Despite the Horror, Syrian and Iraqi Christian Refugee Children (And Their Parents) Experience Christmas

Florida based Love-Link Ministries partnered with Christmas for Refugees to bring Christmas to the refugee-riddled Middle East. Rev. Bob Armstrong joined William J. Murray in bringing true joy to the war-ravaged lands. Bill is the author of seven books including his bestselling autobiography, “My Life Without God,” which detailed his childhood in the dysfunctional home of atheist/Marxist leader Madalyn Murray O’Hair. I have been on his board for three decades.

photo (8)

Rev. Bob with Syrian refugee children.

I have ministered in 45 countries, but nothing really prepared me for how great the need truly is, and how we (and your giving and prayers) had such a tremendous impact upon Middle East refugees. Several thousand Syrian and Iraqi Christian refugee children (and their parents) were given a genuine Christmas this year, in spite of their horrific circumstances.

Instead of spending money on renting event banquet halls, local churches were utilized for free. Plus, the local pastor obviously knew most of the precise, devastating situations and most of the refugees, as well as the dramatic needs of each family.

In Lebanon, in the city of Zahle near the Bekaa Valley, close to the Syrian border, the True Vine Church helped in this monumental effort to reach refugee children. The host pastor’s name — yes, his birth name – is Pastor Jihad!!!! You read that right! He has been to the United States several times before 9-11, but after 9-11, he was denied for five years simply because of his name! I understand why. What a terrific pastor!

Parents of the refugee children, having suffered so much when forced to flee their homeland in Syria to Lebanon by ISIL warriors, also participated in their own service while their children enjoyed a sumptuous meal in their own culture. BEFORE any child or adult received a meal or any food bags, the Christmas Gospel was taught to them. Many were Muslims. To hear Muslim children singing at the top of their lungs how Bethlehem was the place of the birth of the Savior of the world was absolutely breath-taking!!

Isam Ghattas and William Murray

Isam Ghattas and William J. Murray oversee the Christmas event for refugees.

Multiplied thousands of displaced Iraqi Christian refugees have recently come to Jordan because of the July, 2014 takeover of the city of Mosul by Islamic State Sunni fighters that was so heavily reported in the media. Most escaped with just the clothes on their backs. Islamic State Sunni fighters took their homes and gave them a choice: “Renounce your faith, leave or die.”

Many Christians chose to flee for their lives. One 72-year-old man, living in the basement of a Jordanian church, described his situation: “In one moment, I lived in a comfortable home with 1,800 square feet; and now I exist with my entire family in only 180 square feet!” (See the picture of me with him below)

To many, this might have been the very best Christmas these refugees have ever experienced, in spite of their urban plight. Many were forced from their mostly comfortable homes in Iraq.

We supplied Christmas dinner, the Christmas story, Christmas carols, a bag of candy, an entire week’s worth of food for an entire family (called a “Joy Bag”), and prayer the week before Christmas to those needy Christian refugees. Over 300 children and their parents received this humanitarian Christian program the week before Christmas at just one event held at the Orthodox Church. In all, over 1,000 refuge children in Jordan will be reached during the Christmas season.

Bible Society of Jordan participated as well by giving each family an adult Bible, a children’s picture Bible and children’s coloring and activity books with stories from the Old and New Testaments.

Even Santa Claus and Winnie the Pooh visited the new St. Ephrem Orthodox Church in Amman (headed by Priest Emmanuel) to give out bags of candy to the delight of the refugee children.

The United States’ media does not give the entire picture of what is happening in the Middle East. We are experiencing the worst refugee crisis since World War Two. As reported two weeks ago on CBS 60 Minutes, nearly two million Syrian refugees have crossed over into Lebanon and now make up one-fourth of that nation’s entire population. The population of Beirut has doubled just in the last three years!

Refugees with their Joy Bags

Refugees with their Joy Bags.

Bill Murray and I had just entered Jordan from a few days in doing the same with Syrian refugees in Lebanon. We traveled extremely close to ISIL, or Islamic State (IS) -controlled enclaves to help develop relief to those who suffer.

