When Refugees Serve the Church

December 2015 

Over and over again, when everyone else ran for the hills, Sarmad stayed behind until there was nearly no one left to serve. He would not describe it that way, but that seemed to be the essence of how this Iraqi Christian refugee has chosen to live through the recurring nightmare that is the civil wars in Iraq and Syria. Originally from Mosul, in northern Iraq, and like most refugees of these wars of the last decade, Sarmad has been displaced multiple times. “I just thought, wherever we are, we might as well chose to view these circumstances as opportunities”, Sarmad told us recently in a church in Madaba, Jordan. “I tell other refugees that I serve with, that God has us here for a reason and wants us to be active, not sit around passively waiting to be rescued.”

This is easier said than done. Most of the Iraqi and Syrian refugees have fled to either Turkey, Lebanon or Jordan, where Sarmad is now living. Both Lebanon’s and Jordan’s economies were already straining with skyrocketing unemployment before the refugees arrived. Neither country allows the refugees work permits, nor access to local schools.  Aid agencies continually complain of a lack of capacity to meet the refugees’ most basic needs.  Sarmad has shrewdly taken initiative by furthering his education, while serving in local churches. But with depleted savings and very few options, it is easy to see the simple calculations many refugees have made in taking the life-threatening risk of crossing the treacherous Mediterranean Sea to uncertain shores in Europe, in search of a sustainable future.

But why would anyone put their life and the lives of their children in such peril, when it is possible to at least live out of harm’s way as a refugee in Lebanon or Jordan? In fact, circumstances have become so desperate, that in recent months, Jordan has registered more exits than entries across its border with Syria. With little to no opportunities to provide for their families, some opt to gamble with bombs and bullets or erratic sea billows rather than watch their loved ones, slowly but surely, waste away.

The impulse to jump into the abyss becomes easier to imagine, when one considers the harrowing trek that Levon and Ghassan and their families have endured, only to have their hopes for refugee status crushed by the perverse obtuseness of the bureaucratic agency whose role it is to determine these matters. Since first meeting this extended Iraqi Christian family in November 2014, we have learned how they were initially internally displaced in Iraq after the American invasion in 2003, and then repeatedly uprooted and forced to flee, first to Syria, then within Syria with the beginning of their civil war in 2011, then back to Iraq, and after the rise of ISIS, into Jordan in 2014. After approaching the United Nations for refugee status in Syria, they were denied help because of their multiple trips between Syria and Iraq and a recent marriage.  It was determined that their family circumstances did not correspond to the specific United Nations’ definition for a refugee.

None of this would matter if so many Western nations did not require that those applying for immigration as refugees first provide proof of refugee status with the UN. When one considers the huge disparity in the number of Iraqi and Syrian refugees that the United States has accepted as compared with other Western nations, it is difficult for me, as an American, not to feel shame in the face of such poverty of action.  And after witnessing ordinary Christians in the Middle East who are willingly serving refugees in need, it becomes even more embarrassing.

For the Church in countries already inundated with this mass of humanity, like Jordan, there really is no choice but to serve. It simply is not possible to retreat into isolation, neither is fear a viable option. None of the exceptional ministers that we have met in Jordan are naïve about the threat posed by groups like Islamic State.  After our multiple visits to the work in Jordan, this unprecedented refugee crisis has revealed a Jordanian Christian leadership which has been refined and prepared for the great task before them.  Their unheralded, selfless service in the volatile Middle East is a testimony to all of us followers of Jesus.  When I listen to the unbearably acrimonious debates in the West over what policy to take towards the refugees, I am encouraged when I remember Sarmad’s choice to serve with such resilience. The situation is clearly not improving. We are witnessing the slow death of Christianity in Iraq and now, likely, Syria. Sarmad may have to uproot again for the umpteenth time. To hear Sarmad tell his story would cause a listener to lose faith in humanity, yet it is that same story which reminds us of those times when we really trusted God for everything.