December 2017

Winter, and by that, I mean an Antakian winter, has arrived.

There is no snow in the valley – very rarely is there snow in the valley. The Amanos mountains have had a dusting of snow on the upper reaches as has the impressive, soaring pinnacle of Kel Dağı (Turkish), Jebel Aqra (Arabic), Mount Casius (ancient). This limestone mountain rises 1,717 metres out of the sea near the mouth of the Asi river (Turkish) or Orontes river (ancient) on the Turkish-Syrian border. It is the dominant feature, being the highest mountain in the area. It too had been liberally dusted with snow. However, all this dusting of snow has since receded and vanished, but there still remains a distinct chill in the air.

An Antiochean winter is, thankfully, absent ice and a driving artic wind common in Europe and North America. Here we do not entertain the extremes of winter weather that are the norm there. Consequently, you may be tempted to think that winter here is rather pleasant.

I suppose, comparatively speaking, it is. But, we do not live ‘comparatively speaking’. The heating systems and the degree of insulation employed in the buildings is only a fraction of what is taken for granted in chillier climes. Hence the homes are cold, draughty, damp and oft-times miserable, resulting in an unbalanced mix of hot spots, too hot spots, cold spots and damp, dank mouldy spots.

Consequently, even for us city-dwellers, when the humidity is high, the cold becomes a penetrating, biting, piecing damp chill. The daily temperatures are only just above, or, on occasion, just below 0ºc… but to the ill-prepared, it is more than sufficient to cause hypothermia.

Slowly, natural gas is being rolled-out in the city, having arrived just a few years ago. Hence, it has only been in the last two or three years that people are converting from coal fired central heat boilers in the apartment buildings or the coal/wood/crushed and pressed olive pips that has traditionally fuelled stoves to heat homes and shops. This slow shift will aid in cleaning the air… but not everyone can change to natural gas and not everyone wants to.

The inescapable, natural consequence of heating with coal, and usually a rather poor grade of coal, is the oppressive, heavy, haze of choking, foul coal smoke which engulfs and smothers the hapless inhabitants. Often the stove pipes empty straight into the streets, the smoke rising no higher and settles in and flows down the streets in a thick, gagging fog.

Having said all that, city living is still a veritable ‘heaven’ compared to the conditions that the Syrian refugee field workers, living in their crude shelters of tarpaulin stretched over frames and pitched in barren fields, must endure. There the damp, the rain, the low brooding clouds, the wind and the inescapable mud means that winter is a profoundly difficult, health threatening, utterly miserable time. In poorly located encampments, the damp rises up directly within the shelters, seeps in at the edges, condensation pouring down the inside walls and dripping off the tarpaulin ceiling and results in an unhealthy environment more suited to frogs and mould than human beings.

For the human residents, better the heat, insects, creepy-crawlies, snakes, the ever present wind and the unrelenting back-breaking labour under the unforgiving scorching summer sun.

Well, let’s be frank, both are bad, but winter is worse.

This year a brother from Istanbul came and joined with us on one of our distributions. When he saw the state of the footwear of the children, those who were wearing any footwear at all, he saw that they were wearing sandals, flip-flops or undersized shoes with their feet hanging off the back side.

Photo from a bit earlier in the year, but please note their footwear…

All the footwear was in tatters. Some were wearing socks, many were not. Not a few of the children were barefoot.

But, winter has arrived. It has not drawn nigh, it is not at the door, it has truly come… things will continue as they are, getting worse in the depths of winter before the hope of spring dawns several months away.

I am wearing proper shoes, with proper socks, and I still feel the cold. Too many of these children are barefoot and the rest are in sandals, flip-flops or slip-ons.

Most are living in desolate fields, and when it rains, the inescapable mud is literally everywhere, and after the rains have passed, there remains puddles and the low spots where the water has accumulated it is extremely reticent to seep away.

Our visiting brother was touched by the love and compassion of God and on his return to his home, made inquiries and spoke with various ones and the Lord touched someone to provide the funds that would enable us to purchase winter footwear for the children. This was not a trivial act, can you imagine the cost of boots and socks for 299 children (under ten years of age)?

We went out and sourced acceptable quality footwear, in a variety of sizes to outfit the children, always striving to get the right balance of cost to value.

And so, recently, the Team did the first distribution of winter boots and socks – because of the slow nature of the task and the number of children and the diverse encampments, we calculated it would take at least three trips to the refugees to be able to get to everyone.

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The team went out to two of the largest encampments and fitted the boots; it was very slow going as you must fit the boots to each and every child to ensure a proper fit. And they are children… not always the easiest to organise and fit socks and boots onto…

In the course of fitting the boots, it became apparent that of the children who did have socks, that the socks were found to be sopping wet and ice cold. The children’s feet felt chilled to the bone.

The project was to provide two pairs of socks and a pair of new, water-proof boots for each child.

Now, as a general principle, when we go out to interact with the children, to play with them and such, we, normally do not inform the Social Assistance Department. It is our understanding that when we are engaged in some form of distribution, that we are constrained to contact them.

As we were ‘distributing’ boots, we informed them and they wanted to send a ‘minder’ along with us to monitor and, well, vet what we are doing.

The next ‘boot’ distribution was on a Thursday and the next encampment on the list to be visited was place we have named: Ağaçlık, that is ‘the Grove’. This has proven to be the most difficult, most challenging encampment we go to. For a detailed picture of this particular encampment, I recommend a blog describing this encampment – it can be read here.

Because of the difficult nature of this encampment, I, who normally do not go on these Thursday trips, offered to come along and assist. I felt, especially with this challenging encampment, that the more helpers the better.

E. loaded the van with a good selection of various sizes of boots and socks and then travelled an hour up the valley to our rendezvous location. There we picked up our minder – who turned out to be someone new.

This new minder seemed like a pleasant enough character. He is clean-cut, well shaved, well dressed, in his late twenties or early thirties. He is polite and easy to get along with.

We drove out to ‘the Grove’ encampment and I backed right into the encampment which recently I have been refraining from doing.

