At crossroads: Jordan church serves Syrian refugees

 

MAFRAQ, Jordan Every day, they keep coming.

In a scene that few could have imagined three years ago, Syrian refugees – virtually all of them Sunni Muslims – stream into a Christian church. They’re desperately seeking help … and finding it.

On this weekday morning, the sanctuary is full of Syrian people new to Mafraq. Families show up here with nothing but the clothes they’re wearing. By showing their United Nations documentation classifying them as refugees, they can be added to the church’s list for supplies and family visits. That begins – depending on supplies – with a welcome kit that includes a few essentials: foam mattresses, blankets, camp stoves and butane gas bottles.

The church’s list has swollen to more than 5,000 families, and it grows daily. For Pastor Nour Sahawneh, what was already a challenging ministry before the Syrian crisis now has become an all-consuming relief mission. And, what was a tiny church in a country that’s 2.2 percent Christian has become a rallying point for volunteers and Christian NGOs from all over the world. More than 50 part-time, long-term volunteers combine with short-term teams that arrive weekly.

Mafraq means “crossroads.” Desert roads north from here lead to Syria; Iraq lies to the east. This northern region of Jordan houses more Syrian refugees than anywhere else in in the country – largely because of its border location, and the U.N.’s Za’atari refugee camp 5 miles up the road.

Za’atari has about 130,000 Syrians living in tents and trailers; for those who have a Jordanian sponsor and can leave, their first stop often is Mafraq. The city’s population was about 60,000 before the Syrian crisis began in March 2011. Estimates now range from 80,000 to 120,000, but all agree the city is stretched beyond its infrastructural limits.

In the middle of it all stands the National C.&M.A. Church, a nondescript, concrete building which has become not only a major crisis relief center, but an outreach ministry like few others. The challenge can be overwhelming.

“The Lord wants to do many things in Mafraq,” Pastor Nour says in a rare uninterrupted moment. “And he’s waiting, he’s looking for his sons and daughters to do that. He wants to bless the needy people through the church. Who am I, or who are any of us, to say no, I cannot?

“We cannot continue helping the people without seeing them,” he adds. “We visit them in their houses. We have at least 500 families visited every week or two weeks by these volunteers. Because we love them, we go to their houses, share their life with them, speak with them, listen to them.”

Longing for home

Many of the Syrians in Mafraq come from Homs, where virtually every neighborhood has been devastated by the civil war. Today, a husband, wife and three children sit on foam mattresses in their 8-by-10-foot main room as they talk with visitors about home. They asked that their names not be used in this story because they fear for the lives of relatives still in Homs.

Eid al-Fitr, the festival marking the end of Ramadan, was last week. The wife serves today’s visitors Arabian coffee – a special treat left over – rather than the usual sweet tea. The holiday was hard for families who want to be home.

“We tried to call our family but there was no phone coverage because of all the bombing,” the father says. “Not only can we not see our family face to face, but we can’t even talk to them. That was very painful.

“In our hearts, we want to go back and be with our families, but we cannot. When we do talk to them, they say, ‘Don’t come. There is no security for you and your children.’”

Their children may be safer here, but they don’t feel it.

“Every time they hear a plane here, they crouch and shout, ‘They’re coming to bomb us!’” the father says.

Other Syrian kids in Mafraq are so traumatized that they haven’t spoken since leaving Syria, visitation teams report.

A unique ministry

One of the short-termers this week is Annami Havenga, 26, of Johannesburg, South Africa. She and her teammates have been doing house visits, delivering supplies like clothing, blankets and diapers. With the aid of Arabic-speaking interpreters, they also listen to the Syrian people’s harrowing stories, sometimes praying with them.

Havenga’s done volunteer work in close to a dozen countries, but something’s different in Mafraq.

“We’ve experienced God moving here,” she says during a weekly breakfast gathering of volunteers on the church’s rooftop. “He’s doing something special in Jordan and in the Middle East. We’ve seen Muslim families opening up to the gospel in ways we haven’t seen anywhere else in the world.

All of that is light years from Nour Sahawneh’s world two years ago. The way he sees it, God has placed him and his church in Mafraq, and then scattered so many Syrian people here, for such a time as this.

“This is the core of the church mission,” he says. “It’s not just doing meetings inside the church, singing as Christians together, enjoying in the presence of the Lord, hearing the word of God. I call it a piece of cake. But going out is the mission of the church. And as a church, we are required by the Lord to help the needy people. So, when we speak about human work and reaching out to people, we don’t need to ask the Lord about them, because he already ordered and invited us to do these things.”

 

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