Suffering in Syria: Where to start when the world seems hopeless

As Christians, God calls us to have a voice. How do we find ours when the world seems so hopeless? Lucy offers us a way forward based on her own deep searching, as she processes the latest horrific news out of Syria.

In pursuing the Kingdom of God in the world today, it is the mission of Micah to empower Australian Christians to share God’s heart for justice, and raise a powerful voice with, and for, people in poor and vulnerable communities around the world.

It is the voice we are called to use (Proverbs 31:8-9), and the voice we are called to live out (Micah 6:8, Isaiah 58:6-12).

But how do we have a voice when it seems like even the world’s supposed leaders in peace, aid and development, the United Nations are lost for words?

No words will do justice to the children killed, their mothers, their fathers and their loved ones.

This is the statement of the regional director of UNICEF, Geert Cappalaere, released on Tuesday last week. The statement was issued in response to the current escalation of violence, and the resulting suffering and loss of life, in Eastern Ghouta, Syria.

The statement had no further content, just ten empty lines, and then a footnote;

We no longer have the words to describe children’s suffering and our outrage. Do those inflicting the suffering still have words to justify their barbaric acts?

I can hardly begin to fathom the reality that exists behind the weight of those words. And as I read and reflected further, seeking an answer or action point, one simple truth struck me.

I am not equipped to write this post…

No amount of education that I have had allows me to sit in a space of competency to write about this topic. No experience I’ve gained gives me peace as I reflect on the currents of violence and suffering that are flooding the people of Syria right now.

It is a pain and suffering that is beyond me, beyond our reality in Australia. Yet we are called.


Aligning Our Hearts

I believe that this is the point that we need to start from. Before wading in, seeking answers, and looking for action, we need to understand ourselves, because if we are seeking to share God’s heart it cannot come from any other place but the heart that He first establishes in each of us.

So, we need to be aware of our gifts, abilities, our inabilities, and responses.

Asking formative questions like;

What has God done in my life? Who does He say I am? Why is it that I seek to pursue Jesus? 

And asking reflection questions like;

What do I do when I hear a news report that shocks me? Does it make my stomach churn? Does it break my heart? Do I change the channel, keep scrolling, switch to something lighter? Or a combination of all the above.

Thinking through these questions can reveal a lot about our hearts. For me led me to this place:

Lord there have been so many times when I have shied away from engaging with stories of pain and suffering in your world because it seems like too much. It’s overwhelming and at times scary. I am sorry. Let me no longer block out the sounds of Your people

But I know You have called me your daughter, You love me and You’ve called me into freedom. You call me to follow You and seek Your kingdom on earth as in heaven, so I ask that You make my heart more like Yours and help me to see the world how You do.

In this place, when we then seek the heart of God; His love for justice, peace and mercy, something stirs in our spirit. When we picture Jesus as He walked upon the earth, speaking value, healing and forgiveness over the poorest and most marginalised people, His desire becomes clearer. As we read the words of the bible that point to the expansive radical love of His Kingdom, I am lead to believe that it is within the ten empty lines, the moments when we look at the state of the world and we’re lost for words, that God is calling us to step in, to speak.

To know God’s heart we need to know His people and His world, allow ourselves to sit in discomfort and engage with the story being told by those ten empty lines.


Knowing God’s People in Syria

So what is going on that has the international community at a loss?

According to news organisation, Al Jazeera, as of Sunday morning over 470 people have been killed in Eastern Ghouta, a district near the capital city of Damascus, in one week. A further 2,400 are said to have been wounded.

The deaths are the result of indiscriminate and repeated air raids, rocket strikes and shelling by pro-government forces in the region. East Ghouta is the last remaining major area held by rebel opposition groups near the capital city. As such, it has faced ongoing attacks from pro-government forces for several years, with increasing intensity from the start of the new year.

The indiscriminate attacks have left thousands of injured civilians with limited, and inadequate, access to medical treatment. According to the charity Medicines Sans Frontiers, attacks in the first three days of the onslaught left 13 of their supported hospitals and clinics either damaged or destroyed.

After two days of negotiations, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution demanding a 30 day ceasefire across Syria. The ceasefire was to take effect “without delay”, but is already proving hard to enforce with bombs continuing to rain down on civilians.

It is the hope of the UNSC that a ceasefire would allow humanitarian and medical convoys to take assistance to 5.6 million people within Syria deemed to be in ‘acute need’, evacuating the critically ill and wounded.

How did we get here?

