Bracing for the Syrian Refugee Tidal Wave: Preparation Points for Churches

Photo by United Nations Photo

The growing crisis in Syria is grabbing the attention of more and more people as the United States considers the possibility of a military strike.  In case you haven't been tracking this story very closely, let me suggest a couple great places to begin:

1. Infographic- Will Strikes End Conflict in Syria (Maps of World):  Not everyone loves infographics, but well-designed ones are very effective ways to communicate information.  I this one is really good.  As the title suggests, it puts the question of U.S. military involvement front and center rather than some of the other critical questions.  Still, I recommend it as a way to get caught up.  (Note: link is to my "pin" of the infographic).

2. Nine Questions about Syria You were too Embarrassed to Ask (Washington Post): If you prefer just a straightforward textual summary of the Syrian situation, here's an article from the Post that I thought did a great job.  

3. Infographic- Syrian Refugees:  Here is a simpler infographic published by PBS Newshour that focuses specifically on the refugee crisis.

Of course, the purpose of my post here is especially to inform and prepare the global Church (and especially the North American) to respond well to the situation.  Personally, I believe that the most important issue facing the followers of Christ with respect to Syria is the refugee crisis.  There are now more than 2 million Syrians that have been forced to flee their homeland and at least a million of those are children!  It has become the worst refugee crisis on the planet today and the Body of Christ must respond!

Indeed there are other critical questions.  In particular, many Christ-followers are now debating the pros and cons of military intervention.  Should the United States strike?  This is certainly the opinion of President Obama and his administration.  With evidence suggesting that the Bashar Al'Assad regime has used chemical weapons against civilians, certainly we must be asking God for justice.  It is not my desire to wade very far into this aspect of the Syrian conflict.  I have lived long enough to become very skeptical about the idea that violence and war can bring about anything positive.  However, I strongly believe that evil leaders should not be allowed to simply do whatever they want and to kill and oppress whomever they want with impunity.  On this, I have found a post from Jonathan Merritt to be especially helpful.  Merritt provides three "Christian" perspectives on the issue of military intervention.  It is a very good read.  By the way, I personally found the pacifist view to be the weakest in terms of its presentation in the article.  So, to give it a boost, take a look at the recent letter from Pope Francis to Vladimir Putin on the subject.

Now, back to my main focus.

How can local churches, especially in the US and Canada, prepare themselves for the potential of future resettlement of refugees from Syria?  At TIBM, we believe it is important to be aware of what has quickly become one of the worst refugee crises of all time.  We believe it is important to pray for the situation.  And we believe it is critical to prepare for the wave of resettlement that is very likely coming.

I am using this article as a launching pad or as a place for churches to begin their preparation process.  I'm glad you are reading it and hope you will bookmark it and return from time to time. I will update it as I learn more and as things develop.  Here you will find several critical considerations and key questions for you and your ministry to consider.  I will also post helpful resources at the bottom as I discover them.  If you have things to add, please mention them in the comment section.

The Scope of the Crisis
The Syrian refugee crisis is one of the worst in history.  Currently, more than 2 million people have fled Syria ( for neighboring countries and the United Nations is predicting that the number will surpass 3 million by the end of the year.  The main nations to which Syrians have fled include Jordan (500K), Lebanon (720K), Turkey (460K), Iraq (170K) and Egypt (100K). Officials in these nations report that they are completely overwhelmed by the massive numbers and need substantial help.

The Nature of the Crisis
The displacement of Syrians has stemmed from a violent military conflict in that nation that originated in 2011.  The struggle is essentially between government forces under the leadership of President Bashar al-Assad and opposition groups which want to see him ousted.  The resulting violence has resulted in more than 100,000 deaths (mostly civilians) and the displacement of millions (for more on the death toll, see this helpful article from The Atlantic).  

