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.

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….

Well, today has been a day.

I know we do not ‘control’ any of our days – we are dependant on so many varied variables, but today has been distinctly different.

My normal routine had already been knocked for six because a man was coming to fit a sump pump in the house (another story why we need this), and I needed to be in attendance and consequently, as my normal morning routine was superseded. This being the case, we arranged for a man who can install central heating systems to come and appraise our flats and produce a quote.

Consequently, I went for my morning constitutional at 08:00 – the time I normally give to practicing the guitar.

Just to complicate things, we had anticipated some visitors arriving on the previous day in the afternoon – but in the event, they actually arrived at 11:30 – er that is 23:30… a time that I call night.

A brother from Diyarbakir, in the east of the country, was shepherding them on their desired tour – they themselves visiting from South Africa.

In spite of arriving late the night before, they were leaving by late morning today – an exceptionally brief visit.

Over breakfast there had been a discussion of the work that the small Christian Fellowship here is involved in with the Syrian refugee field workers. They were interested to learn more, and see a bit of the work. Hence, in my absence, it was decided that I was drive the church vehicle and lead them up the valley to some of the Syrian refugee encampments that we labour amongst.
As I was scheduled to be at the house to ‘attend’ as the man was to fit the sump pump, he was rung and we cancelled the appointment – to be rescheduled for another day.

It was also suggested that rather than having the ‘man’ dig the pit for the sump pump, that I dig a hole 1 meter deep by about 80 cm square before we call the man to come back… Okay…

With these changes in play, we also rang the central heating man and arranged for him to come in the afternoon…

My plans for the afternoon have now been dealt a blow as well; my normal routine had been suspended and now the alternative plan (attending the sump pump man) was superseded.

I climbed into the church’s ten passenger Volkswagen Transporter and began my hour long drive up the valley to where we do our aid distribution…

There were about ten or twelve people in the other van.

On the way up the valley, I was leading, when, unexpectedly the following van overtook me. Now in front, he promptly pulled over to the side of the dual carriageway, stopping in front of a small shop. It seems they wanted to get some refreshments of some sort.

When they were ready, I headed out again – faithfully holding to the 80 kph speed limit. I utterly detest speeding tickets and paying money for, well, nothing really, just a certificate of speed attained.

We passed through the first police check point with no problem. But, further up the road, I was selected to be checked by the Gendarme at their security checkpoint.

I dutifully pulled in and stopped – the other van, not being so selected, carried on. I rolled down my window, greeting the soldier and then turned away to turn off my phone which was playing music to accompany me whilst I drove. The soldier looked in the empty van, looked at this late middle aged, white-bearded foreigner and when I finally turned from my phone, he told me to carry on.

Off I went, rejoining the traffic on the dual carriageway and powered up the valley – holding to the 80 kph speed limit.

Then ahead I spied the other van, moving slowly along on the side of the carriageway. Now the vehicle I’m driving is a rather distinctive black Volkswagen Transporter, so when I over-took them, I ‘assumed’ they would see and recognise me. The driver knows our vehicle.

After overtaking, as I pulled away, I checked my mirror and they seemed to be continuing to drive slowly along the side of the road. I assumed they would speed up.

I carried on… at 80 kph.

When I arrived at the turn-off point – there was still no sign of them – I stopped.

Now, I rant and rave against people using their mobile phones whilst driving; so I had purposed to neither initiate a call whilst driving, nor to answer any incoming calls. Stopped as I was now, I was still loath to ring the other van as they are most likely driving.

So, swallowing this, for me, rather bitter pill, I rang and the first question was “Are you still at the Security Control point?”

“Er, no, I was there very briefly, I am awaiting for you at the turnoff point”.

A few minutes later they roared up, and our convoy, now duly reconstituted, departed, me again leading the way to where the Syrian refugee encampments are situated.

We travelled up to Kırıkhan, and turn off the main road and headed towards the border. The encampment I had selected was not the first, but at a bit of a distance, but it was a good, all-round example of the encampments we deal with. Additionally, there is a real gaggle of children there and the visitors had purchased some sweets to give the children.

We call this encampment ‘The Grove’, not because there are trees in the encampment – there aren’t any – but because there is a grove of trees across the road from the make-shift encampment. This encampment is on a bit of a rise, and now, well into summer, baking hot. As I said, no trees within the encampment, everything is exposed to the unrelenting, scorching sun. Water at this particular encampment is provided by a water bowser which is topped up from time to time.

Sweets were happily received by the children.

After this encampment we swung by another encampment – but this was wholly redundant, and, as one of the visitors commented to me, “They all look alike”, to which he added, “You’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all,” – let the hearer understand, he was politely declaring ‘No need to show us anymore.’

We powered back to the main road – the other van turning right to carry on up the valley and then back to Diyarbakır. I turned left to return to Antakya.

It had been stressed to me that I needed to be back by 13:00 as the van was required. Today was a deferred time for the team to go to one of the encampments where we do a children’s work – their departure time was slated to be 13:00.

So, in one sense, I was racing the clock. When we departed we had three hours for me to complete the journey, there and back.  I thought this was easily adequate amount of time for the task. However, in fact, it was taking more than three hours to complete.

I did not exceed the speed limit, if I arrive late, I arrive late.

I was patient at all the red traffic lights.

