Hope for Syrian Students - November 2018 Update

Syria and Lebanon

They were expecting forty-five refugee children this year at the school in Tripoli. When they reached one hundred and twenty-five, they had to stop enrollment as their resources were at capacity….

In 2015 with more than 1.2 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon (60% of those were of school age) the National Evangelical Synod [Presbyterian] Synod of Syria and Lebanon came up with a vision: open a school for 200 of these refugee children and offer them the Syrian curriculum so that they could both build upon their previous education and be prepared to return to their “normal schools” once the war was over. The Synod was not a novice in the field of education, as they have operated schools in Lebanon for over 150 years. Two refugee schools were opened in the Beqaa Valley where vast tent cities of refugees had been formed. Another one would evolve north of Beirut in Minyara, and a fourth was needed south of the capital in Tyre. There are now six of these ministry sites and when the Synod opened all those schools for this academic year they thanked God that they had been entrusted with the lives of more than 650 children. All of these schools are under the direct supervision and guidance of a local Presbyterian church and its pastor, by the way.

In Tripoli not far from the Syrian border, the Rev. Rola Sleiman, who happens to be the first Presbyterian woman ordained as a pastor in the Middle East, reminisced with me about this old school building complex where she herself had studied as we walked towards its back corner where the classes for the refugee children are being held. Opened by Presbyterian missionaries in 1873 during the Ottoman Empire, it is not only one of the oldest schools in Lebanon, but it is one of the first schools in Lebanon to offer education to girls. Now out of date and too costly to renovate, and in such a densely packed section of this second-largest city in Lebanon that parking is impossible and streets are always clogged with traffic, the Synod, a few years ago, built a new school on the outskirts of town. This venerable old campus would turn out to be a perfect location for this refugee school, as there were many Syrian families renting small flats – often shared – with the hope of the “bread winner” finding some day work in one of the many cafes or small shops nearby.

I had visited this school for refugee children many times over the years, but this time I asked Rev. Rola to invite some mothers to come so I could meet them and hear their stories. Almaza, Fatima and Rula share a similar path into Lebanon as refugees, although from different cities: Idlib, Aleppo and Homs, respectively. All of them fled violent clashes which would quickly destroy large parts of their cities. None of them expected to be here for so many years but are also uncertain as to when or if they might ever be able to go back. Although most of Syria is now calm, it will take years to reconstruct damaged houses and rebuild a devastated economy. Not surprisingly, their biggest worries were for their young children and the missing years of education. The Lebanese government has tried to help by extending the school day in their public schools and teaching the Syrian curriculum for a few hours in the afternoon for the refugee children. But it is not a full curriculum and does not offer opportunities to learn English, as do these schools run by the Synod. Even though the Synod schools are not able to offer a diploma for these refugee children, the parents want their children here because they are shown tenderness and dignity – something missing in most of their experience as refugees.

Rev. Rola shared some reflections on the significance of this ministry…

“We are giving service – in this case, education – through love and acceptance. This is very important! I am sure that this why the number of our students more than doubled from last year. You cannot ask a governmental teacher to love and accept these students. For them, it is extra work and it is a duty. For us it not duty….it is Christ’s mission, to go and share the Word and to love…. The staff (all church members) are very impacted by this ministry (as am I) as they are now living the Gospel and the depth of the message of Christ. We have gone outside of our walls, not just serving our own people. We are feeling that we are doing real service to those whom are so different from us – they are helping us to live the real Gospel and to be true Christians! This is the depth of the message of Christ that I now preach: we don’t own Christ, Christ is for everybody; we don’t own the love of God, the love of God is for everybody. Sometimes we don’t want to understand this: “why are we helping these people?!” But our actions are preaching to these refugees: they know we are Christians through this love! Please pray for us. Lots of prayers are needed: for our society here to accept these refugees, for discrimination to be less, for the hostility to be less as the refugees are sometimes seen as taking jobs and resources away from the Lebanese. Pray for the Syrian families that they can discern what to do…go back to Syria? Emigrate abroad? Many are just lost…. We need to pray for peace so that they can return to their own country. Pray for our team to maintain their love and their mercy.”

An old school with a (divine) new purpose

An old school with a (divine) new purpose

You can sense it when you walk into the classrooms and look into the faces of these little ones: these teachers are loved and trusted. And they teach from a sense of call. The parents noted the eagerness with which their children get up, anticipating their day at this school. There is not much in their broken and disrupted lives for which to be thankful or hopeful. But there is here. For here love is modeled from the One who said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the Kingdom belongs to such as these.”

Marilyn Borst
Associate Director for Partnership Development

Through this and many other efforts of the Church in Syria and Lebanon, Christ is glorified, and his name made known. We hear Paul’s word, “Do not grow weary in well doing.” We invite you to continue with us on this journey of accompaniment. Gifts for the Hope for Syrian Students project may be made HERE or by sending a check to our main office.

Read more about Hope for Syrian Students HERE.