Jesus among the Refugees
The debris and mounds of earth on the side of the road provide the feeling you have entered a massive construction site. But there is no construction crew, no heavy machinery. Instead, men in long, flowing robes stand and talk in open storefronts.
Women in black burkas rush by with bags of produce, hurrying to get out of the midday sun. A group of laughing boys runs past waving sticks like swords. This is the scene of everyday life in a small Arab town.
I’m riding with the local Arab Alliance pastor in the truck used to deliver supplies to more than a thousand refugee families served by the church. Word gets around quickly in this small town, and it isn’t long before newcomers learn the church wants to help them.
Every time the truck stops we are approached by refugees bringing words of thanks, asking for a visit in their home or telling of a new family in need.
The church connects with 12 new families every day and still manages, along with Alliance international workers, to make follow-up visits to care for the newcomers’ emotional needs and to pray.
Today we are not only delivering food but also spending time in fellowship and prayer. We’ve already visited two families whose stories of escape and survival are harrowing. Our last stop is to call on a man who has invited us to his home so we can hear about the miracle he experienced.
As we park in front of the nondescript apartment building, a man in his late 30s comes out of the narrow alleyway. He beams as he reaches for each hand, welcoming his guests.
The apartment is very small, but typical of what we have already seen. Mattresses for both sleeping and sitting line the living room walls, and to the left is a small kitchen and bathroom. Only the man, his wife and their baby are there right now, but I count seven beds, making me think there are at least two families sharing this home.
Mahmoud* invites us to sit as his wife makes a pot of Turkish coffee. The scalding drink is served in miniature glass cups, making it a challenge to drink without burning both hands and mouth.
Mahmoud greets us through our translator. “Thank you for visiting me in my home. I’m sorry that you can’t take any pictures; you have to understand that I have a lot at risk right now. I left a successful business, my house and cars back in Syria. If anyone discovers that I’ve fled the country, I’m sure to lose everything.”
The sad reality is that, because he fled the country almost six months ago, Mahmoud’s belongings have likely already been looted or destroyed. Most Syrians fled with only the clothes on their backs to give the appearance that they weren’t really leaving. Many have since heard from friends and family that their possessions in Syria are gone.
Escape from War
The man pulls up his pant leg to show us a scar, then proceeds to unbutton his shirt, showing the place where a bullet entered his chest.
“I’m not a rebel. I’m not a soldier, either. I’m just an ordinary man.”
“How did you get shot?” I ask.
“I was driving through a busy intersection, when all of a sudden a firefight broke out between rebels and the military.” Mahmoud points to signify bullets coming from all directions. “I saw people in their cars getting shot, others fleeing or falling to the ground playing dead. As soon as I stepped out of my car I was hit twice—here in my leg and in my chest. I don’t remember anything after that.”
Mahmoud passed out and remained unconscious for four days. Rebels picked him up in the street and treated him in their hospital.
“But I wasn’t there long. A few days later there was a military raid, and everyone in the hospital was taken to prison. When I told them I was innocent, the soldiers demanded to know why I was with the rebels. ‘I had no choice—I was unconscious!’ I told them.”
Eventually Mahmoud was released and was able to reunite with his wife and baby girl. Outside their compound walls, the fighting increased. Innocents were shot, killed or kidnapped. Mahmoud knew that the only choice for his young family was to flee.
“It was very expensive, but we had no choice but to pay someone to smuggle us across the border. I went first, and my wife and daughter came shortly after.”
More than Survival
Arriving in a new country, they were able to live without constant fear for their lives. But a new set of challenges awaited them. With very little cash, no clothing, no home and no food in one of the most water-poor countries on earth, how does one survive?
“We hadn’t been here long before we heard that the church was here to help us; that they would really care for us. So we met the pastor and his friends. They helped us to get everything we needed.”
The mattresses we are sitting on, the diapers his daughter wears, the food in the kitchen—all have come through the church.
Alliance church members intentionally minister to people in their homes. In this culture, coming into someone’s home shows respect and honor. It gives them dignity to not have to walk across town with arms full of handouts. The home is a natural place to drink coffee and to talk. And that’s just what happens.
Church members and Alliance international workers listen as refugees process their horrific stories. Most worry about their children who, traumatized by what they have seen, develop stress-induced bedwetting, hair loss and skin conditions.
The church is making intentional efforts to reach these families. The members have organized VBS-style outreaches where hundreds of children and their parents come to play games, laugh and eat a hot meal. The tiny church is filled to capacity.
Whether reaching out to children or adults, the Christ followers always spend time praying with the refugees. The Syrians come from a religion where prayer is only a ritual. When believers ask to pray with them, this is a new experience, but they never refuse.
Even if they don’t have any further physical needs, many will ask for church members to return to pray with them again and again. They feel peace. And they have questions about this God we pray to.
One Step Closer
Mahmoud stands to his feet and bends his left knee. “Jesus healed me, you know? When I got here, I had so much pain in my leg from the bullet wound that I couldn’t bend my knee or sit. I couldn’t walk without a cane. But the church—they came and prayed with me and left me with a Bible.”
Mahmoud began reading the Book of Matthew. He explains that at night when he would wake up from the pain, he read his new Bible. One night while reading, he asked Jesus to heal his leg. God answered.
“We pray with them, and we see the Lord answering them,” explains the pastor. “This shows them that our God is alive and that He answers prayer.”
As we sit in a semicircle on the floor, we talk about things of God. The translator is so engaged in the conversation that he has stopped relaying the message in English.
Mahmoud has been blessed by God’s people and healed in His name. Every night he reads from His Word. All of this is new and wonderful, but Mahmoud has many questions.
“Nothing is an accident,” says the pastor. “The Lord is moving people from area to area for His purposes; . . . things we are doing are moving these people one step closer in terms of knowing our God. . . . When we visit them for the first time and give them their basic needs, . . . they are closer. Answered prayer from God, reading from God’s Word—closer.”
Mahmoud hasn’t accepted Jesus as his Savior yet—but he’s closer. Pray for Mahmoud and other refugees who are seeing Jesus for the first time.
By J.: an Alliance international worker who travels throughout the Middle East.