Establishing a school in a refugee camp

When a Syrian refugee camp was established near his home in Lebanon, Jihad knew the church had to help.

The Syrian War displaced thousands of refugees into neighbouring Lebanon, and the True Vine Church, where Jihad pastors, decided to support them. The church built one of their two community centres with a school close to their Informal Tented Settlement, as the camps in Lebanon are officially called.

“Our children enjoy going to school,” one of the mothers says. As with all refugees in this particular camp, she is from Idlib in Syria, living already five years in these tents with no way to return. “Our houses are destroyed; the city is in the frontlines.”

In 2012, the congregation had just moved into their own building, a basement and first floor, with plans to continue to build a church building with a sanctuary for about 500 people. The Syria war had just started, and while fighting spread over the neighbouring country, refugees from Syria started to flood Lebanon. With the border only 15 minutes away by car, the Bekaa Valley hosted about 700.000 refugees.

With only just over 50 members at that time, the small church started to help. “One of our staff was heartbroken by the situation of the refugees; we prayed,” says Jihad. “Only a few days later we got our first donation and started helping 100 families. That number has now grown to almost 5000. We always wanted to help the people with two hands - physical and spiritual.”

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“For decades the Syrians had occupied Lebanon, they left [the Lebanese territories] only six years before the crisis in Syria started. The war started in Lebanon when I was 8 years old; when I was 15 years old the Christian militia in our area took us all to military camps and trained us to use weapons. We were brainwashed: ‘The Syrians are your enemy.’ I grew up with hatred of Syrians and of people with another religion. But God later changed my mind. God showed me that all these people are just living in bondage to sin and they need someone to liberate them and love them, to know the truth in Jesus Christ.”

The neighbourhood opposed the church’s work with refugees. In an earlier interview Jihad said: “We’ve been severely criticized in the beginning for helping the Syrians. The community turned against us. But we said: we have two choices ‘we invest in them, or IS will do it’.”

Soon after the church had started to help with food and other relief items, they saw the need of Syrian children. “Although Lebanese schools started to have extra shifts to accommodate education for the Syrian refugee children, they were too many, so many children stayed without education,” the pastor says. For those children the church started an informal school in the basement of the church and later started community centres in two camps with several classrooms in each.

One of those schools in the camps is just 200 meters away from this settlement. Because of the lockdown there are no children in the classrooms today. “We started with about 130 children in the classrooms in the parking lot of our church building,” the pastor continues. Later they started the two schools in the community centres. “Now we have about 700 children in our schools. When they grow up and reach the fifth grade and leave our schools, they speak English fluently. Wherever they go in this world they can join schools easily.”

Refugee children who don’t go to school are, according to pastor Jihad, vulnerable to become extremists or fall into all kind of vices. “It breaks my heart that there are still hundreds of thousands of children who don’t go to schools. We try to help them, working hard day and night.” Besides the schools they offer other activities. “We have literacy classes and we organise camps with sports activities and stories from the Bible.”

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‘You made our children forget about the war’

“Many parents have said to us, ‘You made our children forget about the war.’ They had bad memories, they have seen people being killed in front of their eyes, children lost all their family, lost parents, other relatives. When they come here, they are traumatized. We have psychologists for them and there are some special classes for children with special needs. We work with each child individually, helping them to come out of this situation they were in.”

The schools include daily ‘chapel’ time for all the children. The parents - mainly non-Christians - know about this. “Every day they sing songs, they worship, they hear stories. It is amazing if you look at them and see how happy they are.”

This is only one camp, with some hundreds of refugees. There are thousands of those in Lebanon, and their needs are overwhelming. “Of course, we are overloaded” the pastor says. “We learned that we cannot save the whole world, but we make a big difference in the life of individuals and families, hundreds and thousands of them. We try to be faithful with the talents and the limits that God has given us.”

Of course, the pastor is not doing this on his own. “Right now we have about 70 leaders full time in our ministry. I tried to put the right person in the right place. We divided the burden.”the church included many refugees in the work. “Most are refugees themselves, serving their own people. They know the mentality, they know the background, the accent, the language, they know the problems that they have so that they can understand each other better than us, so about 60 of our team are refugees that have come to Christ.”

The pastor’s vision on being a church is a very inspiring one. “You will be surprised to find that the calmest day for us is Sunday; on that day we just have church services. All the other days you will see our church is a beehive with all these people, all these ministers running from sunrise to sunrise,  even through the night.”

After all, he says, “This is what Jesus taught us.”

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