Refugees from Syria's mayhem find Christian friend across border

by Erich Bridges, posted Thursday, April 26, 2012 (2 years ago)

NORTHERN JORDAN (BP) -- Muhammad*, two of his sisters and an elderly uncle sit on the floor of a rented house beside a trash-strewn gully in a town near Jordan's northern border with Syria.

(IMB) PHOTO by Will Stuart
The uncle fingers his prayer beads and looks into space as a mosque nearby sounds the Muslim call to prayer. Children of various ages trek in and out of the room, playing games to stave off boredom. A little boy clutches a stuffed teddy bear; a girl admires her reflection in a pink hand mirror. The women hastily cover their faces when a visitor's camera appears -- not for modesty or religious reasons, but for fear of the long arm of the ruling Assad regime in Syria.

Life for this Syrian refugee family now consists of sitting and waiting. But it's better than the hellish existence they endured for months in Homs, the besieged city across the border they fled in March. Much of Homs, one of the centers of the year-old Syrian uprising, has been shelled to rubble by Syrian military forces bent on crushing the widening rebellion.

"Homs is a city of ghosts now," Muhammad says, sipping tea with his visitors. "There is no value to a human life there."

He should know. The 41-year-old Sunni Muslim refugee has lost three family members to the violence. His wife's brother was arrested, tortured and killed before his abused body was released to the family more than a month later. Another brother joined the rebel forces and died in a bombing. Most heartbreaking of all was the fate of his 12-year-old nephew -- shot dead during a street demonstration. They rushed him to a makeshift clinic used to treat injured demonstrators and rebels, but he was gone.

"He was just bringing water to the people," says Doaa*, the dead child's mother, producing a snapshot. A smiling, fresh-faced boy stares out from the photo. She turns her head and weeps without a sound. Muhammad was arrested and beaten for hours because he was seen wearing a shirt soaked in his dying nephew's blood. Authorities accused him of being a terrorist.

"After losing my son, my life has no meaning now," Doaa declares after wiping her tears. "But I have two daughters, and I am living for them. After all these people have died, we must continue until we get our freedom. We have lost a lot. We owe it to them."

The family stayed in Homs until staying seemed suicidal. They fled, first driving south, then walking kilometers -- despite Muhammad's broken leg, sustained in an earlier incident -- to cross the Jordan border to safety.

Syrian forces and hired thugs in Homs were "killing children and women, raping women," charges Soreah*, another sister, her voice shaking with anger. "What you see on TV is only a part. We didn't want to leave our country, but after we saw these things, we had to leave."

Syrian refugees streaming into Turkey and Lebanon have garnered most of the international media attention. But more than 90,000 Syrians, mostly Sunni Muslims, had crossed into northern Jordan by early April, according to one unofficial government estimate. More slip across the desert border each night, walking secret routes to avoid the guns of Syrian soldiers -- or bribing border guards to let them pass. Some are injured. Some carry elderly family members and small children. Most are traumatized, terrified and enraged by what they have experienced in Syria. At best, they face an uncertain future in Jordan, where housing is cramped and expensive, and jobs are scarce.

AN UNEXPECTED FRIEND

But the overwhelmingly Muslim refugees who come to this part of northern Jordan have found an unexpected local friend: Nour, a Christian pastor who leads an evangelical church in the border town.

"This is our call, to reach out," says Nour, a softspoken man with a neatly clipped graying mustache. "Our door is open to Christians or Muslims anytime."

Nour has become a one-man clearinghouse for aiding Syrian refugee families. He helps them find places to live (so far, there are no official refugee camps in the area). He and his church members deliver food, blankets, mattresses, medicine and other basic supplies. He coordinates assistance from a variety of other churches and Christian groups in and beyond Jordan, including Baptists. He cooperates with the local Islamic aid society, which refers many refugees to the church.

Most of all, he listens.

"They respect the Christians, because we are helping the Muslims," he explains. "This makes a difference to them. Plus, we go into their houses. We don't want them walking in the street asking for help. We are making personal visits with them, drinking tea with them, sharing their life, asking them to see what they need.

"We never turn off our mobile phones. Always we are ready to receive their phone calls. If I can't answer it, I call them back. We love them, and we want to serve them. Always I tell them this: 'I am here to serve you.' This gives them comfort and encouragement. They know that if I have what they need, I will give it to them."

He stops to emphasize an essential part of helping hurting people anywhere:

"Always, we are smiling in their faces. All the time. Even when it is difficult. We never complain because of them. Some of them maybe feel frustrated at times because of lack of things, maybe a little bit angry sometimes. But even then we keep smiling to them, because we know it's not easy for them to leave their own houses and country and come to this area having nothing."

If Nour's church members and ministry partners don't go to the refugees, the refugees come to the church. A constant parade of Syrians knock on the door of his informal "welcome center," a parlor with several comfortable chairs and couches near the church sanctuary.

On a recent morning, a nervous, apparently shell-shocked man seeking aid recounts horror stories from Homs. Before he leaves, two young women with four children arrive, asking for mattresses and blankets. They are followed by a widow, age 57, with her grandson in tow. She and the women in her family crossed the border a month ago, she recounts, fearing rape.

She rented two rooms near the border town and lives in them with eight family members, but expects 19 more to arrive any day. She needs a small refrigerator so the food she cooks won't spoil overnight. Nour guides her to another room to select some clothes while her grandson plays nearby.

Nour is no newcomer to refugee ministry. He started more than 20 years ago when refugees poured across the Iraq-Jordan border during the first Gulf War.

"We have a saying in Jordan: 'Who is next?'" he confides with a wry smile. "We receive the Palestinians, the Iraqis, the Syrians, the Libyans."

So when the Syrian conflict began to heat up, he knew the initial trickle of refugees into Jordan would become a flood. The church, which started out helping about 30 refugee families, now coordinates regular assistance to more than 270 families, at least 1,000 people. Nour estimates more than 1,000 refugee families live in the area -- with many more on the way if conditions in Syria don't improve soon.

The new arrivals are even more traumatized than the earlier ones.

"These are people who stayed and saw when they started bombing Homs more, entering the houses, killing people, burning the houses," the pastor explains. "These are the stories we are hearing now. Also, people who were injured were not able to come before. Now they are starting to come. We are seeing most of the people coming now smuggling [themselves out] because they are not able to cross the borders with their passports."

His church already has reached its capacity -- and beyond.

"The need is more than we can handle in terms of money, time and management," he admits. "The situation is getting worse and worse. If we have another 1,000 families come … and it will happen, because every day we see more of them [coming], maybe 10, 20 families every day. It's a big issue."

But Nour doesn't waste energy worrying about big issues. He and his ministry network meet the needs they see in front of them each day.

"Jesus loved us, and He asked us to help people," he says. "That takes a lot of time. I live day by day. I don't think about tomorrow. I wake up, I am strong, I continue. In the evening I am tired. I sleep. That's easy. Tomorrow will take care of itself, as Jesus said. So I have the love now; I will have the love tomorrow. It's not my work, it's the Lord's. I cannot take care of all of these people by myself. I depend on God and Jesus. I have partnerships with other churches and organizations that have encouraged me a lot. I am not alone.

"The Syrians are seeing us as one unit -- the church. For them, 'The Christians are helping.' The main thing is the love. We cannot do it without love."

Another knock comes at the door.

—30—

*Names changed. Bridges is IMB global correspondent. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).