True Confession Time: I backed in, so vehicle would be near and our departure would be least encumbered, straight forward and, well, quick.

This encampment has nearly doubled in size as two gang-masters, who are brothers, have brought their separate Syrian refugee field workers together to winter on this bleak, rock strewn, isolated rise in the fields.

Our plan of action here was different than any of the other encampments where we have distributed boots and, to be frank, the people are easier to work with. Rather than have the people come to the van, and to fit and distribute there, here we felt the only way to control the process was to go from shelter to shelter and size and fit the boots at each shelter. This was inherently inefficient as we would go to a shelter, determine the boot sizes, and then someone would go to the van, collect the boots and socks, return, and when some boots did not fit, return to get the new size.

But, on the positive side, we would be dealing with one shelter – okay, sometimes two shelters – at a time, we would validate who belonged in the shelter and then fit the boots there and then.

Additionally, we also brought face paints with us to decorate each child after they have received their boots, fun for the children – and to identify to us those who had already received their boots; I did say this was a difficult encampment.

And yes, sadly, we did have some small children coming for boots (pushed along by their mums, who strove to remain out of sight, – the children themselves are innocent) and who, on examination, had the mark on their hands!

We divided ourselves into three separate entities. Two groups would go to the shelters, ensure we had just the inhabitants of the shelter and then we would collect the appropriate boots and socks from the van and fit them on the children. The third entity was charged with staying by the van, expediting our collection of boots and socks of various sizes and, regrettably, he was also charged with guarding the contents of the van.

Of the two groups going from shelter to shelter, one was led by our interpreter and the other, by E. In E’s group was our minder, who is also a bi-lingual, Turkish/Arabic speaker. He became our defacto interpreter for this group.

Throughout the time we were in the encampment, we would have men, women, teenagers coming and asking us for footwear also, as, alas, they too have very real needs. However, all we had was for the children. Some of the ladies were petite enough that, physically, they could have worn our largest child sized boots. However, the funds were given to provide for the children, and if you give to one adult, the rest will demand that we provide for them…

Whilst we are in the encampment, the sky was cloudless and the sun was brightly, warmly shining. The air was absolutely crystal clear – I mean really, really, unusually, spectacularly clear. And, for the first time at this distance, for me at least, I could see the dramatically tall mountain, Kel Dağı, down at the coasts, some 70+ kilometres away. Truly amazing!

It was a glorious day – a day when you are naturally inclined to smile.

But when my eyes shifted from the view, the sky, down to the encampment surrounding me, bathed as it was in the soft, pleasant sunlight of winter, there were puddles and inescapable mud was everywhere. The low spots were boggy. Some make-shift kitchens had active puddles inside.

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The ground was firm enough to walk on, but, I had to be careful as it was very slippery – a thin film of red mud lay on the surface everywhere. Simply walking across the encampment was fraught with danger as, without a moments notice, my feet could slip and slide beneath me.

My shoes and the bottom of my trousers were well muddied just from our short time in the encampment. You can imagine the state of those, especially the children who abide there, 24/7.

On completion of that encampment it was evident that God delights in answering prayer as we and many had interceded for our time in this particular encampment and it actually had gone quite well,. For comparison with our earlier encounter with this encampment, please refer this blog, click here.

This time, there was no shouting, no oppressive demanding, no tumult, no intimidation, no swarming mass, no mob of besieging children; truly it wasn’t too bad at all.

The smile on my face when we arrived, in the sun, enjoying the clear air and the amazing vistas before me, was still on my face as we climbed in the van and departed.

And, on our departure, as we still had a good number of boots left, not all sizes, but, an adequate number, we headed to a smaller encampment to carry on.

At this encampment we can be a bit more relaxed. The gang-master and his wife came out and they are trust-worthy and are always a delight to see. As they often do, they offered those of us who desired it, strong Turkish coffee served in a wee demitasse. A powerful pick-me-up and sometimes, when it is really strong, a kick-me-up.

We enjoy this particular encampment. We call it the ‘White House’ as the gang-master lives in this small village in a ‘white house’. He has arranged accommodation for his Syrian refugee field labourers here in the village. Mind you, they are living in old buildings, abandoned buildings, lean-tos and such – but better than a squalid tent in a barren field.

Also, the gang-master has a clean, easily accessible, Turkish style toilet, a wash basin with soap and, as I mentioned, they often give us Turkish tea or Turkish coffee. In all the other encampments there are no clean facilities where one can relieve oneself.

Here we were distributing the boots when someone thanked E for what we were doing, and E, rightly, corrected them, and explained that these boots are not coming from us, but from ‘Christians’ and ‘churches’ around the world….

…. and immediately our minder forcefully interjected “you can not say ‘churches’”…

E promptly, forcefully, but nicely, informed him that we do and we will…

He said, in that case stop what you are doing – you must stop the distribution – you cannot continue!”

Strange, strange, strange… methinks… we are providing needed essentials, we are not requiring people to listen to us, nor are we declaring their very real need for a Saviour, nor do we have a banner declaring we are Christians and representing Churches and the Lord Jesus Christ, nor is there a large cross painted on the vehicle or hanging from our necks, nor emblazoned on the back of our jackets, nor do we make a point to loudly, in your face, declare the truth that they all need to hear… nor do we engage in any polemics… we do not rail against the corruption, immorality, nor the actions and activities that have caused the grief of the refugees nor the source of all this darkness. We say nothing detrimental or negative.

We are called to ‘be light’, to ‘be salt’. Indeed, we are living testimonies. We are God’s Light in this a most dark area. Indeed, our God-given love and God-driven service to those who are not of our faith, is a powerful declaration to all – and, yes, by and large, they all know we are Christians.

But, if in conversation, we mention “church” or “Christian”, well, for the minder, a red line has been well and truly crossed, we have gone beyond the pale, we must be stopped!

It is not so much the minder himself, he is a man under authority. He has been expressly and clearly instructed, by his superior, to not allow us to speak in or of the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ, nor to say that we are Christians and that Churches are involved. Never mind that churches are not required to assist and yet have free-will helped these strangers of a different faith.

