The pastor of the Lebanese church said he and his congregation “feel called to love them (Syrian refugees).” He added, “I was in the civil war and fought against the Syrian army, our enemy.”
As I traveled through Lebanon I kept hearing this same message, from people called to love those who harmed their families. The Syrian forces were cruel to the Lebanese people throughout their occupation of Lebanon from 1976 to 2005. Now, 10 years later, 1.5 million Syrian refugees are in the small country of Lebanon, which has only 4.5 million citizens. Even with this history of a 40-year occupation, groups of faithful Lebanese are challenging the country’s leadership, and challenging larger Christian and Muslim bodies by proclaiming they have been touched by God and feel called to love and care for the “enemy” Syrians. At times these strong words were difficult for a westerner to fully understand, but the movement of God in these people—seemingly impossible to me—was one of many surprises on this trip.
Another big surprise was how invisible this huge influx of Syrian refugees was, even as they now represent more than 25 percent of the total population of Lebanon. With my experience in other disasters and crisis situations, I was sure we would see refugee camps of some sort, and highly visible relief efforts underway. But once again it was an opportunity to learn: with the complicated history of the Syrian occupation, and a half million Palestinian refugees from decades ago, the Lebanese government is unwilling to allow refugee camps or large-scale international relief. Instead, Syrian refugees have to rent places to live. Often several families lives together in a single room in a slum. In these desperate conditions, in a hostile land, the Syrian refugees are surprised to find aid from small Christian churches—from Christians, whom they have been taught to fear.
Which leads to the next surprise: how God is working in and among the Syrian people. Most of the aid is being received without expectation, simply given in Christian love. Syrian people I met in Lebanon shared with me how God is working in their lives and the clear calling to follow Jesus. They reported answered prayers and dreams of Jesus, all in ways that are surprising to the Lebanese people as well. There are now Syrians leading small-group Bible study in rooms full of their fellow refugees. I was in such wonder, I asked Lebanese seminary professors if what we heard was common in the Middle East.
Repeatedly I heard that this is different, this is a time in Lebanon akin to the church we find in the book of Acts. The Lebanese Society for Education and Social Development (LSESD) hosted me on the trip and is coordinating this response with local churches. The staff report a significantly increasing crisis as international aid for refugee food programs is decreased. This is alarming, considering 89 percent of Syrian refugees in Lebanon are food-insecure. In response, Brethren Disaster Ministries has developed a new partnership with LSESD to support more than 20 relief projects across Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. An initial $50,000 grant is being directed from the Church of the Brethren’s Emergency Disaster Fund to help LSESD provide:
- food assistance every month for thousands of families;
- health care for more than 4,000 patients;
- milk and diapers for families with small children;
- winterization kits, including blankets and mattresses;
- education, through formal and informal programs for hundreds of Syrian children;
- trauma support, including child-friendly spaces in Lebanon and Syria, and monthly psychological support service and gender based violence programming.
Brethren Disaster Ministries plans to continue this partnership over the next several years, and anxiously waits to see how God works through this crisis.
Brethren assist refugees
In some of the hotspots of the worldwide crisis of human displacement, the Church of the Brethren has been helping to make a difference—from the Middle East to Haiti to Nigeria.
In the Middle East, where hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria have been seeking shelter in neighboring countries, as well as in Europe and North Africa, Brethren Disaster Ministries has been directing grants to aid refugees. As early as 2012, grants from the Emergency Disaster Fund (EDF) have aided Syrian refugees. As of January 2016, the Church of the Brethren has given $108,000 in grant money to provide aid through church-related humanitarian organizations active in the Middle East and Europe, including the ACT Alliance and International Orthodox Christian Charities. In late 2015, a trip to Lebanon by Brethren Disaster Ministries executive Roy Winter led to the most recent grant, $50,000 to a local agency partnering with churches to assist Syrian and Palestinian refugees.
In the Dominican Republic, where people of Haitian descent are being displaced and deported to Haiti, Iglesia de los Hermanos (the Church of the Brethren in the DR) is working to naturalize ethnic Haitians and help them stay in the country. As of late 2015, the DR Brethren had helped register more than 450 people of Haitian descent for naturalization. The Church of the Brethren provided financial support to the effort through grants from the EDF and Global Mission and Service.
In Nigeria, where the crisis caused by the Boko Haram insurgency has displaced hundreds of thousands from the northeast of the country, the Church of the Brethren is partnering with Ekklesiyar Yan’uwa a Nigeria (EYN, the Church of the Brethren in Nigeria) and other organizations to aid the displaced. This Nigeria Crisis Response is directed by Church of the Brethren staff Carl and Roxane Hill. It is a multi-pronged project that combines meeting basic needs for food, water, and shelter, with trauma healing, education, and livelihoods. Brethren congregations and individuals have given millions of dollars toward the Nigeria response.
In the US, the Church of the Brethren encourages its members to become involved in the refugee resettlement efforts of other faith-based organizations such as Church World Service. That support ranges from refugee sponsorship to financial and material donations to a variety of ways to help refugees understand and integrate into their new environment (see www.brethren.org/refugee).
The Office of Public Witness and the General Secretary’s Office have added an advocacy element to the church’s work on this crisis, including statements and Action Alerts calling for acceptance of more refugees into the US, publicizing the crisis in Nigeria, and calling for a nonviolent diplomatic solution for Syria.
Addressing the question of security
It is very important to address the matter of safety and security in the midst of such a complex refugee crisis, but there are important details about the refugee admission process that often go unheard in current discussions.
The vetting process for refugees requesting admission into the United States is long and thorough, taking anywhere between 18 and 24 months. Each refugee is vetted through more than seven security checks, including biometric tests, medical screenings, and in-person interviews with Department of Homeland Security officials.
This process is extremely effective. Of the 784,000 refugees resettled in the US since Sept. 11, 2001, only 3 have been arrested for planning (not succeeding in) terrorist activities. Only one of the plans targeted the US, and even then it was unsophisticated.
On the other hand, refusing to accept refugees actually poses the greater security risk. Denying thousands of people the right to safety would be a massive recruiting tool for ISIS, fuel American resentment, and make us far, far less safe.
The decision to accept or refuse entry to refugees is a moral one. If refugees are allowed to enter the US, maybe we are morally responsible for potential damage they cause. But we certainly are morally responsible for those who die because we refused to offer refuge.
Historically the Church of the Brethren has supported refugees. For example, a 1982 Annual Conference statement finds theological support throughout the Bible for aiding refugees, including the story of Moses and the wandering Israelites:
“[A]fter the account of Moses leading the Israelites from Egypt, there is the command again and again to be good to the alien, sojourner, immigrant, or refugee in your midst, ‘for remember that we were sojourners, aliens in the land of Egypt.’ (See Exodus 22:21; Leviticus 19:13-34; Deuteronomy 10:11; 1:16; 24:14; 24:17; 27:19.)”
Providing a safe haven for this extremely vulnerable population has scriptural basis, and we cannot let fear limit the breadth of our compassion.
Roy Winter is associate executive director of Global Mission and Service and Brethren Disaster Ministries
Jesse Winter is a peacebuilding and policy associate at the Church of the Brethren Office of Public Witness in Washington, D.C., where he serves through Brethren Volunteer Service.