I think I made a record for the number of red traffic lights I encountered on the return journey.

Being impatient at a red traffic light profits me not at all; being patient, however, and remaining calm, blood pressure abiding where it ought to be is both profitable, pleasant and absent of stress.

I had been told that if I was late, then they would take Ö’s vehicle – it would not be the best solution, but it was a viable and a ready solution.

My better-half, T, can monitor where in the world I am as I have ‘shared‘ my location via my phone with her. Hence, I hoped that they would have an idea where I was and, roughly, how long I would be.

Again, I had determined that I would not ring T whilst driving, and I would not answer the phone if it rang.

Driving the speed limit, waiting patiently at all the red lights, I arrived at our home about ten minutes later than their planned departure time.

Happily, my ever-changing location had been monitored; consequently they knew where I was and about when I would arrive.

They had opted to wait.

I didn’t park up; I just stopped in the street in front of our house – which given how narrow our street is, I effectively blocked the road. But I knew they would be departing posthaste.

Personally, I was done in… being diabetic, I can not play loose and free with my meal times. I had grabbed some bites of my sandwich whilst up the valley – only whilst stopped, not whilst driving.

Now at home, I finished my meagre meal.

Immediately after the meal was my first opportunity to practice the guitar this day, but after just ten minutes, the man for the central heating system arrived.

Now, I thought he would come, do his investigation, make his measurements, and calculate the cost all before I would depart for my guitar lesson, which was fully two hours after his arrival.

Indeed, I even entertained notions that I would have time to practice some before the lesson.

The man and his helper came and examined the space we had identified as a potential ‘furnace room’.

It is not ideal, but, well, it is the only space that could be remotely converted into a furnace room.

It took quite a while to determine where the chimney could go and then to decide where it would go. The chimney will begin on the ground floor, pass through a disused stairway which is covered and made into a wee balcony area on the first floor and then pass up through the roof and then, it will pass through our neighbours roof which overhangs ours. All in all, it is proposed to be eleven metres of plastered, cement block chimney, reinforced with angle iron.

Just to make things more interesting, this is on the side of the house that is subject to our neighbours rather disturbing subsidence….

After sorting the furnace room/chimney out, they came into our flat to measure for radiators, decide where they would go and how the various challenges identified could be and ultimately, would be addressed.

Then we went upstairs to the elder’s flat and did the same.

For me, the clear priority is the upstairs flat as my motivation in going to a furnace system was to alleviate the labour and work load of the elder’s wife, E.

In Turkey, if you have a wood/coal fired, pot-bellied stove, it is the lady of the house’s task to operate it (fuel, light, maintain, empty ash) – it is a cultural imperative and, really there are no practical alternatives.

But when it comes to furnaces, however, they are primarily a man’s responsibility – it is a big piece of equipment that needs a man’s touch.

Interestingly, emptying the ash is still the ladies task – but I have been sold on the idea of a wood-pellet furnace which produces very little and very light ash – or so we have been assured. So the labour requirements for the elder’s wife will be greatly diminished – which is the goal.

Then, over a demitasse of strong Turkish coffee, he did his sums.

I, as seems to be my nature, complicated things.

I wanted a sum with the second-hand furnace, a sum with a new furnace, and a sum with the top of the line, fully automatic furnace.

I also wanted a sum calculated without doing the radiators in our lower flat, in an effort to save money.

However, this last request is extremely strange and a rather odd kind of request for Turks, and in the end, it seems, he just ignored it.

We got our prices.

We drank our Turkish coffee.

I buzzed with the effects of the potent caffeine hit.

I had been surreptitiously monitoring E.’s location (she has shared her location on her phone) and I knew they were well on their way back from the children’s work.

Before we were done, she arrived, and so, we began explaining everything we had determined, what could be done and what we suggest should be done – if we decide to have a system installed.

Then the elder, H, arrived from his secular job.

So, we began explaining everything to him.

It was in the midst of rehearsing all the salient facts, problems, compromises and solutions that my guitar teacher rang, wondering where on earth I was… because I clearly was not at my lesson…

Time had totally escaped me.

Profuse apologies, following profuse apologies… things really are not going according to any plan that I am part of today.

In the end we finished all our explainations.

We need to inform the central heating man by the morrow if we want to install any system and especially if we desire the second-hand furnace.

Today, nothing went to plan and I was bounced from pillar to post by various events…

But, life is like that… we constantly need to respond to events, assess, appraise, decide what we can and should do in the circumstance and all the while, to be true to who we are and our principles.

In April we went out on a special distribution trip to one particular Syrian refugee ad-hoc encampment.  For two weeks on the hop, we had been unable to get to this small encampment that we have entitled “White House”.

We named it “White House” because the Syrian refugee field workers are encamped around the house of the gang-master.  The gang-master is the individual who arranges the work force for those who need field workers.  They also are responsible for providing a degree of provision for the Syrian refugee field workers; for example, at the very least, they arrange a place for them to pitch their shelters, and arrange transport for them to and from the work in the field and that they have access to a source of water.  In this instance, the gang-master’s house is painted white and stands proud on the edge of a rise – hence the name, White House.

The White House encampment was on the list for distribution a fortnight previously, but, due to new registrations at previous encampments, we depleted our stock of food stuffs before we were able to get to the White House.

