The child in the photo above is one of the 50 who gather around colorful plastic tables each morning to color, practice spelling words, and play—in other words, to be children.
As my co-worker, Karim, ANM’s Middle East director, showed me this and other photos, he told me about the ministry in southern Lebanon that had opened its doors to Syrian refugees, inviting the children to this makeshift school in their basement. I thought of my own children, 5 and 6 years old.
Some of these Syrian children haven’t attended school in more than a year. For others, this school routine has already become their new normal. Many of the clothes they wear are donations from the ministry. Twice a week the rooms become a dining hall for the children and their families.
Some of these children fled their hometowns with their families seven years ago when the Syrian civil war started. They’ve grown up here, as strangers in a strange land. At night, they sleep in tents in refugee camps or, if their parents have found work, possibly in rented dwellings.
The Syrian conflict has dispersed about 12 million people from their homes: half becoming refugees in other countries, half displaced within Syria. Lebanon has received more than 1 million Syrian refugees, one sixth the size of its native population.
As a former teacher, married to a former teacher, I can’t say that our American schools are all adequately resourced and teachers adequately compensated. Yet it’s amazing how many resources we do deploy for the sake of our children and their education. I was in my daughter’s classroom a few weeks ago. Tables, chairs, crayons, butterfly house, sink, bathroom, whiteboard, smartboard, books, two teachers, parent volunteers, a safe school building, a playground—they are equipped for learning and growing. Because they are ours.
These kids Karim told me about—in the minds of most locals, they are definitively not ours. They are strangers and aliens—burdens upon the resources of a community that is not wealthy by any stretch of the word.
Somehow, though, this one group of Lebanese believers hasn’t bought into that mindset—the belief that we just take care of our own and protect ourselves against those who might deplete our resources or deprive us of our opportunities. They see themselves as instruments to bring hope and opportunity to these suffering people coming into their country.
Other refugees you may know
Not too far from the basement in Lebanon, the Hebrew people escaped the country they had inhabited for 400 years, and entered a strange land to become the people of God.
As God instructed them how to live as a holy people, this was one of the commands: “Love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:19). Foreigner, stranger, sojourner, resident alien—all these terms in the Old Testament mean someone who lives here but doesn’t belong here, an “other” in our midst. God reminded them, you used to be aliens in a strange land. Remember how it felt, and help foreigners get on their feet.
If we ignore refugee populations, or if we look at them as someone else’s problem, we not only forsake something of our humanity, we forget our collective past. Our ancestors in the faith were like these Syrians, migrants in a conflict-ridden world.
There’s something deeper than that too, and maybe it should even be more compelling to us: the almighty God, who owns everything (Deuteronomy 10:14–15), chose this small remnant of a people, stuck in a foreign country, and brought them forcefully out into another land to be a light to the nations. God chose this refugee people to do something extraordinary in the world.
Deuteronomy 10:22 says, “Your ancestors went down to Egypt seventy persons; and now the Lord your God has made you as numerous as the stars in heaven.” Squeezed between the domineering kingdoms of the ancient near east, the migrant people of Israel became a light among the nations because God chose them for it.
Henry Blackaby famously advised Christians wanting to experience God to, “Find out where God is at work and join Him there.” God’s hand is at work among refugees in Lebanon—and other places around the world. If we perceive them as an unwelcome burden, we fail to recognize the hand of God among the nations.
A worldwide crisis
We are in the midst of the largest global migration of peoples since World War II. More than 68 million individuals are fleeing, resettling, or attempting to settle in new places because of war, civil unrest, ethnic violence, and other disturbances.
Syria may be the bloody center of the global crisis, but it extends to places like Myanmar, where the majority population strives to cleanse the country of a despised minority, and Venezuela, where food shortages and other economic disruptions have the population clamoring for basic necessities and security.
Most responses to the plights of the displaced are about short-term relief and basic physical necessities: food, water, healthcare, and temporary shelter.
Yet the needs go beyond daily provisions. The truth is that refugees and migrants experience total dislocation of their communities and support networks when forced to leave their homes. And half the refugees in the world today have spent four or more years in exile. Imagine subsisting on food distributions in camps, eking out an existence as foreigners on the margins of society in host countries, unable to go home and unwelcome in day-to-day life—for four years. What kind of life is that?
June 24 is Refugee Sunday. Advancing Native Missions has launched a campaign to help us as Christians re-focus on scriptural messages, discover God’s heart for refugees, and become aware of our responsibility — our opportunity — to act on behalf of refugees and displaced persons worldwide. God is at work in these places, just as He is in southern Lebanon. Let’s not miss out.