At our minder’s imperative that we ‘cease and desist’, we began to attempt a dialogue with him. He immediately began by declaring that the Church is the active enemy, and that all the problems in the Middle East come from the United States – and herein is the rub, for many in this part of the world, the United States and the Church are seen as one.

Now, my mind, which attempts to be logical, has trouble squaring the circle whereby Muslims killing Muslims in this part of the world is the work of the U.S. …

But he was convinced.

He retorted:

“Who,” he asked, “is paying the money?”

Who is ‘pulling the strings’?”

Who is master-minding, organising and orchestrating it all?”

It has been my repeated experience that for far too many people living in this part of the world, the clear answer to all these questions is the United States.

As it really is not possible to dialogue with an ideologue… there really is no common reference point, there is no established base line for a frank discussion… the only recourse was to ring the minder’s boss.

This E promptly did…

The boss was adamantly of the opinion that we can not and must not, say we are ‘Christians’ or that the aid is coming from ‘churches’. For him, and as he is the head of his department, for his department, this is flatly unacceptable.

He went so far as to directly and openly say to E, “If you do not want these people to go without boots and if you do not want them to go hungry, then do not say you are from a church”.

Bizarrely, he seems to be extremely content for these impoverished people, these suffering refugees, these hapless individuals sheltering in barren fields, these people of the same faith as himself – his co-religioniststo go without boots and to go hungry rather than to have them receive aid and, from time to time, directly, hear us say the most frightening of words: “Christian” and “church”.

Unbelievable.

Remarkable.

What, in the world, is he so, instinctively, afraid of?

What does he expect to happen through the utterance of these two words?

E informed him that we have, are, and we will continue to declare from whence this assistance is coming. She pointedly said to do otherwise would be dishonest, to lie, the aid is not coming from us, by our hands at the end of the process maybe, but, she pointed out, we are Christians, motivated by the Love of God and the source the provision comes from Christians and Churches in other countries.

She declared we are called to be honest. We are called to ‘speak the Truth in love’.

Additionally, again addressing our part, we are called to love our neighbour, and currently our neighbours are these Syrian refugee field labourers – of an alien faith. So we take the provisions, that God has provided via Christians and Churches, and go out to where these people are living to ‘love our neighbour’.

And that is how it was left: he said his bit and we said ours.

He said categorically, “Do not say,” and we replied categorically, “We shall say.”

Where this tale shall end, we do not know… but we shall continue to be, to do and to say as we have… until we no longer are able…

Strangely, he had requested, and we provided some of the boots we had, for his department to distribute to the needy Syrians in the local town. And, in the past, he has requested and received some food-stuffs to distribute in the town to Syrian refugees.

It is noteworthy, and rather remarkable to me, that he seems to be happy to receive aid from Christians and from Churches, but not for the Syrians to hear from whence this aid arises. He knows. We declare it to him… repeatedly…

Again, I am gob-smacked…

…Why is he so, profoundly, viscerally sensitive to two mere words?

It must also be kept in mind that this is nor just ‘his’, but his attitude is indicative of the greater ‘fear’ and the greater negative and hostile attitude towards Christians in this land of the Bible by the vast majority of citizens living in this country.

Some encampments of Syrian refugee field workers, cease-to-be, they close up shop and disappear in the wet, windy and bleak months of winter.

Good for them.

Living in the fields in winter is not a desirable nor attractive proposition. Life is hard and miserable in summer, and just plain deplorable in winter.

We have been encouraged when we go to provide some assistance to an encampment to find a barren field with just the debris, cast-offs and the detritus left by human habitation that proclaims that there was once an encampment there – but the encampment is no more. They have moved on and maybe, just maybe, to some better place, or, we must confess, sadly, it may be to an equally bleak site somewhere.

This day was our last visit to just such a place. There remains but a few families living in some farm buildings which means that those few remaining will enjoy relatively good accommodation. The main encampment is barren and deserted – workers will return in the spring when field work will again be plentiful.

Those who are remaining in this location, by and large, are dry, secure and have proper sanitation. When there is work, they will work.

However, these remaining Syrian refugee field workers, in spite of the benefits they have, will still be in need. On this, our last trip up the long and prone to being reduced to a hopeless quagmire of a track, our goal was to provide some assistance and to collect their phone numbers. For the remainder of the winter months, we will ring them and then draw nigh to their location – to the closest point where the roadway is sound. They will come to us – farm equipment will happily power through where road vehicles will become well and truly mired.

From there we made our way to the encampment we have named ‘the Grove’ due to the small stand of trees across the road from the encampment; there are no trees or bushes of any description within the actual encampment; it is rather barren.

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This encampment is situated on some high ground. I would not call it a hill, it is just a simple piece of higher ground. It is rocky and would be impossible to farm in its current state. The rocks in this region are large; I mean they are literally gargantuan – they can only be removed with large excavators. The majority of the rocks are buried in the ground, sometimes their heads, sometimes just their shoulders protruding from the soil. Shelters, as best as one can, must be placed around these boulders as they can not be shifted.

On the plus side, this higher, slightly lifted up location, at the very least, will not become a bog in the incessant rains of winter.

And, sadly, it appears that this encampment will be remaining in this remote location over the dark, damp days of winter. The prospects of living in rude shelters, exposed to the wind and rain through the long, dismal days of winter is truly appalling.

The headman in this encampment is from the area in eastern Turkey near the city of Urfa. He is a bilingual Turkish / Arabic speaker and his life occupation has always been a ‘field worker’. He is the headman in this encampment because he is the ‘gang-master’ and the residents of this encampment are his work force.

As the gang-master, he organises the field labour and provides a modicum of the essentials for the workers – it was up to him to find and arrange a place for the workers to pitch their shelters. He also will provide some source of water (often it can simply be a water bowser as in this encampment). I would say in most, not all, but most encampments, the gang-master will arrange a degree of electricity (most often illegally sourced by attaching wires to the passing electrical cables).

