The answers trickled in from around the room: “Mosques, head coverings, desert, camels.”
Those ideas were true, she agreed, but she encouraged participants to be ready for unexpected elements as well. The Middle East is a “world of contrasts!” she exclaimed.
A few days into their trip, two team members already had new perspectives about one country in the Arab world and how they, as foreigners, could interact with locals. Joel described his temporary location as “a fascinating country full of vibrant and hospitable people…the food is delicious.”
“These last couple of days have been stressful, fun filled and life changing,” said Nathanael. “We’ve been fortunate enough to help run a picnic, teach English and sports, and adventure to visit families without the assistance of translators.”
According to one participant named Janae, many of the families invited on the outing – refugees struggling to survive in their new country – had not left the city for months. Due to visa restrictions “several fathers of the families do not work and many of the children do not go to school,” she explained.
At the picnic site, the Transform team members paired off with different families, playing games with the children, helping the men cook the meat and talking together.
“I sat with the women and we played get-to-know you games and a counting game. When we started counting in Arabic, I realized just how challenging it can be to not understand the other language. But from the laughter of the women I think most of them enjoyed it! This experience reminded me again how as women we have the same fears and hopes and dreams. These Syrian women have beautiful talents and hobbies and families and stories, just like me,” Janae shared.
“The picnic especially was a precious experience, hopefully as much for the refugees as it was for me,” Nathanael explained. “Playing football on a rubbish-strewn hillside with some of the men, boys and a couple of teenage girls in 40°C (104°F) was an experience I'm unlikely to forget.”
Team member Addie said her favorite part of the picnic involved “sitting with one particular family while eating lunch and playing a sort of charades to communicate. I learned all about their family and their stories and they invited me in as one of their own. They even gave me cookies and shared their oranges. The love that they showed towards me was so great even though they had been through so much horror. I am thankful I was able to be witness to a small part of their lives.”
When the team showed up to run a kids camp in one community, they had detailed schedules for the English lessons and sports activities. However, they quickly realized flexibility trumped planning. “We went where we were needed, ditching our partners and lesson plans. We took different age groups and certainly started late,” Addie remembered. Of her teenage students, “one in particular seemed to like me. I knew enough Arabic, and she knew enough English that we could talk about the important things, like pizza and music.”
Janae, who spent time with the younger group, also learned from the experience: “Teaching English allowed us time with the children to sing songs, have fun and encourage them that God has a plan and a future. It was an incredible exercise of being flexible, adjusting to the restlessness of the young children and also being joyful as a way to make learning fun.”
Another day, the team participated in a backyard fashion show. Using balloons and extra pieces of fabric, the psychologist leading the event transformed an empty garden into “a colorful place of hope and promise” for the refugee girls attending, Janae described. “Girl after girl stood with pride as she was fitted for a colorful, hand-sewn dress. With a fabric headband and a beautiful dress, each girl walked down the cement cat-walk, stood on the colorful podium and had her photo taken.”
The team then played games with girls and colored together for the rest of the time. “What impressed me most is that before I had felt so far removed from the conflict. Now I was actually standing in this small backyard in a village in the Near East, and I was able by my actions and the colorful fashion show to bring hope, in a very small way,” Janae summarized.
On the day when the team split into smaller groups to visit refugee families, without translators, Addie was amazed to see how some of her Arabic vocabulary memorization kicked in. “It was jumbled and I had the grammar of a child, but I told them about my family. And we asked about [the father’s] jobs in Syria. And we got to talk about the Bible,” she recounted. “We asked if we could pray for them. They said yes, and at the end, the father also prayed! He still identifies as Muslim, but I could tell something was changing in him.”
In another families’ home, Janae listened to a family talk about the terrifying experiences they had lived through. Then Janae asked if she could read Psalm 18, a passage she said had comforted her during bouts of anxiety she had faced that summer. “This passage made my heart strong and gave me courage,” she told the family. Using an Arabic Bible app on Janae’s phone, the father read the Psalm out loud to his family. Before Janae’s group left, they prayed for the family.
When Elizabeth’s group arrived for their visit, she didn’t know what to expect. “I walked into the home unsure of what was to come. I didn't know the language, culture, and conditions of the refugees I had read so much about over the years,” she said. The woman who welcomed them into her simple home, however, “gave as if she had everything,” Elizabeth remembered.
During the visit, Elizabeth’s group learned about the woman’s hardships. Her brother was paralyzed after being run over a truck in Syria. Her mother lost her eyesight during the treacherous journey to the Near East. Her two young sons remained traumatized by the killings they had seen. “She had much pain,” Elizabeth stated. But, as a new believer, the woman also had much praise. “Her new life in Christ was a beautiful testimony to how God is working. [Together] we sang a song and prayed.”
Having spent two weeks in the Arab world, the team left with a new understanding of the country, the culture and, certainly, the people. Since the outreach focused on refugees – the theme for Transform 2016 – the team’s takeaway focused on the people displaced from their homes.
“It is encouraging to see the long-term commitments to love and serve these people who are loved by God,” Joel said. “It is easy to feel like the task is too great. God is far, far greater. He is love. This is an opportunity to share the truth and love of the gospel with hurt and needy people. There is a real hope, and although we must be careful, many people are open to hear and discuss the good news.”
Sarah shared that she had felt intimidated through much of the outreach— “the noise, the heat, the people. And meeting refugees.” In her home country, she said, refugees were a topic of dinner table debates, like the energy crisis or politics. Talking with refugees in the Arab world and listening to their stories brought them to life for her. Still, she couldn’t understand or imagine what they had endured.
“The fact that I am so overwhelmed makes me discover new things about God, that He is even greater than all the pain and the sorrow and the injustice they tell us about. That Jesus is the only hope they have,” she explained. “I am just starting to understand how powerful the gospel is.”
Pray for refugees displaced across the Middle East. Pray that they would discover the hope found in Jesus. Pray that the short-term summer outreach participants would continue to advocate for the people they met and that God would call some of them back to long-term commitments to serve in the Arab world.
Nicole James is a journalist, ESL teacher, and adventurer. As a writer for OM Middle East North Africa, she’s passionate about publishing the stories of God’s works among the nations, telling people about the wonderful things He is doing in the world.
Published: Wednesday, 07 September 2016
Credit: Nicole James