Stories of Hope: Homs, Hope, and Homes
by Julie Prescott Burgess
It was November, 2014, and a small group of American Presbyterians had traveled to Syria with The Outreach Foundation to be with our Syrian brothers and sisters. We arrived in Homs that day, not long after it had been liberated from the extremists who held it for more than two years, destroying buildings and lives. Coming from the Midwest, we see pictures of destroyed places regularly on the news during tornado season. Yet I had never seen anything like this. Block after block, street after street, five-, six- and seven-story buildings lay in heaps of broken and pancaked concrete. Homes. Businesses. Hotels. Mosques. Churches. Nothing was spared. How does a city go about rebuilding when seemingly nothing is left and most of its population had fled elsewhere? This was the picture that would be in the dictionary illustrating the word hopeless.
And yet in those first months after the siege, there were signs of life. People had begun to trickle back into the Old City where we walked in the broken places visiting historic churches, including Maronite, Syriac, Orthodox and finally to the Presbyterian church of Homs. We walked past army and security checkpoints, past brightly painted and inspiring graffiti, and past little snack stands that had sprouted up knowing at least that there was someone who might buy a package of nuts or a can of soda.
Meeting the clergy at the various churches and hearing prayer and song in ancient languages rising in the midst of dust and debris through cavernous holes in walls and roofs, there was a tender shoot of hope that made itself apparent that day. It was hard to believe that hope could be in Homs. Yet there it was.
I have since returned with The Outreach Foundation to Homs twice, in April, 2016 and January of this year. What I have discovered is the small sprig of hope has grown into something larger and is beginning to blossom. The little Presbyterian church, minority of minorities in this majority Muslim nation, had a vision: To bring life back into the city. To do so, they needed places for people to live. In a major effort, they surveyed the homes of their congregation members. They prioritized 40 that could be rebuilt or renovated, allowing people to return home to Homs. They shared that vision with Presbyterian brothers and sisters in the U.S., and with gifts from The Outreach Foundation and Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, 40 homes have been renewed!
In the book of Hebrews we read, “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.” (10:23), and “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (11:1) Standing in the home of Najwa Kachich, an elder of the Presbyterian church, it is impossible not to see those scriptures lived out. Najwa was the first of the Homs Presbyterians to return to the old city to see what had become of her home, and to declare that she would live there again. Sitting in her lovely flat, it was hard to imagine the loss she had experienced. She told us that ISIS had forced her to leave and they occupied her place for almost two years. As they left, they stole what they hadn’t already destroyed– everything was gone. All the doors, the windows and the shutters were broken or burned, along with the furniture. She had lived there with her elderly sister and brother, but all the mementos of life were gone. Her brother passed away before she returned to her renovated home, burdening her with more loss. But as we sat with her and heard her story of hope and the conviction of what could not be seen, we knew where her hope came from. She reminded us that this renewal was only possible with God. He who promised was faithful!
Not far away from Najwa’s home is the home of the Nusry family, also members of the Homs church. Jabra lives there now with peace and light: his wife Salam (peace) and daughter Noor (light). Jabra is a dental technician and his lab was on the floor beneath their home. As ISIS came into Homs, he sent his family away where they could be safe. To protect the investment in his business, he made several trips with his bicycle to move his lab equipment out of Homs. After three and a half years of displacement, they returned to find the same state of destruction that had faced Najwa. All the furniture had been burned for fuel by extremists, and there were two large holes in the ceiling. A large water cistern had been set up in the bedroom and the holes acted as a vent as the water was heated by burning the furniture. Salam spent many hours doing repairs with the funds that were provided by the church. In her words, “I avoided despair because my hope is in Jesus, not in other people. When I was at a loss, I prayed that we would return. We suffered pain and humiliation, but I always had hope that God in his time would let us return home. God was holding my hand.”
We all gathered together for a photo on the balcony of this now restored home, with Salam’s prayer held tight in our hearts: “Pray for our enemies. May God come into their lives.” That is the prayer of a faithful woman whose hope is in the Lord. Behind us on that balcony were blooming plants to brighten that small space in an urban landscape. I couldn’t help but think of that small sprig of hope – now blooming! – that I had first glimpsed nearly three years before. Yes, hope can be found in Homs.
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Julie Prescott Burgess is a member of West Hills Presbyterian Church, Omaha, Nebraska and a frequent traveler with The Outreach Foundation. Julie has a passion for meeting with and encouraging members of the vulnerable church, especially in places like Syria and Iraq.