The electricity that may be supplied is not properly established. Most frequently you observe wires running over the floor, lying on and through the dirt and puddles. There is no fuse box or circuit breaker. Wires can be spliced together and protected from the elements and curious children with whatever tape-like material is to hand, even sellotape. I suppose if the wires get too hot and burn up, then that will function as a rudimentary fuse… of sorts…

It is up to the residents in the encampment to construct simple out-houses and some kind of structure to bathe in. The bathing structure will have a dirt floor as everything else has, but the tarpaulin will be stretched around and over to afford a degree of privacy to have a rudimentary sponge bath. For the winter months, they also manufacture some primitive shelters to act as kitchens.

IMG_3114We arrived at the Grove, and, as I have been doing recently, I did not drive into the encampment proper, but rather chose to stay on the roadway. The road at the entrance is wide enough for us to set up on the far side, and traffic – traffic is rather infrequent on this passageway – can easily pass by on the remaining side. The residents of the encampment come and stand in the road, hence not in the mud, for the distribution.

The lorry reversed up to the van and hence the vehicles were back to back. This created a separated area for the team to work in. This space together in concert with the simple barriers we bring with us, forms a division between those who are waiting to receive some assistance and the team who are organising and distributing the provision.

Separate from the regular food-stuffs distribution and as the result of some special gifts being provided, we have been enabled to give the children some milk or fruit drinks and a sweet snack.

We have been doing this at each encampment.

But this encampment is different.

This encampment is fundamentally and dramatically different.

The gang-master in this encampment tends to be an ill-tempered, peevish, quarrelsome individual. We witnessed at an earlier time, in a different location, this gang-master physically assaulting a man who he thought needed being put in his place. In all the time we have been engaged in this work, this was the one time where we have observed a fight, a brawl between two men.

This gang-master can be pleasant, but he can be bellicose, petty and, well, short-tempered and grouchy.

It must be said, he is not short-tempered or grouchy toward us; with us he tends to try to manipulate and use us, he tries to get more for himself and his greater family – oh, and also for his Syrian refugee field workers. He is not above lying to our faces, or saying that someone is no longer in the encampment, when they are still in residence. It appears he has done this in the past in order to deprive them of the assistance.

However, it must be remembered that the gang-master is the gate-keeper of the encampment. If we do not make an effort to work with him, he may deny us access to his encampment and the Syria refugee field workers in that encampment; he can be petty, and then it will be the adults, the children and the babies who will suffer…

Today this most bellicose and quarrelsome of gang-masters, was present along with his brother, also a gang-master, and it would appear that they have brought their two different groups of workers together, to this one location, to winter there together.

Sometimes brothers can be very different, but in this case, it is glaringly obvious that they are two peas in a pod. They resemble each other in their looks and mannerisms. And it seems, they resemble each other in temperament. It is apparent they have had hard lives, and the scars on their bodies and more importantly on their personalities is patently evident. Of all the people in the encampment, that is, 197 individuals of which there are 65 children under ten and 18 babies, they were the only two who walked about with sticks, functioning as truncheons, in their hands.

In the past they have brought their separate groups of Syrian refugee field workers together to winter together in one place. In fact, when they this did this a few years ago, at one location, it was felt by the local Turkish village that they were too close to the village and they were rejected and ejected – the villagers required them to relocate.

Yes, the Muslim villagers told the Muslim gang-masters, and the Muslim refugees to depart.

Their current location, situated on some higher ground, is at a distance from any other habitation… so the chances of this happening again are diminished.

I took a quick tour of the encampment, and there are many more people and shelters there than before – indeed it is self-apparent that the other brother has brought his Syrian refugee work force to winter here. This location is now roughly twice the size it was previously.

In the course of my walking tour, I also noted the gang-masters’ shelters. Yes, the gang-masters frequently live in the encampment with their charges.

IMG_3341I immediately recognised the gang-master’s shelters as they had liberally spread fresh, clean, large stone gravel under and around their shelters. No mud for them. The rain can drain nicely away and their shelter will be dry within. I even noted that they had placed wooden pallets inside their shelters, raising them off the floor and providing a healthier environment to pass the winter months.

IMG_3346Not so the other shelters surrounding theirs. They are pitched on the raw earth, hence dampness within the shelters is guaranteed.

As I mentioned, previously, this encampment, that is both the gang-master and the residents, had proven to be a bit of a challenge. We especially encountered difficulties when we attempted to have some activities with the children.

The Team have been going out once a week and playing with the children, organised games, painting, fun things for children that have experienced precious few ‘fun things’. We have provide milk and something to eat as well.

For most encampments this has been a very positive, pleasant experience.

Sadly, even I have noticed that the children in this encampment are all exceptionally filthy. In all of the encampments, all the children are dirty. This is not surprising after all, as there is no proper washing facilities in any of the encampments. But here, in this one, they were dirty to the extreme; clothes, hair, arms, hands, faces were all grimy beyond measure.

Today, as we set about our planned provision of assistance, we also made ready to give the children the special juice boxes together with a sweet treat.

IMG_3336Now, as we do at other encampments, we attempted to line the children up to receive the juice boxes and sweet treat.

In all the other encampments, once the line is established, we begin at the head of the line, and the line slowly advances towards us and all receive their portion in good time and all are happy; no one is left out, no one has extra.

Here, the children, and not a few aggressive mums with babes in their arms, seemed content to line up in a semblance of a line…

…that is until…

….until the juice boxes and sweets came forth.

Then the nicely formed line instantly dissolved, it disintegrated and all broke free and set siege to the two hapless young foreigners whose only crime was to be the ones holding the prize, the juice boxes and treats.

They were surrounded and besieged – children and some quite demanding, aggressive mums – with a thicket of out stretched arms coming at them from all angles accompanied by a cacophony of cries to give to me, to me, to me and the insistent, pleading, whining of the mums. All the while other hands were striving to snatch and steal their prizes from the boxes in the embrace of the foreigners…

The two young people were immediately overwhelmed and forced back four or five metres to the side of the lorry where they abandoned the task as impossible to do in an orderly, organised and fair way. The box of chocolate bars was desperately cast up onto the lorry, the box of juice boxes was pirated safely away.

In advance, I knew it would be difficult to give the juice boxes and sweets to the children in this encampment.

