For a week in February, I, along with others from MCC, visited our partners in Syria. Amidst the rubble and rocket fire, we found an amazingly resilient people.
They carry on despite the seven-year Syrian war that has killed 500,000 people and caused the world’s largest displacement crisis: Of approximately 17 million Syrians, 6 million have left their homes for other parts of Syria and more than 5 million are refugees in other countries.
Sixty-nine percent of the population of Syria lives in extreme poverty, so the humanitarian needs are overwhelming. Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) has responded since early 2012.
Let me share with you some of their stories. Often, I have needed to change or omit names for their safety.
Come to me, all you that are weary . . . and I will give you rest. Matthew 11:28
“I always pray, God, please protect us today.”
Rima Absi is speaking about the rocket fire in Damascus. She is telling us about the participants and staff of the Al-Safina community for people with disabilities, who must navigate the shelling each day.
We wake up every day and we are tired. People are dying around us, even children. But we are also a symbol of life and we have people coming here each day and we will not stop because of the war.”
- Rima Absi
Al-Safina is home for eight men and women with disabilities. Workshops provide work and activity each day for 60 additional people with disabilities.
Later, we visit two dozen young people who are staff and volunteers of the Charity Society for Sustainable Development (CSSD). The organization is responding to the needs of families displaced from their homes and other vulnerable people.
The staff and volunteers dream of one day doing development work, too. They want to focus on making a better life for children and bringing out the gifts of young people.
Many of the volunteers and staff members were once displaced themselves. “We could be in their place,” one young adult tells us, “And we can feel the agony and suffering of the people.”
I remember Abisi’s words: “We wake up every day and we are tired. People are dying around us, even children. But we are also a symbol of life and we have people coming here each day and we will not stop because of the war.”
For it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks. Matthew 25:40
“We are happy you are here to see this with your own eyes,” the leader of the Islamic Charities organization in Deir Attieh tells us. “We can’t express enough our heartfelt thanks to you.”
Islamic Charities works with 3,000 at-risk families affected by the war, and MCC provides food boxes for its distribution. When I visit five families who received these food boxes, I recall the heartfelt thanks but feel mostly heart broken.
We visit two families living in an unfinished apartment complex. The first family has a small two-room apartment for the mother, her five children and her father. Her husband is serving in the army. The second family includes seven people living in one room. The woman and her five children and her sister have lived here for four years. “I thank God for this room,” she tells us.
Tell your people in your churches who are supporting us that they are helping to bring life back to Syria.”
- Syrian Orthodox Church staff
Later that day, we travel to Fairouza to meet with the Um Alzennar Relief and Development Center, the relief arm of the Syrian Orthodox Church in this region. Staff tell us MCC was among the first agencies to respond to the needs in this city during the war. MCC support has included food and other humanitarian aid, peacebuilding workshops, monthly cash allowances, winterization support and more.
We are family with you, they tell us. “Tell your people in your churches who are supporting us that they are helping to bring life back to Syria.”
Whoever serves me must follow me. John 12:26
In the spring of 2012, caught in the shelling between the Syrian army and opposing rebels, Sister Valentine asked her employees at the Presbyterian church’s elderly care center in Homs if they would stay to care for the residents. She said, “Whatever you decide, I am staying.” One-by-one, the employees made the same choice.
Later, Sister Valentine ventured out into the streets alone amidst the rocket fire to buy bread for the residents, so that the staff, all with families, could stay inside where they were safer.
The Rev. Mofidi Karajili is pastor of the Presbyterian congregation in Homs. He tells us it is not common for Protestants and Catholics to share the kind of ministry provided by the elderly care center, but he and Sister Valentine have made a good team.
Without your help, the lives of some of these families would have been entirely dark and some may not have survived.”
- Pastor Mofidi
From a rooftop, Pastor Mofidi points out the severely damaged buildings of the Orthodox, Catholic and evangelical churches nearby. For a time after the bombing stopped, all of these churches used the center for their worship.
Pastor Mofidi shares the ways MCC has provided support for his congregation’s ministries in the city, including food parcels and cash gifts. “Without your help,” he says, “the lives of some of these families would have been entirely dark and some may not have survived.”
I thank God through Jesus Christ for all of you. – Romans 1:8
“Faith makes you act crazy.”
The Rev. Ibrahim Nseir is pastor of the National Presbyterian Church in Aleppo. He is speaking about the apparent foolishness of staying in Aleppo and believing he can make a difference in his community during the war.
We are meeting with a roomful of people who are displaced because of the war and are part of the church’s ministry.
Fatima tells us about her son who was kidnapped by the gangs. She and her family had to flee their house in order to pay for her son’s release, and now the family is homeless. It was only this church, she says, that would help them with cash payments, supported by MCC.
If MCC’s partners in Syria are not growing weary of doing good, how can we?"
- J Ron Byler
Maryam was recently divorced, and she and her children had no place to go. “When I had no one to help me, the church was here for me,” she says. Today, she sings in the church choir and teaches Sunday school.
The next day, we worship with Rev. Nseir’s congregation, and later walk in the old city to see where the church building stood before it was demolished in the war. “You have suffered with us and rejoiced with us,” Rev. Nseir says, “And your presence with us today is a sign of hope that God is not far from us.”
If MCC’s partners in Syria are not growing weary of doing good, how can we? MCC’s work goes on. You have been generous in your support, and we ask you to continue helping. Please consider giving a gift online. Thank you.
J Ron Byler is executive director of MCC U.S.