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Interview: Pastor George, northern Syria

18 October 2019

Pastor George is one of Open Doors’ partners in northern Syria, close to the recent emergency caused by the invasion of Turkish armed forces. Since 2010, he has led a church in Qamishli, one of the affected cities, and is now supporting the most vulnerable members of his congregation as they face the ramifications of this new crisis. We were recently able to talk to him about the current situation (we spoke with him shortly before the ceasefire was announced). You can still give to the Open Doors Syria Emergency Appeal. Thank you so much to those who have already prayed and given.

Could you tell us what happened in Qamishli on the day the Turkish army attacked?

Qamishli is on the border between Syria and Turkey. There’s less than one kilometre between Qamishli and Turkey. A massive attack was launched at about 3pm against the Kurdish centres and neighbourhoods. It lasted for almost twelve hours, till about 3-4am the next day. They restarted the attack the next day at 4pm. That was more vicious, and more bombshells fell on the civil neighbourhoods such as the local market, a groceries market and the bakery. It was terrifying.

The next day Qamishli was empty, life stopped, everyone stayed at their homes. We are deep in the city, which wasn’t as affected, but we received several families who left their homes and came to the city. We asked them to come and stay in the church guest houses, and provided the needed supplies for them. All who asked our help, we helped in the best possible way we could.

The first three days were horrifying. Everyone felt threatened, especially when rumours spread that the Turkish militias might enter the city, or that groups linked to so-called Islamic State (IS) might attack our city. It was terrifying.

How did you and your family feel when the attack started?

We were shocked. It was out of the blue. My family and I were safe, thankfully, and we had faith in the Lord – so I felt peace considering my family, but afraid for those people who I know live close to the border. I started thinking: how can we get them out?

When we contacted some people nearer the border, I told them to leave immediately and brought them to my house. Then I bought lots of basic supplies like rice, sugar, canned food, bread, cheese, etc. I tried to provide for the people who left without anything. We prayed together, asking the Lord for peace. Of course the children were afraid, especially my youngest son, but by praying we had a sense of safety.

How did your church respond?

The people in my church had different reactions. People with kids were afraid and wanted to get their children out. The older people and those with no children were calmer. Everyone was praying.

The next day, I met with the people of the church. We prayed and worshipped God, and listened to everyone’s opinion. I encouraged those who wanted to stay and tried to strengthen those who were scared. There was a suggestion that we would provide a bus to take people out of the city. I contacted a priest from Marmarita, near Homs – he has a monastery there and was very happy to welcome people from our church.

To be honest, I felt like I wanted to split myself in half, so one half could leave with those who wanted to leave and one half could stay with those who were staying. Eventually, I decided those who were leaving were so scared that I should go with them. Most of them were women and children. The journey took 14 hours, and having me with them, as a pastor, made it easier to get past army checkpoints. After two days, I returned to Qamishli.

How is Qamishli now?

Fadi and George

Pastor George visits Fadi in hospital

There is a sense of relief that the crisis has passed. Of course, Qamishli isn’t completely as it was. The markets are not crowded like before. You can sense fear that something more will happen to the city. The effects of the attacks are still felt in the hearts of the people, wounds are not healed yet and some homes are destroyed. Schools are closed but about 80 per cent of the shops re-opened.

Today, I visited Fadi [a Christian injured in the attack, pictured right], and his mother said to his daughter: “Soon we’ll be back home.” The girl said: “Grandma, we don’t have a home, what are we going back to?” Fear is still there.

What type of help are you offering people?

As a church, we are serving in so many ways. Firstly, due to the expensive costs of life and the huge need, we had so many refugees even before the Turkish attack. We offered food aid for people in need, especially for widows and orphans, and we still do that. We visit families and do a needs assessment. We found that many families have sons and daughters in colleges, but they are dropping out because it is so expensive. Even before the Turkish attack, we were trying to help those students to return to their colleges.

We also give medical aid for medicine and surgeries, and support some cancer patients with money. In several cases, we give financial support to people who can’t afford the rent or need electricity generators for when the power shuts down. We help people from all backgrounds, including Islamic. And while doing that, we try to spread the Word of God. But we help unconditionally.

After the attacks, we will help renovate destroyed houses, and give immediate food aid to those who’ve been displaced. We’ll continue doing what we’ve done. This month, we distributed 250 coupons for food aid to people from all kind of backgrounds. We’ve also given 200 litres of fuel to widows, which is particularly necessary in winter.

How can the worldwide church pray for you?

I thank everyone who prays for us. I’m grateful for all of you, because God heard your prayers and protected our city. I ask of you, please keep praying for us. Our church is persecuted, and we have been closed many times. We tried to open in a formal building, but were stopped. We meet in a small apartment, and it isn’t big enough for the people. Pray that we can open our church in a bigger building.

Pray for protection for our country. We thank you for your support, you helped us, and especially you made us feel that we have brothers and sisters outside Syria. May God bless you and protect you.