Fatmeh Sh, a teacher in a refugee camp in Lebanon, is careful not to speak too loudly to the 3-to-5-year-olds in her kindergarten class.
“Even if I raise my voice a little bit, I see a lot of fear,” she said about the children in the kindergarten, funded by the United Methodist Committee on Relief. “Some of them cannot look into your eyes directly.”
As a Palestinian who was living in Syria but had to flee the war there, she relates to that fear. “I want all foreigners to understand that this is not a political issue,” she said. “Normal people like me, like my children, like my family, we are the ones who are suffering."
United Methodists can help alleviate the suffering of refugees, as the “Beyond Bethlehem” project of UMCOR, the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries and the Ginghamsburg United Methodist Church points out.
To illustrate the project, Dan Bracken, a senior media producer at the Ginghamsburg, Ohio, church, and David Wildman, a Global Ministries executive and frequent traveler to the Middle East, spent four days filming in Lebanon during the last week of October. They worked with a Lebanese film crew and through contacts of UMCOR and the Middle East Council of Churches.
Lebanon’s refugee population
A Nov. 16 statement to the U.N. Security Council noted that more than 4 million Syrians have fled their homeland. While the influx of refugees into Europe has commanded attention in recent months, many of those displaced remain in the Middle East.
“Lebanon, especially, has the largest number of refugees per capita of any country in the world,” said Wildman, noting that 25 to 35 percent of the current population in Lebanon are refugees.
How You can help
The United Methodist Committee on Relief and Board of Global Ministries are addressing the global refugee and migration contexts guided by four principles:
Acknowledging the right to stay and flourish in one's country of origin;
Allowing safe passage for those with no viable alternative but to leave;
Welcoming and belonging, a process wherein migrants, refugees, and receiving communities work together to meet the needs of new arrivals;
Supporting those who return to help them reintegrate with dignity into their home countries after deportation.
Advance No. 3022144, “Addressing the global refugee and migration crisis,” has an annual fundraising goal of $2.25 million.
The newer arrivals in Lebanon include up to a quarter of the nearly half-million Palestinians who live in Syria, Wildman said. That is in addition to the 400,000 to 500,000 Palestinian refugees who have lived in Lebanon since 1949.
Bracken, who produced the video and serves as narrator, found a common denominator in his 3-year-old son, Benjamin, who is briefly seen playing in Ohio, and a Syrian refugee of the same age. Both boys, he noted, are about the same age that Jesus would have been when he was a refugee.
“These are people just like me and you,” he explained. “They want the same for their kids. They want peace. They deserve to live hope-filled lives.”
Life in a Beirut camp
The kindergarten supported by UMCOR, which includes about 25 recent arrivals from Syria, is at the long-established Palestinian refugee camp of Bourj el-barajneh in a suburb of Beirut. The “camp” is actually a sprawl of concrete buildings with electrical wiring and water pipes hanging loosely over narrow alleyways.
Bracken said he was shocked to find that families can live in refugee camps for years, often dependent upon humanitarian aid organizations for food and other necessities. “People lose hope,” he added. “That’s when you find people willing to pay thousands to trek across the Mediterranean.”
Some refugees come from Iraq. During a visit to Our Ladies Dispensary, a program of the Syrian Orthodox Church, Wildman and Bracken watched as about 20 Christian Iraqi women who had fled Mosul because of ISIS, or the Islamic State, were engaged in their seventh weekly session with a Lebanese woman therapist.
“They were still dealing with a lot more immediate trauma,” Wildman said about the therapy sessions.
On the video, one Iraqi woman recalls how ISIS painted a red “N” on her home, for Nazarene, took their car and forced her family to walk away as explosives fell around them. “My kids have been traumatized and my husband is depressed and can’t support us,” she said.
Hoping to return to Syria
In northern Lebanon, near the Syrian border and Aleppo, the Union of Relief and Development Associations runs the largest of its more than 32 refugee camps.
A Syrian banker and his family are among the 350 families living there. The banker left a house, his job and extended family in Syria and, he said, “More than anything I want to live in Syria.”
Even outside the conflict zones of Iraq and Syria, danger remains. Two weeks after the filming at the refugee camp in Beirut, Bracken said, suicide bombers attacked a nearby neighborhood, leaving 43 dead. The Islamic State claimed responsibility.
“It was, at that moment, so personal to me,” he added. “I didn’t know if the people we met were safe.”
Ginghamsburg responded by making last-minute changes in its worship plans the weekend of Nov. 14-15 to do an earlier launch of the Beyond Bethlehem video and help church members grieve over the loss of life in the Beirut and Paris bombings.
Bracken hopes other United Methodist churches will share the video’s message and make their own Christmas offerings for the refugee project. “The idea is that other churches might be able to grab ahold of this and use the free resources to inspire the congregation,” he said.