Today, 18 December, 2017, we returned, once again, to ‘the Grove’, this most challenging of the ad-hoc Syrian refugee field worker encampments that we visit. On this expedition, we endeavoured to be ‘smarter’ than in the past and to try and hopefully, to avoid some of the most egregious problems we have previously encountered.

Indeed, this is the only encampment where we have experienced the theft of a bag of foodstuffs off the back of the lorry.

As this occurred whilst the lorry was reversing and to hinder a repetition of that theft, on this outing, we arranged that I would be reversing the van and the lorry would be set up to drive straight off at the conclusion of our time here. The lorry would do no reversing in this encampment.

Additionally, we normally travel past this encampment on our way to a more distant encampment, and visit this encampment on our return, they know we are coming and they are ready for us… maybe too ready.

We felt that denying them this advanced notice may make the encampment more manageable. Therefore, we drove the back way, a much longer route, to the furthest encampment. On completion of that encampment we just arrived at ‘the Grove’ with no forewarning.

‘The Grove’ is also the encampment where we have tried, and sadly, failed to fully distribute the special treats that have been provided for the children.

However, we are still endeavouring to bless the children and give them these special treats. As the former method had consistently floundered on the rocks of this tumultuous encampment, this time we introduced a new method – just for them. Here we would include the special treats bundled together with, and at the same time, as we provided foodstuffs, pads and where appropriate, nappies and milk. This is not as nice a method, and you can never be certain that the children will actually get the treats – the mums very well may consume the treats themselves, or they may favour one child over another.

Applying this special method, just for this encampment, we strove to ensure that every child on the system had their treat given with the foodstuffs. A side benefit of this method here was the Team was not besieged by an unruly mob or, at times, nearly rabid rabble of children. Oh, and additionally there were no attempts by the children to gain forced entry to the vehicle with a view of pillaging the store of treats.

As we seek to serve this particular encampment, we try to work with the realities on the ground and still accomplish our goals.

Whilst we were processing the various inhabitants from one side of our ‘working zone’, I noted two wee boys, on the opposite side. Both lads were under six years of age. The one boy, slightly taller, suddenly grappled with the other in an obvious attempt to simply inflict pain. This was not rough-housing, nor play fighting, he was going for blood. He was squeezing, punching and twisting to make as much pain for the other child as he physically could.

Before I could intervene, they broke off their clinch. Not a sound was emitted by either.

However, after I turned my back, the victim of the earlier encounter, the smaller boy who had been assaulted, turned and forcefully grabbed his former assailant by the head and drove him vigorously, face first towards the side of the van. Before I knew what was happening, there was the sound of the impact of his face coming into a forceful encounter with the van.

Once again no sound was forthcoming and they broke off their hostilities and scattered.

This really is a very dark, a very sad encampment. Harshness, casual violence, shouting, thrusting, jockeying, striving, grasping for advancement is the norm within this gathering of souls.

And it is in this encampment where a young bride whom we encountered a year previously – she married at 14 years of age – still a child herself, now resides. It is in this harsh and unwelcoming encampment that she dwells with her equally young husband and their baby girl. One of the members of our American team was touched by her plight and purchased some baby things for her and her child. The American, herself, a pregnant mum, wanted to help her and to ‘visit with her’ – the only impediment being she speaks no Arabic and the wee child-bride-new mum speaks no English.

Nevertheless, they spent the majority of the time we were in this encampment, ‘visiting’. Sometimes it is remarkable the degree of communication that can transpire in spite of lacking a common language.

At the end of the day, if any place needs to see light, needs to be exposed to a better way, needs to see love and grace and patience and perseverance, it is this place.

Twice a year is carrot season, the spring and winter. This photo is from the spring harvest.

Many of the inhabitants were away in the fields working – this is the season for pulling carrots from the muddy soil – and so on arrival we were not confronted with as large a mob as on our previous encounter. Also, neither of the two, rather problematic, rapacious gang-masters were present. And so on this occasion, our distribution was a bit more manageable and a little less chaotic.

Mind you, the formidable ladies still seemed to think the most effective means to communicate with us, even those of us who speak no Arabic, was to shout emphatically at us – in Arabic – vigorously gesturing all the while.

Nope… absolutely no comprehension on our part.

When we thought we were done… we were not rushing to leave, we wanted to make sure we saw all who were to be seen, but, quietly we were thankful that it seemed to be finished…

… a minibus flew up and skidded to an abrupt halt near our vehicles positioned at the entrance to this encampment… it was transporting some of the missing inhabitants from the fields where they were labouring….

It is known that on our arrival to an encampment we will leave the provision with an immediate member of the ‘registered’ family – but if there is no one from the family present, we leave nothing.

And so, on the arrival of these late-comers, the work carried on…

When, finally, we had worked our way through these belated individuals, we were confronted with a small gaggle of various ones who were presenting to be registered and to receive some foodstuffs.

It has been our experience over the course of the three years we have been engaged in this activity, that at the end of our time at an encampment, that the chancers, the charlatans, the liars come out – and oh, mixed up amongst them can be bonafide late-comers or honestly unregistered new-comers.

Within this cohort was one individual we had dealt with on our previous encounter. Nothing had changed in his circumstance, and no, we were not about to give him anything. On our previous encounter it was determined that whilst he is living alone, and he waits for his family to join him – which he believes will happen at some time in the future, he is, in the meantime, eating from the kitchen of a relative, and on checking the number of people in that family, they were already in possession of the extra needed to feed him. Nevertheless, he keeps trying it on…

Then there were others who presented, but claim they do not have any ID. This is possible – just. But the whole picture taken together, it was unconvincing to me at least.

