North East Syria: Hope and Hip Hop
7 December, 2020
Thank you, dear team and family, for your prayers on this recent mission to Syria. Jesus’ name was proclaimed and well received. We had planned this relief mission for October, but when the time came, we could not get permission to cross from Kurdistan, Iraq, into Syria. We have crossed many times, but this time the way seemed closed for us. We kept trying and at the same time we were invited to go to help Armenians under attack in Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan had invaded on September 27th and thousands of Armenians were displaced. We also wanted to go help in Armenia but we wanted to exhaust all ways to cross to Syria first. We prayed about this every day, saying, “Dear God we don’t need to go to Syria if you want to send us to Armenia. We will go wherever You want but we made a promise to go to Syria so we should keep trying until it’s very clear that the way is closed. In Jesus’ name we pray, amen.”
After a week of waiting for permissions we decided that if by Sunday, 13 October, at sunset, we did not have permission we would take that as a sign to go help in Armenia. At 4:00am Sunday morning we loaded up vehicles and drove to the Syrian/Iraqi border on the Tigris River in Kurdistan, Iraq, arriving there at 9:00am. At the crossing site we were told we did not have permission but we waited with our column of eight vehicles and 20-person relief team. We were parked on the side of the road, waiting, and after a few hours the border guards and officials, who are our friends, came out to us. They seemed a little embarrassed and said, “We are sorry you don’t have permission but please don’t just sit there. We will feel bad for you to waste your time.”
We told them, “No problem, we prayed to God and we decided together we would stay here till sunset and if we got no permission then we will go back and go to help in Armenia.” They looked at us quizzically and went back to their offices. At 2pm they approached us again and said they were sorry, the pontoon bridge over the Tigris was chained up and closed at 2 and that we should go back, as there would be no crossing anymore that day. We said, “That’s OK, we prayed to God and we said we will wait till sunset.” They said it didn’t matter about sunset because at 2pm they always closed the border. We just stayed and prayed.
As the sun was setting, close to 6:00pm, I got a call on my phone saying that we had permission and they would make an exception for crossing after 2pm, and we could cross. We thanked God and our Kurdish government friends, loaded our vehicles and drove up to the pontoon bridge over the Tigris. The chains were pulled off and we crossed.
Because it was so late, there was no official to greet us on the other side, so we had to wait until the woman who is in charge of passport control on the Syrian side for the Kurds there (SDF) arrived. She was not happy as it was her daughter’s birthday and she’d had to drive an hour back from her home. We apologized many times and said that we’d been there the whole day but not been allowed to cross until now. When she asked the purpose of our visit, we told her about our humanitarian work and she said she actually knew about us already and that we did good work. We said that we were following Jesus here and she said, “Jesus. I’m a Muslim but my favorite prophet is Jesus because every time I pray to him I feel peace no matter what’s happening. I love Jesus.”
Then she asked with a smile “Do you want to come to my daughter’s birthday?” We said yes and so we went to her daughter’s birthday. It was a big celebration until about 1030pm with our new friends and family and we gave them Bibles in Arabic and Kurdish. We prayed with them and then continued our journey. It was a wonderful start to our mission!
Hakeem and the Donkey House
Then Hakeem, a Kurdish driver for a journalist who had been with us at last year’s Turkish invasion heard we were there and came to meet us. He said he wanted to help guide us to our destination that night. We accepted his offer as he knew the area well and we love him. With Hakeem, the midnight drive wending our way through an enemy-held area was done with no problems. We arrived to our friends at the ‘donkey’ house (so named because it was here we had brought our pet donkey, named ‘Snowflake,’ that we rescued from ISIS in Baghouz, the last stronghold of ISIS, last year. Now we are very close with the families who took on Snowflake).
Here we also linked up with Hamdu, a Muslim Arab man we met during last year’s invasion. He and his family had fled the Turkish invasion and he had lost his home and now lived in a tent in Washi Kani IDP camp, with over 10,000 other people. Hamdu had become a follower of Jesus and since led nine other families to start a tent church. Hamdu was now part of our Syria team and was helping to organize this mission. Hakeem stayed with us that night and the next day we prayed with him and gave him a Bible which he wanted. He left with a big smile saying, “We are family with you. You are my brother; you lay down your life for our people and we thank God for you.” Later that night we heard that Hakeem had a heart attack when he arrived home and passed away. We were shocked and saddened. One of the last things he did was help us. We committed to help his family. It reminded me that none of us know our last hour and that we need to make every minute count. Hakeem did.
