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Small ministry, big mission helps Syrian refugees thrive


Rev. Amir Ishak speaks at St. Andrew Presbyterian Church in Billings, Montana

By Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

St. Andrew Presbyterian Church prays for Dani and Rev. Amir after their presentation. Mike Ferguson

BILLINGS, Mont. – As he and his small church help some of the thousands of Syrian refugees living in Tyre, Lebanon, to learn a trade to feed their families, the Rev. Amir Ishak has adopted the gazelle as the symbol for his innovative ministry.

That’s a reference to Dorcas, whose name is Greek for “gazelle,” who the Book of Acts describes as “a woman full of good works and acts of charity.”

“She wasn’t a preacher or a musician,” Amir told about 20 people gathered to hear about his work at St. Andrew Presbyterian Church in Billings. “But she was good at using her needle.”

Amir and his interpreter, Dani Khayat, appeared in Wyoming and Montana recently as part of a partnership with the Presbytery of Wyoming. Presbyterians from Wyoming churches plan to visit Lebanon and Syria during 2019.

Speaking in Arabic through Khayat, Amir, 60, who’s spent 34 years in ministry, discussed the unique ministry of the Presbyterian National Evangelical Church in Tyre. He calls his mission outpost “a small church making a big difference. We are rich in our diversity.”

At first, Amir said, church members tried to help refugees by collecting supplies and simply giving them away. On the arranged day, about 1,800 desperate refugees showed up for help.

“It was scary for me. How do you offer donations for 1,800 people?” he said. “I prayed to the Lord and told him it’s your problem, not mine.”

Police showed up to help distribute aid, and people “were happy with what they got, even though it was simple and humble,” he said. “But we knew they would want something more, and to speed donations we knew we had to do something different.”

A visiting pastor convinced Amir that refugees might be better served if they were trained to provide for themselves. “This,” he said with a broad smile, “was exactly what I had been praying for.”

Church members opened their outreach with a sewing class, employing sewing machines provided by a U.S. donor.

That initial offering soon spread to training in hair dressing, cosmetology and crocheting. They also train refugees on counseling and advise people how to open and manage a small business.

The church established a revolving microloan program. A man named Akram, who was suffering from a shoulder injury, got half of the cost of his surgery covered and was able to purchase a motorcycle and a cotton candy machine to open a business. Akram is working on repaying his loan, Amir said.

A woman named Zozam lost her family to a bomb blast. She arrived in Tyre disabled, “and we’ve dealt with her like she is our daughter,” Amir said. “We provided her the equipment to learn candle-making, and she’s already covered the loan.”

To date in 2018, 40 people have graduated from the various training courses. The last four years have produced 138 graduates. Each has been recognized and honored during a graduation ceremony.

The children of refugees are cared for as well. Up to 70 children meet for Bible study and to sing hymns. One bright student can recite more than 100 Bible verses, one after the other. “It’s my favorite ministry,” Amir said.

One student, a boy named Ahmed, died in an accident. Amir described him as “a boy of prayer,” because his hands were folded and his head was bowed in virtually every photo church members took of the children. “His death changed our thinking,” Amir said. “We started to understand that our humble service among kids was really important.”

Four years into the Ghazala (Arabic for “gazelle”) ministry, Amir said support from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) “has given stability to our ministry and the opportunity to think about getting bigger and reaching out to more people. I give thanks to the Lord what we can offer these people, and to you for keeping Ghazala moving.”

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