It’s a sombre anniversary. Ten years ago, on Tuesday 15 March 2011, civil war broke out in Syria, wreaking havoc across the nation and increasing persecution against Christians. Within days of the incident that sparked the conflict, a baby by the name Michel was born. Now aged ten, he has grown up listening to stories of a Syria he has never known. Here we share his story, your role in it and, more broadly, the monumental support you’ve given the wider Syrian church in the last ten years.
It was early March 2011 and spring was emerging from another harsh winter. Rasha Nemi, her husband Elias Shahoud and one-year-old daughter Jessica were enjoying a peaceful life in Jisr Al-Shughur, a village in northwest Syria. There was anticipation in their hearts – a new addition to the family was imminent.
At this time, however, some 265 miles south in the city of Daraa, an incident took place that would dramatically alter the family’s life and that of the whole country.
On 6 March, a group of teenagers were arrested after graffitiing a wall with anti-government slogans. Ten days later, protests against their detention broke out in Daraa. Three people were killed. The protests continued and the violence escalated, prompting the government to put army personnel on the streets to restore order in the city. In a matter of weeks, the death toll had increased and violence had spread across the country.
Syria’s civil war had begun.
Michel was born on 8 March, two days after the teenagers’ arrest. Two weeks later, Jisr Al-Shughur was attacked. “The wound from my C-section was still not healed and we had to flee our village,” Rasha recalls. “For ten days we stayed in a nearby village until things calmed down, then we returned to our village.”
They stayed there for three years but it was far from the home they once knew. “Our place was a battlefield,” Rasha continues. “Sometimes the regime would take control, other times the rebels would take over.”
For so many young children like Michel, war is all they’ve known. Michel remembers guns and fighting in his early memories, though didn’t fully understand: “I wasn’t scared,” says Michel. “I used to carry my toy machine gun to shoot the rebels and claim victory. I would run out of the house and see them in the streets with long beards. I wanted to attack them but my mum would stop me.”
Michel, Rasha and Jessica; you've played an instrumental role in the family's life
As Michel continues, his thoughts turn to happier memories of his first home. “I loved our house in Jisr Al-Shughur. I had a bicycle on the balcony which I used to ride every day and I had so many toys stashed in the attic. Every summer our cousins and us would inflate a swimming pool on the roof. We had a blast swimming together every year.”
Sadly, the summers of swimming had to stop. The bombings intensified and Islamic troops announced that all Christians should leave. As has been the case for many Christians in Syria over the past ten years, it’s not just war and conflict that has caused suffering – it’s also their status as a follower of Jesus. In 2014, the family were one of around 100 families forced from their homes.
“They [extremists] were screaming at us. I carried my daughter and was forced into a different car than the rest of my family. Michel was with his grandmother in the other car. I always say that I felt that God was stretching his hands over us all the way until we reached the nearby village called Yakubiyah.”
Michel remembers the day well. “As we drove away from the village, I was singing songs for Syria, chanting the national anthem,” he shares. “My family made me shut up so the extremists wouldn’t hear and kill me.”
"Someone who has hope, spreads hope" 'Mourad'
After three weeks, the family travelled south to Latakia. They found an empty house to rent but had nothing to fill it. “A pastor from the Baptist church visited us upon arrival, and when he saw Michel and Jessica sleeping on the floor, he went out and brought us some mattresses and blankets. If he hadn’t, we would’ve died from the cold,” Rasha says.
They later found a furnished home to rent and received food from a church which Open Doors supports. They began attending the church. “The children attend Sunday School and Michel loves his new friends there,” Rasha continues. Michel adds, “One of my favourite verses is ‘He heals the brokenhearted’ (Psalm 147:3), which I learnt in the last camp with the church.”
Through an income-generating project run by the church, funded with your help, Elias set up a grocery shop to support his family. “The store was a huge step for us,” Rasha explains. “We stopped being dependent on the aid and became able to provide for the family. We are now able to pay the rent and support the children. Thank God for the church and the way they stood by us.”
You’ve brought the family some welcome stability. For Michel, though, recollections of his first three years bring tears – a reminder that, whilst progress in the country has been made, it’s still not yet the Syria his family once knew and he longs to know for himself. “I miss my bedroom, especially my bed,” he says. “It was filled with toys and I loved it.”
In the ten years since war broke out, your support for the Syrian church has been monumental. In the last two years, over 1,700 income generating projects have enabled people like Elias to set up their own business. Meanwhile, thousands of people have been helped with hygiene kits and the restoration of homes, and over a million food parcels have been delivered to vulnerable families. And that’s not even the full story – you’ve helped in many other ways, too.
The conflict isn’t over, and your help – through the ongoing Hope for the Middle East campaign, now in its fifth year – is still making an enormous difference.
“With all we do, we give hope,” shares Mourad, a local Open Doors partner whose name we’ve changed. “When a hungry person gets a food package, it gives them hope. When someone can start a small business, that gives hope. When a single mother gets warm winter clothes for her children, it gives hope. And giving hope is contagious. When someone sees that a person is successful in starting a small business, it gives hope to other people, too. Someone who has hope, spreads hope.”
The last word goes to Michel, now age ten: “I love my friends here, but I hope we can go back to our home one day,” he shares. “I wish for Syria every good thing in life. I wish it goes back to the way it was before I was born and hope that we have peace.”
Your gifts and prayers make an enormous difference to your persecuted church family.
Today, will you stand with your persecuted brothers and sisters around the world, following Jesus no matter the cost?
Your support helps persecuted Christians continue to courageously follow Jesus.
Together, we can reach those where persecution hits hardest.