Photo credit to Kathryn
Written by Nicole James, OM volunteer in the Near East. The Freedom Climb sponsors relief efforts for refugees fleeing their homes in the Middle East, including those from Syria.
A truck pulled up in front of the church, black metal bars surrounding its open bed like an oversize cage, filled with foam mattresses, blankets and bags full of clothes. These packages of winter essentials, purchased by OM from an on-field partner organisation, each contain two mattresses, six blankets and a sack of hats, gloves and socks. Two men quickly unloaded the truck – tossing the mattresses, covered in bright fabrics, to the ground and restacking them in one of the rooms used by the church.
Cracking open the wooden door to the room next door, where 124 Syrian women were gathered for a Bible study, Tracy*, the pastor’s wife, stepped outside to direct the unloading process.
“We’re giving out 25 portions after Bible study today,” she said, gesturing towards the makeshift storage. “Last week, we also gave out 25.”
Inside, seated on plastic chairs, tightly arranged in long rows, the women listened intently to Grace*, a member of the local church who helps lead the Bible study, finish her message about choosing the narrow path to follow Jesus. Usually, around 75 women, mostly Muslims, attend the gathering. But this week, the crowd had almost doubled.
“Take a minute and think about what you can thank Jesus for,” Grace instructed the women in Arabic as she finished speaking. Mothers quieted their children and the women bowed their heads and considered the question.
Sandwiched between social time and an activity of some sort – cooking, crafting, or counselling – the Bible study is what compels the women to come back, week after week.
“When we first started meeting, two years ago this March, we tried to think of activities that would make the women return,” Grace said. “But we found out that the only thing that is getting [the women] here is to hear the Word of God.”
The Bible study started as an opportunity to introduce Syrian women to Scripture. As OM and other organisations have provided funds, the women have also distributed practical aid through the church. Sometimes food. Other times, like this winter, blankets and mattresses.
Of course, the women are thankful for the help – many who have fled Syria’s ongoing civil war live in empty apartments and sleep on the floor without coverings – but they also know the Bible study focuses on relationships, not the relief.
“[The Syrian women] know the funds are not from the church,” Grace said. “They know that we are here to support them in prayer, to listen to their problems, to support them emotionally.”
When the church first received funding for tangible gifts, the Bible study, which had started with five Syrian women and five church volunteers, started to grow. Then, outside funds would run out and aid would stop for a while. As new money was donated, the church provided additional help, but in accordance with certain stipulations.
OM and its partner organisations strictly monitor which families receive help to ensure that aid benefits only those refugees who are new to the country and only those who have not received gifts from other churches.
“When the women have been here for three or four months, they know they can’t get [aid], but they come anyway,” Grace said. “Women have told me that for them, the best moment [since they left Syria] was the moment they came through the church door because they felt someone loves them for who they are.”
A couple weeks ago, the church volunteers counted how many women have become believers since attending the Bible study. Around 35 have professed faith in Jesus. But according to Grace, “Even when women don’t say it out loud, we still see a difference in their lives after they’ve been coming for a year.”
Most of the women come to faith through an answered prayer, and with them, their whole families.
“How can I not believe in Jesus when He healed me? When my sons, who were kidnapped in Syria, appeared on our doorstep? When our paperwork was processed? When my husband got a job?” they ask.
Zaida*, a young mother who attended the meeting, cradled her new baby, just over a month old, as she waited among the jostling crowd of women squeezing through the doorway after the meeting.
“I’m new this time, and my name isn’t registered yet, so I can’t get any blankets or any help,” she said. “But I’m glad I came today because [the message] gave me new hope.”