Hunter Williamson and Ghinwa Akiki

Why a local partner church continues to help Syrian refugees amid growing anti-refugee sentiment and tensions.  

For the past 13 years, Pastor Tony* has stood nearly every Sunday before a congregation of Lebanese and Syrians. 

In brotherly and sisterly communion, the two people sit together at a church in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley, worshiping God and listening to His word. In a country with longstanding tensions between Lebanese and Syrians, it is a radical demonstration of the power of the Gospel. A shared love for Christ brings them together, helping them to overcome the division increasingly stirred by the persistent Syrian refugee crisis in Lebanon. 

After more than 13 years of displacement, the crisis has become one of the most contentious and complicated issues in the country. No one knows for sure how many Syrian refugees now live in Lebanon, but a common estimate is 1.5 million – an enormous number when one considers that there are less than 5 million Lebanese estimated to be in the country.  

Demands are growing for refugees to return to Syria, with many Lebanese, including high-ranking officials, accusing them of causing or exacerbating Lebanon’s collapse. They say that Lebanon can no longer bear the burden of hosting so many displaced people, and that organizations are encouraging them to stay by providing aid. Pointing to history, some note how the influx of Palestinian refugees several decades ago helped create conditions that triggered a 15-year-long civil war in 1975. They fear that something similar could happen today or that Syrians will one day outnumber Lebanese and take over the country. Others point to crimes committed by Syrians and accuse them of taking jobs from Lebanese. 

Opponents push back, arguing that such claims are political scapegoating that fuels discrimination and anti-refugee sentiment. They say that billions of dollars in aid have offset the impact of the crisis and mitigated the fallout of an acute economic crisis. They note that refugees cannot safely return to Syria, and that they work jobs many Lebanese are unwilling to take. 

The arguments go on, both sides backed by different data, narratives, and political viewpoints. The only clear consensus is that there exists no viable solution to the crisis. And so it persists, fueling ever more division. Amid it all, the church in the Beqaa, supported by Thimar-LSESD, shines ever brighter for its kinship between Lebanese and Syrians.  

Seated in his upstairs office on a warm spring morning in May, Tony shared over coffee and tea about how such fraternal relations formed out of the outreach the church has provided to Syrian refugees for more than a decade.   

“We do believe that when conflicts happen, there are more opportunities to share the Gospel,” he said. “This opens a door amidst pain to present Jesus as a comforter for people.” 

In that instance, Tony was referring to the Syrian civil war and how the refugee crisis it caused had created an opportunity for Syrians – most of whom come from non-Christian backgrounds – to hear the Gospel. But the same was also true for the conflict that the crisis stirred in Lebanon. Initially, supporting Syrians was not an easy thing for the church to do. Indeed, if it was not for the Gospel, its members may have never extended a helping hand at all. But Christ has the power to change hearts. Amid growing tensions, the support the church is extending to Syrians through aid and education attests ever more strongly to that transformative power. 

Thimar - LSESD, Merath non-formal education center in Beqaa

The church’s support began just as the refugee crisis did.  

As anti-government protests spiraled into an armed uprising against the Syrian government in 2011, thousands of people fled the country. Many Syrians traveled to Lebanon in search of safety. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians would go on to settle in the Beqaa Valley, a luscious strip of agricultural land situated at the feet of a towering mountain range separating Lebanon from its larger Arab neighbor. Many moved into poor refugee settlements that sprung up around the valley. In areas around the church alone, Tony said that 10,000 Syrians settled. 

The church initially wondered how to respond to the growing crisis. Relations between many Lebanese and Syrians were strained by bad history, particularly among older generations who remembered the disappearances, abuses, and violence committed against them by Syrian troops during Damascus’ nearly 30-year occupation of Lebanon. 

As a young man, Tony experienced his own encounters with Syrian forces. As frightful and traumatic as they were to many Lebanese, Tony always saw them as an opportunity to share the Gospel. Indeed, most of the soldiers he encountered would have come from non-Christian backgrounds. With laughter and smiles, he half-joked about a time he missed the opportunity to talk about Christ with one soldier. 

It occurred as he was passing through a checkpoint in Beirut while riding in a taxi. The soldier manning the post ordered Tony to exit the vehicle. He wanted to see Tony’s papers, but Tony did not have them or his wallet. It was a predicament that might alarm most people, but not Tony. 

This is a great opportunity to share about Jesus, he thought. He asked the woman seated next to him to move, but she refused. 

“Do you really think I’m going to let them take you?” she asked. 

Mistakenly thinking that the woman was Tony’s mother, the soldier decided not to detain him. To Tony’s disappointment, the soldier let him go. 

“It was a missed opportunity to share the Gospel,” Tony recalled, laughing. 