The previous time we attempted to do this, it was bad, not as bad as this, but it was bad. It, too, had ended in a premature cessation of distribution of juice boxes and sweets to the children as the swarm of children was rapidly descending into an unruly, riotous mob.

True confession time: on the last visit, I was attempting to distribute the juice boxes after the main attempt had failed, and my phone rang, it was the wife of our interpreter. Whilst I was suitably distracted, one determined little chap reached up and tore a juice box from within the box that I was holding protectively in my grasp… needless to say, being engaged on the phone, I was caught unawares and I automatically responded in an instinctive, natural, way and I immediately relieved the young thief of the pilfered juice box.

I was angry.

What can I say?

There was and is no excuse for my response!

I really felt bad for the wife of the interpreter who I was speaking with, when suddenly there was a loud exclamation and my attention became solely focused on dealing with my small thief. I felt bad for the lady on the phone, but, I confess, I did not feel bad for the young lad who had his prize in his hand only to have it forcibly snatched from his grasp.

Now to compound my un-Godly response, I made matters worse as later on, when I was able to achieve a more orderly distribution, that is, ‘orderly for this encampment’, of the juice boxes and sweets, and he presented himself to receive something, I specifically, knowingly, and on purpose, looked him in the eye and did NOT give him any.

This was my so-called ‘just’ response to his unsuccessful grasping theft. I am ashamed as I recount this event.

Where is Grace?

Where is forgiveness?

Where is compassion?

Where is love?

Where is a modicum of understanding of the situation he finds himself cast in?

Where indeed…

After the fact, I felt stricken in spirit for my callous and so-called ‘righteous’ response – the response of justice and law…fully ignoring grace, love and compassion.

And for me, as one who was fully undeserving of the Grace of God, the Love of God, the Mercy of God, I, who have ‘tasted and seen that the Lord is good’ to react in this way is a travesty of all that God has done for me – far more selfish and undeserving than that young lad had exhibited.

Again, my response and actions were far more selfish and undeserving than that young lad had exhibited.

He was desperate. He is actively living in truly appalling conditions of deprivation, hunger and suffering… and what is my excuse?

That was on our previous visit, this time I was determined not to make the same error. Mistakes are made, but, we can learn from them.

And this time it was far, far worse than the previous, difficult and contrary time.

Seeing the failure of the two young people to execute the distribution of the ‘special juice boxes and sweet treats’ for the children, I, once again, waded in to the fray, grabbing the juice boxes from the shaken young man. I was determined to effect some kind of distribution – gracious distribution – in spite of their rambunctious and riotous behaviour.

I forged into the teeming mass of the dirty, the neglected, the desperate children. Arms were vigorously, aggressively thrust up at me from all angles, voices cried out to gain my attention, the box in my arms was under constant, determined assault and I attempted to execute a gracious form of distribution.

As I was giving the juice boxes, I was aiming to prioritise the wee ones, the small, the weak, the ones unable to overcome their neighbour – and then I witnessed a larger child wrench the juice box from the grasp of the smaller child, I promptly wrenched it back and gave it to the smaller child – and then I gave the offender, the selfish bully, a juice box.

Why? Because of Grace, that is the unmerited, unearned, undeserved favour or blessing. Did he deserve it? No – but to get what you deserve is ‘justice’, not ‘grace’.

Scripture does not say in vain, love your enemies, bless them, do good to them… it does not make this conditional on their repentance or a change in their behaviour.

If your ‘enemy’ is thirsty, give him drink, if hungry, feed him.

It is rather straight forward and it is not difficult to understand. Sometimes we declare it difficult to do, but it is not difficult to understand – and these are the words of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The children (and a few aggressive mums) behaved as a rapacious horde of barbarians intent on taking and plundering and we strove to give them something to drink and something, special even, to eat.

In the course of this mini-distribution, I recognised my little thief from the previous time, still behaving as is his wont, as he has been taught and trained by all those around him, and I deliberately looked him in the eye, a look of recognition, and gave him a juice box.

There was one point where I bellowed. Oh, and I can be quite loud.

Regrettably, I have observed that more often than not, I can come across as angry, cross, upset. Truly, I am not, nor is it my intention. Actually, it is the furthest thing from my actually feelings. But, alas, it is how I am commonly perceived.

Nevertheless, in this situation I bellowed, knowingly. I was not upset. I was not angry. I was not frustrated.

What did I bellow?

Well, it was a bellow, a “AAAahhaHHHaa” like sound… they do not know English or Turkish, and I do not know Arabic, and my intention was to make a distraction in the raging mayhem.

There was an immediate, short-lived, positive effect in that they slowed down their physical assault on me. I was able to continue in my distribution.

But, soon, it was more than I could sustain and I had to bring it to a premature close. The aggressive ones were coming again and again, demanding, pleading, stretching forth their arms or attempting to snatch from the box in my embrace.

Some of the children received juice boxes and sweets, and many did not and some possessed more than their share.

Maybe next time we need to have several people doing the distribution, and dividing the horde – that way more, and more of the most vulnerable, will receive a wee blessing. Or, maybe, we should endeavour to include it with the food-stuffs, as part of the regular distribution.

Back at the van there were children who came and persistently begged, wheedled, connived and otherwise tried to gain possession of the treats.

Some of the children tried to force open the locked window in the van to gain possession of the treats. They were discouraged from this activity on several occasions. Finally I posted one of our foreign helpers to simply stand before the door to bring an end to these assaults on the vehicle.

This was proving to be a very difficult distribution, especially as we were dealing with a less than trustworthy gang-master, and the corporate conniving, lying, cheating, and grasping adults of the encampment only compounded matters.

Consequently, the distribution was taking a disproportionate amount of time and, with the passage of time, the door minder left his post by the vehicle.

The ever diligent and watchful children immediately launched another attempt on the window. They were able to force it fully open… and caused some damage in the process… for it was locked shut.

However, even opening the window did not put the prize within their grasp.

Once again I returned, and on my coming, the guilty parties became conspicuous by their absence and I was able to get the window shut.

