Tuesday and Thursday are the days when the team goes an hour up the valley, to the encampment, pitched in the shadow of the religiously conservative town of Kırıkhan. This encampment hosts the tent where our ministry to the Syrian refugee children is done. We’ve named this ministry ‘The Haven of Love and Compassion’.
The goal of the ‘Haven’ is multi-faceted:
Firstly, to demonstrate love and compassion to the children, as the name we have given this work indicates. They have experienced so much suffering, devastation, horror, deprivation and pain. Our desire is to expose them to the Love of God.
Secondly, we desire to bring a degree of ‘normality’ to their lives. Games are organised, that they may be free to act and be children; laughing, jumping, playing together. Often the children are burdened with very adult responsibilities being imposed and thrust upon them. We desire to offer a respite, a brief time when it is okay for them to be simple children, doing childish, things without responsibility, obligation and without fear of chastisement and punishment.
Thirdly, as many of these children have been displaced for years, they have lost the opportunity to gain even a basic, rudimentary education. Education, that is to say, basic reading, writing and arithmetic, are IS?? the most essential skills the children need whatever the future may bring upon them. To meet this very real need, we have engaged Syrian teachers – refugees themselves – to teach these basic skills to the children.
Lastly, we provide a good, hot, wholesome meal to nourish and build up the children. We were humbled when we commenced providing this meal as the children often set aside and harboured some of the food for their absent family members (who were labouring in the fields) – they thought of the needs of others above their own desire to consume the food laid out before them. Realising this, we strive to meet both of these needs: the children before us and their absent family members. This seemed like the best way to ensure the children were well nourished. At the end of the meal we either provided a sweet treat or fresh fruit. Contrary to what I anticipated, they highly valued and enjoyed the fruit.
16 February, being a Thursday the team went as usual to the tent for the ministry of the ‘Haven of Love and Compassion’.
However, on arrival the team were greeted by the District Education Director together with the district Mufti (the ‘mufti’ is an official learned in Islamic law who is in charge of Islamic affairs for a province or district.
On their arrival, the Education Director launched into an aggressive and harsh diatribe against the team. Whilst the team desired to explain what they were actually engaged in doing, the Education Director was on a rant and provided no opportunity for the team to respond.
The Education Director was venting his spleen, in a torrent of a sharp, one-sided discourse. His vitriolic harangue, continued without pausing, hence it was limited to a solely one-way communication. As he was not offering an opportunity for a dialogue, for give and take, this resulted in him not understanding anything of what the team were attempting to say.
Under this unrelenting, one-sided barrage, one of the team became rather agitated and he himself became angry. Consequently he started countering the Education Director rather harshly himself.
In spite of this tit-for-tat exchange, and in spite of the dangers of this degenerating into a pointless and harmful hissy-fit, by God’s undeserved, unearned and unmerited Grace, the Director must have understood his own error, as he softened his approach and actually apologised for how he had been speaking.
The brother who had become vexed also apologised at this juncture, confessing that to speak that way was against his understanding of the teaching of the New Testament.
Once the air was cleared and from that moment onwards, the discussion became a true discussion, with all parties both speaking and listening.
When he asked, “Why didn’t you get permission to do this work?”, Elmas, the elder’s wife, began to explain about all the governmental offices she had gone to and all the myriads of officials she had seen on the way. She mentioned the names of the Provincial Governor, the assistant Provincial Governor and other directors she had seen.
Once he realised his assumption of this being a lone-wolf, uncontrolled, independent and irresponsible action was false, and that indeed, this work is not being done in secret or a quiet corner without anyone knowing about it – on the contrary, that we had already been to those who are his superiors, he then began to really listen to what we had to say.
The entire situation, what we do, who we serve, everything, including the government offices we have been to was carefully detailed for him.
Finally he declared, “You are not allowed to teach children”, which, in Turkey is true. All education of any description from formal schools to informal dance classes must all be authorised and approved by the Ministry of Education. This is the Turkish way and the Turkish norm.
As these were Syrian refugees, and as they had been receiving no education before we commenced, Elmas replied, “If we don’t teach them, then you need to do it.”
