A week after our “informing” the Regional Health Department of a seriously ill Syrian refugee child, we arrived at his encampment to do our monthly aid distribution.  

This is the child detailed in an earlier blog who is suffering from a serious, debilitating and destructive skin disease and who is living in a make-shift shelter, in a rough and ready encampment, situated in a bald, barren field, two hours up the valley from Antakya.As we normally do, we set up on the edge of the encampment and began the distribution.

Of course, it was also our intention to revisit the ill child – to see how he is doing and how his treatment is progressing.

Elmas went over to his shelter to find him looking much better. He seemed happy to see her and made signs with the stumps of his hands, indicating the spreading of ointment and medicine on his arms.  He was now clothed in a long-sleeved shirt and long trousers, so those sores were no longer visible.  I suppose dressed thusly, it will protect the sores from the dirt and muck of the encampment.  I can not speak to the state of the sores on his arms and legs, but the masses of sores on his head are no longer weeping, appearing to be scabbed over.

Generally, he looked much improved – within the confines of his disease.  He seemed much better, even looking ‘happy’ to see Elmas.

On this visit we learned several things: the doctors are coming out regularly to see and treat the child and ‘the child’ is actually 15 years of age – we would have guessed him to be half that age.  We were also very relieved to see that he is no longer bound.

When we first came he was bound, whether to prevent him from causing harm to himself because of the pain and discomfort of the ravaging disease or whether to keep him from others in the encampment who might, naturally, fear being in contact with him, we do not know.  

But, we do know that on this visit, he was not bound.  

No doubt the regular visits of the doctor contributes to this as this would be totally unacceptable to a medical professional.

We also learned that his parents are Syrian refugee field ‘workers’ and not merely field ‘dwellers’.  The ill, disabled child, is by himself from when his parents depart, early in the morning, to the fields, until dusk when they return.  Without fingers and toes, the range of things he can not do for himself, especially living in the primitive circumstance of field dwelling is legion – he can not cook, drink, go to the loo on his own….  His uncle was in the encampment to keep an eye on him – but that was all.  His parents, the ones who are best placed to understand and care for him were, by necessity, off, labouring in the fields.

Rejoice with us that the Regional Health Department are true to their word, regularly visiting and treating this child.  Rejoice with us that the child has responded well to the treatment – his fingers and toes can not come back of course, but the pain, discomfort and the additional damage that would be caused by the untreated disease is at least being addressed and abated.

Please pray for him and the thousands of children living in similar circumstance as a result of the neighbouring conflict, strife, fighting and discord.

May all hear, and understand the Prince of Peace who changes hearts and lives and brings true, real peace.

One thing has been glaringly apparent from the beginning is the people we are seeking to demonstrate the Love of God to, are living in the  ‘worst days of their lives’.

I have no idea if the ‘best days of their lives’ yet lie before them, or is now consigned to the rapidity fading past.  But these days will be numbered among the worst of their lives.

Having lived through the turmoil of fighting, sometimes as active participants, but more often than not, as the ‘collateral damage’.

It is astonishing how quickly people, in the east, in the west, the uneducated and highly educated come to ‘accept’ the notion of ‘collateral damage’…  How quick people can be to accept the deaths of innocents, with the caveat that the truly guilty will be killed in the process.  

This provides the so-called justification to all combatants, “We were not aiming at the innocents who died, but at a leader, a master-mind, a commander, a enemy fighter… whoever…”   This becomes the vindication which is used by all sides in the conflict.

We come face to face with the survivors. We seek to show forth God’s love to people who have suffered, not ‘theoretically’, but personally, the reality of being ‘collateral damage’.  These are those who have lost loved ones, who have been bombed out of their homes and bombed out of their livelihoods.  Some will have had sympathies for the rebels, others may indeed have been numbered in their ranks, but many, many others began as victims of the regime and then victims of the rebels and then victims of the major powers as they battle on behalf of their surrogates.  There is blood on so many hands, and we deal with those who have suffered under their hands.

As the adult members, or the ‘surviving’ adult members, of the families strive to cope, to deal with the aftermath of the violent events which has rendered such devastating impact on their lives, as they flee and try and provide for their families – they, at least, have the potential to understand, to deal with, to grapple with these events.

Children can not begin to fathom why their worlds are torn asunder, why they go hungry, why they go thirsty, why they must travel in inclement weather, why they end up living in a barren, dusty, field, with no running water, no washroom, living in a shelter which is unbearably hot in summer and intolerably cold in winter.  They are ill-equipped to grasp why they have no shoes, nor proper clothes.  They have no understanding why instead of play, they are required to become full time ‘child minders’ at an age that in western countries, they would be required by law to have child minders.  They are at a loss to comprehend why their parents and older siblings leave them in the morning and then return, filthy dirty and dead tired in the evening.  They can not reason why, when their loved ones, their parents, their siblings return they are exhausted and short-tempered.  They struggle to make sense of why they are not cuddled, or played with or why no one has time for them.

However, we have observed how profoundly resilient children are.  In spite of their hardships, in spite of their very ‘grown up’ responsibilities, in spite of their harsh living conditions, in spite of the deprivation they must endure, in spite of being ignored by those from whom they naturally expect love, in spite of harsh words and a slap in the place of loving words and a cuddle, they cope remarkably well.

For me, a 64 year old, white haired foreigner, to bring joy and happiness to the children all I have to do is smile and shake their wee hands and greet them in Turkish (a language they do not understand).  Their faces beam with joy, and they return again and again to ‘shake my hand’ and receive a smile.