That encounter was not Tony’s only run-in with Syrian troops, but it reflected the different attitude that he holds towards Syrians from other Lebanese of his generation. It is an attitude shaped by the Gospel and Jesus’ instructions to love our neighbors and enemies. 

In 2005, following mass protests triggered by the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, Syria withdrew from Lebanon. Damascus’ troops were gone, but the pain and memories of its occupation would linger in the hearts and minds of many Lebanese. 

Indeed, only six years had passed before an influx of Syrians returned to the country. But this time they came not as occupiers but as people in need of help. Still, some members of the Beqaa church wondered whether to help them.  

Tony knew that refusing to help would be wrong, regardless of the historical justifications the church might have. As a church, they had a responsibility to assist others, to be examples of Christ, and to share the Gospel and the hope of salvation. 

“God does not differentiate between a Syrian and Lebanese,” Tony said. “God loves all people, and just like God gave us a chance for salvation, He has given them this same chance.” 

The church prayed and felt led by God to provide help. With support from Thimar, the church began to distribute aid, including food, medicine, clothes, mattresses, blankets, and more. They did so unconditionally, providing aid when the church did not have meetings or services, in order to not make the recipients feel pressured to come to church.  

Hearing of the support, huge numbers of people came. There ended up being more Syrians than Lebanese, an imbalance that bothered some Lebanese members. Some asked why the church was helping Syrians. Still, Tony felt led to help. In sermons, he reminded people of Jesus’ teachings. 

“It’s not everyday that we face enemies,” he would say. “This might be the only time in our lifetime that we face our enemies. We should love them. This is an opportunity to prove we are true believers.” 

In time, the Lebanese members came to love their Syrian brothers and sisters. Such Christ-inspired care and love surprised the Syrians, who had grown accustomed to hearing abusive and disparaging remarks from Lebanese. Moved by love, perhaps surprised by the church’s act of faith, some recipients started to attend church. Some even got baptized and continue to attend church today.  

Thimar - LSESD, Merath non-formal education center in Beqaa

As the Syrian civil war dragged on, it became increasingly clear that the refugee crisis would too. Hopes of soon returning home would fade, and Lebanon would find itself hosting a population of refugees almost half the size of its own citizenry. 

The refugee settlements in the Beqaa grew larger in size and number too.  

While visiting one camp on a rainy winter day, Tony saw children walking barefoot in the cold, slimy mud. He entered a tent where children were using bits of plastic and shoes to light a fire. The scene moved Tony. He felt, as a child of God, that he could not witness such hardship and do nothing. He needed to expand the support of the church. That is when the idea of opening a non-formal education center came to mind. 

In 2016, the church launched the center. Since then, hundreds of Syrian children have studied at the center, receiving quality, Biblically inspired education for free. 

From the surrounding refugee camps, children come, sharing the same harsh living conditions. They have experienced similar events, faced the same trials, and left their homes and childhood memories behind. While most children wish for iPads and new toys, these children long for different kinds of gifts: education, friends, community, and perhaps a bit of childhood fun. Every weekday morning, the children rush to the center, eager to arrive and see their friends and teachers. The center, supported by Middle East Revive and Thrive (MERATH), the aid and development ministry of Thimar, has brought joy to their lives and helped compensate for the many losses they have experienced.  

“They show us love and care,” said Zeinab, a bright, 16-year-old student. “They teach us about love, forgiveness, gratitude, how to manage our anger, and help us become closer to God. On our way home, we hum and sing the songs of praise we sing every morning during chapel time.”  

The severe economic and political crises that have plagued Lebanon for more than four years have left many people in poverty. Syrians are particularly impacted, with the UN Agency for Refugees, UNHCR, saying that 9 out of 10 Syrian refugees require humanitarian assistance to survive. Such conditions have taken a toll on children’s mental health, particularly those living in remote areas. In a 2023 report by the UN Agency for Children, UNICEF, 66% of caregivers reported that their children felt anxious or worried, and 47% saw signs of depression. Additionally, 62% noted a decline in their children’s well-being over the past year. 

The most recent spike in tensions between Lebanese and Syrians – triggered by the murder of an official with one of the most powerful Christian parties in Lebanon – increased such anxieties. Lebanese security officials said that members of a Syrian gang kidnapped and then killed the official as he returned home from work in April. Shortly later, videos appeared on social media purportedly showing Lebanese mobs beating Syrians at random in the streets and driving through neighborhoods, ordering Syrians to leave their homes. 

In the Beqaa, students at the center felt anxious. Despite the center having become a community where they now feel a sense of belonging, the students still worried they might face rejection from their teachers. 

