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Tuesday, December 6, 2016

The Syrian Stories: Small House, Big Hope

It's my group's first day of home visits to the Syrian refugees in this town just near the Syrian border. We've already been through orientation, learning how the refugee population has exploded from forty families in the first year of the Syrian war to now more than a hundred thousand refugees living in the town and in the refugee camp nearby. There are an approximately equal number of refugees and locals in this town now.

The church has been busy. When the war began in neighboring Syria, they had no organized plan for how to respond to the first few refugees, but they knew that outreach was "in the DNA" of their church. Now they carry out a wide range of spiritual, emotional, and material outreaches to the refugees in their city, partnering with international NGOs to maximize their impact.

I've been placed in a visiting group with a local church member and a couple other short-term foreign visitors like me. As she drives us through narrow city to our destination, the local lady explains that both families we will visit are living in converted store space. The influx of refugees has overwhelmed the infrastructure of the city, sending rent prices up and availability of good housing down.

I inquire about how the refugees can pay rent anyway, since they are gone from their country and aren't able to work here. The local lady doesn't know.

We arrive at the first home and heft a heavy bundle of food and diapers out of the trunk. But apparently that is not the main purpose of our visit. I had envisioned us delivering goods all day long, but the main thing we were delivering turned out to be friendship.

An elementary age daughter lets us into the home. It's small; just a room in a converted store. Thin mattresses line the walls and a few clothes hung on hooks near a door at the back of the room. The local lady indicates that we should sit on the mattresses, and as we wait, a little boy toddles out. Soon the mother of the house emerges from the door into the front room.

"This is a Syrian refugee?" I think. She's the first one that I have met, and nothing like I expect. Her hair is bleached and she wears a tight shirt and big, gold earrings. She's tall and young. I assume the head scarf and long garment hanging on the wall are hers, to be worn when unrelated men are in the house or when she goes out.

More children shyly emerge; there are six altogether. The two oldest are girls and they help their mother serve us tea on a platter which they set in the middle of the floor. I hardly know what to make of the tea; the surface is covered in half an inch of nuts (almond?) and coconut. I both drink and chew the sweet concoction while I listen to the local lady and the Syrian mom catch up with each other. They pause to translate for our benefit.

First the Syrian mom talks about how delighted she is to be in this home; they had previously lived in a place where they had trouble with their neighbors, but now she likes the place and she has both a window and a lock on her door. The local lady translates her comments: "She feels like it's a mansion."

There was an update on the children. They are in good health, and the older girls were finally allowed to register for school today. Not just an evening school, like many Syrian children are relegated to (as there is no space in the normal day school), but a regular school. They tested into third grade, and their mother says she is proud because they've only had one year of formal schooling and the rest is what she taught them on her own whenever she could find paper and pens.

At the end of the visit, we are asked if we have any questions for her, and I ask if she could tell us how she arrived in this town. She graciously launches into a story I'm sure she's told to many others before.

They were in a large Syrian city when the fighting there began to get bad about three years ago. Men arrived at her house to arrest her husband and her. They screamed and cried; Who would take care of the babies? One of the arresting men received a cell phone call that they just needed the man, not her, so they took her husband away and kicked her back into the house.

Because of being kicked, she began to experience internal problems and was not well enough to care for her children. A Christian lady from across town braved the fighting to come stay with her for a little while.

Somehow she and her husband were reunited and found their way across the border into safety. (She doesn't tell this part of the story, and she's so engaged in the next chapter that none of us ask.)

Their toddler son had a problem with his heart (possibly a hole). He wasn't walking and was very weak. Then members from the church came and prayed for his healing. And now he is walking! Indeed, through most of her storytelling she has been trying to guide his wiggly arms and legs into his clothes for the day, and now he's toddling across the room.

The local lady explains how God had been watching out for this family, holding them up at each important moment. She uses her hands to show how He has supported and propped them up. The Syrian lady agrees.

An hour or so has elapsed and it's time for our next home visit. We leave the home in a flurry of hand-shaking, cheek kissing, and kind words.

So ends my first visit to a Syrian refugee home.

This is the last in a short series on my time in the Middle East visiting Syrian refugee families. Read the rest here:
Part 1: Anne Frank Today is a Syrian Girl
Part 3: The Second Household
Part 4: Vignettes

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