Maya* traveled to Lebanon after being wounded by a sniper in her home country of Syria. She came to know Jesus through a local church committed to serving Syrian Muslim refugees. When she asked the church for help for her sick child, the church offered prayer instead.
“When she heard the church say that, she was very put off,” explained Amy*, a worker who befriended Maya. “But after experiencing God heal her child, she was very convinced.”
Now, Maya “has an incredible hunger and thirst for Jesus,” Amy said. She leads other Syrian women in a Bible study group, has won a Bible quiz her church facilitated over social media, and has challenged Lebanese believers to explore their own faith more. One day in church, the pastor mentioned the Psalms. Maya flipped open her Bible and turned to the passage. Then, she showed a Lebanese woman sitting behind her where to find the verses. A year later, that women told Maya her eagerness for the Word had inspired her to go deeper with God.
"Dallas Willard described the Gospel as 'trusting all of Jesus with all of me,'” Amy said. “And I think, given how complicated Maya’s life is, she exhibits that more than anyone I know.” She still has physical and legal needs, though. Life as a Muslim background believer (MBB) refugee in Lebanon is not easy.
“I have such joy and peace in the midst of these trials because of Jesus, and I just want to know why wasn’t there anyone to tell me about Jesus in Syria,” Maya told Amy.
Karim*, another Syrian living in Lebanon, had been working for a charity in Syria when his leg was wounded by a bomb. He arrived to Lebanon, and the taxi dropped him off in front of a church. He went into the church, got to know people inside, and they really welcomed him, explained long-term worker Mary*.
“He saw the love that people showed him, so he started to come to church every Sunday.” After a year and a half, he brought his wife and children with him to services, and two years after arriving in Lebanon, Karim believed in Jesus.
“In his own society, no one really stood by him,” Mary said. “The first time Karim saw unconditional love was in the church... Then he discovered, it’s not the Lebanese, but it’s God working through them.”
Living in Syria, Nadine* had only heard a little about Jesus here and there from an uncle in Lebanon. When the war started, Nadine and her family went to Lebanon to live with him. Immediately, her uncle began sharing more about Jesus, and a local church invited Nadine to attend its teenage Bible study group.
“Everything she heard, she started to live and was really convinced about it, that Jesus was the right way for her,” Mary described. “Nadine started to read the Bible and pray and get more and more involved with church. She’d sometimes lead her younger siblings to pray and read the Bible, too.”
After a couple years, Nadine’s family moved to Turkey, where she was baptised. But Nadine’s stay in Lebanon was crucial to her change of beliefs, Mary noted: “If the war hadn’t happened, she wouldn’t have come to Lebanon and had the opportunity spend time with believers.”
Today, it’s almost impossible to figure out exactly how many Syrian refugees live in Lebanon.
In September 2014, the UNHCR recorded nearly 1.2 million Syrian refugees in the country. Eight months later, the Lebanese government suspended new registrations.
Officially, Lebanon still hosts around 1.1 million Syrian refugees—one of every five people in the country, Amnesty International reported. “But everybody, including government officials, says that the numbers are far more than that,” NGO director and OM worker Ben* said.
The UNHCR’s 2016 statistics reflected the hundred thousand people who have travelled, seeking asylum in Europe, Canada, Australia and elsewhere. However, the records do not show the new wave of refugees who have illegally entered Lebanon following continuing conflict in Syria.
Across the country, Syrian refugees have transformed many unfinished buildings and agricultural areas into temporary homes, though the majority of Syrian refugees live in one of four regions: near the northern city of Tripoli, in the greater Beirut area, in south Lebanon and in the Bekaa Valley.
According to a network of around 40 ministries and organisations serving refugees in the Bekaa Valley, 2,381 informal camps have cropped up in the fertile but exposed plain between the Anti-Lebanon mountains bordering Syria and the western Mount Lebanon Range.
Even registered refugees struggle to survive. “The UN’s 2015 humanitarian appeal for Syrian refugees was just 61% funded by the end of the year. Funding shortages mean that the most vulnerable Syrian refugees in Lebanon receive just $21.60 per person [per] month or around US$0.70 cent a day for food assistance, well below the UN’s poverty line of US$1.90,” Amnesty International’s website stated (3 February 2016).
Ben, who regularly visits refugee families described the situation as “quite desperate. There’s a lot of domestic violence going on in the camps. People are under an immense amount of stress and they’re traumatised by what they’ve seen happen. Most people that we’ve talked to, they want to go home, they don’t want to immigrate. They’re just waiting it out so they can get back. People are very discouraged, there’s not a lot of hope.”
Food, housing, education and employment remain critical needs for Syrian refugees in Lebanon, but Lebanese government officials have blocked integration initiatives, warning that the refugees’ continued presence in Lebanon could lead to economic, environmental and national security threats.
As a result, “refugees are exploited,” OM’s Near East Field Leader explained. “They’re vulnerable, so local business people hire them for way below going labour rates. In addition, refugees often struggle to stay here legally, so there’s widespread employment of teenage boys at a conscious below market labour value, almost for free, in order to provide legal status for the father.” Young Syrian women are often forced into marriage or are at risk for prostitution and human trafficking because their families cannot afford to take care of them, he added.
Churches and Christian NGOs, for the most part, have little say in these legal justice issues. However, many have stepped up their practical relief efforts in Lebanon. “When it comes to evangelical groups, everyone I’ve talked to is running at full capacity,” Ben said. But for every family receiving help, many more are still waiting. Every feeding and schooling program has a “huge long list,” he noted.
Operation Mobilisation’s (OM) Syrian and Iraqi Relief fund has assisted eight ongoing projects – including food packs, hygiene kits, winterisation support, education, medical outreaches and development initiatives – specifically for Syrian refugees in Lebanon, amounting to approximately USD $30,000 per month in 2016. OM has also provided training and resources for local partners involved in administering aid.
Several Lebanese churches, in addition to distributing practical aid to Syrian refugees have also opened their sanctuary doors to those seeking eternal hope. Many provide transportation to weekly services; others have started Bible study groups for Syrians. Two churches focused on raising up MBBs as leaders saw over 50 MBBs trained and equipped to facilitate new groups over a 12-month period.
With refugees in Lebanon coming and going, “I don’t think the physical pressure of refugees in the country has changed, but it has affected [churches] as we’ve invested in long-term refugees who have come to faith. They’re the ones who have worked their way through the lists and travelled,” Ben explained. One church raised up 20 MBB leaders in 2015, but eight have since left Lebanon.
Pray for more labourers “to go and share this new hope,” Ben said. “When the gospel does go into a home, the transformation is quite amazing.”
“It’s a big ask,” Amy admitted. “Arabic isn’t easy.” However, to share Jesus with Syrian refugees, speaking their heart language is critical.
“There is an overwhelming need for refugees to have their eyes open to Jesus and what He can do,” Ben’s wife, Camille*, emphasised.
For the everyday, Syrian refugees need ways to work. “When you’re talking five years in, you’re not talking relief any more, you’re talking development,” Amy explained. “The practical needs are also long-term. They’re education; they’re skills development; they’re work opportunities.”
Nicole James is a journalist, ESL teacher, and adventurer. As a writer for OM International, she’s passionate about publishing the stories of God’s works among the nations, telling people about the wonderful things He is doing in the world.