I was within a football-field length from ISIL warriors and fighters!! In northeast Lebanon there is a place called “Private Tent City,” as opposed to the United Nations tent cities provided for some refugees. This “private” place charges money and at this one area, serves as a place for IS fighters to “regroup” in the winter months! Obviously, no pictures. No police go in there; no Lebanese army never enters the “private tent city.”

ISIL has kidnapped 26 Lebanese Army soldiers. ISIL has contacted the relatives of these kidnapped soldiers and has threatened them that if they do not blockade the main highway running north and south in Lebanon, their relative will be beheaded! So we had to drive around a couple of blockades. War is hell!

One of my very best friends, Bill Murray, the Christmas for Refugees founder, stressed: “Our main thrust is to assist Christian refugee children and their families. But if Muslim parents’ consent that their children can receive the Christmas message at the dinners, that is a part of the mission given us by the Lord. We doubled the amount of what we did last year at Christmas. We hope to double it again next year!”

Jordan’s Manara Ministries’ Isam Ghattas, our local Jordanian coordinator, urged: “No one can conceive how great the need really is. These refugees are creating a humanitarian crisis.” Our evangelical relief and development agency met many needs. The popular Ghattas was overwhelmed by grateful parents and children. One can tell from the smile on Isam’s face that the years of he constantly helping people is extremely rewarding to him personally. The exact same with Armstrong and Murray.

Most Iraqi refugees in Jordan fled their homeland with almost nothing. In one church basement (a church near Amman; no name mentioned for security reasons), 56 refugees live in 12 – 10’ x 10’ cubicles. Some are being moved to “trailer homes”. Forget the “double-wides,” these supposed “homes” are about one-third of a regular mobile home. Refugees use a different trailer for communal cooking for 20 families. Over 95% of Iraqi Christian refugees cannot get employment.

Most are considered “in transit” to permanent residence in another country that will take refugees. However, for most, that dream will always remain a dream.

We met with some leading pastors of the Assyrian and Chaldean churches, who also participated in the feeding programs. Here was the tragedy: looking into the “pleading” eyes of that Chaldean priest who showed the list of over 800 children he had registered for the meals. Unfortunately, the original budget was for only 100 meals. The priest had to make the tough decisions.

Refugee kids enjoy their Christmas dinner

Refugee kids enjoy their Christmas dinner.

It is my prayer that next year, everyone who wants, will be fed and blessed. Fortunately, the program was able to increase the number to 200 children, all newly arrived Iraqi children from Mosul, at that church. We are actively exploring ways to expand this worthy outreach into Iraq itself and even Egypt.

Despite deplorable conditions and an extremely bleak future, the laughter of the children could be heard and the ear-to-ear smiles could be seen at distribution points in Jordan and Lebanon, as they experienced a true “Christmas to remember” especially in a very unfamiliar place.
Grateful refugee parents shed tears of joy at seeing the children being able to have a Christmas time despite the horrid situation they find themselves in currently.

The Christmas program events presented in both Lebanon and Jordan were truly non-denominational. Christmas events were held at evangelical, Orthodox and Catholic churches. The Christmas for Refugee program was accepted by and cooperation received from churches of all faiths in both nations.

In the face of the disgraceful refugee crisis this Christmas there was a positive outcome due to the generosity of many people. Multiplied thousands of refugee families greatly benefited, and were blessed, because of this successful program.

Again, my gratitude to those who made a financial investment into this worthy cause. Most importantly, thank you for your continued prayers for safety. Obviously, I am back home with Kim and Brittany for Christmas. But a part of my heart is with those dear children and parents in the Middle East.

I also want to thank MAOZ Israel for your substantial donation to this cause, where that offering shows that even Messianic Jewish Believers in Israel genuinely care about their fellowman, the Arabs.

I have already committed to next year to be a vital part of this worthy and effective outreach.

P. S. I also met personally with General Georges Sada while in Jordan. He was head of Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi Air Force. As a strong Christian, (the only one of over 120 of Saddam’s Cabinet) he later headed the Evangelical Christians in Iraq. He was also my host in Iraq years ago. It was a great reunion. We are exploring ways to reach more Iraqi refugees.