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Presbyterian church leaders visit to Syria/Lebanon includes return to Homs

Devastated city shows small signs of recovery

by Rick Jones | Presbyterian News Service

Rubble from the fighting in the city of Homs, Syria. (Photo by Laurie Kraus)

LOUISVILLE – In a recent visit to Lebanon and Syria, a delegation from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) had an opportunity to see firsthand the devastation caused by years of conflict. The group also got an up-close view of efforts to breathe new life into Syrian neighborhoods and cities.

The trip, planned by Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA) to showcase the relief work supported by our partners in the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon (NESSL), included PC(USA) Co-Moderator the Rev. Jan Edmiston and senior staff from several Presbyterian Mission Agency offices. It was an opportunity for the group to meet with NESSL and see the work the church has been doing with the support of PDA and others, who granted almost $400,000 to support Syrian relief and rebuilding efforts since 2015, including the schools project.

“We had the opportunity to meet with church partners as well as those served by church programs in Lebanon and Syria, including schools for refugee children,” said Ryan Smith, director for the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations. “We visited community centers where Christians and Muslims came together to talk about what is happening in Syria and what the future may look like.”

While in Homs, Syria, the delegation met with the Governor of Homs Province. Elmarie Parker, World Mission Middle East regional liaison, said the governor was thrilled that negotiations with the remaining rebels were in the final stages. “An agreement would allow some 2,000 fighters and their 5,000 family members to leave and free the remaining 43,000 people held hostage and allow them to return to normal life with the rest of the city of Homs,” she said.

For some members of the delegation, it was the first visit to the region since before violence broke out. The Rev. Dr. Laurie Kraus, director for Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, visited Homs a year ago. At that time, she says work planned by NESSL and led by the Presbyterian Church in Homs was underway to restore a number of homes in the midst of the rubble in hopes people would return. Yet, there were other parts of the city that remain uninhabitable.

“One neighborhood was completely flattened in the violence. There were incinerated playgrounds and a long, wide boulevard that at one time had a number of shops and houses,” she said. “No one is trying to move back there or rebuild. The devastation was so profound.”

Despite that, the delegation saw reasons for hope in the city.

“There are more restaurants open in the old city, more activity on the streets and more lights in in parts of the town at night,” said Kraus. “There’s less rubble and they are clearly moving forward to remove that. There appears to be more of a social life and activity, people are returning to the city streets and we are seeing more children back in school.”

One school is run by the Presbyterian Church in Homs. In talks with school leaders, the delegation says attendance at the school had dropped to just 300 at one point in the conflict. Now they are seeing 1,300 in class and expect to reach their capacity of 1,500 next year.

One of the initiatives to help build relationships in Homs is a multi-faith sports program including basketball. (Photo by Scott Parker)

“As groups started returning after the two-year conflict in Homs, several of the citizens said the trust between neighbors, especially across faith and cultural boundaries, had eroded,” said Kraus. “The church in Homs wanted to address that by starting a multi-faith after school program to rebuild the civil society and they’re building relationships with the children and their parents through basketball, soccer and other community gatherings.”

The church in Homs has re-established a sense of mission in the area, according to the delegation, and has become a huge player in the rebuilding efforts.

“These projects are what give them hope and a sense of belonging. I see this sort of fierce commitment to rebuilding civil society,” said Kraus. “I also see a lot of sadness. The people have paid a huge price in Homs, everyone has been displaced and even though they’ve started coming back, they’ve returned to a city that is in crumbled wreckage. They left a city that was beautiful and have come back to a fragile shell of what used to be.”

Sara Lisherness, director of Compassion, Peace and Justice ministries, was among the delegation members to visit Syria.

“You see children playing in the streets and people going to market, trying to regain some kind of normalcy in the midst of destruction,” she said. “On Sunday we worshiped in the Evangelical Church in Homs. Our delegation had the privilege of serving Communion. As it was the week before Holy Week, the words of institution, This is my body broken for you, gained a whole new meaning for me. This is a community that has experienced a thousand Good Friday’s over the past few years, you can see it in their eyes. And yet, I experienced something deeper, the hope and promise of faith that violence and destruction does not have the final word – Easter is around the corner. I was humbled and inspired by their stories of courage and their steadfast hope.”

“When the UN Security Council stated in 2015 that peace must be Syrian led, it seemed so clear to me that the people with whom we met in Syria desired peace, but peace is not easy,” said Kraus. “Twelve hours after we left Syria, the chemical attack was waged in the city of Idlib, a place where opposition voices and their families were being sent by bus. Two days later, for the first time since the conflict began, the U.S. dropped bombs on government airfields.”

Lebanon has shouldered a significant burden in the Syrian crisis and Kraus says community and government resources are being stretched to their limits.

“They’re hosting 1.5 million Syrians and the infrastructure in Beirut and elsewhere is not as solid as it once was,” she said. “The refugee camps in Bakaa are much larger and the schools have taken on a large number of refugee children in the classrooms.”

In addition to funds to support the humanitarian response for Syrians, PDA has been working with refugee resettlement organizations and PC(USA) congregations to resettle refugees who come to the United States, including those from Syria.

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Presbyterian Disaster Assistance is able to respond to emergencies through gifts to One Great Hour of Sharing and designated giving. If you would like to support PDA’s response in Syria, you can designate gifts to Syria/Lebanon DR000007. For more information: http://pda.pcusa.org/situation/syria/


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