Lebanon/Syria Day 4: Love Never Ends

Marshall Zieman, for the team

“Love never ends.”  1 Corinthians 13:8

After spending yesterday with the local church in Tripoli, Lebanon, on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, today we headed over the snowy mountain pass east of Beirut into the Bekaa Valley, the breadbasket of the country, to the city of Zahle, near the border with Syria. Today’s visit focused on refugee children. We were able to interact directly with Muslim children and families who have fled their homes from ISIS in Syria and found lifesaving refuge among the Christian community in Zahle.

Near Zahle, in the village of Kab Elias, the National Evangelical (Presbyterian) Synod of Syria and Lebanon has converted its former school building into a school for refugee children. When I visited this place in 2013, the idea at that time was to use it as housing for refugees fleeing nearby Syria. Since then, the United Nations has provided for refugee camps nearby, and so the Synod instead has wonderfully chosen to turn the old school back into a school, but this time for refugee children. The Synod now has now opened six schools in Lebanon for refugee children. Many churches and individuals have contributed to the renovation and supervision of these schools, including the church I serve in Omaha.

As we entered the school we were serenaded by the children who had been waiting for us to arrive. With a mix of Christmas and children’s songs, it was easy to feel the joy and love that abides within these walls.

Now in its third year, the Kab Elias refugee school currently has 110 students, ages 4-13, most of whom are from Sunni Muslim families living in the camps nearby. Eight teachers instruct the normal Syrian curriculum of Arabic, science, math, and social ethics. They also teach English from the Lebanese curriculum. My favorite part of the day was sitting in class with little children who were learning to read. I squeezed into one of their desks and could almost see the wheels turning in their heads. What a gift to be among children as they learn! I wanted to stay all day and learn Arabic with them! For these families, all thoughts of schooling were abandoned as they fled places in Syria like Daraa, Aleppo, Idlib, and Raqaa. And now, thanks to many caring and talented Presbyterians in Lebanon and Syria, with the support of Presbyterians worldwide, little lives and minds are being shaped and formed. The Spirit of Jesus was truly palpable.

Besides the curriculum, these children are learning about respect and behavior as they develop their communication skills. The school’s director, Ramak Abboud, is a pastor’s wife whose family comes from Syria. Ramak explained to us that it is heartening to see that changes in the children’s behavior are noted by their parents. Ramak’s teacher’s heart was obvious as she exclaimed, “These children could have been lost in the streets and camps.”

Bible stories are told at school, with the goal that these Muslim families know and understand who Christians are and what we believe. The refugee parents don’t object. One parent told Ramak, “We’ve been treated like animals until we were helped by these Christians.” Ramak noted the Apostle Paul’s words from 1 Corinthians 13, in the great chapter about love, “Love never ends.” This echoes the Synod’s motto, “Showing God’s Love through Service.”

After visiting the school, we met with Riad and Izdihar Kassis, longtime servants of Christ and friends of The Outreach Foundation. Riad is a theologian and author who for many years has headed up the John R.W. Stott Langham Scholars Program which supports Christian Ph.D. students all over the world.

Izdihar is an artist with a creative mind and the love of God in her heart. Already with a passion to serve the needy in Lebanon, as the war in Syria began and refugees began pouring into Zahle, she saw the needs of the refugees which the nearby camps were not able to meet. Izdihar and the organization she founded, Together for the Family, offer a host of activities and programs to support infants, children, and young mothers.

Today we visited the little campus of four temporary buildings which Izdihar rents on some land near a refugee camp. She has created a learning center for children from the refugee camps who are not able to attend the local schools. While also providing Kindergarten, computer, and music classes, the highlight of today’s visit was meeting six participants of the twenty-four member sewing class. These women are learning to sew baby blankets, pajamas and uniforms, and create beautiful table runners and fabric decorations. Right now they are preparing for an exhibition of their creations. The goal of this ministry is to train these women in a future means of employment, and upon completion of the course, each woman is awarded with her own sewing machine.

Many of these women fled with their families to Zahle from the areas around Aleppo, leaving behind death and destruction. Most came walking, crossing the mountains. They never expected their lives to become this hard. Izdihar’s ministry has become so valued and appreciated by these women that one of the young moms recently named her new baby Izdihar!

So today we thank God for those who run and supply the refugee camps here, and to strong, creative women like Izdihar who not only care about these women and children, but have had the courage to do something about it. This is the definition of compassion in the Bible from the Good Samaritan – you feel bad for someone’s predicament, but you don't stop there – you DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT.

God’s love never fails and never ends, and it is our task and privilege to show God’s love in tangible, even lifesaving, ways. We clearly saw this today.

Rev. Dr. Marshall Zieman
Presbyterian Church of the Cross, Omaha, Nebraska