In addition to those intent on assaulting the window, there was one little one who was conniving to get a juice box and sweet. Rather than getting angry, I would pick them up and cart them away from the distribution area, as you would your own child or more like your own grandchild where you indulge them and smile and have them smile as you truck them away.

More than juice boxes and sweets these children are yearning for some attention. They will take attention in any form, a shout, a slap, a smack with a stick, but of course, positive, non-violent attention is the pearl of great price.

I’m not about to beat anyone, nor shout at them in anger (been there, done that, repented) nor threaten physical violence upon them. I will scoop them up and in a positive manner, remove them from the immediate area.

So, now this wee one, trying to finagle a juice box or sweet, had a new game. They would come, I would pick them up, swing them happily about, and cart them away. Sometimes they would beat me back to the distribution area to start the process all over again.

Being in close proximity means there is a danger of head lice being transmitted – but they are more valuable and special than the danger and inconvenience of head lice.

The distribution at this encampment was not a pleasant experience for any in the team.

And on our departure, after fully completing our distribution (everyone receiving their allotted portion), one lady ran up to the reversing lorry, grabbed a bag of food-stuffs, and hoisted the bag, about ten kilos of basic food stuffs, out of the back, and made off with it. Our minder, from the local Social Assistance Department, was there, helping the lorry driver reverse and he tried to prevent her – to no avail.

In my experience, this has NEVER happened at any of the other encampments we have gone to over the course of the three years we have been going out among the fields to assist these refugees.

As we put this encampment firmly in the rear-view mirror, there was a general feeling of relief and also a palpable degree of exasperation…

It was striking that even our lorry driver, who acts and strives to a ‘part of the team’ – on that day he even joined our prayer time before headed out for the day – was of the opinion that we should ‘zero’ the whole encampment. ‘Zero’ is what we do when we make someone ‘inactive’ – historically this has always been due to their moving away.

And so an emotional, natural response would be to ‘zero’ the whole encampment due to their manner of behaviour, their lying, their cheating, their aggressive attitude, their demanding actions and the general, casual violence from the gang-master downwards to the smallest child.

It is a natural, human response to feel that “they are not worthy”.

We can easily compare them to other encampments where, for example, on the very same day, something fell from the vehicle and a child standing nearby swooped in to scoop it up and return it to its rightful place in the vehicle – he was striving to assist and help us. And again, on the same day, a young child was offered a juice box and they responded by saying they had already received theirs and went on their way.

It is very easy, very natural, to conclude that this encampment has declare themselves a pariah encampment – justifiably worthy to be avoided.

It would be so easy to declare that this particular encampment is too difficult, too hard to try and provide anything to them because of their contrary, aggressive, grasping behaviour. Indeed, as we go from encampment to encampment, if anyone will lie, and it can happen in other places, but it will definitely happen here; if anyone will attempt to present twice for provision, which can happen in other encampments, it will happen here, and, as we witnessed, if someone will steal out of the lorry, this simply has not happened in any other encampment, but it has happened here. Indeed, I think is is fair to say that if we looked, we could find another encampment which would be far easier to work with.

The natural, earned and deserved response, is to write off this difficult and contrary encampment – to ‘zero’ them, to leave them to their own devices, to avoid them like the plague, to treat them as the pariah they declare themselves to be…

That is the natural, human response, and what is the appropriate response from God’s perspective?

Let us recall that the world was at total, absolute enmity with God.

We, everyone, each of us, were going our own individual ways.

We declared, that is each and everyone of us, declared ourselves to be as ‘god’ in our lives – that is, the final authority in our lives. We lived according to our thoughts, our plans, our desires and our passions. We purported to be masters of our own fate, living, planning, executing, solving problems according to our own understanding and desires. The last word in our lives was from ourselves, our desires, our will – that which we determined.

And today our world is filled with sexual harassment (and worse), warring, killing, maiming, hurting, enslaving, cheating, abusing, using, harming, boasting, strutting and all the while mankind is making like all is well in our world.

We, each and every one of us, deserved and earned the right to reap that which we had so plentifully sowed.

God was under absolutely no compulsion to intervene.

God was not forced to make a way of ‘salvation’ and to offer it to any who would desire it.

God was not required to make a provision to enable undeserving man a way, a means to renew and re-establish a relationship with Almighty God – but He did.

But He did

He, by an act of His free will, expressed His Love, His Mercy and His Grace and provided for us that, which we did not, by any definition, remotely deserve.

God Almighty did this whist we were active enemies of God, being proud, arrogant, going our own ways with no thought nor regard for the Creator God, while we were in this state, God sent His one and only Son into the world that through Him we might have Life and Life to the full.

And, as those who have received this free gift of life, even eternal life in Christ, those who have been reconciled to God through the finished work alone of the Lord Jesus Christ, we have now been given the ministry of reconciliation, whereby we call our fellow man to be reconciled to God, and as scripture says, we are called to make our calling sure, and to be productive in our knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ; we are exhorted to put behind us the ‘old man’ and ‘its natural responses’ and to be re-made into the image of Christ, reflecting God’s values and God’s Love, God’s Grace, God’s Mercy and the Character of God in our lives.

Therefore, what then, can be our response to this rather contrary and difficult encampment, this encampment which will, naturally, experience rejection and be reviled by all in the world?

What, then, can be our response to these lying, cheating, demanding, ungrateful, conniving, violent people?

I can hear some voices articulating that, “Surely they must learn the consequences of their actions – how else will they learn and change…”

In other words, just like God left us to our fate, to the natural consequences of our actions that we might learn and change….

Except He didn’t!

He intervened, and He Himself established an example, sending His only Son, Jesus, who came teaching and then by sacrificing Himself, He completed and made a way that we may be fully reconciled with God. Through the Lord Jesus Christ, we, fallen, sinful, rebelling, proud and arrogant mankind may know God, learn directly from God and receive the Power of God to enable us to overcome temptation and sin in our lives, empowering us to live good, productive, clean, wholesome, pure, honest, lives with integrity.

