July 5, 2017

Our Visit With Syrian Refugees

Lessons Learned

By In World

A Day In The Life of a Refugee Child

I traveled north by bus from Lebanon’s capital city of Beirut to a town 4 miles from the Syrian border. The bus was carrying a small group of American pastors, hosted by World Vision staff member Steve Haas.

We sat down in a classroom and watched Katina (not her real name), a passionate 25-year old Lebanese World Vision staff member, leading a few dozen 6-12 year-old Syrian children in a breathing exercise. Katina asked them to close their eyes and imagine themselves being in a place where they felt safe. 

Two pictures drawn by the same Syrian child show the contrast between reality and hope.

As the kids imagined being in a safe place I looked up at the wall and noticed two drawings side by side on the wall. The first was a picture of a big tank with bombs in the sky. The second was a picture of a child and parents holding hands in a serene, peaceful place. Katina told me that the two pictures were drawn by the same child. The first picture was what the child’s life had looked like and the second picture was what the child wanted to be true. 

Katina went on to explain that these young kids were full-time agricultural workers. They had already been through unthinkable circumstances running from terrorists. However, because of their poverty, their parents have no other option but to send them to the fields, some working from 7am to 9pm, to make enough money to help the family survive. I imagined my own son Zane being in the room. He was their age.

When I asked Katina if women and children were being treated fairly she quickly shook her head, “No.” Because of the struggle to keep kids alive, many parents are forcing their daughters, some as young as 12-years old, to marry men that are in their 30’s and 40’s. Additionally, because of the stress and hardship that poverty brings, many children are continually beaten in the tent settlements. As I looked at the young children in the room next to me, I could see the despair written all over their faces as they sat there in their field-worn clothing. 

A World Vision staff member explains to us what life is like in the Informal Tent Settlement.

From the classroom, we traveled a few miles outside of town to a place these kids called “home” for 6 long years through hot summers and cold winters. It was a tent settlement inhabited by roughly 100 families. The adults shared with me that they had been agricultural workers in Syria and crossed the border to find refuge. The United Nations had provided assistance for the first two years but the funding has run out and they’ve been without much assistance for the past 4 years. Currently, only 17% of refugees below the poverty line are receiving funds from UN or other parties giving world assistance.

With cigarette smoke in the air, and a small cup of Turkish coffee in my hand, I listened to a small-town Lebanese city official tell our group that he thinks there will be a war soon between Syria and Lebanon if things don’t change. He was leading a town with 4,000 citizens before the Syrian crisis. Then, almost overnight, 11,000 Syrian refugees crossed the border and flooded into his town. The stress that this has brought on the locals will cause them to break if there is not relief soon. There are no jobs and the resources are drying up. The story is the same for many other towns across Lebanon. 

A Nation Divided

The small country of Lebanon, roughly the size of New Jersey, has around 1.5 million refugees. The United States, the most prosperous nation in the world, has only allowed 10,000 Syrian refugees into our country. That’s less than a half a percent of the total refugees. 

What’s so staggering is that 1/3 of Lebanon’s population are now refugees. That’s the equivalent of the entire population of Mexico fleeing into the United States. Just imagine the kind of implications that would have on us if that happened here in the US. As a result, 1/3 of the Lebanese population is now vulnerable to poverty and no one on the outside is offering them much assistance. Even before the refugee crisis, World Vision was offering child sponsorship to extremely poor Lebanese children.

The Lebanese feelings of bitterness toward the Syrian refugees makes even more sense when put into the context of the nation’s history. Beginning in 1975, Lebanon experienced a civil war that lasted nearly 30 years. Neighboring Syria brought troops into the country to help bring about peace but took advantage of the situation and sought to tighten its own grip on the nation. Many Lebanese were killed by Syrians in the process. It wasn’t until the assassination of Rafic Hariri, the former Prime Minister of Lebanon, in 2005 that the Syrians retreated due to pressure due to protests and foreign pressure. You can now see the moral dilemma that has occurred. The Syrians, who had already done a lot of damage to the people of Lebanon, have now fled back into the country this time asking for help. 

This tent is the only home this child has ever had. A group of 100 families have been living in this Informal Tent Settlement for 6 years.

Now, Lebanon won’t give Syrians the much needed “refugee status.” They are only known as “displaced persons.” Why is that a big deal? Refugees in the United States have access to things like jobs and public education. Syrians, however, do not have these same rights in Lebanon. For example, 93% of Syrian refugee children do not have access to early childhood education. This is why Steve Haas explains that World Vision is trying to do long-term development in a never-ending cycle of relief. There is no way the Syrians can get back on their feet. 

The current religious demographic of Lebanon is estimated to be 54% Muslim, 38% Catholic, and 5% Protestant. A local Lebanese World Vision staff member told me that she estimates that 90% of the churches aren’t offering any financial or physical assistance to Syrian refugees. What complicates matters for Christian churches is that the country has a Muslim majority. There is some fear that if the Muslim refugees are helped they will stay long-term and negatively affect the religious landscape. Secondly, because 1/3 of the Lebanese population (which includes many Christians) are vulnerable right now, they are wrestling with the Biblical command to first care for the “household of the faith” (Gal. 2:10).

Christians Taking Action

This Syrian refugee school was started by an Evangelical Lebanese church. We heard that 93% of refugee children do not have access to education.

We witnessed first-hand how some evangelicals are helping lead the way in caring for refugees. We met with one Lebanese pastor who was leading an evangelical church in a quiet town of 4,000 people when they experienced an influx of 10,000 refugees.