What can the Education Director for that region say in response to this? Whilst it is true we can not teach children, they exist solely to teach children.
“OK,” he said “we will do this.”
Now, he very well may have been planning on doing this in any event – central government has pledged to educate the myriads of Syrian refugees in their midst… but now he openly acknowledged the responsibility.
The Education Director continued and said, “Next week we will begin both Turkish and Arabic lessons.”
With the resources of the Ministry of Education, they will not be limited to the wee bit we were able to do twice a week. He indicated that they would provide teaching five days a week and for five hours a day.
It would seem that at the very least, the educational needs of these Syrian refugee children looks to being addressed.
The Education Director commented further, as we had laid out the full scope of our ministry, “On the topic of helping the refugees with food, clothing and other things, you need to go to the Kaymakam (District Governor) and ask for his permission, or else you will be committing a crime,” he said.
The team took Elmas to the office of the Kaymakam (a Kaymakam is a District-Governor who reports to the Provincial Governor).
It was agreed that Elmas should go in alone – the brother who had lost his temper feeling it best he not be there. As nothing is ever simple or straightforward in Turkey, she was there for next 2 ½ hours.
In the event, the Kaymakam was not in the office, but was coming ‘soon’, and so Elmas first saw the “Document Comptroller” (a position that I’ve found difficult to translate). While she was waiting for the Kaymakam, the Document Comptroller expressed his curiosity about our beliefs, and consequently asked many questions. His queries were all freely and fully answered.
In the fullness of time the Kaymakam arrived, and with the help of the Document Comptroller and after a pause to brief him, she was ushered into the presence of the Kaymakam. The Document Comptroller also attended.
Elmas found the Kaymakam to be a well-intentioned man. He seemed to want to help. The situation was fully explained to him. However, he declared that as our church does not have official status, that we could not, as a church, engage in aid distribution. There was a discussion of the possibility of her applying for permission as an individual which may be acceptable – but the church connection was a definite stumbling block.
The reasons and motivation for our helping the Syrian refugees was clearly and openly shared with both the Kaymakam and the Document Comptroller. Elmas explained that the greatest command the Lord Jesus Christ gave us was this:
Jesus replied: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” Matthew 22:37-39
It was explained that Syria is our neighbour, and because of this we are helping the refugees from Syria… because according to Jesus’ words, we are to love our neighbours.
After that, they called the District Social Welfare Officer to come into the meeting.
This official simply told Elmas that we could not assist the refugees.
After declaring that, however, he then began to ask questions. He wanted to learn about our beliefs.
He asked various questions and received complete answers.
He was very interested in one particular topic. He believes that there are different Gospels among Christians. He has been taught that each Christian division (Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Protestant) has a different Gospel or New Testament in which they believe – hence the differences between them.
Try as she might to explain that there is only one New Testament, he dogmatically returned to what he believed was correct. Everything that we presented he found very strange.
At this juncture Elmas expressed how very sad she felt.
“Why?” he asked.
She replied, “If an educated person like you cannot understand this, then how am I going to be able to explain myself to the person on the street?”. She concluded by commenting “This is why they have a wrong understanding about us.”
He seemed touched. She was able to talk to this man for a full hour.
In her view, he seemed a humble man.
At the end of the discussion she thanked him for his time, and said she would pray for him.
“Will you really? How will you pray?” he asked.
“I will pray that God will bless you and make you salt and light in this province.”
This he was not expecting and immediately queried “What do you mean ‘salt and light’?”
“Salt gives taste to our food and I will pray that you would give taste to this province, and that you would shine like a light” she replied.
This pleased him.
She asked for his name and he replied Mustafa Erkayırıcı.
He then asked if his name was in the New Testament. He was told that even though it was not in the New Testament, his surname, with the meaning of one who protects or supports, was very good.
He then requested a New Testament. It was agreed that we will take him three New Testaments, an Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant New Testament so that he can compare them (remember, he believes that there are different New Testaments – the best way to convince him they are the same is to provide him with them and he can then discover this for himself)…
We are encouraged that the children will now have lessons every day and for five hours a day.
This is not the end of our adventure…
More to follow….