Investing in Syria's forgotten generation

Pastor Jihad's little congregation of only 50 has now helped thousands of Syrian refugees.(Photo: Open Doors International)

As soon as Pastor Jihad enters the refugee camp, children run around him and adults approach him. Three men share their fear with him, as the landowner wants the residents of the camp in the Lebanese Bekaa Valley to leave in two months' time. The pastor says comforting words and starts praying with the men, all of them Muslim.

Pastor Jihad and his staff are loved by the people of the camp, Christians and Muslims alike. That is to do with how his church supported the large number of Syrian refugees and even built community centres with schools close to the camp.

The Syrian Civil War that started in March 2011 has since displaced 13.2 million people. Nearly half of them sought refuge in other countries. An estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees now live in Lebanon, hundreds of thousands of them in refugee camps called 'Informal Tented Settlements'. Eighty-eight percent of those in Lebanon are living below the extreme poverty line, and struggling with hunger, debt, and mental and physical health problems.

With the Syrian border only 15 minutes away by car, Bekaa Valley became one of the main destinations for Syrians fleeing the war. The camp hosted about 700,000 refugees.

Pastor Jihad's small church of just 50 started to help those arriving straight away. Within a few days, they received their first donation which allowed them to help 100 people. The church has to this day helped over 5,000 people.

The neighbourhood opposed the church's work with refugees. "At the beginning, we were severely criticised for helping the Syrians. The community turned against us. But we said: 'We have two choices: either we invest in the people of Syria, or Islamic State will!'," Pastor Jihad told Christian anti-persecution charity, Open Doors.

Relief boxes being prepared for distribution.(Photo: Open Doors International)

Soon after they started helping with food and other relief items, they realised what the Syrian children's other great need was: a school!

"Although Lebanese schools started to have extra shifts to provide education to Syrian refugee children, they were too many, so many children stayed without education," the pastor explained. For those children Pastor Jihad started an informal school in the basement of his church. In 2012, he started two community centres which accommodated schools with several classrooms each. Pastor Jihad and his team are now educating 700 Syrian refugee children.

According to the pastor, refugee children who do not go to school are vulnerable to become extremists or fall into all kinds of vices.

"It breaks my heart that there are still hundreds of thousands of children who don't go to school. We try to help them, working hard day and night," Pastor Jihad said. The education in his schools is based on the Lebanese and international curriculum so that wherever life takes the children later, they can continue their studies easily. They also organise camps with sports activities and stories from the Bible.

The schools of Bekaa Valley made a huge difference to the residents' lives. "In just one month you won't recognise that these were the same children that came to the school in the beginning. Many parents have said to us: 'You made our children forget about the war.' They had bad memories, they had seen people being killed in front of their eyes, some of them had lost all their family. When they come here, they are traumatised. We have psychologists for them and there are some special classes for children with special needs. We work with each child individually, helping them to come out of the state they were in," the pastor said.

Smiling in spite of everything.(Photo: Open Doors International)

The schools include daily 'chapel' time for all children. Their parents, who are mainly non-Christian, know about this and do not seem to mind. "Every day they sing songs, they worship, they hear stories. It is amazing if you look at them and see how happy they are," Pastor Jihad said looking at the children with a smile on his face.

Many of the non-Christian parents joined the pastor's ministry work 'from sunrise to sunrise' and serve their own people. They knew the mentality, the accents, the problems their fellow Syrians were facing so they became a bridge between the church ministry and the refugees. 

"We learned that we cannot save the whole world," said Pastor Jihad. "But we make a big difference in the life of individuals and families, hundreds and thousands of them. We try to be faithful to the talents and the limits that God has given us."

Zara Sarvarian works for Open Doors UK & Ireland, part of Open Doors International, a global NGO network which has supported and strengthened persecuted Christians for over 60 years and works in over 60 countries. In 2020, it raised £42 million to provide practical support to persecuted Christians such as food, medicines, trauma care, legal assistance, safe houses and schools, as well as spiritual support through Christian literature, training and resources. Open Doors UK & Ireland raised about £16 million.