That morning we did a Good Life Club program with the donkey house families. This program was enhanced by Lane and Cary and their super energetic, Jesus-proclaiming hip-hop. All the children, parents and grandparents started dancing! “We have never done this type of singing and dancing but we love it and we feel God’s love in it,” said one of the Kurdish fathers.
From the donkey house we went to Tel Tamir and gave medical training to the Christian forces defending the town there. The Tel Tamir area is on the Khabur River, once a Christian area. First ISIS and then the Turkish forces and their proxies, the Free Syrian Army, had driven many out. We also did an impromptu GLC program and hip-hop which was a hit, with the IDP children singing and jumping. “We need this kind of joy and movement of exercise in our lives, thank you so much! It makes us happy; it gives us energy and it helps us not notice our troubles for a while. We can feel God,” said a smiling grandmother.
Church Rises in Raqqa, Former Capital of ISIS
From Tel Tamir we drove through the desert to the heavily-damaged city of Raqqa, the old capital of ISIS. Here we met the Arab sheik and Arab and Kurd members of the new civil council who we are working with to rebuild the Armenian Apostolic Church that ISIS destroyed. The exterior is now complete and we are working on the interior now. We thank God for this.
The Eyes of Jesus
That night we drove on to the town of Ein Issa which means “Eyes of Jesus.” Ein Issa is on the east-west M4 highway and marks the front line between the SDF and Turkish forces to the north. Turkey and the FSA had advanced 30 kilometers south from the Turkish-Syrian border and now launched mortar and artillery attacks across highway. Most people have fled but the SDF maintains a small hospital that we support there to help those who remain.
Attack and the Killing of a Child
At 9:30am the next morning, 16 Oct. 2020, morning activity in the town of Ein Issa was interrupted by an explosion to the north, as mortar rounds from Turkish forces came in. Within the next 15 minutes, four more 120mm mortars fell along the same trajectory, striking into an abandoned IDP camp on the north edge of Ein Issa town. The families had already fled so there were no casualties from these strikes, but shrapnel hit our ambulance as we moved to help. 15 minutes later a sixth 120mm mortar landed to the east of Ein Issa, closer in and parallel to the hospital. This strike landed in the midst of a herd of sheep. An eight-year-old boy named Hatam was riding his pet donkey and herding the family sheep with two of his brothers when the mortar struck. It decapitated the donkey and cut off its legs. At the same time, Hatam lost almost all of one leg, low down by his foot, and was lacerated with shrapnel, one piece penetrating deep into his chest cavity. His younger brothers were farther from the blast so they received only minor injuries. Hatam was rushed to Ein Issa hospital in the back of a pickup truck, where the FBR team assisted the hospital staff in stabilizing him before he was evacuated to Raqqa. As he was being treated, his mother arrived at the hospital, screaming in anguish and we tried to comfort and pray with her. She told us his name was Hatam Hassan. We felt he would live. He seemed to be stable with a good pulse and airway when we evacuated him, but he died later of his wounds.
Hatam is the 11th child killed by Turkish forces in the Ein Issa area this year. We pray for a stop to these attacks, a withdrawal of the Turkish forces and their proxies, the Free Syrian Army, and help to get people back to their homes. Later, on Monday, October 19, we met again with the mother and father of Hatam. It was heart-rending and his parents were torn with grief. His father, Zedan, and mother, Kason, came to us with one of Hatam’s younger brothers, three-year-old Hamood.
With tears in his eyes, Zedan, the father, squeezed my hand and asked: “Why did this happen to our son? This is evil and our hearts are broken. We cry. We fled the fighting in Syria and became refugees in Lebanon. Then we heard that it was safe to come back to the Ein Issa area. So, we came back. I am a farmer and we have four sons. The oldest son, Hatam, was responsible for care of the sheep and the animals. He was eight years old and he loved his pet donkey very much. We also have a fine horse that he and all the children like to ride.
