Forgotten people, not forgotten by God
A mission partner in the Middle East witnesses growing curiosity about Jesus among long-term Syrian refugees
Recently we travelled to the Bekaa valley to visit some Syrian refugee families. These refugees fled war in Syria and arrived in Lebanon with nothing much. But that was now four or even eight years ago – they have lived here for a significant time.
By a mission partner in the Middle East
Their homes have developed, they have electricity (when it works), fridges, heaters and satellite televisions. They do seasonal work in the fields and building sites, and receive UN support (some). The health and education situation is poor and unreliable, but looking at Syria it is the same there. Their homes here are made of wood and tarpaulins and the ground gets muddy in the winter, but this is not so different to where they came from, for many of them were poor Syrians before they were poor refugees in Lebanon.
Nowhere else to go
Inside the tents are organised: the kitchens have shelves and storage jars, the walls, especially in the front room where guests go, are covered in decorative materials and there are carpets on the floor. You soon forget it is made of tarpaulins. In fact, in the tents of the Bekaa the situation for most of the year is better than in the poor tenements of Beirut. Although they are labelled as refugees and the Lebanese want them to leave this place, in their own minds the Syrians are at home here in the Bekaa valley in their tented houses. There is nowhere else for them to go.
We visit with a Syrian friend who has cousins living in a couple of the camps. These camps are informal groups of tents (usually around 30 to 50) in a field, the UN has built latrines and cesspits, there is electricity and the access roads do get muddy but had just been covered in fresh chippings. I even noticed in one camp a tent had been converted into a garage!
The format of a visit is familiar – we arrive, are ushered into a tent, take off our shoes in the first room and walk into a carpeted room with curtain material lining the walls and ceilings. As guests we are given the most comfortable cushions and sit down first. The host then sits down and conversation starts – this is in Arabic so we are observers taking note of when our names are mentioned so we can smile and nod appropriately. In each tent, as we talk more people appear quietly until we have a tent full of perhaps 12 people plus children.
At the first tent we generally meet an important person who will approve or disapprove of our visit. The conversation is good humoured and having negotiated this we are free to visit other tents.
In the next tent someone makes very sweet tea, which we drink out of small glasses that seem to be universal across the country. At some point our friend kneels up and his manner changes a little. I realise he is now teaching from the Bible. It is Ramadan, the time of Muslim fasting, and he is sharing from Matthew 6 where Jesus talks about not making a show of your fasting, and how the attitude of the heart is more important than appearances.
This is a close community – most people are related, they live close together and their many children play together every day. I look across the sea of faces as my friend talks – they are all different. There is a young lady who has a very young baby distracting her – she tries to smile and engage with the talk, but it is difficult to listen carefully. Another face framed by a hijab is listening, but very intrigued by us two old English people. Over on the other side are some older ladies, the grandmothers perhaps, who are happy to be surrounded by family, their wrinkled faces and darker clothing lightened by sparkling eyes and easy smiles. One of them, her eyes full of pride, is our friend’s aunt and she is very proud of him as he shares from the Bible and talks about faith. Another young lady sitting at the front is listening raptly, as if she has been thirsty for days and finally has some water to drink. As Jesus would say, she was receiving “living water” as our friend shared.
In the doorway two young men appeared – they were not smiling and I feared they disapproved. They would stand at the door, listen and then go out again, and then come back. I never worked out whether they approved or not, but it was like they could not stay away – they were curious as well as suspicious.
This group is a mixture of people slowly and carefully learning about Jesus. Some have really embraced the faith of our friend, while others are just curious as they see their friends’ lives transformed.
Here in these houses made from tarpaulins, a forgotten people are finding out about a God who has not forgotten them. It is our privilege to see and be a small part of this.