Jesus, the Son of God, sacrificed Himself that we might live – and He calls us to follow Him, to be like Him, and, yes, to sacrifice ourselves that others might live…

I am convinced that this encampment should take the Number One place in our hearts – not because the people are so pleasant and such a delight to assist, not because they are a pleasure to be about, but, truly, because they, more than all the others, need to see the Love of God, the Grace of God, the Mercy of God lived out among them.

And how will they see and experience this?

God has called each one of us, He has given to each and every one of His children the ministry of Reconciliation. In fact the Lord Jesus Christ has declared that each and every one of His children are Light and Salt in this world.

People – and the people in this encampment – will only see the revelation of God, if we go, if we love, if we serve, if we forgive, if we are gracious, if we are compassionate, if we are patient, if we persevere, if we are kind and if we come back again and again and again… and give them that which they do not deserve.

Just as God has done in each and everyone of our lives to call us and bring us from our darkness to His light, from death to life, from slavery to my passions and desires to full freedom, so we need to be available to do the same for those we encounter.

I feel that this encampment needs to be our Number One encampment because of all the encampments we serve, they need the message, the testimony, that Almighty God loves the world, the whole world, including them and He has done all that is required that mankind, each and every one of us, regardless of who we are or what we have done, can know Him.

It is my conviction that this encampment needs to be our Number One because of all the encampments we serve, their need is the greatest.

All the encampments have a shared need of physical assistance.

All the encampments have a shared need to see and to know the Love of God.

All the encampments have the same needs; they are shared among them all.

But of all the encampments we serve,

this encampment is the darkest,

it is the dirtiest,

it has the most violence against the weakest members of their own encampment.

The only hope for them is the Good News.

The only hope for them is to know God.

The only hope for them is for them to taste and see that God is good.

The only hope for them is to receive the Grace of God, the unmerited, unearned, undeserved favour of God.

How will they know any of this if we, His children, write them off and avoid them as the plague, rejecting them, as they clearly deserve to be rejected, and if we abandon them to their chosen path and their chosen fate…

God didn’t do this with us…

….what, then, shall we do….

I try and walk every day with my aim of accomplishing at least 10,000 paces.

Ten thousands paces is a number bandied about as a good, healthy goal, but this first came about as a marketing name for a Japanese pedometer (!). Since then most studies since have endorsed this as a reasonable goal for most – too much for some, too little for others, but conventionally it is good as a broad ‘rule of thumb’ guide.

In any event, my goal is 10,000+ per day, but not in a legalistic, ‘absolutely must accomplish’ manner.

I have a variety of routes around the city and I endeavour to accomplish various tasks in the course of my travels.

In my ramblings I have observed a variety of things including Urban Renewal projects whereby older, weary, unsafe apartment buildings are being systematically rendered into dust and debris to be replaced by new, modern, earthquake-resistant constructions. I have seen the river reduced to a stinking, green morass due to the lack of water at the height of summer and I’ve seen it swelling with the prodigious abundance caused by torrential rains in the winter months. I’ve observed the Water Authority digging and laying a large pipe in the base of the river. I do not know why it has been laid, or to what purpose it will be put – but after two years, it now lies, buried and hidden in the bottom of the riverbed. And, there are banners displayed about town ‘promising’ that the river will be returned to its blue, non-reeking past by next summer (2018).

And, in my meanderings, I came across some renovations of the ground floor corner, front and side garden of an apartment building – something was being prepared. Over the course of weeks, slowly stone cladding was laid on the floor in the front and side of the building, the corresponding walls of the building were decorated with a brick façade and the corner section, the bit that is actually in the fabric of the apartment building, a service counter and various pieces of equipment were installed.

All of that is normal enough, but what caught my eye was the lack of, er, well, a ceiling, a protective roof and exterior walls with doors, in the place where the front and side gardens had been – that is, 75% of the footprint of the shop was exposed to the elements.

I had discerned that it was destined to be a coffee shop, providing light snacks and a selection of hot and cold beverages. But, at the end of the day, there was no way to ‘close up shop’, it was fully exposed.

I thought, surely, they will put shutters up, or a screen, or bars or something around the essential food preparation area which is situated in the building… but, alas, there were no shutters, no fittings for bars nor any way to enclose this area at the end of the business day.

Strange” I thought.

The day of their Grand Opening came and went, and the cafe / coffee shop was, wide open and unrestrained.

I must say that I found this rather intriguing.

Finally, I could contain myself no more and I broke my walk and stepped up – there really was no ‘in’ to step into, and I enquired as to what they do when the business of the day is over.

The answer was simplicity itself: “One of the employees stays on the premises overnight – he becomes a night watchman.”

I realised, then, that like many things in Turkey, they were ‘open’ but the project was not yet completed.

A good example of this is our local airport. For years there were visible works. The runway, the access road, some diverse buildings. But once they had all the absolutely essential elements in place – the electronics, radar, airport fire brigade, runway, lights, support systems, all the indispensable and vital elements, they constructed a small, basic building to act as a temporary terminal and ‘opened’ the airport.

It would be two years before the proper, large, modern terminal would be constructed and ready.

As time passed, they added to the simple two lane road connecting the airport to the main road with an additional second, parallel road and so, when fully finished, it formed a four lane divided carriageway.

In the initial phase, there were few flights, and so they could work all the kinks and teething problems out before it was fully completed and more passengers would be flowing through on a daily basis.

Very clever methinks.

Turks have truly mastered the phased construction methodology and so things are up and functioning before they are fully finished. And so, in a similar manner, those creating this coffee shop brought it up to an acceptable level, and together with a night watchman, they opened for business.

But the finishing of the shop would slowly continue over the course on the following year.

They opened in summer, when it literally, never rains in Antakya – yes, you may get a very rare, once in a blue moon, rain, but it really is a unique exception. However, before the onset of September, when at sometime in that month the first rain of autumn / winter will descend, they arranged for some retractable, high quality – luxury – roof awnings to be installed. They have built in lights and are extremely well made.

They are electrically powered retractable roof awnings – they open and close at the push of a button. It was clear this ‘retractable’ roof would provide the essential protection in the winter months from both the drizzly rains and the torrential flooding downpours. Of course, in the summer months, they will provide blessèd relief from the intense, scorching, Antiochean sun.