“Is this God’s will? I feel so bad. My wife and I are very sad and at a loss. If I tell you the story will it get out? Will it go around the world and will people care? Will it make a difference? We know who is behind the attacks and it is the Turks. Why do they hate us and why do they hate little boys? Why did they kill my son? Someone please stop them. Please stop them. We are farmers and we want to live in peace with the land and people. We put our hope in God.”
Karen, Pete, and I held hands with and prayed with the father and mother. Karen gave toys to Hamood and for his brothers. We shared about our hope and comfort in Jesus and helped them financially. We also promised to help them with new horses and donkeys because we also love animals and they need them to survive.
The killing of Hatam is a great evil and tragedy but in the midst of this God has brought our families and team together and we will stand together. All of us are the same. We are all mortal people and one day we will die. But, until that day we are family together in love, in suffering, and in joy. We will help each other as much as we can.
As we got ready to leave, the father said, “I was waiting for my son to become the size of your son Peter, and I was going to buy him a bicycle because he wanted it. Now I cannot.” We hugged each other and through our tears told each other, “I love you.”
New believers, Churches in Kobane and School on a Front Line
After attacks died down in Ein Issa we continued on to Kobane and the two new churches we support there. These churches were started by Muslims who had fled ISIS and become Christians after being sheltered by churches in Turkey. “We met Jesus,” they told us. We did more GLC programs with them and also visited the local hospital we support. From Kobane we went west across the Euphrates River to Manbij, the western-most area held by the SDF. To the west and north the Turks and Free Syrian Army shell the outskirts of Manbij weekly. One area near this front line is the little school of Dadat. We are close to the people there and helped them build a new building, and we are helping them now with new toilets. During this visit we also did another well-received GLC program. From Dadat we met with the leaders of Manbij and are working with them for more support for the hospital there.
After this we drove back to Ein Issa and then to Raqqa and back to the Qamishli area to meet Elizabeth, one of the top regional political leaders and a Christian. We prayed with her for the diminished orthodox Christian community who have suffered so much and are under grave threat. We had planned to finish the mission here but that night we got word that Ein Issa was under attack again so we prayed and decided to go back to help.
We got back the next day and the attacks slowed so we spent our time doing more GLC programs, including with over 600 children who fled last year’s Turkish invasion and were now at the desolate Tel Abyad IDP camp in an abandoned U.S. Army camp in the desert. Crowded in small tents with no sign they can ever go home, you could feel the depression and misery. Men came up to me crying tears of frustration. “Why did America betray us? Why did you use us to fight ISIS and then abandon us and allow the Turks to invade and kill our friends and chase us from our homes? When can we go home? We do not want to die here.”
I got on my knees and asked forgiveness for what my country did and prayed for them. I said we would keep praying and tell their story. We also prayed for the Turks and FSA to stop their attacks here and pull back so people can go home. When I got up the men began to hug me as tears rolled down their faces. Then the GLC team started their hip-hop program and suddenly all the children began to tap their feet to the music, smile, sing and dance. We were singing praises to Jesus with them now and we felt His spirit. The feeling of love was so overpowering that I choked up. God’s love swept through the camp and we were all affected and smiled and felt free. After the program was over, we gave out gospel bracelets and clothes. We left as new friends and with hope.
After Ein Issa we went to meet General Mazloum Abdi the commander of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). We are always inspired by his calm wisdom and firm resolve. He thanked us and the American people for their support and helping the people of NE Syria defeat terrorism. He said, “Please stay with us in Syria and help support the new democracy here with equal rights for all: men, women, Kurdish, Christian and Arab.” At the border on the way back to Kurdistan and then to follow-on missions to Burma, we met with Nadine Maenza and Pastor Steve Berger. Nadine is a member of the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom and Pastor Steve of Nashville is a leading voice for oppressed people everywhere. Nadine and Steve are working to help the people of Syria and have our prayers to encourage the U.S. government to help the people displaced by the Turkish invasion go home. Their presence is an answer to prayer and reinforcement for all here.
During this mission our team made these short videos:
Syria Hip Hop Fb Link:
Thank you for being in this with us and God bless you ,
Dave, family and FBR