This happened the following week as well.

So, we determined to go out on a special trip to just that encampment.

According to the new conditions imposed upon us by the local district governor, as we passed through the town of Kırıkhan, we picked up our two ‘companions’ who accompany and observe us – our minders.

As we were driving towards the White House, along the simple roads between the fields, we passed an encampment where we had been just the previous Monday.  It was immediately apparent that the overwhelming majority of the people were gone – just the scars on the ground giving poignant testimony to where their shelters had once been pitched.

Then, as we drew near to the White House, everyone in the van was commenting on a new encampment.  It was on the left hand side of the van, but, driving as I was, I was looking at the road and immediately to my right a new shelter that had been erected caught my attention… hence I didn’t see this ‘new encampment’.

On arrival at the White House and realising my error, I walked back down to the bend in the road where I could see this new, rather sizeable encampment, dominating the top of a barren rise about a kilometre or so from the White House.  This new encampment was towards the border from the White House.  The White House is just under seven kilometres (as the crow flies) from the border and this new encampment, would be just under six kilometres distance.

Because, currently, there are not many refugees at the White House, we quickly processed the list and distributed the foodstuffs. We routinely load extra (as a hedge against the unexpected), and there was a new family to register.  They were registered and provided with foodstuffs.  When all was done and finished, we had but two bags of foodstuffs surplus to requirements.  Not bad planning.

It was as we completing the distribution at the White House that one of our two ‘companions’ got my attention.  He was the one who just a fortnight earlier was ‘offended’ because, in his view, we were ‘advertising’ that we were Christians and that he was very strongly of the opinion that this was wrong’;  this was the same chap who had complained and had the Gendarme (in charge of rural policing) called out to stop us.  Now he came up to me with a query.

He earnestly inquired if we were planning to go to the new encampment just observed a kilometre off, with a view to assessing the needs there.  He made this enquiry in such a manner and with the clear understanding that he felt that we should do just that.

I was not expecting that, especially from him, after all we unashamedly and unabashedly ‘advertise’ that we are ‘Christians’ and that the provisions are provided by ‘churches’.

In actual fact we were planning on going there to determine if they were Syrian refugees and from whence they had come and what their needs are.

Meanwhile, at the White House, the gang-master’s wife treated us to some powerfully strong Turkish coffee in the traditional demitasse cups…  It gives you an almighty kick to carry on with.  Our travelling ‘companions’ declined the coffee.  After we had enjoyed the break, we climbed back into the van and headed out.

We hadn’t travelled fifty metres when the road before us was nigh unto blocked by two farm tractors thundering up the road (these roads are, er, not of a generous width).  As I slowed and pulled as far to the right side of the road as I could safely go, E recognised the lead tractor driver and asked me to wait.

The first tractor shuddered to an abrupt, skidding halt which caused the following tractor to also hastily slam to a stop – it is a narrow road.

The lead tractor driver came up to our van.  He had recognised us, and E had recognised him.   He is one whom we have aided in the past, but he and his family had moved and we lost touch with them.

They were lost, but now they are found.

We felt that this was significant as he has a sweet wee daughter afflicted with Cerebral Palsy and his sister is in a struggling battle with cancer.  We gave him the last of the food stuffs that we had and learned where he and his family are now abiding.  We added them to the list for our normal distribution.

rocky fields and shelters 2We then carried on to this ‘new’ encampment we had seen.  It consists of about 25 + shelters, encamped on a slight, rather desolate rocky rise.  The field where they are situated has not been ploughed – can not be easily ploughed because of the large rocks – and so it looks to be a drainable, dry site for the pitching of an encampment.  There is no water, but, hey, isn’t that what water bowsers were created for?

water bowser
Water Bowser
open water containers
Kitchen & Washing Water sitting in the open air

We parked up and immediately the wee children began to materialise, and as they did so, we instantly recognised them.

It seems the encampment we had seen on our way to the White House, the one that appeared to be ‘almost abandoned’ has in fact moved, lock, stock and barrel to this new location.  Those shelters that we did see in the old location, are actually erected and populated by new (unregistered) people who have taken over that location.

The gang-master for the encampment we were in, arrived and we ascertained the relevant details, and commissioned a name for this new encampment (there are trees nearby – across the road – so we are calling it ‘the Grove’).  This established, we departed.

Isken Yani 1 at a distance
the other half of the encampment

The following Monday, on our return to this area, and in the course of our planned distribution, we were directed to another new encampment.  This encampment struck me as strange as it is divided into two distinct clusters, separated by about 150 metres or so.

Even in desperate conditions, mankind can display discrimination and petty rivalries and strife – they have all fled the same, most abhorrent violence, chaos and terror and are now living in primitive, deplorable circumstance, existing, literally hand to mouth, and yet they can still squabble and fight and shun one another.

Many of the people in this ‘new encampment’ had been previously registered at other locations – it turns out that, in like manner,  these were people whom we had lost contact with.

They, too, are now found.

Once the registration was completed, we distributed the remainder of the food stuffs we had on the lorry (our ‘contingency’).  We were restricted in what we could provide as our contingency was not sufficient to provide that which we would normally distribute which is according to the size of the families.

From this new encampment (we have identified as parts 1 & 2) we departed to meet a chap who had flagged us down on the road.  He asked us to come and see the Syrian refugees living near his farmstead.