Additionally, these ‘retractable roof awnings’ also enabled the coffee shop / cafe to be considered ‘outdoors’ and hence exempt from the ‘indoor smoking ban’; the customers are free to imbibe in their smoking addiction. This is a massive business plus because smoking has been banned inside restaurants since July 2009. And, remarkably, this ban has been universally respected.

Since that time all enclosed restaurants, cafes, coffee shops and such are smoke-free in Turkey. Whilst this has been greatly appreciated by the growing numbers of non-smokers in society, it has left the smokers frustrated and fuming.

But, here, in this cafe, those ensnared by the entanglements of tobacco, are free to sit, relishing in the beverage (non-alcoholic) of their choice and engage in a relaxed, comfortable chat, and, in this outside-in cafe, if they so desire, they can light up at any point it takes their fancy or are forced to by the power of their tobacco craving.

This is a unique selling feature.

In time walls consisting of powered glass panels, which could automatically be raised or lowered, were fitted. These formed the exterior walls. These can be raised, to protect from the rains or the driving, bitter, cold winds of winter and lowered, to allow the delightfully cooling breezes of summer to pass through the shop.

They even fitted proper, lockable doors to the front of the shop.

At the end of the major works, the coffee shop / cafe is now weather tight, and the need for a night watchman is greatly diminished. The need is diminished, but they still have a night watchman, I asked, for although the shop is enclosed and the roof is made of a strong, sturdy , flexible awning material, it could still be pierced.

At the very least now, with the walls, firmly in the ‘up’ position at night and the roof tightly closed and weathertight, it is a more secure proposition – and a more amenable locale for the watchman to, er, well, watch in…

As the months passed, they have continued to polish and refine the interior décor. They have installed misting fans for the summer, fancy, mosaic like lights for decorative lighting and special, under-table heaters to provide directed heat for the patrons in winter.

The shop, now, after the passage of time, actually a fair amount of time, has been completed and the space is fully fitting out. Now, when I see tradesmen, it is not something new being fitted, but essential maintenance to ensure that all continues to function as desired.

I find it interesting to note that even when the walls are fully up and the roof is tightly closed, people freely smoke… To my eye, and nose, the space is now fully ‘enclosed’ and feels like ‘inside’. I ponder if it is still ‘legal’ to light up. I wonder if the space would now be more accurately described as ‘indoors’. I suppose it can be argued that the space is still to be identified as ‘outdoors’ for at the push of a button or two, it can easily be wholly outdoors.

Regardless as to the legal technicalities, at the end of the day, functionally, it is treated as a smoking friendly zone.

I tend to frequent this particular establishment, not because of the smoking or the freedom to light up – I find the revolting stench of cigarette smoke decidedly off-putting – but because I have developed a rapport with the owners and the staff. I come by – generally at off times – when there are few other patrons and precious little smoke fouling that air. Oh, and they make a rather nice de-caffeinated cappuccino.

It seems that I am the only customer who enjoys a nice de-caffeinated beverage. I asked.

There are times when it is cold, cloudy, a light rain mizzling and the retractable roof and glass walls are all tightly closed up, and the cigarette smoke, lazily drifts in the space and it is inescapable.

Well, I grew up in a time and in a home where my mum and dad smoked. My early working life was before the current enlightened era; in those days everyone, all smokers smoked everywhere, unrestricted, inside, outside, work places, offices, buses, cafes, restaurants, absolutely everywhere.

Seriously, it was not that it seemed or felt like it was ‘everywhere’, it really was everywhere.

I do not enjoy the obnoxious, gagging, stench, but I am not driven away by it either – in the old days, you had to accommodate it as it was inescapable and I guess I just fall into old habits.

In any event, as I said, I tend to go at times when there are few patrons – so, even if the roof and walls are fully buttoned up, often, although not always, I can be blissfully unaware of anyone smoking.

Over the time that I’ve been going there, I’ve noticed that there are some people who seem to be always ‘there’. I assumed they are either partners in the business or backers of the enterprise or relatives of the owners.

As we have recognised one another, we have chatted, and they have come to know this crazy foreigner who comes and sits and writes away over a hot cuppa and I have come to recognise the various players.

In the course of our time together, I have discerned that they are of the Sunni division of Islam – the more orthodox branch.

They, in turn, have learned that I am both a Christian and that I am associated with a local Christian fellowship here in Antakya.

Recently, I was sitting, enjoying my beverage, doing some writing, when an individual who once, for a period of time, had come to our fellowship, approached and sat down beside me.

She is a single mum and is struggling with her teenage son. What single mum, or, for that matter, what married mum doesn’t have struggles with their teenage son?

She shared some of her struggles and a recent event when she, in frustration and anger, stumbled and struck her son in exasperation and helplessness and his general, surly attitude. She was asking what she should do.

Well, in my world view, the problem is neither unusual nor is there an easy, ‘off the shelf solution’ that can be drawn upon to sort things out.

I was open and honest with her and told her where, I believe, real help, real hope, real solutions can be found. Be warned, if you ask me, you get my answers.

So, I found myself, in this coffee shop, telling her Where and in Whom the answers can be found. I spoke candidly, frankly, honestly and sometimes rather bluntly…

I was sincerely speaking with her irregardless of the staff and one of the owners/backers being nearby… in any event, in Turkey, very little is done secretly.

I was sitting in the coffee shop, writing, when she came to me. I was visible. I was available. She approached me, shared a wee bit of her burden and asked her questions. I responded and answered her.

This, I believe, is all part of being ‘Light’ and ‘Salt’ in our world. Not doing something ‘special’ but going about our normal lives, and being who we are in Christ. Remembering: “But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect,” 1 Peter 3:15 NIVUK

What will she do? I do not know, that is for her to decide.

Often our lives, like this coffee shop, which, although not complete and all tricked out, was open for business, and so, we, are alive and functioning and interacting with one another, although we are not complete nor finished, there is still an on-going work in our lives – always learning, ever changing.

I know this is true in my life.