‘We are tired, so tired…It is going on so long and there is so much to do. We are only human.’
Sylvia works in her home town of Aleppo with internally displaced people (IDPs) who’ve fled other parts of Syria. She’s one of a group of young Syrians speaking about life in their war-torn country during a welcome break in neighbouring Lebanon.
The names of the young people have been changed to protect their identity.
Despite Sylvia’s tiredness, she feels she cannot just turn the IDPs away.
‘We can’t say “no” to them. ‘When they knock at our door we need to listen to them – it took so much for them to get there. It happens regularly. We are having our meal and then another one arrives and pleads for help.’
Sylvia had travelled the short journey from her besieged city to join the group of 40 young Christians in the Lebanese mountains for a training course in leadership.
‘Life goes on’
Another from the group, Anton, spoke about how he’s got used to a war going on all around him. When he’s back home and sitting down to eat he often hears explosions, ‘but we continue to eat’, he said. ‘Life goes on.’
Recently a grenade exploded in the city, wounding more than a dozen people. Anton walked down the same street only 15 minutes later. ‘I couldn’t see anything of what had happened earlier,’ he said. ‘The shops were open and people walked in the street as if nothing had happened.’
For some, it was the first time they had left since the outbreak of the civil war, now in its fourth year. Lebanon was chosen because it offered them a safe place nearby where they could relax and study.
Pastor B, a church leader, explained how his work involved travelling around the city looking out for refugees to console and support. But he held back tears as he explained that he felt he must put on a show of being strong despite being ‘totally tired’.
All found it hard to think about their future. ‘Before we came we only set our goals for a short period’, said one, ‘ with no goals for the long term.’
For many, it was a time to reflect.
Samir, who had left his wife and two children back home in Aleppo, found he enjoyed spending more time in prayer. ‘I wasn’t used to [doing] this,’ he said. ‘Spending more time with God was very important to me.’
‘You changed our concept of praying,’ one participant said. ‘It is about listening to God’s voice and praying our own words. The lessons helped us come closer to God and gave us hope.’
The group also discovered that there are role models of leadership in the Bible.
‘I was surprised that we could use the Bible for this too,’ said one young man who had previously learned about leadership in mainstream business training.
Others said they had learned about ‘servant leadership’ and to be ‘Christian leaders, not just leaders’.
A young man from Damascus also works with refugees. ‘They’ve been through a lot, much more than I’ve had to experience. It makes me thankful to God. The war has brought me much closer to God. I can sometimes feel God’s hand over me – He is so close and gives me peace.’
At one point during the group’s week away their sense of freedom got the better of them.
Sarah, one of the trainers, describes the excitement as the group set off on a trip to Byblos, a picturesque harbour on Lebanon’s Mediterranean coast.
‘After training, there’s almost no time to visit the toilet and change clothes before the bus leaves for the ancient city of Byblos. In the bus they sing. Believe me, Syrians know how to sing with their whole heart.
‘They sang songs about Syria, songs about their city and songs that help them remember the good things Syria represented before the fighting and destruction.
‘As soon as we arrived, they jumped from the bus and did a record-breaking sightseeing walk through the beautiful city centre. “This reminds me of the market in Aleppo” one of them said, “- before the terrorists burned it down”.
‘But no time to grieve today,’ said Sarah.
The group visited the medieval city wall that separates the village from the sea and with youthful enthusiasm climbed the old tower that looks over the harbour. They ran excitedly around the ancient city streets – taking lots of ‘selfies’ on their mobile phones.
‘Let’s go to the harbour,’ Liliane suggested. ‘I want to go on a boat on the Mediterranean.’
Sarah continued: ‘They knew their time was limited. With barely an hour or so till dinner was due they headed for the waterfront at sunset, all the time taking more photographs. Click, click, click. The small harbour is a jewel, and they made sure they took home proof of their visit.
‘The group negotiated with the owner of a boat to take them for a ride. Some had never been on a boat before. As they set off, they watched a newly-married couple arrive for a wedding party on another boat.
‘They explained to the owner what little time they had left for the boat trip. After a few minutes the boat left the harbour entrance behind and soon the front of the boat started to dive into the waves: it was like a roller coaster! They had trouble standing up while the boat rocked on all sides, up and down, left and right. They just laughed, held each other’s hands and passed round their mobile phones to take lots more ‘selfies’. It was like being with a group of young teenagers. The boat dropped them off and they found their way back to the bus, again singing, laughing and joking.
‘After dinner they headed for a small cafeteria close to the hotel and had the place to themselves for the evening. They sang, danced, talked and played games. The cafeteria almost burst because of the joyful singing and laughter. They sat at tables to drink and eat peanuts and sunflower seeds; it was difficult to hear anyone speak with all the cheerful noise they made.
“In Aleppo we can’t do this so late in the evening,” said a 27-year old. “In winter we always try to be at home between six and seven in the evening. Even in the summer we can only stay out a little later – eight or sometimes nine o’clock.”
‘What an amazing privilege to have celebrated this evening together with them,’ Sarah mused. ‘The next day they took the bus back to Syria and back to war.’