“In our recent sessions, the students expressed fear about the Lebanese reaction, questioning their future in the country and fearing they might be forced to return to Syria, which is not safe for them,” said Nidal, the school psychologist. “We reassured them of our love and that nothing will change how we see them.” 

Having grown up most, if not all, of their lives in Lebanon, Nidal said that students at the center do not want to return to Syria. Even if they feel unwelcomed and unloved by many Lebanese, Lebanon is all they have known. Nidal wisely addressed the tensions, reassuring the students that not all Lebanese, nor all Syrians, are the same.  

“At the center, we work to eliminate the idea of racism,” she said. “We teach that an earthly identification card does not affect God’s equal love for all people, nor does it affect our love for them.” 

Such love has given students new hope and a different perspective on life. In a country where basic needs are often unmet, refugees bear the burden of a new identity marked by their circumstances. However, what they receive at this center goes beyond education; it opens a door to renewing their minds with the truth of the Gospel, which proclaims that every person is loved and valued, as they are created in God’s image.  

Thimar - LSESD, Merath non-formal education center in Beqaa

The center and its staff do their best to support students, but the challenges that they face as refugees are daunting. 

“The center provides a haven for the children, however broader cultural and environmental factors affect many of them,” said Nidal. Economic hardship and poverty force many children to work part-time after school. “This lack of rest affects their ability to focus during class and demotivates them from studying,” continued Nidal. Other students are forced to drop out of school entirely to help support their families. 

Forced marriages are another significant challenge, particularly for girls. Earlier this year, Tony held an awareness session on the dangers of early marriage, including its impact on education and health. Despite such sessions, teachers at the center saw little response. Nidal noted that it is difficult to change cultural norms in desperate situations. But that does not mean the center is having no impact at all.  

Though Zeinab, the 16-year-old student, will soon be forced to leave the center due to family matters, she remarked how the values taught to her gave her strength that forever changed her life. She wishes one day to pass those values on to her children.  

“We might have to leave the school, but there will be other children coming after us,” she said. “There are no words to describe the happiness that this center brings to the children or the impact it has on their lives.” 

Teachers and staff also benefit from their interaction with students. 

“It’s a pleasure to teach the children,” said Nancy, an English teacher. “They make us laugh with their stories and humor and share their own cultures with us.”  

Over the years, she and other teachers have formed family-like bonds with the students, watching them grow and develop. The teachers work faithfully to bring out the best in their students, believing that every one of them has potential. Students transferring from public schools often say that they received minimal education and that teachers would beat them and yell at them. “Here, they witness our dedication to teaching, where we patiently explain lessons, especially to those who struggle,” said Nancy.  

In addition to receiving quality education, students also benefit from free meals at the center, which motivates them to continue attending, knowing they cannot afford such provision elsewhere.  

“I am often asked by Lebanese, why do I teach Syrian refugees, and how can I do so? I tell them, it is because of Jesus in my heart that I accept all nationalities without discrimination. Teaching those kids is my ministry, a means to share the Gospel through my interactions, stories, and lessons. These children are innocent; they did not start the war. It has been imposed upon them. It is my duty to show them love and provide them with education.”  

Thimar - LSESD, Merath non-formal education center in Beqaa

Tensions have calmed since the murder of the Christian Lebanese official in April, but voices calling for the refugee crisis to be resolved and for Syrians to return to their country continue to grow louder. Yet returning is not an option for many Syrians. Though not as intense as in years past, fighting in Syria continues. The economy is in shambles and the country still faces major security issues. Rights groups have reported that Syrians who have returned have faced unlawful or arbitrary detention and arrest, torture, kidnappings, abuses including rape and sexual violence, enforced disappearances, and extrajudicial killings. 

But life in Lebanon is not much better for Syrians. They increasingly face restriction of movement, raids, new taxes, checkpoints, obstruction of residency permit renewals, evictions and deportations, rental restrictions, and more. All the while, cross-border conflict between armed groups in Lebanon and Israel has displaced more than 90,000 people, including Syrian refugees. 

In recent years, Tony has adjusted the distribution of the aid provided by the church to also assist Lebanese affected by more than four years of economic crisis. Still, as long as the refugee crisis continues in Lebanon, Tony said that the church will continue to be an example of Christ, demonstrating the Gospel in both word and deed. 

“We say that God has opened this door to serve people who are displaced from their homes,” he said. “If one day they go back to Syria or go to any other place, we are sure that this period they spent in our church or school was a great period for them. We planted the Word of God in their heart, and God can water and grow this seed.” 

*For the safety of the pastor and the church amid the tensions outlined in this article, the name Tony has been used as a pseudonym, and the name and location of the church have deliberately not been included. 

Thimar - LSESD, Merath non-formal education center in Beqaa

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