I am flying into Beirut, Lebanon, for a conference, and from the air the city looks to deserve its reputation as “the Paris of the Middle East.”  Upscale shops and apartment buildings hug the hills bordering the turquoise Mediterranean.

On the ground, however, the city tells a different story.  Holes made by artillery pockmark many of the downtown buildings, a remnant of the civil war that raged from 1975 to 1990.  Lest Lebanon forget, a Hope for Peace Monument, encasing 78 military vehicles in concrete, stands as a vivid reminder of those dark days.

Modern Lebanon is a crossroads where European and Islamic cultures meet.  In Beirut, church spires compete with minarets, and on the city’s beaches women in string bikinis sunbathe next to others wearing full-body burkas.  A guide could go hoarse trying to explain to a visitor the nation’s checkered past.  Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome, the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires, France, Syria, Israel—they took turns dominating this small country, and each left its mark.

“We’re entering the Hezbollah area,” says our host, pointing out the damage caused by Israeli jets in 2006.  “Over there is an Armenian neighborhood, first a sanctuary from the Turkish genocide and now full of refugees from Syria.  Soon we’ll cross the Green Line, bordering the Christian district.  The Syrian army shelled this area nonstop for a hundred days, but failed to capture it.”

I listen to the confusing history, then ask if he has personal memories of the war.  “I was nine years old as the conflict was heating up,” he tells me.  “A bomb fell into our building, killing two neighbors.  I remember the smell of smoke, the broken glass, the body parts that we found over the next few days.  I became mute.  For days I couldn’t speak.  And then I began to stutter.  All through school I stuttered, making me a target for bullies and a turn-off for girls.  The war traumatized my father, too, who took it out on us kids.  I don’t remember a single day without a beating.  This was the war.  Its effects continue, even today.”

Europe and the U.S. are trying to deal with a refugee crisis—but nothing like what the Middle East faces.  One in four residents of Lebanon fled here from the war in Syria, joining several hundred thousand Palestinian and Iraqi migrants.  Most of them live in sprawling tent villages supplied by the UN.  Many of the tents have no bathroom, and open sewers run between them.  Residents like to cover their temporary homes in the heavy fabric of used billboards for protection from weather, and toss old tires on the roof as a defense against the wind.

Love Your Enemies

“Officially, there are around a half million Syrian refugees,” explains a staff member from Lebanon Youth for Christ who leads me through one of the camps.  “But a million more have crossed the border illegally and joined them.  They can’t work, can’t send their kids to school, can’t even get married because they have no legal status.  What can they do with their lives?”

To complicate matters, he says, many Lebanese Christians view Syria as an enemy.  “They remember the recent past when Syria occupied us, a time of rapes and violence and oppression.  We had to pass through military checkpoints to go anywhere.  So, at first it was hard to get Christians to care about the refugees’ plight.  But now local churches and teams from other countries are stepping up.  This month we have groups from Indiana and South Korea helping out with a summer camp.”

Besides the day camps and sports activities, Youth for Christ has built a center that offers training in such subjects as English, Computer Skills, and Sewing.  When Muslim activists complained, the local imam replied, “They opened a school, and built a basketball court and an indoor soccer field.  What have you done for the refugees?”

“But they’re teaching the kids about Jesus!” said the radicals.  The imam shot back, “Of course they talk about Jesus—they’re Christians.  What do you expect?  But find me one kid who says they pressured him to convert.”

We enter a tent, bare of furniture except for a mounted flat-screen TV playing Syrian soap operas.  We sit on the floor cross-legged and introduce ourselves to the smiling woman who lives here with her family.  “How many children do you have?” asks the YFC director, in Arabic.  He expresses surprise at her answer—“Only three?!”  (Imams encourage large families, and households in the camp average eight children.)  She clarifies: besides the three sons, she also has six daughters, a fact hardly worth mentioning in her male-dominated culture.

