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.
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.
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.
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.
“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-religionists – to 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”.
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.