This church not only forgave and accepted the Syrians into their congregation, an extraordinary display of racial reconciliation, but also started a school for these children to get a much-needed education. We were privileged to be able to visit these children in their classroom. I saw one child who had a vertical scar running down his face from what looked like reconstructive surgery. One could only fathom what this child had been through. The children then stood up from their chairs and together with big smiles on their faces sang Bible songs to us at the top of their lungs. It was incredible.

The Youth for Christ director gives us a tour of their new community center which will provide educational opportunities and cultivate racial reconciliation.

We also visited Youth for Christ staff in Lebanon who are seeking to build a community center for 10,000 youth who all live within a few square miles of each other. The center will have a library, media lab, counseling, worship nights, teaching, and more. It was very inspiring to hear their vision of fostering racial reconciliation among the Lebanese and Syrian kids so that the nation might experience a future of peace rather than hostility. Because of their ministry, youth of different races will get the opportunity to learn and worship Jesus side-by-side together. 

Syrian kids enjoy a coloring exercise as part of a 3-month program to help them recover from traumatic events due to the war.

Why I’m Thankful for World Vision 

I want to publicly thank Steve Haas and World Vision for taking the time to bring Christian leaders over to see first-hand how God is at work in the Middle East. The memory of what I saw will never be erased and though it was a short vision trip it will affect the way I minister to others for the rest of my life. Coming away from the trip, here are 5 reasons why I’m thankful for what World Vision is doing:

1) They are partnering with local churches. It’s easier to do work alone. It takes time, energy, and resources to partner with others. While it’s evident that much of what World Vision is doing in Lebanon is humanitarian work, Steve Haas said, he believes the church is the hope of the world. That’s why World Vision is making the effort to partner with local churches and ministries like Youth for Christ who are doing great work. 

A local Muslim leader took us on a tour of his city and this mosque before sitting down to answer questions.

2) They are building bridges to the community: Many Americans would shudder in fear if our country became a majority Muslim country. It’s unthinkable to many. Yet that’s the reality for the outnumbered Christians in Lebanon. But they’ve learned how to do life together.

Steve Haas has been developing a friendship with the top Muslim leader in the 3rd largest city in Lebanon and we got to benefit from that friendship. The friendly Sheikh showed great hospitality in the mosque to us as he shared his heart. He was greatly troubled that all Muslims are viewed as terrorists by some. He explained that out of the 1.5 billion Muslims in the world only a fraction of them (40,000 by some estimates) are involved with ISIS. In addition, he pointed out that 80% of ISIS’s victims are fellow Muslims. Therefore, the Sheikh concluded, “ISIS is not just an enemy to Christianity, but humanity.”

3) They are focusing on development, not relief. World Vision, with its passionate and competent staff, have been seeking to empower refugees. Currently, the World Vision national staff team are pioneering a bank card program which enables refugees to buy what they need rather than the traditional model of handing out supplies. This is an innovative model that could be used in other places around the world in a few years. Another initiative they’ve implemented is the ”Food for Asset” program. In this program, if someone wants to continue getting food assistance on a monthly basis, that person has to commit to working on a community project to provide an asset that will benefit the whole community. 

A World Vision staff member gives us a tour of the school she’s in charge of. This young woman oversees more than 20 teachers and 80 refugee students.

4) They are raising up leaders from within. One mindset that I had traveling to Lebanon was that they needed more American volunteers on the ground. Every country needs more Americans right? Not so in Lebanon. The National Director told me that out of the 230 full-time World Vision staff only two staff have come in from the outside. It was incredible to see how they empower local workers. We met one sharp 22-year-old woman, for example, who is directing a school with over 20 teachers and 80 students by herself! 

4) They are extending mercy to those outside of the Christian faith. God bestows common grace on the whole human race regardless of whether or not they’ve trusted in him yet or deserve it. After seeing the racial and religious divides in Lebanon, it was truly inspiring to see World Vision and a few local ministries who were going against the grain and extending God’s incredible compassion toward those who were different than them. 

Things We Can Do Right Now 

1) Take the time to listen to the most vulnerable.

You can start by watching this video of the stories of Syrian refugees in Lebanon that a World Vision team visited on a recent trip:

2) Give financially. We can give to World Vision, Compassion International, our own denomination, or other local and global ministries who are seeking to help the most vulnerable. In addition to child sponsorship and relief funds, World Vision has started a church partnership fund which will resource and strengthen Christian Lebanese churches.

3) Get involved with local refugee ministry. Chances are, if you take the time to look, there is refugee ministry already happening in your church or city. Reach out and see how you can get you or your church or small group involved.

4) Pursue racial and religious reconciliation. From our experience, much of the relief effort has been hindered in Lebanon due to racial and religious boundaries. We need to see this and take note of how it plays out here at home. As Christians, we are called to not simply tolerate those in our city but extend common grace – mercy, forgiveness, and friendship – to people of different races, religions, and backgrounds. It will create a shalom that will benefit all of us as well as a stronger network in which to share the hope that we have in Jesus Christ. 

The New Standard for Loving Our Neighbor

As I was leaving Lebanon the Holy Spirit brought to mind, “To whom much was given, of him much will be required” (Luke 12:48). At this time in history, we have unparalleled wealth. Living in America is like living in one giant suburb and we don’t realize how much we have until we leave it. Additionally, because of technology, the world is more connected than ever. Although the world seems far away to us, it has never been closer. The standard for being a Good Samaritan in this generation no longer means helping the poor down the street but helping the poor on the other side of the world.