Stories of Gratitude: Shukran!
It is beautiful here in the mountain town of Dhour Choueir where the temperature is noticeably cooler than in Beirut and the scenery is absolutely breathtaking. It is easy to look out at the serene peaceful scene that is the green lush mountains of Lebanon and forget for a moment why we are here.
But very soon, the chatter and laughter of women break the spell and I am drawn back towards the women we came to meet. Groups of women, arriving by the carload, coming from churches from all over Syria, some having traveled for 15 hours or more to arrive here in this place of retreat.
Today our team had the privilege of greeting 80 women from the Presbyterian churches in Syria and ten more from churches in Lebanon. Many risked much to leave their families at home to make the trek, each with her own story to share and some with stories of the worst tragedies you can imagine. Many of them share heartbreaking stories, yet all with some element of joy, even in the midst of unimaginable circumstances of war.
It takes asking a new friend only a simple question, like “where are you from” to begin to understand the complexity of life here in this region of the Middle East. One woman, Nisryn, has lived in Paris for more than a decade to study and work as a pharmacist. When I met her today, she was eagerly waiting the arrival of her mother from Aleppo, a town in the northern region of Syria. She has not seen her mother, Nawal, in over four years. Aleppo was a city of two million people before the war. It has been largely destroyed by war, with only about 1/3 of people still living there. As the afternoon went by, Nisryn’s mother did not arrive at the expected time, and Nisryn began to worry. She soon received word that her mother’s van was being held at the border, along with another car full of women from the town of Mhardeh (also in northern Syria). We could feel the anxiety building in Nisryn as the conference start time arrived without her mother and several other women present.
We gathered for coffee on the terrace as the welcome reception. I was introduced to a woman named Samiha Eliya. When I asked her “where are you from,” her eyes welled with tears as she told me she is from Malikia in northern Syria, where her husband remains this week. She told me about attacks on their city that led them to send all four of their children to refuge. Now three of her children live in Sweden and her son lives in Switzerland. Their flight was done at great cost to their family. Samiha’s only daughter will be married in Sweden this September, but it is likely she will not be able to attend the wedding – her only daughter’s wedding. This saddens her deeply and those of us present feel the grief Samiha is experiencing. In light of her grief, being away from my own young children and husband for a week doesn’t seem like such a hardship, though I miss them terribly.
There are other stories we’ve been told by the women we’ve met. A young female theology student recently graduated from seminary has returned to minister in her home church in northeast Syria, after her very own cousin was killed there a year ago in a brutal raid by insurgents. Many in her family encouraged her to move to Canada upon graduation. But she hears God calling her to stay in Syria. And so she faithfully returns home to serve her community.
These are only some of the stories I’ve heard, and I know there are more to come this week. May we be ready to receive them, no matter how difficult it is to hear them and share the tears as they are told to us. They comprise only a small part of “the Syrian people” we read about in news articles at home. Each woman is a real person. Each has a name. Each has a story. Each has children, family and friends like you and me. They have been ripped apart physically, emotionally, geographically. And yet they each have a faith stronger than I’ve ever seen.
I have started writing down the names of these faithful women of God. They deserve to be prayed for. Their families deserve to be prayed for. Their lost loved ones deserve to be remembered.
After dinner tonight, a van pulled up with Nisryn’s mother and several other women from the church in Aleppo. They were delivered safely to us in the peaceful mountain retreat center of Dhour Choueir, and a joyful reunion between Nisryn and her mother Nawal was witnessed by us all. As I write this, at midnight, we are still waiting for the car from Mhardeh to safely arrive.
In the midst of all the tragedy and fear, the women came together earlier tonight to worship and praise. In the spontaneous prayers I heard – all in Arabic – the word I heard repeated over and over again was one of the few words I know in Arabic. Shukran. Thank you.
Whatever we may know, whatever we may believe, we have so much to learn through the faithfulness and joy of the church in Syria and Lebanon. For the women who have shared their stories with me, I am grateful. Shukran.
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Peachtree Presbyterian Church