The woman tells us her story.  “We had a three-level apartment in Aleppo, roomy enough for my parents to live with my own family of eleven.  Then ISIS moved in.  They were so harsh!  We couldn’t even listen to music.  I went outside one day, veiled but with my eyes uncovered, and an ISIS follower threatened me and took away my identity card.  ‘Never show your eyes or the palms of your hands again!’ he warned.  Another time, my husband got caught smoking a cigarette and ISIS guards gave him forty lashes.  He still bears the scars.”

She pauses to wipe her eyes.  “After I lost two brothers in the war, we gave our life savings to a smuggler to help us escape.  Otherwise, ISIS would have taken my husband.  My neighbors sent me pictures of the rubble that used to be my house.  Now we live in this tent.  Last winter, floods came and we had to raise the plywood floor on concrete blocks.  We slept on the floor, with icy water running just beneath us.  But at least we are safe here.”

Hers is the first of many sad stories I will hear from refugees.  A woman who was forced to watch as her family members were sexually abused and murdered in front of her eyes.  Children who looked on as men raped their mother.  A father fleeing on foot whose three-year-old was killed by a sniper.  To see such stories on CNN is one thing; to sit in a refugee tent and hear the accounts in person, something else entirely.

Muslim Background Believers

Christianity had its beginnings in this part of the world, and biblical reminders abound.  Solomon purchased cedars of Lebanon to build his temple.  Tyre and Sidon are just down the coast from Beirut, halfway to Jesus’ home town.  To visit the refugee camps we drove along the “Damascus Road,” near the site of the apostle Paul’s conversion.

Christians who work in Muslim countries speak of “MBBs,” their abbreviation for people raised Muslim who decide to become followers of Jesus.  Some keep their new identity secret, continuing to faithfully attend the mosque.  Others declare their new allegiance, which often leads to family shunning and sometimes violence.  Local pastors tell of murder threats against converts.  Or, a woman may have her children taken away, and be held in a kind of detention, forbidden to leave her house.

In one city, I visit a church service that includes many MBBs.  “Please don’t take pictures,” the pastor says.  “The danger to Muslim converts is real.”

“Why do they take such a risk, if it’s so dangerous?” I ask.

“There are two main reasons why they become Christians,” he replies.  “Many have visions or dreams of a man in white beckoning them, and they then discover the man is Jesus.  I hear this story over and over from converts.  The second reason is simply love.  Not so long ago this city was besieged by the Syrian army, bombed every day.  Six thousand died, with many more injured.  You can understand why not many volunteered to help at the Syrian camps right away.”

He leads me downstairs, to an underground parking lot with spaces still marked in yellow paint.  “Once our church got to know the refugees, though, we felt compassion for them.  They have lost everything, and live in a kind of limbo, people without a country.  So we converted this indoor parking lot into a school that now educates 650 kids.  We also feed them, because the UN only got about 20 percent of the aid promised last year.  Not all our neighbors approve—we’ve been to court many times.  But love wins.”

Next he leads me to a chapel where two hundred MBBs are singing.  Some of the women get excited and make the high-pitched trilling sound known as ululation.  As we stand at the back he points to a few Syrians and tells me their stories in a whisper.

My visit ends in his office.  “I have had some very low times,” he admits.  “In this region we live with war and its terrible effects.  I wish we could do more to help the refugees.  There used to be a strong minority of Christians in places like Syria and Iraq—now they’ve fled to the West, decimating the church in the Middle East.  Yet just as I get discouraged, I see God raising up a new church among the most unlikely people, Muslim refugees.  I see Christians reaching out in love to their former enemies.  God hasn’t given up on this part of the world, and neither should we.”




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22 responses to “A Refugee Haven”

  1. Stefan says:

    What a reassuring and inspiring report from a troubled corner of the world. Thank you Mr. Yancey.

    One of your commenters wrote that Americans should be ashamed. Perhaps all people around the world could and should do more to help.