As I sat reading the reports of the attacks on Eastern Ghouta and the loss of hundreds of innocent, loved, children of God, I found myself asking this question. I realised that I had a vague awareness of the events in Syria over the past years, and perhaps a slightly greater awareness of the resulting refugee crisis, but I could not answer the question of why.

So I needed to remind myself of some of the key events of the last seven years.

In 2011, the climate in the Arab Spring was shifting, and pro-democracy movements were finding success in Egypt and Tunisia. In March of that year, 15 teenage boys were arrested, detained and tortured for writing revolutionary slogans on a school wall in Deraa, a city in the south of Syria, resulting in the death of one of them. This sparked pro-democracy protests across Syria to which President Assad’s governments forces responded by opening fire, killing hundreds of people and imprisoning many more.

After this the country spiralled into civil war. By July 2011, hundreds of thousands of people began to seek weapons to defend themselves, and the rebel group, the Free Syrian Army, was formed, seeking to overthrow the government.

But the violence continued to escalate and the conflict became increasingly complex, with the dynamics of historic religious tensions, regional and global alliances, and the rise of Islamic State, increasing and intensifying the situation.

The conflict has been marked by the continued perpetration of war crimes, including rape, torture, murder, blocking civilian access to essential resources and the use of chemical weapons. It estimated that, to date, more than 465,000 Syrian’s have been killed, and over 12 million people have been displaced from their homes.

What is Australia doing?

As we consider Syria, the question becomes, what is Australia doing and is it enough?

In 2016, the government announced a $220 million aid packed as part of its new budget. This amount would be rolled out over the following three financial years. Further, through its Humanitarian Programme, the Australian government granted an additional 12,000 places to refugees from Syria between the years of 2015 and 2017. That meant that at 30 June 2017, Australia had granted visas to 22,417 Syrian refugees.

The value of this effort and contribution should not be taken for granted. However, considering the 12 million people displaced and thrown into vulnerability and poverty as a result of this conflict, are we satisfied with what has been done?


Start Small, Pray Big

When I read stories and numbers like that, it is so easy to go back to feeling overwhelmed, straight back to where I started; I’m not equipped.  So, in the face of overwhelming numbers, and unfathomable pain, maybe we need to squint our eyes, and shrink our vision a little, and focus for a moment on the one. There is no story of the 12 million refugees that is not known to God’s heart, none of the 465,000 lives lost that wasn’t created intricately by our father. The words of Psalm 139, which provide such encouragement to us as Australian Christians about our identity, formation, and the beauty and creativity of our Father, carries such power and depth when we consider them true for the one, crying out from Syria;

You have searched me, Lord, and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue you, Lord, know it completely. You hem me in behind and before, and you lay your hand upon me…

God’s heart and passion for each of His people shows us that we are in partnership with Him. Our cries are not new to His ears, but rather echo the cry of His own heart. It is God who is the first advocate and voice for the poor, who hears their cries and responds. As Psalm 146 says;

He upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry.

The Lord sets prisoners free, the Lord gives sight to the blind,

The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down, the Lord loves the righteous.

The Lord watches over the foreigner and sustains the fatherless and the widow, but he frustrates the ways of the wicked

God is re-establishing His kingdom on Earth. Ever since the fall in Genesis we see He consistently pursues a model of life for His people that is of love, mercy, justice, and righteousness. It is the message of the prophets as they spoke to the rebellious Israel. It is the complete in-dwelling of the Kingdom in Christ, propelling forward God’s heart for the earth. It is the work that is then continued through the Holy Spirit in each of us. God continues to re-establish His Kingdom. A Kingdom which foundations are found deep in the fullness of peace.

He is working out His Kingdom in you and through you.

So, in this partnership with our King, let’s start small, furthering our understanding of the one and the millions, sharing their stories, and asking the important questions of our government. And let’s dare to pray big.

I, alone, am not equipped. But I am not alone, and neither are you. We are empowered by the Holy Spirit to live out the Kingdom of God, on whom we rely, and in whom there is a whole community of Christians who stand together. It is as this body of Christ, that we can sit in the story that is in the ten empty lines of the UN, know the heart of God and, out of the silence when the world is stumped, raise up a powerful voice for the poor and vulnerable in Syria.


image credit: getty images



Want to do more?

  • Many of our member organisations have launched specific appeals to help refugees fleeing conflict in Syria and the Middle East, including Baptist World Aid, Caritas, Act for Peace and World Vision.
  • Tear Australia has launched a wonderful reflective Lent series to better help you understand God’s heard for justice
  • World Vision is running Safe and Free – a new campaign calling on the Australian government to immediately increase our aid  and humanitarian intake for developing countries sheltering refugees.