Photo: Syrian refugee children (courtesy Kristin Wright)
DAMASCUS, Syria (BP) -- "I am staying," a Baptist pastor in Syria said. "They tell me to travel, to leave, to emigrate, but I tell them I am staying."
He is one of several pastors who serve in Baptist churches throughout Syria caught up in civil war.
"I am staying for the church, to keep the message of Jesus as a light for the lost and frightened," the pastor said. "I am staying because the harvest is plentiful. I am staying to serve the needy."
The pastor, weeping, quoted the prophet Jeremiah, "'Oh that my head was water and my eyes were pools of water, that I may cry for the dead of my people.'
"Even though we are living in difficult times, let us not stop being faithful to our Lord."
Every day the numbers rise as Syria's crisis rages out of control and spills across borders into neighboring countries. There are now more than 2 million refugees, 5 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) and 100,000 dead.
"This is an unparalleled challenge," said Don Alan*, a senior missions strategist for the Middle East. "It is destabilizing the whole region."
Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt struggle to cope with the escalating Syrian refugee situation. Within Syria, civilians are caught between armed rebels and government troops.
Over a period of three days in mid-August, 30,000 Syrians crossed the border into northern Iraq, overwhelming refugee camps. Drinking water and sanitation immediately became critical needs. Typically 6,000 Syrians a day flee their nation, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The influx into Iraq nearly doubled that figure.
Hundreds of civilians were killed, meanwhile, and thousands wounded as a result of a chemical weapons attack on the suburbs of Damascus. Both sides in the conflict accuse the other of this violation of international law. Most of the world's superpowers, however, suspect the Syrian government as the perpetrator and are considering punitive action.
A regional risk assessment consultant who advises Christian organizations said, "Analysts seem to believe that if such action does occur it will be a limited strike on Syrian government targets."
He urged Christian workers in the region to be diligent, increasing their situational awareness, paying close attention to how they may be perceived by the local population and national governments.
The consultant said the possibility of punitive military action against Syria increases the risk.
"The whole region in the Middle East is suffering under oppression," the Syrian pastor lamented. "Everything is under threat -- our choices, lives and future. There is great pain and depression."
Valerie Amos, United Nations under-secretary general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, said, "We are not only watching the destruction of a country but also of its people."
Half of Syria's 2 million refugees are children; three-fourths of them are under the age of 11. Many are undocumented and easily fall prey to exploitation. They display symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and experience elevated levels of depression.
"They are the hidden casualties of war," a spokesman for Save the Children said.
"What is at stake is nothing less than the survival and well-being of a generation of innocents," UNHCR High Commissioner Antonio Guterres said. "The youth of Syria are losing their homes, their family members and their future. Even after they have crossed a border to safety, they are traumatized, depressed and in need of a reason for hope."
One Christian worker in Beirut, Lebanon, said the presence of refugee children from Syria is overwhelming. In addition to the trauma they have experienced fleeing their country, many of the children have no place to live or go to school, no income or food to eat. For most, they are not welcomed and are even despised.
"The hurt is real," the worker said. "We're talking about kids who have seen horrific murders, heard stories of rape and torture, kids who have not only seen what bombs can do, but have felt them.
"These are kids who can't even comprehend peace anymore," she said, "and they've tragically lost every ounce of hope. Most of them just want to stay alive, and some days they don't even want that."
But there is hope, said Alan, the missions strategist, even though the situation seems hopeless -- and it's not just hope for the children.
"I think there is an incredible opportunity in the midst of unparalleled challenges," Alan said. "People fleeing the war and atrocities are desperate for hope and purpose beyond what the world can offer.
"Every family has a tragic story to tell of their journey that got them to where they are. May we learn to weep with those who weep and listen carefully and obediently to what God is calling His servants to do," he said.
Alan urged Christians around the world to respond to both the physical and spiritual needs of Syrians, whether they are refugees or are living in Syria.
"Give and pray," he said.
Jeff Palmer, executive director of Baptist Global Response, said BGR and its partners have provided more than $750,000 in relief goods for those suffering in the crisis.
Assistance comes in the form of emergency food packets, hygiene kits, materials to construct basic shelters and small amounts of medicine.
"It is a small amount compared to the ongoing need," Palmer said, "but we have been able to direct what we have to some key areas and through some key partners."
The majority of the displaced are families, and most of them are women and children, Palmer said, adding, "Husbands, fathers, brothers and uncles stay behind to protect their precious resource, unfortunately many times in vain."
"May we be broken not just by the sadness and terrible stories we are hearing," Alan said, "but may we be broken at the lostness and darkness that makes such brutality possible."
Alan added, "This is a spiritual battle. The pressure on us is how to respond in a way that meets needs and shares the hope that is within us."
In a plea to Christians and churches around the world, the pastor in Syria said, "Pray for the churches in Syria." He asks that God would help them minister to those who are displaced and have no shelter, that they might help those who are wounded and need medical attention, that they may care for children who are traumatized by the war.
"Pray that the Lord will help us speak with all boldness and with signs and wonders," the pastor said, "that souls may come to Him with mouths filled with praise."
*Name changed for security reasons.
Charles Braddix is a writer for IMB based in Europe. For more information about Baptist Global Response's Syrian relief efforts, go to baptistglobalresponse.com/projects/view. To view video stories of children traumatized by the Syrian conflict, go to vimeo.com/73452439 and vimeo.com/73444691.
c. 2013 Baptist Press. Used with permission.
Publication date: September 4, 2013