We agreed to meet him at the corner where he had flagged us down.  From there we followed him to a new encampment situated just over three kilometres from the border.  There, three long platforms had been carved out of the hillside to make flat surfaces for the shelters to be erected (hence not using up valuable field space).  Apparently, he is the gang-master and lives, I presume, in the farm house nearby.

At this location, which we have christened “Border”, we encountered another 20 shelters (nearly 100 souls).

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In this encampment there are many young babies, but, alas, we had no nappies left.  We went to this encampment on the following Monday for our monthly distribution (with sufficient nappies).

Already, at the start of this season the number of encampments and individuals has increased.  Consequently we have had to go from twice a month to three times a month for our distribution.

This is a significant increase in amount of work involved.  For three months we had a group of Americans helping, and they have been doing the heavy lifting.  Alas, they left at the end of April.

And now, what shall we do – what can we do – with our diminished numbers and limited strength…

When you see the innocents, the children, the babies, the young teenage girls and boys whose world has been wrenched and torn asunder – when you look at their ‘washrooms’ – a tarpaulin enclosed frame with some tarpaulin on the floor to ensure you are not standing in mud as they sponge bathe; or you examine the kitchen, often another tarpaulin enclosed structure with no chairs, tables, benches, cupboards, oh, and no cooker… ; or you look in the shelters and see some carpet on the floor, laid over the rough field surface, with precious little else in the shelter; living in barren and desolate fields with no means to prevent the ingress of all manner of creepy-crawly insects and a whole host of field creatures; when you consider the ‘toilet facilities’, one of the most basic of human requirements and see a tarpaulin enclosed square over a shallow hole in the ground at the edge of the encampments, no security or real privacy –  this calls us to persevere – for as long as the opportunity and means exists, for at the end of the day, when I leave the fields behind me, I go to my home, close my real, substantial door, where I reside in security, with indoor plumbing, running water and nice hot food.

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The weather report for Monday, 27 March called for overcast, cloudy skies.  However, this being Antakya, the weather was lightly, slightly overcast, bordering on sunny.

As we had a good-sized, eager team from America, the loading of the lorry was done in an quick and efficient manner.

With a full complement of individuals to assist, drive and translate, all bases covered, we headed out to the fields up the valley from Antakya, just past and under the jurisdiction of the town of Kırıkhan.

When we arrived at Kırıkhan we picked up two individuals assigned to us by the local Social Welfare Department.  For a number of weeks now, we have picked these two young men up.  They are well presented, clean shaven, in their early twenties, but neither has even a basic GCSE equivalent qualification.  One is slim and taller and the other is shorter, and, well, rounder.

In the beginning we did not know why they were to accompany us.  When E, the elder’s wife and the head of the Syrian Refugee work in our fellowship, queried the reason why they were to accompany us, she was told they were there “to help and assist in the distribution”.

This was somewhat incongruous with their activities as they never lent a helping hand, rather, they stood around and watched, took photos, played with their phones and chatted to each other.  In stark contrast, our lorry driver, who is only contracted to drive his lorry, happily and willingly helps in the distribution, handing down the bags and really helpful in a variety of ways.

On one occasion, the tall ‘helper’ wanted to see what was in the bags we were distributing and so we happily let him select the bag he wanted to open, and peruse the contents.

In the course of the distribution, it is our practice to stop for a meal break, and our ‘helpers’ have broken bread with us.

On this day we collected our ‘helpers’ and headed out to the first encampment of the day, situated on a barren corner of a field at the conjunction of two field roads.

This encampment was on my list, but the team hadn’t been there this season, so there was an underlying disconnect – if they haven’t been there, how is it on my list?  

Therefore, when we arrived, it was a bit confused to say the least.  

As we worked our way through who was there, and how many souls made up the various families and providing the appropriate amount of foodstuffs, they, as people are wont to do when receiving something, began to express their gratitude to us.  This was also the encampment where the child was, the one who had the devastating skin disease and had lost all his fingers and toes, and who was suffering terribly.  Because Sovereign Lord, in His Love and Grace used us to help the lad and his family – he is now receiving treatment in Antalya – other relatives, still residing in this encampment, once again expressed their heartfelt gratitude to us.

Now, from the beginning, when people expressed gratitude to us, our response has always been to declare that the assistance, the provision, that which is coming from our hands, is first and foremost the provision of our Loving God; often we will say “give thanks to Jesus”; additionally we declare that the provision has been enabled by the giving of Christians and various churches from around the world.  Not overbearing, but a clear, simple declaration of truth.

And so, at this, our first encampment of the day, as people were expressing gratitude, we, as we do, once again clearly made known the source of the food stuffs they had received.

This was repeated a few times at this encampment as it came up a few times.

Now, one of our ‘helpers’ over heard all this, it seems for the first time.  

This stumbled him greatly.  He accepts that it is acceptable for us to help people – but in his view, it is wholly unacceptable for us to “advertise” (his word not mine) that we are Christians and to say that these provisions come from Churches.  

I find this rather bizarre because on the following day, as I was on my morning constitutional, I walked past the Council buildings here in Antakya and there on the pavement were seven or eight boxes that I concluded were food aid as there was a list of the contents (food items) on the side plus, in rather large print, the name of the Council.  They are, by the same token, likewise making ‘advertisement’ by identifying from whence the aid comes.

