hopelessness
More than four years since the start of the civil war in Syria, over two million Syrian refugees are still camped throughout the Beqaa Valley and other parts of Lebanon, unable to return home. In Kiwi terms: With 4.25 million Syrians displaced, that is equivalent to the whole population of New Zealand being without a home. Could you begin to even imagine what that must be like? There is immense suffering in every camp: hunger, disease, abuse, and extreme need. Even now, girls disappear from the Lebanese camps, taken by ISIS forces during cross-border raids. Some of the camps closer to the Syrian border are not safe for aid workers to visit as the risk of abduction for ransom is so high.
Escaping from the terrors within Syria is just the beginning of the suffering and tragedy for most families. Lebanon has a population of 4.5m people, and the economy is reliant on tourism. Even before the refugees arrived, 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. Around 500,000 of the refugees in Lebanon are young children, and most of them have no access to education. With very little money, support, or options, hope is a rare commodity in the refugee settlements. There is widespread prejudice towards the refugees; they know they are not wanted in Lebanon, and are left to scavenge out an existence on the streets, foraging and begging for whatever they can lay their hands on.
Putting a real face onto this wide-scale suffering, at a tent camp on the outskirts of Zahle I met Sara* who is just 16. She is already a widow with two small children, including baby Mohammed* who is two months. She lives in a tent with her parents and five sisters. Sara is the only earner, bringing in NZ$ 275 per month for full time work – that’s under $2/hour. Her sisters remain in the tent all day, afraid to go out, as so many young women have been abducted. The family are originally from Aleppo, one of the hardest hit cities in Syria. This winter, during three heavy snow storms that covered the Bekaa Valley, the family repeatedly scraped snow off their tent with their hands until they bled, just to prevent it from collapsing under the weight of the snow.
To say I found this visit devastating is a complete understatement. Leaving this makeshift and freezing cold new home of the family, absolutely nothing that I have ever known compares to their suffering. As the tears pricked my eyes, running through my mind, is my own daughter who is nearly fifteen years old. I simply cannot imagine her experiencing the extreme suffering and hardship that Sara faces daily. What an absolutely intolerable burden for this young girl and all the others like her!
Face to face with hope
Then I met a group of people who are responding to the suffering that surrounds them. Instead of dismissively shrugging their shoulders, they are getting on with what they can do – and as a Kiwi, I could get that. In spite of the vast ocean of need all around, in spite of the looming ISIS forces just kilometres away, in spite of the daily reality of death and destruction on their border, they have taken a stance of serving, loving and helping those who are suffering right in front of them, and doing it in the name of Jesus Christ.
Esther*, who heads the group, has a simple and pragmatic stance: “Where there is a need, we will respond.” What I saw as she and a nurse took Sara some milk powder for baby Mohammed, is that one refugee at a time, one tented-family at a time, one child at a time, the practical love of Jesus Christ is being spread: “When you do it to the least of these, you do it to me”. And the people are responding to this love.
Esther’s ministry provides several different and effective services to refugee families, including: new-born and mother care (milk, nappies, medicines, visits and education); teenage and child trauma counselling (many young people have been raped and have witnessed extreme atrocities at close range); schooling and school equipment provision; and winter packs – blankets, clothes, fuel and shoes to get through the winter snowfalls in a tent.
Esther and her co-workers are doing heart-wrenching, amazing work every single day. I like their approach to this tragedy; for me as a Kiwi it has a bit of a ‘no. 8 wire’ feel about it: I can’t solve the big picture problem, but I sure can get stuck in and respond to the need right in front of me. It gives me a way to respond, it gives me realistic hand-holds. I can’t shift my family to Zahle and do tent visits, but I sure can financially support Esther and her team as they do. Together you and I can stand with them and help to supply their needs, as they directly strive to meet the needs of suffering refugee families and children. Join with me as we support this remarkably courageous ministry.