An Update From World Relief

Bernie Anderson and World Relief

Protests To Violence To War

In the spring of 2011, a few teenagers in southern Syria painted some revolutionary slogans on the wall of their school. They were arrested and tortured, which prompted pro-Democracy demonstrations across the country. By Summer hundreds of thousands of people were taking to the streets, and Syria turned violent. The violence escalated. A short two years later 90,000 people had been killed in the Syrian civil conflict. 

The conflict became increasingly complex as foreign powers and multiple rebel groups became involved. It’s confusing for those outside of the conflict. But the real victims of the Syrian war are her people.

The Victims of War and the State of Florida

According to the latest statistics from the UNHCR (the agency within the United Nations who works with refugees at a global level), there are 13.1 million people in Syria who are in need of humanitarian aid. 6.6 million people are internally displaced - meaning they have fled from their homes because of violence, but remain inside of Syria. Almost 3 million people are in hard to reach besieged areas. Since 2011, 5.6 million people have left everything and fled the country, seeking safety in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, and beyond. 

To give some perspective, the population of Florida is 21 million, just under that of Syria in 2011. No one is untouched. Everyone is affected.

Foreign Wars and This American Life

It is difficult for us to comprehend. Most of us can’t get our heads around devastation when there are oceans and continents separating us from it. Our media-driven culture puts images in front of our eyes daily. Hourly. Maybe even every second - in images and 240 character sound bytes. Refugees get pushed into the maelstrom of all the other humanitarian crisis around the world, and, in the meantime, kids have to be at soccer, dinner needs to be served before Group meeting, and laundry needs to be finished before everyone runs out of underwear. 

In the balance of global chaos and daily life, even in the early days of this crisis, the leadership of Northland did take notice and began asking questions. 

How do we respond to the growing, global refugee crisis? What is the Christian response to events like this?
Until September 1, 2015, the Syrian refugee crisis was mostly a little understood, back-page news story in America.

The CNN Moment

The crisis came to a head in this country when a photo of Alan Kurdi went viral on social media on September 2, 2015. Alan was a toddler who looked like any other toddler. Red shirt, blue shorts, children’s size 7 sneakers. The photo appeared to be of a little boy asleep on the beach. But he wasn’t asleep. The raft he and his family were using to flee violence had capsized and Alan Kurdi drowned. 

This was the moment. This was the time. At last, the world was aware of what was happening in Syria. Of what was happening to the people of Syria, as they sought safety for their families. 

Northland continued to ask the Lord about how to respond. Northland also began discussing their options for response with World Relief. 

Americans are usually great at immediate response to things like Alan Kurdi’s death. To the CNN moment. We’re ready to send money, supplies, or even to meet people on the shores of Greece and help them off their boat. But, Northland wanted to respond, not react. How can our church be most helpful, and respond in ways that will produce the most value for the Kingdom of God?

The Church in the Middle East

The unsung hero of the Syrian crisis is the Church in a place where she has historically been weak and marginalized. In some cases, persecuted. The Church has been growing exponentially in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, but the Church in the Middle East has actually been shrinking. 

But, crisis brings change. The once marginalized Church in the Middle East has now become a place where the displaced go for help. People who would normally never darken the door of a church for a worship service are knocking on those same doors for life-saving help and assistance. 

When Northland leadership learned of this situation, the question shifted from a general “How should we respond?” to a specific “How can we come alongside the Church in the Middle East as they respond?” and “How can we do this in a way that is both helpful and relational?” Northland values the strategic nature of working through local churches. 

In 2016, after taking time to pray, assess, and meet with field leaders, Northland began working with World Relief in the Middle East to partner with local churches who are serving the most vulnerable people affected by the Syrian conflict. 

It was a risky move. The situation in the Middle East is volatile. There’s ongoing conflict. The programs World Relief was beginning to implement were new. There was no guarantee of success. 

But, because of Northland’s ongoing partnership with World Relief, local church partners have been able to install a safe places program for refugee children and families, educational programs for refugee children have been started, and life-saving support and supplies have been distributed to families. 

This help has not come directly from an organization like World Relief. The help has come through churches and local partners. 

And kids like Younes benefit from Northland’s work.

Younes

Younes came to a local literacy program when he was just 13 years old and he couldn’t read or write his name. Younes was a Syrian refugee, and the Syrian conflict had killed his Father and prevented him from attending school for several years. His opportunity to receive an education had been stolen by war, as he, his mother, and siblings fled into Jordan. 

Younes joined a World Relief literacy program being implemented by a local church partner - one of the churches who are meeting key needs in their communities through literacy programs and other refugee support services. This church is where Younes now meets for class. They call their literacy program a “Love School”. 

Every Saturday Younes and other refugee children come for a two-hour class. They are making up for their stolen time - the years they were not able to attend school. After a short seven months of classes, Younes is one of the top students, reading and writing in both Arabic and English. Younes’ mother is both relieved and proud. When volunteers from the church come to visit her, she doesn’t turn them away. Instead, she tells them, “You are angels from heaven. You saved Younes from throwing away his life.”

Younes’ story - and the stories of hundreds of others like him - would not be possible without the work, generosity, and support of Northland Church.

The Ongoing Journey

Some of Northland’s leadership is planning to visit the work of World Relief and local churches like the one serving Younes’ family later this year. Deepening relationship with key leaders and churches is crucial, as Northland continues their response. 

Because this is far from over. 

The refugee crisis is not going away anytime soon. The crisis in the Middle East has generational implications. So it is important to work together for generational solutions. The long-term, sustainable answer to the deep need in the Middle East is not another humanitarian relief organization. Non-profit orgs are here today and gone tomorrow. 

But not so with the Church. The Bride of Christ will remain until the final day when every wrong will be made right and every tear will be wiped away. 

Revelation 21 gives this glorious vision of the Church descending “as a bride adorned.” The sustainable solution is the Church. 

This is the day for the church in the Middle East. This is also the day for the Church in the West. For churches like Northland. What has happened in Syria is arguably the missiological moment of our generation. History will judge how we respond to the greatest opportunity in Christian mission of our lifetime. Right now, God is using what was intended for evil to write His story of redemption. Massive numbers of unreached people who’ve had little to no access to the Gospel up to this point are moving to places where there is abundant access to the Gospel. 

The Church in America in tandem with our sisters and brothers in the Middle East have the opportunity to answer the call. 

Northland is answering the call. 

For this, those of us at World Relief are encouraged and grateful. 

Would you like to get personally involved with the refugee response? Here’s a good place to start. Go to https://www.worldrelief.org/8things and download the free eBook “8 Things You Should Know About Refugees.”

Bernie Anderson is a Director in the Strategic Engagement Division at World Relief who also moonlights as a freelance writer. You may contact him at banderson@wr.org