I dare say it would be apparent that the problem was not so much the ‘advertisement’, but the mentioning of ‘Christians’ and ‘Churches’ that was the cause of his ‘offence’.

And so, we are now exposed to the true nature of our so-called ‘helpers’, more ‘auditors’ than ‘helpers’.

Now, in Turkish culture, if there is a problem, generally speaking, you will not directly confront someone yourself, but, using a third party, you will let your thoughts be known.  In this instance, this method was employed and one of our number was charged with telling E to cease and desist in proclaiming that we are Christians and that this aid comes from Christians and Churches – in the ‘offended one’s view’ – to stop making ‘advertisement’.

This she flatly refused to accept, arguing that the ‘helpers’ did not have the authority to make such a restriction, that there is freedom of religion in Turkey, that we have been doing this from the beginning of this work and that we would continue to do so.

This, it is fair to say, did not go down well with the ‘offended one’ and his companion.  Therefore, the ‘two’ retreated and proceeded to ring their manger and to inform him that we were ‘making advertisement’ and we ‘would not desist from doing so’.  The manager – the regional director of Social Welfare Department, so informed, declared that he was sending the rural police, the Gendarme, to come out and “stop us”.

Whilst they were making their phone call, E also took advantage at this time to ring one of the people she had talked to in the regional office, the Document Comptroller – a key individual who is the gate keeper of the work that flows to the regional Governor – a central and influential position.  He is also a very religious Muslim, and in their previous meeting, E had shared her faith very openly with him.  That occurred in the district governors office during a previous occasion when she spoke about what we are engaged in, with the regional governor, and various managers, including the director of Social Welfare.  She delineated to the Document Comptroller the current situation as raised by our ‘helpers’ and requested his assistance.

This was all transpiring at the planned second encampment of the day.  

We began our distribution.  

The ‘two’, muttering to each other, stood off to one side, watching, not hostile, but not happy either.  The one who seemed to be most offended seemed to be ‘righteously indignant’ that we were using aid distribution to ‘advertise’ who we are and from whence the aid comes.

I approached them to engage in conversation with them and they informed me that in the Koran it declares that “when doing good, your right hand should not know what your left hand is doing”.  I found this an interesting quote.  I found it a remarkably interesting quote.  

Indeed, after our return and on further investigation, it seems that there is no such reference in the Koran (it may be in the Hadith – ‘the Sayings’, I do not know, but it is not in the Koran proper) but it is clearly in the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ as recorded in the New Testament.  His quote to me was very interesting.  I muse, “Was he inadvertently quoting from the New Testament in his opposition to Christians?”

Anyway, back at the encampment, the ‘helpers’ suggested we say something innocuous and ambiguous – the unstated result would be that the hearers would be ignorant that Christians have anything to do with it.  Again, they unintentionally and subtly declared that the point of stumbling is not in making ‘advertisement’ but in the nature of the advertisement.  

The stumbling blocks were the words ‘Christian’ and ‘Churches’.

It always amazes me how profoundly sensitive and deeply insecure they are, that a simple mention of the source of the aid is deeply offensive.  This may arise from a deeply inbred insecurity about their own beliefs or as an example of the spiritual warfare that we are engaged in, or a mix of the two.

As we were distributing the aid, we were, at the same time, awaiting the arrival of the rural police, the Gendarme.

It is true to say that things had not been running to schedule on this day, and our mid-day meal break was going to be an hour or so late – this is in no-wise noteworthy, truly it is of no importance for the healthy amongst us, but it definitely was not good news for the diabetic amongst us who needs to ingest sustenance at regular intervals.  

Alas, my blood sugar was in decline.

It was when we finished our distribution and the next item on our schedule was our delayed meal break, that I noted the bright blue Gendarme vehicle on the road coming into the village.  I was not alone in noting it as our two ‘helpers’ were on active look-out for it.

On catching a glimpse of the Gendarme vehicle, one of the ‘two’, the one who was the ‘informer’ and the ‘offended one’ ran off to intercept the Gendarme least they carry on looking for us up the road.  

It is the most I’ve seen him do in the time he has been with us.

He intercepted and collected the vehicle and it made its way down the ratty old side track to the location of our distribution.

Two officer class or at least, senior NCO class individuals alighted, followed by a scrawny looking conscript whose task it was to guard the vehicle and be ready for ‘trouble’, holding, as he was, a rather large rifle.

The Gendarme strode over, sour, stern expressions on their faces.

Turkey is dealing with many extremely serious problems; a Kurdish uprising and associated violence and terrorist acts, the presence of millions of Syrian refugees – some of whom are not the ‘cream of society’ and hence prone to doing wrong, others who are active adherents to IS and its bloody ideology, plus all the normal policing problems in a border area related to smuggling, AND YETand yet… here they are, armed and ready to deal with the threat that some people engaged in a ‘good work’, occupied with helping the disadvantaged, vulnerable, destitute individuals, and in the course of doing this are mentioning, or speaking of being Christians and that the aid comes from Christians and Churches

Truly, I am speechless.

Nevertheless, the Gendarme are there, looking serious, and taking it very seriously indeed, and the two of them together take an aggressive tone and approach declaring that we “can not do this”.

