On the Damascus Road

The first refugee settlement team. From left: Sonja Everson, Michael Everson, Karen Jantzen, Matthew Mayers, Katherine Kandalaft and Samih Saltah.

This year marks a devastating milestone. It is the 10-year anniversary of the war in Syria. This dreadful war has resulted in the deaths of half a million people and the largest displacement crisis since World War II.

Over half of Syria’s pre-war population has been forcibly displaced. To put that into perspective, the number of people who have been forced to flee from their homes is equivalent to the total populations of British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, New Brunswick, and Newfoundland and Labrador combined.

Of the more than 13.4 million displaced Syrians, approximately half have fled the country becoming refugees, and the other half are scattered within Syria.

Samih is one such forced migrant. On three occasions he narrowly escaped execution at the hands of extremists. And, like one in four Syrian families, his home was severely damaged. By the time we met in Lebanon in 2018, Samih had been living precariously as a refugee for almost five years. His family was still internally displaced within Syria.

Fast forward to 2021 and Samih is now my husband. We live in Canada where he was granted asylum and where I have since migrated from Australia. Sadly, his mother and two siblings remain in Syria.

This World Refugee Day (June 20) we pause and reflect.

Undergirded by prayer

Last year, after a period of intensive and intentional prayer, God spoke into my heart. He called me to support inclusive development and peacebuilding in Syria, a country ravaged by war where 80 percent of the population now lives in poverty.

As this work must be undergirded by prayer, my first priority was to gather a group of like-minded Christians to gather together regularly for prayer. I led a webinar on the topic before launching a Prayer Ministry for Syria which gathers over Zoom for about half an hour on the third Thursday of each month.

The Prayer Ministry is a small fellowship of Christians from across British Columbia and further afield. Each month we unite for a structured liturgy, a special prayer focus and a shared time of prayer. In both English and Arabic, we uplift the people of Syria. Our group receives prayer points from local churches in Syria and Mennonite Central Committee field staff.

Everyone with a genuine heart for the people of Syria is welcome to join us for prayer.

Denied refuge in Australia

In May, four months into our Prayer Ministry, God graciously prepared for us a path by which to engage practically as well as prayerfully. I was on a walk with my friend and fellow Prayer Ministry participant, Susan. She noted an opportunity to sponsor refugees interned in Australia’s inhumane immigration detention centres and their families in third countries.

In Australia, refugee policy is a highly politicized issue. Australian law requires the mandatory detention of all non-citizens in Australia who are not in possession of a valid visa. This includes refugees who arrive in Australia seeking asylum.

Moreover, in 2013 the Australian government announced that no asylum seeker reaching the country by boat will ever be resettled in Australia regardless of whether they are found to be a genuine refugee. In practice this means indefinite detention within Australia’s offshore processing system in Papua New Guinea and Nauru or in onshore detention.

Before coming to Canada, I served for a time as Humanitarian Observer for the Immigration Detention Monitoring Program of the Australian Red Cross. I met with refugees who have been deprived of their liberty for up to 10 years.

Welcoming our refugee neighbours

As soon as I returned home from my walk, I raised the sponsorship opportunity with Samih. That same day he and I commenced our task of forming and facilitating multiple refugee settlement teams which will serve as welcoming communities for our refugee neighbours.

These private sponsorships are funded by Australian donors, organized by Ads-Up Canada and administered by Operation Not Forgotten of Mosaic.

This is a grassroots community-based initiative. Volunteer teams will have opportunities to collaborate with other teams and with a wider welcoming Christian community. By this we hope to engage, equip and empower our communities to welcome the stranger (Matthew 25:35).

We expect to welcome our first newcomers toward the end of the year.

Along the Damascus Road

And finally, the preparations for the work in Syria continue. The time is right for restoration. Indeed, while 60 percent of Syrians are now food insecure and 90 percent do not have access to safe drinking water, the country was previously almost entirely self-sufficient in terms of food production and water management.

While over half the population are in dire need of medical care and critical shortages of medicines are now commonplace, the country previously boasted universal health care and produced 90 percent of its own pharmaceuticals.

While there is widespread damage to infrastructure, irrigation and supply chains and while the economy is in crisis, the country’s improved security conditions are now enabling food production recoveries and opportunities to rebuild.

There is hope for nourishing the resourcefulness and resilience of the Syrian people.

The vision for what I am calling the Damascus Road Initiative is to embody the love of Christ through nurturing inclusive development and peacebuilding for all individuals, families and communities in Syria.

This long-term project will support enterprise and value chain development with a focus on food security, water management and health systems strengthening. I am working hard to develop a solid foundation for this initiative and am currently concentrating on strategic planning and building collaborative partnerships.

This World Refugee Day Samih and I take time to pause and reflect. We marvel at the faithfulness of God. In His mercy, God has merged our meandering paths and set us on a journey in service of Him through love of our Syrian and refugee neighbours. We are so richly blessed.

We have embarked along the Damascus Road. It is a path of transformation.

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