Photo of the "Houla Massacre" by Syria Freedom. Over 100 people were killed, most of them women and children.
The United Nations has published a short video on the crisis which provides a heart-wrenching summary of how things stand right now.  Here it is:

Who are the Refugees?
Syria is a nation of more than 20 million people, the largest bloc of whom (14+ million) are Syrian Arabs. Other major people groups include Kurds, Najdi Bedouins, Alawites, Palestinians, Druze, Assyrians, Turkmen, and Lebanese.  New reports I have seen specifically have referenced Arabs, Kurds, Bedouins, Palestinians, Assyrians, and Lebanese as being among the refugees.  Additionally, smaller people groups have been mentioned including Armenians.  Religiously, greater than 90% of Syrians are Muslim. Some 6% follow some form of Christianity (54% Orthodox, 37% Catholic, 4% Protestant, 3% "other").  According to most reports, the vast majority of the refugees are women and children.

The Response by the Global Community
Syria's neighbors have largely welcomed the refugees but are totally overwhelmed by the numbers.  Jordan has reported a water shortage.  Turkey is pleading with Western nations to pitch in.  Still stories of great humanitarianism and hospitality have emerged.  The Kurds of Iraq have constructed multiple camps and expended millions of dollars.  Israeli Jewish volunteers have tirelessly served in Jordanian camps.  Cyprus has announced its willingness to receive as many as 200,000 refugees!  Sweden has recently shocked the world by announcing that it will grant "blanket asylum" to Syrians refugees!  Germany likewise has a plan to provide temporary resettlement to as many as 5,000 and reports are regularly coming from Italy of refugees arriving there by boat. 

Reports are now coming in of Syrian refugees flocking to Latin America.  Both Brazil and Columbia have welcomed 100% of Syrians who have applied for asylum.  Apparently, there are large Syrian communities already in Latin America (as many as 3 million in Brazil alone?!?!)

In North America, Canada has agreed to resettle high need refugees and the United States has agreed to open its doors to 2,000 refugees. Pressure is beginning to build from some quarters for Canada to resettle more than the thousand or so initially committed to.  

There are, tragically, other stories which highlight the darker side of humanity. Reports have come of Syrian refugees trying to cross into Greece by boat only to have their vessels intentionally capsized by the Greek coast guard. Hundreds have reportedly drowned as a result.  Many women and girls are being victimized in the camps as lack of security and high poverty is creating a human trafficking crisis.  Other reports are emerging of price gouging as refugees are being financially exploited.  In some cases, life in refuge is so bad that many are opting to return to Syria and fight.  They do so expecting to die, but, according to one Syrian refugee, "We would rather die with dignity in Syria than beg in Jordan."

Photo courtesy of BBC News

What Should we Expect?
It is pretty impossible to predict when and how many Syrian refugees will eventually be resettled in North America.  Canada has announced earlier this summer that they will be working with the UN to resettle refugees.  This initial announcement was of a "very small and discrete resettlement program" that will focus on refugees determined to be in high need.  I suspect that this will not exceed 1,000 before the end of 2013.  Additionally, pressure is growing for the government to create a special expedited program to process family reunification visa applications for Canadian-Syrians who have family members in harms way. With a population already over 100K, Canada's Syrian population could absolutely surge simply through normal immigration routes even without a special commitment to resettle refugees. 

In the United States, word has recently come that 2,000 refugees will be welcomed for permanent resettlement.  Traditionally, the U.S. is the largest recipient of refugees, often permanently resettling as many as all other Western nations combined. But the political climate now is tenuous.  Many Americans feel a renewed sense of fear and suspicion towards Muslim immigrants in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings and the still unresolved debate over immigration reform has further complicated the scene.  So, we can expect that this process could be very slow and subject to extra security measures.  Whether or not the U.S. will ultimately increase that number is difficult to predict.

Back in June, I predicted that the United States would announce plans to resettle a small number of refugees from Syria sometime during 2013.  My guess was that the number would be higher (10,000), but I'm glad that even this small number has been announced.  I believe that this number has been floated by the State Department as a trial balloon.  I still believe that if things go well in terms of the public and political response to these efforts that we can expect a much larger announcement by early 2014.  There are a lot of variables, of course, and a tremendous amount of politics and public relations involved for the Obama Administration.  However, in a matter of months, media images of snow covered refugee camps and freezing Syrian children will likely call greater attention to the already desperate humanitarian crisis.  I still believe that churches and agencies should ready themselves for a resettlement effort in the United States as high as 100,000.  Additionally, as in Canada, family reunification visas will increase so that Syrians arriving via traditional immigration routes will go up.  Refugee resettlement of course will occur along the patterns that many of us have grown accustomed to.  Resettlement agencies will be used to facilitate the process and thus the Syrians will initially be resettled in areas where other refugee communities are located.  

