“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’” Matthew 25:35-40 (NIV)
Today, December 18, is International Migrants Day. This is a day to recognize the needs and rights of migrants, including refugees, around the world and to commit to a compassionate and holistic response so that no one is left behind. It seems fitting that this day falls on the fourth Sunday of Advent when we light the candle of love.
As you read through the Syrian refugee stories from the children and families pictured below, remember the Christmas story: a young couple with a baby on the way were on the run, in need of shelter and safety. With nowhere to turn, an innkeeper gave them the only space he had left — the barn. From these humble beginnings as a refugee, we get our savior, Jesus Christ. God’s love for us is evident when considering the story of Christ’s birth, and I cannot help but believe God’s love for refugees and those in need is evident in this story too.
“‘When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” Leviticus 19:33-34, NIV
Looking for Dad: Noor’s refugee story
Noor’s father has yet to see his 1-year-old son. He missed the boy’s first smile, first word, first steps. Kenaz, Noor’s mother, is hoping she’ll soon be able to introduce her husband to his beautiful boy and reunite their family. Noor’s sisters, Layel, 3, and Salaam, 9, watch out for their baby brother, and so do members of the two other families that are traveling with them.
When Hamad, a young, single man in their group, drops down to sit cross-legged in a shady spot, Noor comes over to climb in his lap and lean back on his chest. As Syrian refugee families face common problems, share information — as vital as water to the refugee, and perhaps harder to find — they discover affinities and sometimes develop deep bonds of trust like this group. While the children play around them and they watch other families boarding buses to go to the Croatian border, they talk about what they’ll do and where they’ll go next. Two families want to go to Germany. But Kenaz longs to reach Sweden, where her husband has been working to pay their way. From Damascus to Stockholm is more than 3,000 miles, but they’ve endured and are well on the way. Now that the three families have made it this far, there’s no turning back. It’s hard for them to accept that they’ve no alternative but to get on a bus that will backtrack and add many miles to their journey.
Early childhood education: Amani’s story
Amani, along with her husband and two children, Rami,3, and Baylasan, 1 year and 3 months, fled from their home in Syria when militants took over the area about six months ago. They are now in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon. “Rami always cried before when he saw a plane; he was afraid of bombs,” Amani says. “Now he knows the planes won’t hurt him.”
Rami attends an Early Childhood Education program in the afternoons. “He loves it. Every day he hurries to make sure he won’t miss the bus,” says his mother. “He’s learning how to read. He likes to play games and write. He’s memorized all the songs and sings them when he comes home.” The activities have instilled discipline and manners. “It’s opened his mind. He’ll be ready to go to school,” she says proudly. Amani attends an Early Childhood Development class at the same center where Rami studies. She’s learned ways to reinforce his lessons and provide a secure, encouraging environment for both of her children.
Hoping for education: Mo’s refugee story
Still smiling and optimistic about his chances of reaching Germany, Syrian refugee Mo Aziz, 24, and five relatives boarded a bus in Serbia on Thursday evening at the Horgos border crossing between Serbia and Hungary. But Hungary closed the border the night before they were able to cross. A bus to Croatia became the family’s fallback plan, in effect their only hope of going forward.
There’s no way to know whether Mo Aziz and his family made it across. One thing is certain: for Mo Aziz and his family, there’s no turning back to Syria. “Life has stopped there,” he says. Mo Aziz completed two years of study at a university in Deir ez-Zor, Syria. Despite intense fighting in the city — Syria’s seventh largest and the home to several universities, according to Mo — classes continued. At the same time, armed forces attacked and took control of different parts of the city. “We had to leave,” he says. His lively eyes dart about in a thin, and lightly bearded face as he talks about his dreams. “I want to get my degree and be a teacher,” he says. “I want to teach English to children.”
Now, more than anything, he wants to reach Germany to enroll in a university. In the meantime, his English fluency became a lifeline for other refugees who only spoke Arabic. At Horgos, while he still had hope for passage through Hungary, Mo Aziz was pressed into service as an interpreter between Arabic-speaking refugees and English-speaking medics at a medical tent set up by Golgata, the European association of Calvary Chapel, a fellowship of evangelical churches. Nobody knows what the next days, weeks and even months may hold. Mo Aziz may be soon standing in another medical tent in another makeshift camp beside another elderly woman who says in Arabic, “I am hurting, please talk for me.” Croatia, if they made it there, could be just another step in his journey.
Still missing home: Hani’s refugee story
“I’ve been here for six months now,” says 8-year-old Hani, a Syrian refugee living in Lebanon. “We used to have a big house and my uncle lived on the second floor and my cousin Khalil* bought a bike one day, and I bought my bike the second day. After that, we started playing on our bikes,” Hani remembers.
