How would I feel if my home was bombed to oblivion and I had to flee to a neighboring country with my family? How would I feel if some of our family members or close friends were killed? How would my parents feel to lose their home? All of the irreplaceable family artwork and photos? Their life savings and retirement? What if one family member made it to one nation, and others went to another, and the rest of us were in a refugee camp?
That is the general story that we heard over and over again from refugees during our recent 6-day trip in Amman, Jordan. Our team was led by Shepherd Society Director, George Abdo, and was composed of 7 students from Bethlehem Bible College; BBC Student Dean, Shireen Awwad Hillal; and 3 Americans. Our team worked under the ministry of Global Hope Network in Amman, which is already working extensively with the Iraqi and Syrian refugee population in Jordan. Global Hope is almost entirely run by former refugees from Palestine who are now Jordanian citizens. Palestinians carry their own stories of loss and displacement close to their hearts and I am certain their presence ministers to other refuges in a special way.
Every day, we divided ourselves into 3 or 4 teams led by a local minister, and we went from house to house, visiting with families, listening to their stories, and praying with them. Out of Global Hope’s supply closet, we were able to deliver many needed items including fans (none of the refugees we visited had air conditioning), large bags of food filled with items such as rice, pasta, oil, sugar, tea. We also delivered clothing, soap and toys.
We learned that the majority of the Iraqi refugees are Christian, whereas most of the Syrian refugees are Muslim. Many of the Iraqis are well-educated professionals; former business owners and landholders, whose losses weighed heavily upon them. We happened to be visiting the Iraqi refugees on a painful anniversary: 2 years ago, on August 6, 2014, ISIS arrived in Mosul and the Christians were greeted with an announcement that they had three choices: convert to Islam, pay the jizya tax, or leave the region. If not, they would be killed. Overnight, ¼ million Iraqi Christians fled Mosul. They spoke of losing all their earthly possessions. They wept over their families scattered on different continents and the death of children. Some spoke of the hardship of escaping without their necessary medical equipment and the struggles of obtaining medication while on the road. Some escaped only a few hours before ISIS arrived; one family was celebrating the 7th birthday of their daughter. Unwilling to ruin her birthday, they took her cake with them and sang to her as they fled for their lives.
Some stories of tremendous loss were coupled with stories of tremendous spiritual gain. One volunteer with Global Hope is a former Iraqi millionaire who lost his fortune, but gained the riches of the kingdom. “When I was in Iraq, I was a Christian in name only. I went to church only occasionally. I thought it was enough to write a check when money was needed. It wasn’t until I came to Jordan and met the Christians here that I began to wonder: what makes these Evangelicals different? They give to us without asking! Their compassion and energy for the Lord drew me in to a deeper place in God.” When we visited his home, we met one of the happiest refugee families in Jordan; a testimony of the Lord’s power to convert poverty into blessing. “I know about your suffering and your poverty–but you are rich!” (Revelation 2:9).
I couldn’t help but wonder how many Christians in other circumstances would have responded as well as this man did; but that’s what suffering does. It either draws us closer to the Lord, or drives us from Him in bitterness.
Many of the Syrian refugees lived in even more dire circumstances than their Iraqi counterparts. One young mother wept as we brought big bags of food for her three sons (all under the age of 6). “Yesterday, I looked in our kitchen and all we had left was za’atar (a regional herb/spice mixture). I prayed and asked God for help. Today, He brought you!”
Her baby boy was downright skinny; he had stomach trouble and needed a doctor. Her husband wandered the streets from 6 am till 8 pm, looking for random, under-the-table jobs that would bring home a few dinars to feed his family.
That was too much for Global Hope leader Rami and George Abodo . They left her house and returned with even more food: a large tray of eggs, bags of chips for the children, and ice cream! The boys tore into the treats, their eyes shining. As we left, I gave her my red scarf which I had purchased in Bethlehem. “Whenever you wear this, I want you to think about Jesus, who was born in Bethlehem. Let this red color remind you of God’s love. This scarf is a gift from Him because He wants you to know that He loves you and will never forget you.”
As we discussed the family on the way home, we all decided that more needed to be done for them, and we started a special fund to help them.
Another memorable visit was with two young adult Syrian sisters who had survived a bomb attack in which their entire neighborhood was demolished. As they ran for their lives, family members died in front of them—including their mother and sister. One sister’s foot had been blasted with a bomb, the other had been thought dead and stacked with dead bodies for several hours before someone realized she was still alive. They were secretly held in a Mosque with other wounded survivors before being smuggled to a hospital, and then finally to Jordan for medical treatment. While in Jordan, the brave sisters worked amongst other refugees, teaching the children while continuing to receive medical treatment. “I do not call these women refugees,” said Rami. “They are heroes!”
Since they are not allowed to legally work in Jordan, the refugees must live on what money they were able to escape with, as well as help from family members in more stable situations and assistance from the international community. Many spoke of the impossibility of their situations: “We cannot return home, and yet we cannot live like this forever. We need a chance to start a new life somewhere!” And so we prayed with each family for a fresh beginning as they awaited the opportunity to put down roots in a new nation.
Thoughts from Bethlehem Bible College Students
Several of our BBC students had visited refugee families in previous Shepherd Society trips. For others, it was the first time.
“I heard these stories, but until I saw it all with my own eyes and met these people for myself, I really had no idea of the intensity of the situation,” said Julia Jeries, a recent graduate of Bethlehem Bible College.
“I was challenged to live in a deeper way from my Christian faith,” said Ghaida Rishmawi Daibes, a third-year student. Gahida had come with her husband Baseel, also a BBC student. “We prayed together every night after our visits” said the newlyweds. “We had been planning to move away from our families, but after seeing how all these families were torn apart, it makes us want to value what we have. We plan on adding extra rooms to our home so that we will always have room to host other family members.”
BBC Student Dean Shireen Awwad agrees. “One of our goals for this trip was to take a step outside our own situation here in Palestine. We need to get our eyes off of our own suffering and on to the suffering of others. This trip helped our students to connect in a deeper way with their faith and stirred a desire in them to grow closer to the Lord.”
We pray that God will continue to use us and the Body of Christ around the world to lovingly stand alongside our brothers and sisters in the hour of their deepest need.