    I am not American. I admire Americans for all the good they do around the world and have done in the world. No country is perfect but America really is a force for good. I come from a country that America graciously helped to get back on its feet after WWII. My country didn’t deserve the help. Whenever there is a natural disaster somewhere around the world, the Americans are almost always among the first to help and among the most generous. Giving and sharing is in America’s DNA. Is there a country around the world that has taken in more refugees and immigrants from all over the world? Is there any country that has given more refugees and immigrants hope? It treats those on its southern border so humanely, especially in comparison to other countries. Many of those it accepts would not be accepted elsewhere. This is true both of President Obama’s and President Trump’s administrations. I shudder to think what the world would be like without America using its wealth and power for good. It’s good to push America to be better and its good to call out injustice within America but I simply cannot comprehend why so many Americans have nothing good to say about their own country. Perhaps seeing more of the world would give them a greater appreciation for their own country.

  2. James R. Johnson says:

    Thank you for sharing your experience, Philip. How these refugees and immigrants are being accepted in Lebanon should shame the USA by comparison. Even though we have even more deplorable physical accommodations than those at our southern border, these refugees seem to have been granted admission to a camp where they can feel safe and where NGO’s are free to assist them, and as you have witnessed for love to be experienced. The USA by contrast is much wealthier but only seems to be capable of increasing their oppression with family separations, isolating them, and in many cases appearing to cause deliberate hardships for them.

  3. Henry Hendrickson says:

    The “man in white” bit is still haunting me a couple days after reading this. Thank you for relaying the message Philip.

  4. Jim Rudat says:

    Phillip, thanks for being a voice for the voiceless, and making us aware of the harsh realities of refugee life! It is encouraging to see the church responding with active love and tangible service to these displaced fellow human beings. I pray more eyes will be opened to their plight! Besides dreams and visions, God seems to be using christian programs on satellite tv in a huge way! Have you observed the thousands of satellite dishes coming out of the tents and shanties of the camps?

    • Philip Yancey says:

      Yes, and there’s a Christian network called SAT7 which produces high-quality programming in Arabic.

  5. Judy Berna says:

    I always love your writings and your posts. This was such a beautiful description of how so many people across the world suffer just to exist, while we, as Americans, have the luxury of complaining about the littlest things. Thanks for sharing your travels and your experiences with us. I will continue to feel blessed that I was ‘born in the right zip code’.
    Keep writing, my friend. And get going on that memoir! There are many of us out here who are ready to dive into the story of how Phillip Yancey became the Man of God that he is today.

  6. Robert Taylor says:

    Philip: God has clearly gifted you with the ability to grab hold of hearts and minds set on themselves and redirect them to Him with prayer and thankfulness. Be encouraged in your work. I appreciate you and your writings so much.

  7. Maha Guirguis says:

    I can’t thank you enough for showing Gid’s Heart for’us’ Middle East people.i have been to refugee camps in Lebanon& North Iraq, what He is doing is amazing,He is bringing beauty out of ashes, freeing people into The light of His knowledge.Reconciliation between Lebanese& Syrians, is amazing . A Work only He could do , alongside obedient, loving real Christians.What is happening is beyond Human Resources, it’s a work done in heaven.
    Thank you

  8. Eddie Chu says:

    Thanks, Philip, for sharing how Christians are helping refugees turn to Jesus by serving refugees in love.
    This reminds me of the answer my seminary professor gave when I asked him how Christianity spread rapidly in the first few centuries when there were few roads, no printing presses, or any form of communication and traveling that we have. He smiled and said simply: “By the way they lived.”
    It’s a simple answer that has stayed with me. Living the love of Jesus is more powerful than any words we can utter. These Christian servants for the refugees demonstrate the love of Christ by the way they live.

  9. Kathy Nesler says:

    Thank you for sharing. We Christians in America really have no clue. We live in our comfortable homes, go freely to church, and sit down to three meals a day and then whine and complain that this nation isn’t a Christian nation any more. We spend our time, money, and passion trying to change the system and the political outlook. We have lost our souls to affluence and freedom. We allow people to sit in office who are morally corrupt, because we believe we will win the fight against against haters through political means. I’m not sure where this post was going, really, only that American Christians live in a bubble, we have so much, yet we are soul poor. Thank you for sharing your experience. If nothing else, it has moved me to pray more deeply and complain far less.

  10. Peter Reece says:

    I live in a province of South Africa which has disclosed that in the last 12 months 4000 people have been murdered. Its a war zone without actually being at war. We think that this is unequaled anywhere until we read stories like yours and discover that there are larger disasters than ours! God and His people are at work in all of them.
    Thanks for your encouraging words.

