“A lot of refugees, in the depths of despair—they’re very downcast. They have a lot of negative comments. You talk to the Sudanese refugees, and they are so just upbeat,” she said. “They’re the sweetest, most optimistic people.”
However, Sudanese refugees can experience high levels of racism from Arabs in the Near East, long-term OM worker Marie* stated.
Though the Syrian conflict has become synonymous with the refugee crisis in the Middle East, the Levant’s refugee population is diverse. Lebanon and Jordan, which house more than one million and 600,000 registered Syrian refugees, respectively, also host significant numbers of other asylum seekers.
According to the April 2017 UNHCR Operational Update for Jordan, “A total of 733,210 people of concern were registered with UNHCR in Jordan as of March 2017, including 657,621 Syrians, 62,445 Iraqis and 13,144 others including, 7,441 Yemenis, 3,466 Sudanese, and 787 Somalis.”
In Lebanon, the UNHCR registered 20,725 refugees from countries other than Syria by the end of 2015, including Iraqis (84 per cent), Sudanese (11 per cent), Ethiopians (1.6 per cent) and Somalis, Egyptians and South Sudanese (3.5 per cent total).
OM workers in the Near East (field consisting of Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Syria) have found opportunities to share hope and truth with displaced persons from least-reached nations, a positive result of the conflict and crises tearing across the Middle East and Africa.
Bringing food and encouragement, Elaine spent most of her time visiting Sudanese refugees, who lived “in apartments smaller than 600 [square] feet…typically [occupied by] five to 10 people. There was mould everywhere.” Even in summer, their accommodations were “pretty damp and dark,” she said. “Most of the places didn’t have windows, and they were just concrete.”
The Sudanese refugees living in the Near East are not allowed to work and do not receive financial help from relief organisations, Elaine stressed. “The children are starving [because] they don’t have enough money to buy a loaf of bread.”
Marie, too, has reached out to the Sudanese community. For over a year, she has been part of a group visiting a particular Sudanese family every week. Often a local Arabic speaker joins them on the visits. “Normally, we do the [Bible] study together. We’ll read a story and discuss it,” Marie shared.
In addition to reading the Bible, Marie and the other believers also wanted the family to pray. Normally, one of the local church members led prayer with the family. “He really prays beautifully, it’s kind of like poetry when he prays,” Marie described. However, the lofty language was not reproducible for the family just learning how to talk to God.
One day, Marie decided she would pray with the family. “Arabic is not my heart language, so praying is not eloquent when I pray in Arabic,” she explained. “I prayed a simple prayer in Arabic, and I think the Sudanese family from that day on [understood] you don’t have to pray eloquent prayers for God to hear and for it to matter. That was a way God used my weakness to help someone in their journey.”
Several weeks after Marie’s prayer, the wife prayed for the first time. “It was really beautiful,” Marie enthused.
The Sudanese family are Muslim. “Certainly, they welcome us into their home and ask to read [Bible] stories.”
Once, Marie and the others shared the story of how Jesus is the light of the world. “If you have a candle, you don’t put it under the bed or under the table or under a cover, you put it on a table,” Marie stated. “I hope they’ll take that as a challenge to share what they’ve been learning with their community.”
In addition to visiting the Sudanese family, Marie has also had opportunity to read the Bible with a Somali family. “Somalia is one of the most persecuted places on earth for believers. It’s really cool to be in [the Near East] where all these people are escaping terrible situations and yet hearing the gospel for the first time,” she shared.
Marie’s group focuses on reading Bible stories with whole family groups “so people have community,” she said.
Although many workers tell paraphrased Bible stories on visits as a way of introducing Muslims to spiritual truth, “I really like reading stories with people because I think it’s more accurate to what God’s Word is,” Marie explained. As a next step, “we’ve been trying to help people to memorise stories so they can tell them to people in their [ethnic] communities. For most of them, it’s the first time they’ve ever heard some of these stories.”
According to Marie, it’s often difficult to see spiritual results in her host country in the Near East, but she believes God is using the refugee situation for good. “Amongst all the refugees coming to [the Near East], and the increased pressure here, economically and politically, I think God’s at work. You can pray for groups we have, that people would deepen in their knowledge of who Jesus is, deepen in faith and share with others around them.”
Many Syrian refugees, who rely on aid to meet physical needs, also have acute psychological needs: “grief or trauma or struggles with their children,” long-term worker Kathy* has found.
In 2017, Kathy joined two local volunteers to start a support group for 12 Syrian women. The women faced traumatic experiences in Syria and en route to their current environment, but in the support group, they’ve highlighted abusive marriages and absent social support systems, Kathy noted. “They’re talking about family pain; they’re not talking about the risk their houses will be bombed.
“We’re hoping [for the group] to be an option for them to share stories and build trust with each other, but also that there will be opportunities to invite them into DBS [Discovery Bible Study],” she said. “We want to care for them in their vulnerability, maybe through our own personal testimonies. We really want to offer a possibility to read and share what Scripture has to [offer] us.”
The church-sponsored aid and, subsequently, the support group give Syrian women opportunity to interact with believers. “This is about trying to build up trust and open doors into a community that’s very unreached,” Kathy emphasised. The women, if not for “this situation of extreme need, would never have been permitted by their community to come onto church premises…. Many of them in their life in Syria would never have met a believer before.”
Practically, the distribution programme provides opportunity for women in need to come onto the property. “Personally, I see it as more strategic—the doors it gives us into their homes to visit them. You meet one person, and you visit them, and you meet their friends. There is this whole network of women, doors open that would not have been open. Many of them are so happy to be prayed for. Some of them are happy to listen to stories; some aren’t,” Kathy said.
Pray that OM workers in the Near East will continue to find opportunities to build relationship with refugees from least-reached nations. Pray that these people would come to know Jesus and spread their knowledge of God’s Word throughout their communities.
Nicole James is an international writer for OM, passionate about publishing stories of God’s work among the nations and telling people about the wonderful things He is doing around the world.
**Statistics from UNHCR (http://reporting.unhcr.org/sites/default/files/UNHCR%20Jordan%20Operational%20Update%20-%20April%202017.pdf accessed 6.2.2017) (http://reporting.unhcr.org/node/15981 accessed 6.2.2017)
Published: Wednesday, 30 August 2017
Credit: Nicole James