Standing With Syrian Refugees
by Alex Awad
April 15, 2013 — During lent 2013, I led a team of Palestinian staff and students from Bethlehem Bible College to serve among the Syrian refugees in Jordan. The moment we arrived in Mafraq, a city in north Jordan, we began to understand the magnitude of the Syrian tragedy. Pastor Nour Sahawneh, who came out to meet us, was instantly surrounded by Syrian refugee women who had recently crossed the border to Jordan. They began presenting him their urgent needs, and as we were introducing ourselves to Rev. Sahawneh, other refugees turned to us and began to tell us about their desperate conditions. We realized that we were at the right place at the right time to be of service.
We served among both Muslim and Christian Syrian refugees in Amman and in Mafraq. We connected with and were welcomed and accommodated by Jordan Theological Seminary, Global Hope Network International, and the Alliance Church in Amman and in Mafraq. Although a small congregation, the church in Mafraq, her pastor and leaders, are doing a tremendous job in welcoming and caring for fleeing refugees regardless of their religious or political affiliations. The church’s ministry to the refugees is so transparent and honest that besides Christian humanitarian NGOs, several secular agencies are supplying them with emergency items for distribution.
Our ministry with the Mafraq church helped us see the desperate need for volunteers and funds to help the church continue this vital ministry. Each day, we and other volunteers spent time stocking make-shift warehouses with relief items from trucks or transferring supplies from the warehouse storage rooms into vans or cars.
Thousands of Syrians continue to make their way to Jordan fleeing the violence. Already, over 500,000 Syrian refugees live in Jordan. The refugee camps are overcrowded. We visited the Zatari Camp, home to more than 130,000 people. As far as the eye could see, we observed row after row of tents and small mobile units. The main street is packed with refugees and numerous shops, vendors, and makeshift hospitals. NGO distribution centers have sprung up in response to the plight of the refugees. Other refugees are finding temporary residence in rooms, apartments, and warehouses in towns and cities outside the camps. The number of refugees in Mafraq has surpassed the number of Jordanian residents.
Our group, along with the volunteers who escorted us from the church, distributed basic items such as mattresses, blankets, small gas cookers and gas containers. In addition, we gave out food baskets that contained $50 worth of groceries to each family we visited.
We were instructed to make quality visits rather than simply dropping off relief items and quickly moving on to the next family. So we sat on mattresses with the refugees, listening to them as they avidly told us their stories. Some shared horrible traumas involving deaths of loved ones, injuries, and destruction of homes and properties.
When visiting a home with children, we played with them and sang for them, encouraging them to sing along with us. We noticed that the majority of children outside the refugee camps are not going to school and are therefore not getting an education. One reason for this is that Jordanian schools are overcrowded. Moreover, the refugees’ hope that they will soon return to Syria causes them to feel psychologically hesitant about enrolling their children in school in Jordan. Among the refugees, there are teachers, doctors, and other well-educated professionals present, although their main current focus is relegated to survival. There is a strong need for an agency, church, or denomination to organize with these teachers and coordinate with the ministry of education in Jordan in order to empower them and provide them with the tools to help organize neighborhood classrooms for the children.
In every home we visited, the refugees were moved by the fact that we are from Palestine. Frequently we heard the comment, “We used to cry when we heard of your conditions and now you have come to stand in solidarity with us!” They urged us to return, and we could see that it was not because of the items that we left in their humble homes, but rather because they enjoyed our visits. In spite of their poverty, some wanted to share their meals with us. But we encouraged them to share with other refugees instead, only to discover that they were already doing so.
We left Jordan overwhelmed by the magnitude of this human tragedy. Could this be the time for the church to hear the call of God and respond to the needs of the Syrian refugees who are stranded not too far from the Jericho Road?
In the near future there will be a new government in Syria. Among these refugees a leader may become the president or vice president of the new Syria. Will this leader say to Christians, “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” Matthew 25: 35-36 (NIV). This is the time for the Church to stand in solidarity with the Syrian people. The acts of mercy and generosity that we sow in the name of Christ among Syria’s refugees will sooner or later yield a harvest for the glory of God in the new Syria.
The Rev. Alex Awad is a United Methodist missionary serving as a professor and Dean of Students at Bethlehem Bible College in Jerusalem. He also serves as pastor of an international congregation in East Jerusalem