BEIRUT, Lebanon — The humanitarian work of Mennonite Central Committee in Syria during this time of war grew out of the placement of a single worker with the Syriac Orthodox Church 25 years ago.
“It’s hard to believe that the presence of one English language teacher [Roy Hange] in 1991 became a relationship that has lasted for 25 years and has helped hundreds of thousands of people in their daily lives,” said Mor Ignatius Ephrem II, patriarch of Antioch and All the East, at a Nov. 12 celebration of MCC’s 25-year relationship with Syrian partners.
MCC’s long involvement in Syria, a country at peace until six years ago, has led MCC into the single biggest crisis response of its nearly 100-year history. Since the war began, MCC has provided more than $41 million in humanitarian relief in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan.
“I don’t think anybody ever expected what we are going through today,” the patriarch said, “but God used this relationship to prepare for this huge amount of work MCC is doing now in Syria, and for Syria. [MCC] continues to bring out the best in people, in contrast to this war.”
The celebration, which drew both Christian and Muslim representatives of six local partners MCC is working with in Syria, had to be held in neighboring Lebanon because of the difficulty of getting MCC workers from Canada and the U.S. into Syria.
Doug and Naomi Enns of Winnipeg, Man., who have served as MCC representatives for Lebanon and Syria since 2013, thanked the guests for making the often difficult journey over the border to a “celebration of thanksgiving and peacemaking.”
“Syria can be referred to as the cradle of civilization, the birthplace of the Christian church,” said Doug Enns in his opening remarks. “A mere 25 years is but a drop in the bucket in this expansive history. But these are critical times, and what we do and how we practice faith and express love and compassion today has a lasting impact.”
The evening included a photo presentation chronicling MCC’s many involvements over the past 25 years: providing English teachers, supporting developmentally disabled adults and orphans, funding a prison ministry, helping Iraqi refugees who fled to Syria and supporting exchanges — including a Mennonite choir visit.
In a video created for the celebration, the Middle East Council of Churches enumerated ways MCC had helped displaced Syrians and struggling host communities through that one partner alone: providing 2,122 infant kits, 29,398 school kits, 38,775 hygiene kits, 15,772 blankets, 6,156 relief kits, 382 pieces of medical equipment, 20,386 winter-clothing kits, 5,720 heaters, 25,222 pairs of shoes and much more, benefiting in some way more than 248,000 people.
Love and solidarity
“This celebration comes at a time you discover together what solidarity means, not in words but in action, and what being a member of the one body of Christ means and how that can go beyond our theological traditions,” said Samer Laham, executive relief director with the council.
“Because in the eyes of God, we are all one people, and what differentiates us is to what extent we practice God’s will and teaching, especially in relation to our neighbor.”
Laham, pointing out that MCC was the first organization to offer assistance to churches as the conflict began, made special mention of handmade items, like comforters and school kits, put together by MCC-supporting congregations “in a spirit of love and solidarity.”
Rosangela Jarjour, general secretary of the Fellowship of Middle East Evangelical Churches, was among those who praised MCC’s way of working side-by-side and empowering local partners, without hidden motives or partisanship.
“We feel that we are working shoulder to shoulder with MCC,” she said. “We feel that you are friends, part of our family. You feel our pain. When we cry, you cry with us, and when we are happy you are happy with us.
“The vision for justice, for relief, for empowering the poor, standing with the marginalized — what more beautiful message could there be? This is the message that Jesus brought to our world: to be with the poor, the oppressed, to love everybody. You are carrying his message.”
MCC Europe and the Middle East area director Amela Puljek-Shank presented the patriarch, who represented MCC’s original and longest partner in Syria, with a quilted wall hanging featuring the MCC logo. Partners presented the MCC team with commemorative plaques and a traditional icon.
Gasps of happy recognition greeted a closing video featuring a number of former MCC Syria workers relating fond memories of their time there.
“When people ask me what it was like living in Syria, I often tell them it was like returning to your home after you’d been away for a long time,” said Jordan Detwiler-Michelson, a former worker with MCC’s Serving and Learning Together program in Syria, now living in Boston. “People are so glad to see you; they welcome you like you’re family.”