The newest variable in this situation is whether or not the U.S. will engage Syria militarily.  I believe that this will impact the future of refugee resettlement, but I am not sure how.  Here are a few things to consider:

1. If the U.S. topples the current Syrian regime, what percentage of the displaced will be able to return home?  Will widows and orphans be able to return home?  What about those whose homes have been destroyed?  Whatever happens, I think we must accept the fact that many have become permanently displaced.

2. Will U.S. military involvement lead to a more generous resettlement effort similar to the resettlement of Iraqi refugees?

3. Will non-involvement mean that Assad completes his victory over the rebels and thus permanently displace those who have become refugees?

The following paragraph is maintained for archival purposes.  I think it helps us to understand the pressure points behind the U.S. resettlement announcement.  I wrote it in June 2013:

I suspect that Canada's recent announcement to resettle paves the way for the United States to make a similar announcement.  Incidentally, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops has just publicly called upon the US to open their doors to Syrian refugees.  In a press release, Archbishop Jose Gomez said, "We have an obligation to help these vulnerable populations, including and especially the most vulnerable refugees: unaccompanied minors and those that have become victims of human trafficking." Gomez called the US the "world's leader in protecting refugees" and wants to see the country do much more in the face of this crisis.

Questions for Churches and Ministries to Consider:
1. Syrian refugees will not have spent decades in refugee camps like the Bhutanese or the refugees from Burma. They will not be as far separated from the horrors of war. How can we bring hope and wholeness to them? How will we address emotional, physical, relational needs?

2. There are likely to be larger numbers of fatherless families resettled due to two things.  First, over three-quarters of Syrian refugees are women and children (men being involved in the fighting).  Second, the UN is especially emphasizing the most vulnerable for resettlement to Western nations.  How will you prepare to address this?

3. Do you know where the nearest refugee resettlement agency is in your community?  If not, leave a comment below and I will help you locate it.  Have you begun a relationship with that agency?

4.  Have you begun or are you partnering with another organization to offer ESL (English as a Second Language)?  If so, how can you prepare your church/group to double your capacity for the number of students you can handle?  For related ministries which are attractive and helpful to refugees, consider how you can double their capacities within the next 2 years.

5. How much Arabic do you know? Have you learned anything about Islam?  Do you know where are the local stores and markets which sell "halal" products?  Prepare yourself now so that when Syrians come to your cities you will be better able to befriend them.

6. Do you know were refugees are initially resettled in your area?  Do you know where they tend to move to after 3-4 years?  Can you predict where resettlement will take place over the next decade?  Since new refugees often have transportation challenges (no cars or driver's licenses) are your ministries accessible to them?

Resources to Consult:

There are too many resources to mention.  For now, let me suggest a couple things:

1. The Latest on the Syrian Refugee Crisis:  Make it a point to check out the United Nations site devoted to the Syrian Refugee Crisis.  This site isn't being updated as regularly as I would like, so also check out  Surf with discernment through other sites realizing that there is an especially large amount of anti-resettlement sentiment against the Syrian refugees due to the fact that they are predominantly Muslim.  Additionally:

2. Missions and Missiological Preparation:  I recommend that you read up on diaspora missions (here and/or here) and consider taking the Perspectives course within the next two years so that you can gain a better sense of God's heart for the nations.  Regardless of what happens with this specific crisis, it is clear that the Lord is bringing many of the world's least-reached peoples to areas of the world where they suddenly have unprecedented access to the Gospel.  Followers of Christ should be embracing this growing phenomenon.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous11:50 PM

    Regardless of what happens with this specific crisis, it is clear that the Lord is bringing many of the world's least-reached peoples to areas of the world where they suddenly have unprecedented access to the Gospel. Followers of Christ should be embracing this growing phenomenon.

    Yes, yes, yes. - Rich