One individual, whether it was the ‘specialist’ with the Gendarme or the ‘informer’ – the ‘offended helper’, I do not recall, but they declared that ‘we can not do this’ and E immediately confronted him and declared to his face that she is not listening to him as he is clearly ignorant of the law.

She boldly declared that as a Turk she has the right to share her faith with whomsoever she chooses and they can do nothing about that – it is her right.  She confidently stated that she could call all the Syrians over and present the Good News to them, in front of the Gendarme and that they could not arrest her as it is her legal right to share her faith.

She also stated that we have been helping Syrian refugee field workers for three years and declared that all thoughout that time we have clearly proclaimed who we are and from whence the aid is coming.

She also explained, that although she has this legal right to openly share her faith, that we have not taken advantage of these vulnerable people – we have assisted openly, freely without let or hinderance, only declaring the source when it is appropriate, that the nature and source of this assistance would be honestly known.

The Gendarme wanted to examine the contents of a distribution bag, and so one was selected at random, opened up and the contents scrutinised.  Rice, beans, sugar, tea, oil, bulgar wheat, macaroni, soap, salt, lentils – all very dangerous items in the wrong hands…

Finally, the phone call that the gendarme were waiting for came through – we think from the district governor’s office.  After the call, the senior gendarme turned, his visage now smiling and friendly, and he declared that there was no problem and we were free to carry on.

The ‘two’ – our assigned ‘helpers’- were intimately involved in all these discussions, they were, after all, both the ‘informant’ and the ‘offended party’.  They heard the defence as presented by E, and as well, that the Gendarme did not counter it nor attempt to refute or deny it.  They observed that the Gendarme did not arrest us, nor compel us to desist in speaking of being ‘Christians’ and the ‘Church’.

This interlude with the Gendarme now concluded, we loaded everyone into our vehicles, including the ‘two’, our ‘helpers’, who are to accompany us in our distribution, and, as we declared, made our way to our luncheon location.  My chosen venue for lunch was a tree by the side of the road about a kilometre up the road, halfway between two encampments.  The Gendarme followed us there.

We stopped to eat.

The Gendarme, after pausing and after we offered to share our food with them (declined), continued on their way to other, more serious, business.  We tucked into the lunch provisions: black olives, bread, sliced tmates, cheese, luncheon meat and ayran (a yogurt drink).  

On this occasion, the ‘two’ declined to join with us – but as we insisted that they have something, they did accept the ayran drink.

From there we went to the third encampment of the day and then on to the final one.  The ‘two’, as is their customary practice, were idly standing around, watching.

At the last encampment, I spoke again with them, not about what had transpired, just, friendly chatting with them.  Hopefully, demonstrating the love, compassion and Grace of God.  There was a goat pen at this encampment and one, the ‘informer’ – the ‘offended one’ – explained how he has experience with animals from his childhood in a local village and he put his finger through the wire and the goat suckled it.  He did this a number of times.  Then he did it again and the goat bit him.  Undeterred, he did it again with another goat, and this one drew blood.  At this point he desisted.

This was what I had intended to be our penultimate encampment, but everything was distributed and with nothing left in any of the vehicles, we prepared to depart and return to Antakya.  As we have done in weeks past, the ‘two’ then moved from our vehicle to the lorry.  The lorry driver drops them off on his way through Kırıkhan and we take all of our people back in the van.  It gives the ‘two’ a good opportunity to talk about us, and to have a quiet word and query our lorry driver.

Over the course of the day, it was revealed by various ones that, it seems, there has been a number of complaints about us, not just from the ‘two’ who accompanied us, but from others as well.  As you would expect, the complaints are made by ‘anonymous’ sources.  

It is clear that the complaints do not arise from the recipients of the assistance, nor from the gang-masters who organise and manage the work of the Syrian refugee field workers.  If the gang-masters didn’t want us, they could simply say so.  They are the ones who have to organise and ensure that the recipients are brought back to the encampment when we do the distribution as we do not just dump a load of aid ‘by faith’ – we check ID and family composition at each distribution.  The gang-masters actively facilitate our distribution.

Therefore, the query arises, from whence do the complaints arise?  

I dare say, it is likely to be from those (religious individuals) who are stumbled, offended and frightened by the fact that Christians are doing ‘good works’.  Christians, just doing the good works, is a stumbling block.

If we acted like them and were only helping our co-religionists, that would be okay.  They would understand that.  In their eyes, we would be the same as them, for this is what they would do.  But Christians helping suffering Muslims, this is prima facie offensive and wrong.  The fact that we are open and honest about from whence the aid comes, is compounding the offence, adding insult to injury.  

Additionally, it is probably true that there are Turks who are not receiving assistance and hence are jealous and complain.  In this case, they would be basically reflecting the attitude, “If you aren’t helping me, you shouldn’t help them.”  The fact that, as citizens they have automatic access to much state aid, and, at the end of the day, their simple living conditions are still light years ahead of people living under canvas in a muddy field notwithstanding.

In any event, whatever the motive, the ‘complainers’ are patently content that if we are stopped that the consequence will be that the hungry will remain hungry, that the children will not receive adequate sustenance, that those dwelling in primitive shelters in the fields and with insufficient clothing, that their suffering will continue unabated.  They are content with the suffering of their co-religionists RATHER than suffering the indignity of allowing Christians to help, aid, assist, and assisting without let or hinderance, without some ‘requirements’ being fulfilled by the recipients.  