  11. Dianne Lami says:

    Your experience in Lebanon painted such a real picture of God’s presence in the midst of evil.
    I just finished reading a Christian novel, “The Butterfly and the Violin” by Kristy Cambron, set in the WWII concentration camp of Auschwitz – the women’s orchestra. One of the characters, a Jew, urged the younger Believer to see God’s hand all around her. The Jewish woman had found a secret closet in the corner of the barracks where she painted beauty – to see God – to stay sane.
    In the Lebanon refugee camps, God’s presence is not a novel. It’s real Christians extending His love to folks just like them – hurting, lonely, isolated, terrorized, in need of Him.
    Thank you so much for sharing. Your message reminds me to pray for our Brothers and Sisters in the Middle East.

  12. David Rupert says:

    Most of us in the West believe this problem to be solved. It isn’t and your eyes on the ground illuminate the issue. Thank you for the storytelling and praying it will move hearts

  13. Jeanne Rodkey says:

    Thank you, Phillip, for sharing these tragic stories with us. I wish that believers across America would realize the exciting role that they could play in Gods family if they would open their hearts and homes to the refugees in America. And not just refugees but immigrants and really anyone who is a difficult color skin or different culture than their own. Heaven is going to be a very diverse community! Why not welcome others to our community instead of wanting them to ‘go home’?

    I am an adult MK. I know the sacrifices involved in leaving family and culture to live in another place. Our family was held at gunpoint one time, and my mother died ‘on the field’. Few are willing to take the risks involved in leaving home behind. But now the church has an unprecedented opportunity to ‘go’ in Christ’s name cross culturally within their own home city! They just need to have eyes to see what God is doing in America. He is bringing the unreached here to us! Please, don’t be afraid of them! Show Christ’s love to them! You will find these people will become friends of yours, bring love to your family, and possibly into God’s family if only you show kindness to them!

  14. Carol says:

    Heart-breaking stories but proof that Jesus lives in the worst places!

  15. Mark Fitzgerald says:

    Hi Philip, this is unrelated to your post (which I appreciated) but I thought you might find it interesting anyhow. It’s a rational argument for God’s existence that I have developed. Please let me know what you think.

    Without sensory experience of God, God can only be imaginary to human beings.
    If God did not exist there would be nothing in God’s place.
    Human beings can only imagine things they have seen before.
    No one has ever seen nothing.
    Therefore God exists.

    • Philip Yancey says:

      I’ve not encountered this argument before. Intriguing, but in my experience the classic arguments for God’s existence don’t impress people predisposed against them; they seem heuristic and abstract.

  16. Richard Jebb says:

    Phil, Thank you for this glimpse into such a remarkable corner of our modern world.

    I had come through a spiritual drought earlier this morning and your words brought more living water to me; reading them through the tears that flowed from the light and hope you describe in the darkest of places.

    Thank you for what you do!

    BTW – How is your Memoire coming?

    Best regards, Rick Jebb

    • Philip Yancey says:

      Bless you, Rick. I hope to finish the memoir by early next year, for publication in late 2020 or early 2021.


  17. Bradley Robertson says:

    I tell my people, God’s people, to “be reconciled to God”🙏🏽 I try to tell them and show them that the time for fortresses and hammers that has been used in the past to “defend the faith” is long since past. The time to grasp the unjudgemental loving extended hand of Jesus is now to be realized. Out of that amazing joy will rise up genuine kindness and love for your neighbors, the kind Jesus had kindness and compassion for ❤️
    Thanks for your examples of kindness and challenges throughout your words Philip, they spur me on to run 😇

  18. Steve says:

    Working with refugees in the Middle East, it’s a common to hear Muslims say “if you need help, go to the Christian, they love everyone.” It’s amazing what God is doing through this tragedy.

    And I know a very committed believer who met Jesus in a dream. He’s a secret follower who has led many to the Lord. The danger is indeed real.

  19. Elizabeth says:

    This post is very close to my heart. Thank you

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