Syria Appeal - March 2019 Update
In February I took another Outreach team to Syria, thanks to an invitation from our partner, the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon, and their General Secretary, the Rev. Joseph Kassab, who was with us in Syria for much of the time. At the end of this update, you will find a timely word from him: a reminder that support for the families that make up these faithful congregations still requires our help until the economy of Syria recovers. In this trip update one of our travelers, Mike Kuhn, shares his reflection on the ministry of education offered by two of the Presbyterian Churches in the far northeast corner of Syria: Hasakeh and Qamishli.
Marilyn Borst, Associate Director for Partnership Development
From Desperation to Hope
by Rev. Mike Kuhn, International Theological Education Network (Evangelical Presbyterian Church), Bellingham, WA
And David ran quickly toward the battle line … 1 Samuel 17:48
We spent the day in Hasakeh, a city in northeast Syria. The region is known as the “Jazeera” (peninsula) because it lies between the Tigris and the Euphrates and is bordered by Turkey above and Iraq below. I learned that the area is dominated politically and militarily by the Kurdish forces who had cut a deal with the Syrian regime. The deal shielded the region from some of the atrocities of ISIS, but not all. What surprised me is that the Kurdish domination has led to the closure of many public schools. It seems the Kurds want all education to be in the Kurdish language, even though only about 20% of the population is Kurdish. Once again, it is the most weak and vulnerable (the kids) who become the victims of political aspirations to power. But church-affiliated schools remain in operation…a window of opportunity.
We visited the school in Hasakeh. Having lived in the Arab world for nearly 30 years, I’ve been to so many Arab schools I can’t count them. But this one is different, and I could see and feel the difference. It is run by the tiny Presbyterian Church in Hasakeh, pastored by a woman of boundless energy who I now know simply as Matti or Mathilde [Sabbagh]. Before we left for Hasakeh, we also visited the school in Qamishli…you guessed it, run by the tiny Presbyterian Church in Qamishli, where Rev. Firas Ferah is the pastor. Education appears to be important to these Christians, important enough that they’ve become leaders in education in their respective regions.
In both schools (Qamishli and Hasakeh) we find ourselves wading into a sea of children from kindergarten to ninth grade. The kids swarm around us…bright eyes, big smiles, beautiful features. I think I heard the simple phrase “what’s your name” a million times in that all-too-familiar Arabic accent. I also asked them for their names, in English, which they were happy to provide. The kids, of course, wanted to try out the few English phrases they knew. We were the only English-speaking visitors they had seen. Remember the Syrian war has kept foreigners out for the past eight years. The kids are from every background represented in this area. Chaldean, Kurdish, Sunni Muslim, Assyrian, etc. I learned later from Matti that approximately 80% of the school is Muslim. The same was true in Qamishli. You can imagine that registration in the schools has exploded due to the Kurdish closure of public schools.
On these journeys you run into amazing people. One of those was the Bible teacher in the Qamishli school. The woman must have memorized the whole Bible. She was excited about impacting the lives of the kids of her homeland with the stories of David, Nehemiah, Elijah, Peter, etc. Her enthusiasm was contagious as we both shared a love of those life-shaping stories. She let me know that though “proselytism” is prohibited by law, she is able to share the stories of the Scriptures with all her students. She felt, and I agree, that these simple stories would tip the scale of societal values in her homeland from desperation to hope, from militancy to peace, from blind religious zeal to informed spiritual truth.
When I got back to our hotel, I remembered one of the stories…the ruddy shepherd David running courageously to the battle line to face and slay the giant. It occurred to me that most Western mission efforts have relinquished education as a mission strategy. These churches realize that influencing education is key to their survival and the well-being of their country. Though small in number and demoralized by the flight of other Christians from the area, they are running to the battle. The church is still here, still holding on and still seeking to be “salt and light,” transforming the next generation through education. As one who has dedicated his life to mission in this region, it’s something I’ll ponder long and hard. Being here reminds me that it’s the Jesus-followers that live here who know best what their society needs.
And this from Rev. Joseph Kassab, General Secretary of the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon…
Throughout my trip to Syria … [with a team from The Outreach Foundation], during which I visited some of our churches, I was impressed by the latter’s vision and pastors. Despite the difficulty of the period, the prevailing feelings of persistence and love brought forward by the pastors and their congregations led to a rise in attendance, participation and activity in these churches. As a result, a wider circle of afflicted people was covered by the warmth and hospitality of our pastoral efforts. It comes with no doubt that the Syrian war has taken a toll on people’s daily lives, yet one thing remains stronger; their will to live and the love for God they feel through God’s people. It is worth mentioning that throughout the past year, a decreasing level of war, violence and victims has been observed as a result of the National Army’s regain of authority over a large part of the Syrian territory. Although the cooling of guns reflects positively on physical safety, the daily lives of our brothers and sisters still remain blurred by poverty and misery. Shortage of money, lack of job opportunities, and the ongoing deterioration of the Syrian Pound are pressuring almost every Syrian family [in 2010 (1 $=48 S.P), today in 2019 (1 $=520 S.P)].
The Syrian people’s daily lives carry hourly struggles that take the form of shortages of milk, electricity, water, medication, medical services, car fuel, cooking gas and other necessities which they lack due to the difficulty of the situation. Despite all, the people remain resilient as they face their hardships with patience and scarcity. In light of the above, we acknowledge that Syrian Christians are left with churches as their only source of hope and help in order to meet their basic needs and retain their human dignity as they remain in their country. It is worth noting that many of the Syrian people look enviously at their fellow citizens and relatives who succeeded in departing Syria to a neighboring country or the West without weighing the dangers of the transition. Our goal today is to keep the Syrian people in their country and around their churches while meeting their basic human needs.
The Outreach Foundation gives thanks to God that you continue on this journey with us alongside the faithful, witnessing Church in Syria, especially now that peace is being restored. If you would like to make an additional gift for the Syria Appeal, you can do so HERE or by sending a check to our office.