There are always the shy ones, looking on at the joy of their peers, but unable to join in.  When you offer your hand to them, they, often, shyly hide, they move behind their friend or sibling, but, looking over their shoulder… and then, tentatively, they reach out, and you respond and smile and shake their hand.

They blossom before your eyes, they return the smile, and, then return to shake hands once again, and again, receiving a smile and interacting happily with an adult.  They join in with the throng of wee, smiling faces, extending their hands for a shake.

In no time you will find yourself surrounded by a swarm of wee children whose only desire is a brief moment of normalcy, of joy and happiness without responsibility, without being reprimanded, of a few moment of childish play with an adult.

The children can become very possessive – jealous even.  They do not want to share their ‘tame adult’ with anyone else.  

Is it any wonder then, that when we arrive – our vehicle is easily recognised – that the children surge forward engulfing us.  As the adults gather, they reprimand the children – sometimes with harsh words, sometimes with a clip over the ear, sometimes using a switch, they drive the children off, sending them scurrying away. For the adults, our arrival is important, if not life-giving it is at least life-sustaining.  For them this is the priority and they do not desire that the children inhibit this important, essential work of distributing the food stuffs…

Nevertheless, having been thusly driven off, the children quietly sneak back, hold a hand here, stand near there – seeking that quiet, loving interaction that allows them to be children again.

Occasionally, we do bring sweets for the children, but it is not for the sweets they come.  That is an extra – and only now and then.  They seek out and long for the loving interaction.

We have had visiting groups that have come out on the distribution run with the express purpose of spending time with the children at each encampment.  They take time to organise and play games and sing songs.  The children love it.  Even the most shy, those who stand at a distance, gazing longingly on, but feeling unable to join in, are touched.  And sometimes, they are emboldened to join in.

Once, it was a Norwegian group if memory serves, who played and sang, oddly in English, children’s songs.  One such song involved the eating of a banana.  The children had no notion whatsoever what the song entailed.  But these bouncy, smiley, happy girls, sang and did the actions and the children absolutely loved it.

When people are living at their lowest, in the ‘worst of times’, a little can bring disproportionate joy and happiness.

And when you think you have seen all the suffering encompassed in our groups, you stumble upon those whose ‘worst of times’ is profoundly, disturbingly, absolutely atrocious.

A week ago, our Turkish brother, who speaks Arabic and Turkish, and I went out to do a quick survey to see if there were any great changes in the number and make up of the encampments.

At the first encampment we stopped at, we noticed a change in the number of shelters and that the shelters were different than those we had seen previously – hence a new group was at this site.

Several individuals immediately came up to the vehicle and implored us to come and “see a very sick child” – a desperate situation they declared.  

People tend to speak using very hyperbolic terms – so you never really know what the reality is or what to expect.

The Turkish brother alighted to do a quick count of shelters and in the process see the ‘sick child’.

He came back to the van visibly shaken, asking for ‘moist wipes’.  He promptly and diligently, cleaned his hands.  The people were pressing him for help.

What can we do?… We said we would be back, and departed.

What he saw was a child who came into this world normally, with ten fingers and ten toes.  

Now, however, his legs and arms are covered in open, weeping sores, and all his fingers and all his toes have fallen off…..

…….

It would appear, between our observation of his current state, some brief research on the internet, and a dose of presumption, that the child appears to be suffering from leprosy.  

This is a profoundly emotive word, describing an absolutely appalling disease.  This is a word that carries a deep, inflammatory, emotional content… it is inherently terrifying…

Now this is well beyond our capacity to deal with.  None of us have any medical training.  

Six days later, in the course of our distribution we made it our first priority to stop at this encampment, to, again see the child, the Turkish leader of this work having expressly desired to see for herself.

She returned to the van, shocked… and deeply moved…

She immediately made phone calls, there and then, to the appropriate health departments and received the classic bureaucratic run around.  “We don’t deal with this, you need to ring…”,  “No, we don’t do that, you need to talk to…” and so on… As is so often the case, because people generally speak using hyperbolic terms, nothing is taken at face value, and little is believed.

As the mobile telephone reception was not good, we continued with our distribution.  The child and his desperate situation never far from our thoughts.

First thing on our return to Antakya, and even though absolutely worn out and tired by the day’s activities, the leader of the work went to the provincial Health department.  There she was not meeting with much success.  Then she showed the photos of the child to the security guards, who immediately made calls.  The result of these calls was the Director himself made time to see her.  She explained what she had seen and ‘shared’ the photos she had taken with him.  She also provided directions to where and in which field this encampment is located.  The Director said they would immediately do something.

That was yesterday afternoon.  

This morning she received word from the Director that they had gone out, and seen the child.  They are taking full responsibility for his care and treatment.  

They have determined that he is not suffering from leprosy, but a skin disease like it, which has resulted in the loss of his fingers and toes.  They made a point to expressly saying that the child is receiving treatment and they will do whatever is necessary for him.  They also explicitly stated that they have taken full responsibility for his treatment.

We praise the Lord for this outcome.

And yet with a deep, brooding sadness.  

If there had been no war, if the family had not have had to flee, if the medical system in Syria had continue to function, then, most likely, this child would have been treated at a very early stage and would not now be reduced to this state.  Now, his life will never be the same.  

I have no idea what his dreams were, if he had any, but now, many occupations, activities, hobbies and such, are denied him – having lost all his fingers and toes.

He can have a full and happy life – but always in the context of one who has been seriously disabled through a sickness, exacerbated by war.

Please pray for the children – especially this young boy.