Clearly, what we are involved in, is aid on the basis of ‘grace’ and not right, nor race, nor religion, nor language – grace (undeserved, unearned, unmerited favour) – motivated by the Love of God.

Indeed, if the ‘complainers’ want us to cease and desist in our activities, if they were prepared to step into the breech and meet the need and from their own pockets and their own resources go out and with their own physical efforts go and help their co-religionists – I would have no problem.  We would happily desist.

Sadly, however, they want us to stop – but they are not willing to pick up the task, to meet the need.  They are content for the deprived to be deprived, the disadvantaged to remain disadvantaged, for the suffering to suffer…

God is not.  

Eternal shame on them – this not as a curse, this not as a prayer, this is not a wish or desire, but this is the natural conclusion of their actions. 

Western nations turning away refugees to maintain their lovely life style should also take note…

(written 1 November 2016)

After a long time without any outside helpers, it was all coming together.  

Four Americans; big, burly, strong Americans came for a visit – in spite of all the fearful hype about our part of the country.  They timed their visit to be able to help on both the preparation day – assembling the food-stuffs into sacks and for the distribution.

As our goal was to prepare 180 sacks, the assistance of our American guests would be both timely and greatly appreciated.

The Preparation:

To facilitate the packing, when the bulk goods arrived the day before, we opened all the sacks or boxes so that on the day, the loaders only have to deal with putting in the sacks and not opening the large sacks or boxes.  That is very helpful and  ensures smooth loading on the preparation day.

On the actual preparation day, when we assemble the sacks, we have various individuals stationed by each of the bulk goods.  Others will pick up an empty sack and walk by the bulk goods where the food stuffs are deposited in the sacks.  Those carrying the sacks walk in a large circle.  At the end of the circle one person binds the top of the bag with a cable-tie and finally another takes the finished bag and places it on the pile that will be loaded on the lorry on the following day.  We have one other person in charge of breaking down the used boxes and managing the discarded bags and recycling the larger sacks to be reused and filled with food stuffs to take out.  Everyone so labouring ensures that things keep moving efficiently.

The division of labour is basically based on strength: the stronger ones lug the sacks around, twirl them before the cable tie is applied, and then recommence the cycle.  The, uh, ‘not so strong ones’, stand by the bulk food stuffs, ready to place their food stuff in the passing sacks.

As we had 180 to do, that meant those lugging the sacks had a continuous, never-ending trip around the circle.  Those sacks are only ten kilos, but after a number of trips around, they can begin to feel like more.

It is a diverse group of people who stand by the bulk goods and deposit the items in the sacks as they come by.  They includes many of the children.  It is inspiring to see the children helping in this way and to see some of the very small children ‘doing their bit’ throughout the process.  The youngest helper is just 4 years old.  

Placing things in the sacks sounds easy, and it is, but it is relentless.  You deposit one item, and another sack has arrived and you do another… a continuous process of ‘turn-grab-swivel back-release’ then repeat.  Sometimes it can be intense for an adult, but the children, well, they just seem to flow with it all.

Our visiting group had arranged to go with us on distribution.  This was a double blessing as one of them is a ‘mother-tongue’ fluent Arabic speaker.

Therefore, on the following morning, there were three, local, able bodied loaders and the four, brawny, strong and fit gentlemen from the States to heft the 180 sacks up and onto the back of the lorry.  Prior to loading, the sacks had already been moved out of the courtyard and placed in the street in preparation for the loading.  One of our guest climbed up into the lorry to aid the lorry driver in loading the sacks.

Everything was coming together.  

We had all the assistance we needed.  

Then I heard the unmistakeable, inescapable, distinctive sound, reverberating across the valley…

It was a sound I did not want to hear, but, there is was, the foreboding clap and rattle of thunder…

Rain, that vital blessing from heaven, that which waters and nurtures the earth and cleanses the dust and detritus of human activity from the air and land, is, at the very same time, rather unhelpful when you are planning to go out and do a distribution in the fields northeast of the city.

“Er, maybe it will pass… maybe it is ‘just’ thunder’… maybe it is going the ‘other’ way…” 

These vain hopes flitted though my mind.

We gathered in the courtyard and prayed together, committing the day and its’ activities ot the Lord.

As the lorry, the VW Transporter that we normally use, and the elder’ vehicle were all loaded, we headed out.

Before we had driven three kilometres from our home, the thunder delivered its augured bequest and the skies opened up and the rain came pelting down with intense vigour.

I immediately regretted putting the milk in the lorry.  My thought was we would, as we normally do, distribute the nappies, wet wipes and pads from back of the Transporter, and then we would tell the driver of the lorry how many sacks and how many milk to unload from the back of the lorry.  Efficient I thought.

The milk is intended for the children, and so not everyone will be getting milk – hence we could not simply put it in all the sacks.

Now, the lorry, like us, was plodding on through the onslaught of the pelting rain.  The milk would be okay, the boxes of UHT milk are sealed after all, but the boxes holding the cartons of milk would become water logged and disintegrate.  Not ideal, but no biggie.

