Adult Education Idea for Congregations:
Walk in the Shoes of Syrian Refugees
This adult education resource is designed to introduce participants to experiences of refugees, in particular those from Syria, in order to help them key into feelings of compassion and empathy. While the resource does not address political questions around entry of refugees into the US, it does root any discussion of US policies – either in adult education settings in your congregation or in the wider world – in Jesus’ command to love one another.
Background Information for Moderator: The Syrian Civil War
After World War I, the victorious allies (America, France, and Britain) divided up the Middle East into new countries and protectorates. Syria, along with Lebanon, became a French mandate. Syria’s population was diverse – both religiously (with Christians, different sects of Muslims, and Jews) and ethnically (with Kurds, Turkmen, Assyrians, Druze and others). When the French ruled Syria they created exclusive geographic areas for some minorities, including a minority Muslim group known as the Alawites. Many Alawites joined the Syrian army during this period. Eventually a powerful military officer from the Alawite community, Hafez al-Assad became the ruler of Syria. He ruled with an iron fist for decades, using violence and intimidation to keep control of a country where the majority of the population identified with other Muslim or Christian sects.
Hafez al-Assad died in 2000, and his son, Bashar al-Assad became Syria’s leader. Many Syrians and people around the world hoped Bashar al-Assad would be more moderate, because he is a medical doctor who received part of his training in Britain. But the Syrian civil war has dashed these hopes.
A number of important factors led to the current civil war in Syria. First, there has been a massive drought in Syria that has lasted almost fifteen years. Between 2006 and 2011 over a million farmers and rural families moved into Syrian cities because they could no longer sustain their farms in the devastating drought. Syria’s cities became increasingly over-crowded, and job creation and public services (schools, healthcare systems, garbage collection) could not keep up with the rapidly expanding population. People in Syrian cities became increasingly dissatisfied with their government and leaders. When the Arab Spring came to Syria in 2011, people in urban areas began to protest, asking the government of the younger, potentially moderate Bashar al-Assad for democracy and more responsive leadership. Instead of responding peacefully, the younger Assad’s government began to jail, beat, and torture pro-democracy protestors and to accuse them of being radical Islamic terrorists.
Syria borders Iraq, and the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq at the end of 2011 led to a power vacuum on Syria’s eastern border. As the Syrian government violently put down protests in major cities, a new, truly radical Islamic group – ISIS – began to fill the void of governance in areas of both Iraq and Syria. Now Syria faced a conflict between different Iraqi groups of Muslims on its eastern border, just as violence to put down protests in cities was evolving into an actual civil war.
The war in Syria today involves multiple, evolving groups – Christian, secular, and various Muslim groups – as well as multiple countries. Iran and Russia support the Assad government; the US supports anyone fighting against ISIS; and Saudi Arabia and Qatar – other key regional players – support Sunni Muslim militias fighting anyone supported by Iran. It is a very complicated war. It has also been very brutal.
Over 3 million civilians in Syria have fled the country, with another 3.5 million displaced within it. By far the largest groups of refugees are living in nearby countries, especially Jordan and Turkey. But some refugees flee further, trying to reach the safety of Europe and America. In 2016 four Syrian refugees were resettled in South Dakota, where a small number of Syrian-Americans have lived for several generations.
Today we are going to look at the experiences of civilians fleeing the civil war in Syria. We come to the activity understanding that millions of people all over the world, in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia are also fleeing violence and trying to find safety in other countries.
The Syrian Journey – Choose Your Own Escape Route
The BBC has put together an amazing, interactive role-play that puts congregants in the shoes of Syrian refugees, and asks them to make decisions about how to get their families to safety.
It can be used to connect people in your congregation to the experiences – especially the fear and danger – that Syrian and other refugees face. Feeling someone’s experience can help us open up to empathy and apply the Christian values of love and compassion when we consider how to respond to the worldwide refugee crisis.
Share the BBC link (http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-32057601) with participants via smart phones. Break into groups of 3-5 and ask each group to spend 10-15 minutes working together through the journey on a phone together.
The interactive journey looks like this:
Begin your journey
This journey is based on extensive research and real stories of Syrians who have made the journey.
Select your character to begin your journey
After groups have finished going through the role play ask folks to come back together for a discussion. You may want to ask questions like:
- Did you make it to safety? If not, what happened to you?
- What did you feel when you were trying to make decisions?
- What did you feel if you failed in some way?
- Did you learn anything about Syrian refugees you didn’t know before?
- As you consider the plight of Syrian refugees, what biblical stories of immigrants come to mind? Possible answers: Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Ruth, David, and Jesus were themselves immigrants, crossing borders under difficult circumstances; the Israelites were taught not to oppress a foreigner but to remember that they were once foreigners in Egypt.)
- What Biblical principles might guide how we treat refugees? Possible answers: Emphasis on hospitality and sheltering the stranger; the charge to care for the most vulnerable—including the widow, the orphan, the poor and the foreigner; Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan (a rival ethnic/religious group); Jesus’ words, “As you have done it to the least of these, you have done it unto me.”
Possible second activity for folks in Sioux Falls
Sioux Falls is home to a wonderful, reasonably priced Syrian restaurant – Sanaa’s. Sanaa Abourezk, the owner, is Syrian American. If your congregation is in or near Sioux Falls, you might pick up pre-packaged dips and bread from Sanaa’s to serve at church or plan a visit to the restaurant to follow up on this adult education experience.