How do you cope with living through the war in Syria? Denial helps.
“Most live in false hope,” says Fares, a Christian nongovernmental organization worker originally from Aleppo, who visits Syria every month to support the church there.
“You want to encourage each other, even though you know this hope is not real. There are always promises – ‘this is the last month’ or ‘this is the last week of war’ people say. It is the opposite – it’s getting worse and worse.”
The pressure on families in Syria is intense. When they go their separate ways in the morning, they don’t know if it will be for the last time.
Electricity and drinking water are luxuries; you’re lucky to get an hour of each a week. Basic living is a luxury, too. A family of five needs to earn 200,000 Syrian pounds every month. The average monthly salary currently is 30,000 pounds.
A Christian part of the city of Homs that Fares knows well used to have 80,000 families living there. Now there are only 50.
“It has become a city of ghosts,” Fares says. “Everything is ruined.”
With European countries feeling overwhelmed by the number of refugees arriving, can the West cope with the biggest humanitarian crisis since World War II?
What about the attacks in Paris and Brussels and the threat that terrorists may travel with refugees?
Some of the fears Europeans have about refugees and migrants are more real to Christians in Lebanon.
The so-called Islamic State has been active in the north of the country, and two suicide bombers attacked a Shia district of Beirut last November and killed 43 people.
Lebanon’s way of life is being challenged by the sheer number of refugees living there, who now make up around 25 percent of the total population.
The education system cannot cope; more than 200,000 Syrian children do not have a place in school. The troubled history between the two countries does not make the situation any easier, and mistrust abounds on both sides.
And yet, despite this, God is leading many Lebanese Christians to help those in desperate need on their doorsteps.
Pastor Jihad, who leads a church in the Bekaa Valley that BMS World Mission helped to found, says that God has changed Lebanese Christians’ attitudes to the refugees from across the border.
“We were hesitant at first because the Syrians were our enemies and we had a bad history with them; they occupied our land for 30 years and killed a lot of people,” Pastor Jihad says. “But God’s grace turned the hatred and anger in our hearts into love for these people. Now we are serving them with love.”
Some Syrian refugees are finding the cost of living in countries like Lebanon, where they are not legally allowed to work, too hard.
They are joining thousands of other refugees and migrants making the perilous journey to countries like Greece and Italy by paying smugglers to get on flimsy boats to cross the Mediterranean.
Sam took the journey in Christmas 2015. He had not planned to come to Europe at all. He escaped persecution in Nigeria and ended up in a detention center after going to Libya in search of work.
In detention, he saw horrific things, which ultimately drove him to break out and make the dangerous journey to Italy. And it certainly was dangerous; a few hours into his journey, the rubber dinghy he was on began to sink.
Sam was in the water for four hours, people treading water around him crying, praying and dying. Amid this horror, he felt led to sing the Christian chorus, “Count Your Blessings, Name Them One by One.”
“If I am going to die, I am going to count my blessings,” he said. That night in the sea, he recommitted his life to Christ and that was when he was picked up by a rescue ship.
He is now living in Italy, in the southern port city of Reggio Calabria, and attending the church run by BMS workers Ann and David MacFarlane.
Ann says that the sheer number of refugees and migrants arriving into Reggio Calabria and other ports in southern Italy is overwhelming.
“Our streets are absolutely full of people begging, literally on every corner, every traffic light, everywhere,” she says. “They are waiting for documents and the bureaucracy here: there is a real feeling of hopelessness.”
Unemployment in Reggio Calabria is incredibly high. Ann says that most of the people in her church are poor. But despite this, they are doing all they can to help migrants and refugees.
“The generosity of people has been quite overwhelming,” she says. “They have been very welcoming, doing everything they can. You are seeing at first-hand human misery. As a Christian, you can’t close your eyes to it.”
Feeling part of a community is something for which refugees are desperate.
Many who get to Europe are struggling without it, says Martin Accad, director of the Institute of Middle East Studies (IMES) at BMS partner Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut.
“The role of the church in the West should be offering community and spiritual, emotional, psychological and recreational support to refugees,” he says.
Accad is advocating that churches set up focus groups in order to better understand the situation that refugees have come from and how best to support their needs.
He then recommends reaching out to these refugees, believing it will dispel a lot of the fears that Christians have.
He fully acknowledges the fear that many have of ISIS and terrorism but is concerned that keeping refugees out will make the situation worse, not better.
“If today we are afraid of the Syrian refugees, we close our doors and are inhospitable and allow them to settle in ghetto-like communities, then in 10 years’ time we might have hundreds of extremists who have felt rejected, wounded and, having already seen so much violence, become perpetrators of violence in Western society,” he says. “To be honest, that is one of my worries, that the fears that some have will become self-fulfilling prophecies if the church is not very intentional about countering that narrative.
“It is our calling as church to practice hospitality,” Accad added. “Fear is the greatest enemy of hospitality.”
Chris Hall is the editor of BMS World Mission’s Engage magazine. A longer version of this article first appeared in the Summer 2016 edition of Engage and is used with permission. You can follow Hall on Twitter @chrishallnewb and BMS @BMSWorldMission.