Now that he is in Lebanon, Hani’s life has changed. He doesn’t live in his house or have his bike to play with, his friends and cousins are no longer near him. They were sleeping when the first bombs started going off — the earth was trembling. “We were there playing and they started bombing. We heard the sound of the missile… We didn’t know it was going to hit here. The electricity went off.” His cousin Yusuf* and his uncle went down to fix it but they got electrocuted. Hani’s uncle managed to escape but Yusuf* was killed because an electricity cable was on the floor and the floor was wet. “We fled our house and the rockets were still coming. The next day we went to see our place. It was destroyed…My cousins Hakim* and Khalil* were in the house when the rocket came. God protected them.”
Those in Hani’s family who were left alive decided it was time to leave after seeing too many family members injured and killed in their own homes. “The family was divided. Half of our family went to Jordan and then the other half came here to Lebanon.” While he doesn’t experience war in Lebanon, Hani misses the life he knew. “My home back in Syria is better. Here, it’s unfinished, and it’s broken. Back in Syria it was beautiful… I’ve forgotten my bicycle. I’ve forgotten all my toys. I’ve forgotten my computer. They’re gone now. They’re pieces.” *names changed to protect identities
A house to rival the moon: Sara’s story
“Our house was the best in our town,” says Sara*, 14. “You could remove the moon and put the house in its place. It was really beautiful,” she remembers. “But, it got bombed. Before the war started nothing worried me. Everything was okay.” One day, armed men came into the house to arrest people. They started shooting. “I was afraid for all of our lives. They wanted to come into our house and kill us and do the genocide here in our house. It was not a life… I was afraid that we could never escape Syria.”
They were staying at Sara’s grandparents’ house when the shooting started. “When we were running away the bullets were underneath our legs. But God protected us — nothing happened to our family.” Sara feared for her life. “My dad was kidnapped… They ran over him and then they shot him and then burned him. I didn’t see my father die… They told my mother. But I heard. I was devastated.”
Her family left Syria around 6 A.M. wearing blue jeans and a pink shirt; Sara didn’t take anything with her other than clothes, a watch, and a photo album. “I’ve got them with me. I love them because the photo album has pictures of me and my father and siblings, and the watch was a present from my father.” Here siblings, mother, and extended family all share tents. “A lot [is different here]! It’s hot. There, we had a home. Here there’s no money to buy a ventilation system.”
Though life is difficult in Lebanon, Sara loves English and mathematics. “I love to learn because I want to be a judge when I’m older.” Sara misses her home but knows she is safer in Lebanon. “It’s a bit better than Syria. There’s no bombing, there are no rockets, there’s nothing here.” *names have been changed for protection
School for my daughter: A Syrian family’s story
They arrived by taxi at what everyone is calling “the highway border crossing,” a man, his wife, and an 8-month-old baby. Theirs has been a 17-day journey so far. But what they hoped to be the entrance to a new life seems instead a dead end. The border between Serbia and Hungary is closed, there’s no discernible place for them to go, and Serbian authorities are telling them there’s no place here to stay.
World Vision staff who’ve just walked from another border crossing nearby, say “Come with us,” and find that he not only understands, he asks, “Where?” Between an apple orchard and a walnut grove where Syrian refugees have been sleeping, there’s a path to another border crossing. This crossing has been closed, too, from the Hungarian side, but refugees are gathering in a field nearby, next to the newly-built razor wire fence that separates Hungary from Serbia.
As they walk the path, he tells their story. “We are from Damascus,” he says, and the friends who came with them are from Aleppo. They had waited until the baby was old enough to travel. But finally, they couldn’t delay any longer. “There is no future for Rashnee, my daughter, in Syria,” he says. “No life, no school. She must have these things.” They paid their way, but the journey was dangerous and stressful. When they crossed from Turkey to Greece in a small open boat, they feared they would wash overboard. A strap-on baby carrier was swept away by the waves, along with some other items. He has two sleeping bags hanging off his pack of provisions. This won’t be the first night they’ve made camp on the ground. “We will not depend on anyone but ourselves,” he says. “All we need is for a country to let us in, nothing else.” © 2015 World Vision/ photo by Laura Reinhardt
God’s love is so great that he gave his only son for all of us. This International Migrants Day, remember those, who like Jesus, Joseph, and Mary, are in need of shelter, safety, warmth, and love.
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” John 13:34-35 NIV
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Photo: Fatma looks after her four granddaughters, Sabin, Natalia, Shahad, and Rimass, who were orphaned two years ago when a jet dropped a bomb on their parents’ car in Syria. They now live in a refugee camp in Lebanon and struggle to survive as an all-female household. © 2015 World Vision/ photo by Jo Currie