I started the windscreen wipers on intermittent and as the rain intensified, advanced to more frequently, then full and finally graduated to its frantic, frenetic setting.  It was really, honestly, fervently raining.

We drove on.

After thirty odd minutes of driving, the rain let up and slowly diminished and finally ceased.  

At last, the windscreen wipers were laid to rest.

We carried on.

On arrival at our first encampment, it was sunny with scattered clouds – the sky was absent of the dark, foreboding, menacing clouds that had stalked us in Antakya.

As the first encampment was not very large, we were finished quite quickly.  This is the encampment where we were introduced to the child with the horrific injuries inflicted by a treatable and yet, due to the war,  untreated skin disease.  He and his family were not there… we were informed that the Health Professionals had moved the family to the city of Antalya (a considerable distance from the border) and were treating him there.  No more tents, no more field living for them.  We were greatly heartened to hear this. 

Back at the encampment, it was evident that it had rained and I found I had gained about two inches in height due to the accumulation of mud and muck to my shoes.  It is one thing for me, standing there for a short period of time to deal with a bit of mud and muck, but for the residents of this encampment, there is no escape from the mire and grunge.

Sometimes when we go forth on the distribution we have had either no Arabic speaker (really difficult) or an Arabic speaker who does not speak either Turkish or English (difficult).  However, on this  distribution day, we had three Arabic speakers with us – truly a super blessing.  

Our visiting Arabic speaking guest was taking this opportunity to clearly proclaim who we are and why we are engaged in this work – he, clearly and boldly naming the Lord of lords, gave clear testimony – and all in wonderful, fluid, and passionate Arabic.  This he continued to do at all the various encampments we visited – and was always well received.

We then travelled on to the next encampment.  The last time we were there, we were surprised at the number of shelters there.  The encampment had literally doubled in size and we were a bit overwhelmed.  

But, on this visit, we were again shocked to see that it had reverted to its former size.  About half the people and hence, half the shelters had departed for pastures green elsewhere.

This meant we had more provisions than were necessary for the new state of this encampment.  This was both good news, trusting their new location would be an improvement on this encampment – a rather low bar to pass – and whilst not ‘bad’ news, it also meant we had more provisions on the lorry than we needed for the encampments we had planned to visit on this day…

We completed the distribution at that encampment and before we went on to the next encampment, we stopped for lunch.  After our brief break, we then pressed on to the next encampment.  

Here we found that many families had relocated from this encampment to the encampment where the ‘Haven of Love and Compassion’ tent is pitched.  We have been expecting this relocation/return for some time, so it was not a surprise.

We distributed the goods to those who were still there.  

We know these people fairly well – the ministry to the ‘Haven of Love and Compassion’ (when we are able to provide it) takes us to that encampment at least seven times a month.  Hence, with relationships established, some of our number had tea and others a special Arabic coffee that is shared in an amazingly small, minute amount – more a hint, a soupçon of coffee – enough to wet the tip of your tongue.  And yet it was surprisingly good.

As a result of the movement of people, we had an unexpected number of provisions still on the lorry.  Since we knew where the people had relocated to (the encampment where the tent of the ‘Haven of Love and Compassion’ is pitched), we promptly went there and continued the distribution.  In one sense it was still ‘planned’ as it was primarily to those who were at the planned encampment, but had moved.

So we distributed to the newly returned, and then to those who were already there – the distribution to the ‘already there ones’ was not planned, but it was done – which means that this encampment, has been done for this month and so it comes off the list of encampments yet to visit.

However, we still had 34 sacks on the lorry.  So the database was consulted and an encampment estimated to require an amount nearest to that still on the lorry was selected and we retraced our steps and went there – there seemed to be no value in carting the sacks back to Antakya only to turn around in a weeks’ time to tote them back.

This is the encampment we have named ‘White House’ because, er, well, because there is a white-washed house standing nearby.  Actually, we have named all the encampments for our distribution purposes – names unique to us, and intended to differentiate one encampment in one barren field from another situated in an equally desolate field.  “Olive Grove” is named because it is near an olive grove; “Incirli” so termed because it is on the road to Incirli; “Before Gültepe” is so identified because, well, it is on the road and you come to it ‘before’ you come to the village of Gültepe.

At ‘White House’, and still in the rather pleasant autumnal weather, we completed our distribution.  

It was here, at the White House, where we were all treated to proper Turkish coffee – not a tantalising tip of the tongue tasting, but a proper, demitasse of strong, rich Turkish coffee – all made without sugar in deference to the diabetics in our midst… for those who needed the sweetness, sugar was added after preparation, but, it still isn’t the same when you add it after the fact.  “Sorry, folks…” what else can I say…

Weary, and yet feeling the effects of the Turkish coffee we said goodbye to the lorry driver (he had another job to attend to) and we headed back to Antakya.

It was as we entered the outskirts of the city, that, once again I needed to engage the widescreen wipers to clear the intermittent rain that was still damping the city down.  It seems, in the city, it had rained on and off all day.  

But for us, in the fields up the valley, not that far away, not once during the distribution were we required to contend with the inconvenience of even a smattering of rain.

Indeed, today, everything had come together – the assistance in packaging, loading and distribution, Arabic speakers in abundance and weather conducive for the distribution and the full bodied sharing in Arabic.

 

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.