In October 2018, a group of Irish Christian leaders travelled to Lebanon to see for themselves how Tearfund Ireland is supporting the local church in bringing help and hope to thousands of refugees. Here, three leaders reflect on their experiences.
(From the January - March 2019 issue of VOX)
Lucy Hill, Church Leader and Tearfund Ireland Board Member writes: Most of us remember back in 2015, when the headlines were dominated by harrowing images of refugees fleeing Syria, trying to escape the civil war. Many of us were moved to respond, to pray and to ask, “What can we do?” In 2018, seven years after it began, the war in Syria hasn’t ended. There are still refugees leaving Syria every single day. Yet [the crisis] no longer features in our news.
When I was invited to join a team from Tearfund Ireland to visit Lebanon, I jumped at the chance. I was totally unaware of the scale of the issue in Lebanon. There are officially 5.6 million Syrian refugees worldwide and over 1.5 million of them are in Lebanon. Syrian refugees make up 1/4 of the population in a country roughly seven times smaller than Ireland.
There are so many challenges facing refugees - poor living conditions, access to education, to medical care, to income, the additional risks of the Lebanese winter, lack of food, children as young as nine being sent out to work and girls as young 14 being forced to marry. As we spent time with families, listening to their stories, what was most striking was not just their current living conditions or quality of life but what many of them had endured to get to where they were. The fact that many expressed gratitude at being ‘here’ rather than ‘there’ gives you a sense of how bad their circumstances were in Syria.
Perhaps most difficult is the dissipation of hope - the likelihood of being able to return to Syria is diminishing and opportunities in their current situation are few and far between. One man said that his sons had no future. It is an understatement to say that life is hard for refugees.
This could be the end of the story and the reality is that for many Syrians it is, but what we also witnessed in Lebanon was incredible light shining in the darkness. What we saw time and time again is that God is writing a different story through His Church.
MERATH - Middle East Revive and Thrive is the development and relief arm of The Lebanese Society for Educational and Social Development. MERATH has been working alongside the local church in Lebanon and Syria to mobilise and equip them to respond to the refugee crisis. Despite limited resources, the work is innovative, creative and of the highest standard.
As a result of the sheer number of people coming to Lebanon, the Lebanese church has been forced to wake up! One of our hosts told us, “The crisis has forced the church in Lebanon to stop looking at itself. We were not a church that was highly mobilised or engaged in mission prior to the crisis, but the need on our doorstep has caused us to completely relearn our understanding of the Gospel.”
Initially, when the refugees started coming, many Christians didn’t want to help. The history between Syria and Lebanon is complex and involves violence, pain and animosity. For those directly impacted, the idea of helping Syrians was particularly challenging. We heard many speak of how the Holy Spirit moved them and changed their hearts to practise loving their enemies and we saw first-hand how this practice is changing lives.
The response has included providing vulnerable households vital food assistance, needed winter items, health services, and essential products for families, especially those with young children. They are working to provide high-quality non-formal education and psycho-social support to vulnerable children. We also saw how they are working towards a sustainable future through income-generation and recovery programmes.
It’s difficult to articulate why this work is so special. For me, it is less about what is being done and more about the way in which the church is demonstrating love, restoring hope and preserving the dignity of people who have endured so much. One example that sums up the remarkable response is a congregation of around 300 people assisting 3,000 refugee families every month. These families are not just considered service users but are all visited every week, mostly by volunteers, taking the time to sit, to listen and to remind them that they are not just refugees but people. And God is powerfully at work in the lives of men, women and children as many encounter the love and goodness of God.
What can we learn from places like Lebanon? One of the great privileges was to spend time with a group of Syrian church leaders, who have chosen to remain in Syria. Listening to their stories, I realised that one of the greatest things we can offer is to pray faithfully for them and to take seriously the call to lament - that when one part of the body hurts, the whole body hurt.
One quote has returned to me over and over. In response to the care his community received, a Muslim elder said, “When we came to you, knowing who you were, we believed you would just preach at us but you have preached at us with your lives.”
May it not take a crisis of the same magnitude for the church in Ireland to waken up to its call to be the hands and feet of Jesus to those in need around us.
Susan Heaney, Redcross, Co. Wicklow writes: I had the privilege of being part of the team of church leaders on a trip with Tearfund Ireland to Lebanon. Our trip was short, just five full days, but I can honestly say it was the most humbling, harrowing and yet inspiring experience I have ever had.
We saw first-hand the work being done by the local church, to love and help Syrian refugees. We heard of miracle after miracle of healing and salvation among men, women and children [from a Muslim background], and saw Lebanese Christians minister compassion, hope, grace and relief in the most desperate circumstances. We saw people who had come through unimaginable trauma, alive with the hope of Christ, being loved by the body of Christ.
During our visit, we had the honour of spending time with some Syrian pastors who have faithfully and courageously remained in Syria throughout the crisis. These pastors are the heroes of the Church. In the words of Tearfund Ireland’s partner, “The church in Syria is shining”.
These pastors had a message to us, the church in Ireland. “Don’t think of the small thing you have in your hand but let us all put all we have into Christ’s hands. Be at His feet, ask Him to help and trust that God will do great things.”
Sharan Kelly, Tearfund Ireland CEO adds, I’ve had the great privilege of visiting many projects that Tearfund Ireland supports. Each project brings a common theme. But that theme is not poverty, suffering and injustice. The common theme is the love of the church and the practical ways they are bringing Jesus to people around them who are in great need.
For the trip to Syria we invited church leaders, representatives and supporters from the Irish church to join us. We listened to Syrian pastors and ministers who remained in Syria during the worst kind of conflict, despite the personal risk to themselves and their families because they felt called by the Lord to love and support the people there. I’d quite honestly have packed my bags, taken family and fled to Europe…
We met the lovely, humble and gentle Muslim families who were living in one room ‘tents’ and ‘concrete walled’ rooms. Their love, welcome and humility towards us was quite overwhelming. Everyone we met wanted to be back in Syria. They all had lives, homes, careers, businesses, communities and a future, and it was ripped from them.
But hope remains. So many of those we met are full of heartfelt gratitude for the church. Hope is being restored. Local churches are providing love and support, prayer and practical help with food, education, health services, washing facilities and so much more. We heard stories of Muslim people praying to Jesus because they know He will answer; the answers to prayer they are experiencing; the daughter of a Muslim religious leader who is walking with Jesus and the church that is filled to capacity every Sunday…
This is what Tearfund Ireland is supporting through the generosity of all our supporters in Ireland.