As this year’s World Refugee Day arrives (20 June), the Middle East retains the unenviable record of being both source and host of the largest number of displaced people in the world. But amidst their hardships, large numbers of refugees who have been shown practical love by Christians are finding a new relationship with God.
In Greater Amman, Jordan, SAT-7 recently met 20 Iraqi families who fled from so-called Islamic State four years ago. Producer Rafik George heard harrowing stories but, remarkably, he says, “All the families told me how this crisis brought them closer to God”.
The SAT-7 film crew accompanied TC (The Community) Egypt, a Christian NGO, as it went to give training to churches who are caring for Iraqi refugees.
George explained that these Christian-background refugees had not gone to refugee camps but had found accommodation in cramped apartments and were not allowed to find work or send their children to government schools.
Churches in Marka and Al Hashmi Al Shamali had stepped into the gap, providing financial help, counselling, medical care, schooling and employment. To bring in income, the refugees make handicrafts such as embroidered Bible covers and olive wood gifts, signing and dating them to make each one unique, before selling or exporting the items.
A school, built by the Evangelical church in Marka, teaches the school curriculum to three- to 12-year-olds. Its qualified Iraqi and Jordanian teachers are also trained counsellors, able to offer sensitive care to children traumatised by horrific violence and repeated displacement.
Slaughter and machine guns dominated the pictures the children drew when they first arrived, George says. “But after a few months of settling into Marka and receiving education and counselling, they began to draw rainbows, birds and happy pictures. Some children were so traumatised that they lost their ability to walk, but with counselling they began to improve and walk again.”
The extensive practical support has been complemented by meetings held especially for the refugees to encourage them spiritually and emotionally. As a result, all the Iraqis George spoke to had experienced a renewal of faith.
“In all my interviews with Iraqi refugees they expressed their gratitude to God,” he says. “They don’t regret having left everything to get closer to God. They are grateful that they learned about God in Jordan more than when they lived in their comfortable homes in Iraq.
“They aren’t sad over what they left behind but are thankful they left Iraq alive. They told me many stories of how they knew the Lord was with them through the hard times they experienced. They said they trust God with their future.”
One of them was 70-year-old engineer, Emad. “He had a big workshop for fixing cars,” George explains. “He was threatened by Daesh (Islamic State) that if he didn’t pay jizya (a tax imposed on non-Muslims), they’d bomb his workshop. He paid but they still bombed it. They even invaded his house, took all his money and shot him in the arm. Emad fled and Daesh militias took over his house. In Iraq, he was a very wealthy man but now he lives in a simple house in Jordan.”
But Emad’s faith has grown strong through this ordeal. He told George, “If I see the man who shot me and took my house and workshop, I’d thank him, I’d hug and kiss him for helping me get closer to God.”
Tortured for Christ
George also heard the harrowing story of Iraqi chef Carlos, whose family home was stormed by Islamic State. The militants took all the family’s gold and money, snatched Carlos’ cross necklace, threw it on the floor and asked him to step on it. When he refused, they struck him on the head, imprisoned him in a former police station and tortured him until he passed out.
When Carlos came to, he found himself hanging upside down by one leg. Carlos’ tormentors whipped him and tortured him like this for 45 days, demanding he recant his faith in Christ. Carlos refused, although he says he doesn’t know how he got this strength to stay true to Christ. After 45 days Carlos was sentenced to death but on the day of the execution, the militia emir received a call telling him to let Carlos go free.
Dropped off in the desert and weakened by his injuries, he had to walk for miles before reaching home. Carlos’ leg had to be amputated and a Catholic aid organisation sent Carlos to Spain for rehabilitation. Later, they arranged for Carlos and his elderly parents to move to Jordan where he now serves in a church in Al Hashmi Al Shamali.
“God never left us”
Hearing stories like these “changed the lives of all the crew members”, Rafik George says. “Firstly, we learned that the power of faith doesn’t come from inside the person. These are normal people and they’re not even strong, but they received the power of faith from Jesus at their time of need. Even if they were Christian only by name, they kept their faith during persecution and God didn’t leave them.
“They have an expression,” George recalls, “‘We left our homes and our villages but we thank God, standing up or sitting down, He never left us’.”
Contrast in Zaatari
After five days in Greater Amman, the crew visited the massive Zaatari refugee camp close to Jordan’s northern border with Syria. Here George’s crew spent a day filming and meeting with Syrians. Most had fled from Ghouta and Idlib – areas under rebel control that sustained intense bombing by the Syrian government and its Russian ally.
The people in Zaatari are living in desperate conditions, George says. “They are under the poverty line. They have extreme weather and lots of rain. They can barely find food to eat.
“They marry off their girls very young, thinking that this will free them from the burden of supporting their daughters, but the girls who marry in their teenage years have many children themselves and the situation only gets worse.”
The men provide for their families by working in the farms around the camp, George says, but they earn just four dinars a day and a doctor’s visit costs 13 dinars.
The Zaatari refugees are almost all non-Christian but also received visits from churches. According to George, they recognised that Christians were alone in caring about them. “They told us that they feel forgotten and that no one asks about them. The only ones who do are people from the churches. One old woman who spoke to us asked the church to continue their visits and not stop.”
Now back in SAT-7’s Cairo studios, George reflected on six intensive days of filming in Jordan. Both the refugees and the commitment of church leaders and volunteers serving them had left an indelible impression.
“We filmed from 8am to 9pm every day,” George says. “Yet, as a crew, we didn’t want to waste any time: we only wanted to hear more of their stories. We were very tired but very enthusiastic.”
Speaking as he edits the footage gathered in Jordan, George says, “There’s a special message in this programme for the viewers: you may not be a refugee but still have feelings of sadness or ingratitude, but when you see their stories, you’ll realise how great God is providing for those refugees not only provisions and shelter but also families and friends.”
If a powerful, loving God will do that for them, then surely, George hints, He will do that for us too.