They were presenting in this context of misrepresentation, dubious presentations, and these two, who were claiming to be four individuals staying together, but there were only two before us, and they were young men with no ID – Turkish or Syrian.

Again, I was feeling unconvinced

The lack of any ID is hard to accept in this part of the world where everyone has some form of ID – with the very rare exceptions of those who have just fled a disaster. These young men were claiming not to have Turkish ID, fully understandable, but they must surely have their ever-essential Syrian ID.

Grace would have even to give them a bag of foodstuffs – but, unfortunately, I was not feeling very gracious at that point in time.

At a different encampment, or earlier in our time there, I very well may have been more gracious in my response….

Methinks, there be a lesson in here for me… grace over all…

We departed…

From ‘the Grove’ we made our way over to an encampment we have named ‘Isken-1’.

This encampment also looks to be wintering in the fields like ‘the Grove’.

But this is a very different encampment.

There are 185 people registered in this encampment with 59 children between two and ten years of age and 36 babies – which means that fully half the encampment is under ten years of age.

On our arrival, down the poor field road, the sun was pleasantly shining. Vibrant, young, green grass has grown among the multitude of stones in the fields beside the encampment. This vista provided a delightfully rich, captivating and verdant background. The weather was warm. But, most importantly, these Syrian refugee field workers are very different in attitude and behaviour to those in ‘the Grove’.

Here they stand around, in a pleasant cluster, in a non-threatening, patient manner, waiting their turn. There is no shouting, gesticulating, shoving, intimidation or ruckus behaviour by demanding adults crowding in on the zone where the team is working.

The children are, well, everywhere. They are, by and large, clean and clean-conscious. There are no adults driving the children back with sticks – so unlike ‘the Grove’.

The children are friendly and cleaner than you would expect for people living without adequate washing facilities.

I moved away from the vehicles and the crowd and began tossing the children up in the air. They loved it. A small cluster gathered around me asking for ‘their turn’.

Then two young men came towards us, animatedly speaking and gesturing at us in Arabic, which I do not understand. But one word they kept repeating was ‘haram’ which is the same in Arabic and Turkish meaning ‘sinful’, ‘forbidden’,‘unlawful’.

I thought, is it ‘haram’ to toss children in the air? Am I doing something offensive? Am I, inadvertently, doing something wrong?

I speak Turkish. They speak Arabic.

But, with their descriptive chatter, and hand gestures, I began to get an inclination of what they were saying.

I called our bi-lingual minder over and asked him to enlighten me.

It was just as I was beginning to suss out. They were concerned that I, a white beard, an older gentleman, was tossing children in the air… a vigorous and demanding action. They felt and feared that I may do myself an injury in the effort. It was, in their view, haram’ for the children to be asking to be so entertained and played with.

They were merely concerned for the ‘old man’.

Later in the distribution and this was the last encampment of the day, actually of the year… the next distribution is planned for 2 January 2018, I mounted the lorry and moved a number of bags from the front to the back of the lorry to be ready for distribution.

A couple of the children were by the lorry, and I lifted them up into the lorry – they really enjoyed being inside the ‘forbidden zone’.

As I was moving the bags, they too, spontaneously begin moving the bags… mind you the bags are disproportionately large and heavy for them to move, but with all their effort, they would tug, pull and cajole the bags towards the back of the lorry.

They were being helpful, without being asked.

When it came time to alight from the lorry, I called them, in Turkish, I do not know Arabic and they, in truth, do not know Turkish, but they understood. They came and were happy to be lifted down – out of the desired, prized location. No resistance, no demanding to remain there, they quickly and happily acquiesced to my request.

Later, when it came time to move the rest of the bags to the back of the lorry, a young Syrian refugee mounted the lorry and shifted all the remaining bags forward. No one asked him to, he saw the need, and jumped in to do it.

He was being helpful. There was nothing extra in it for him.

This is so unlike ‘the Grove’.

In ‘the Grove’, the van is always locked and there is no way we could trust anyone up on the lorry. Sometimes the young lads have offered to assist… but always and obviously with an eye some the reward they expected to gain for doing so…

Here in ‘Isken-1’ the van remains unlocked and help is welcomed in the lorry.

Two children were holding my hands, and we were walking beside the lorry. There was some mud to one side, and the person on my left accidentally stepped in the mud. Her sandal and toes were soiled with mud.

She immediately stopped, got a piece of paper and commenced throughly cleaning her footwear, and then her toes. She is aware and striving to be clean.

So unlike ‘the Grove’.

In the end, some people came who ‘used to be in a nearby encampment’ (we called it ‘Isken-2’). That encampment is no more – the inhabitants have either moved to ‘Isken-1’ or the relatively nearby town of Kirikhan.

It became clear that these late comers are no longer living in the fields, but have come from Kirikhan, and we do not provide for those who are not living in the fields.

In any event, the last bag came off the lorry, so there was no more to give. They didn’t press, which is also an established tell of those who are ‘trying it on’.

We still had some ten or so litres of milk left on the lorry. Normally we would return them to Antakya, and take them out on the next run.

But here, I grabbed the box and gave a litre of milk to each small child I saw until they were gone.

It was a good day. The team will carry on the work in the new year, but it was our last day before we return for our annual sojourn in the United Kingdom.

It was a good mix of encampments.

And, once again, some more lessons for me to learn had come to the fore.

Truly it was a good contrast between the two encampments; one, which you naturally want to help and enjoy, and one, you realise is the neediest of them all and we really need to prioritise and spend time there being loving, caring, gracious, serving, patient, understanding and always being true to who we are in Christ and allowing Him to shine forth in us.