Swerving to miss merging traffic, I quickly glance at the GPS. I am part of a three-person IMB communications crew sent to document the stories of Syrian refugees displaced from their homes and country by war. But at this moment during the trip, I am the van driver and coordinator for a team from Mandarin Baptist Church of Los Angeles.
After glancing at the GPS, I squint as I look into the distance to read a road sign with an English translation below the Arabic words for “Syrian border.” I breathe a sigh of relief and reassure the team that we’re headed in the right direction. The team laughs nervously. To break the tension, I joke that we are in bad shape if we are excited about being on the right road to head to the Syrian border of all places. The team laughs again. We’re comforted knowing that back in the US we have a huge network of prayer warriors who are lifting up our trip to the Father.
We are headed to a small town—I would tell you the exact location but can’t for security reasons. The plan is to interact with workers we support and local partners working with families who have fled their homes. They have escaped the Syrian war in desperation, many with only the possessions they could carry with them in a hurry.
At this point in our journey, following our Christian workers’ driving directions closely to avoid going off course is extremely important. We have been told that where we are headed is about eight miles from the really bad guys. A military Humvee passes us at a high rate of speed headed in the same direction. My blood pressure surges when I notice that the gunner, manning the 50-caliber gun on top of the vehicle, is wearing a black ski mask. The seriousness of where we are headed once again sinks in.
We arrive without incident at a church where believers from multiple countries have journeyed to minister to men, women, and children left without hope as a result of the war. The Christian worker we will be serving alongside, Peter Matheson,* has been welcoming teams from Baptist churches in the US as part of the larger vision of this local church. Peter’s work is supported by giving through the Cooperative Program and the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions.
It is exciting to see Peter working alongside multiple nationalities gathering with one common purpose and vision—to share the love and hope of Christ with the refugee families. And it is equally as exciting to know that local Christians are the ones making it all possible, aided by resources provided by churches around the world, including Baptist churches in America.
Our specific goal for the week is to accompany Peter as he visits as many Syrian families as possible to listen to them, express our love for them in Christ, and bring them some medical help and small amounts of basic survival supplies. We find that what is also largely needed is to encourage and minister to these families’ children, many of whom have not been able to attend school in years and have seen horrific atrocities at an early age during the violence in Syria.
“The hardest thing in this ministry is just sitting down and listening to their hurts,” Peter says. “The condition . . . of the refugees is very bad. They come, they arrive with little children, just with the clothes on their back, because back in Syria their homes are destroyed, their businesses are destroyed . . . women have been raped . . . real torture goes on among men and young men in Syria.”
The first family we visit leaves an impression on me that I will never forget. After the typical Arabic greetings and introductions, we gather with this family seated on the floor, as is the custom. The room is filled with our team and this large Syrian family. I glance at the patriarch as he motions to my arm. A fan of wearing bracelets, I notice him pointing to them. My immediate thought is, “Oh no, I have committed some sort of cultural faux pas.”
The father came over to me and placed a single bracelet that he had been wearing onto my arm. Stunned, it sinks in that he is giving me—a total stranger—one of the few personal possessions he still has. As I fight back tears, I quickly pull off one of my bracelets and put it on his arm.
Now, there is a friendship bond between us that represents a larger picture to me in this horrible crisis. These Syrians are not political enemies or anti-American. They are ordinary families (fathers, mothers, children) who just want to be recognized, heard, and loved.
They are without hope and yet they want to do something beyond normal expectations; they want to give back. This act of giving is punctuated by the family serving tea to us. At another house, a family in desperate straits begged us to let them cook us dinner despite the fact that we had just arrived with boxes of food for them.
“They are so warm, and we might have stereotypes back home, but these are people just like you and me,” says Margaret Young,* a nurse and Mandarin Baptist team member. “They’re just caught up in a spiritual battle. They need hope and they need Christ. It’s just been very heartwarming to see how generous and warm they are when they greet you and how they are even helping others who need help when they have so little.”
Physician Stephanie Lim,* a member of the Mandarin team, adds, “We as churches in the United States, we’re really blessed with a lot of resources that God has given us, and He has called us to help others who are in need as well. And, there’s a lot of local churches here who are meeting the demands, the needs of the Syrian refugees who cannot help themselves. They just have no resources,” she said. “So as Christians, we are called and we are responsible to help those who are in need, especially when they are in great need in times like this.”
The GPS spits out the complicated directions to get us back to the house where we are staying. As we get further away from the area, our team seems to breathe a collective sigh of relief. We know where we are heading the next day. We are flying home to families who do not want for food. We are about to see our kids who have access to great education. We will worship freely with fellow believers secure in the fact that our hope is in Jesus Christ.
What will happen to those we have left behind, though? I am still asking myself that question months after leaving.
Rolan Way writes for IMB and is an active member of a local Baptist church.