‘I saw men and women crying of hunger’—COVID-19 creates dire situation in Syria

April 21, 2020 by Lindy Lowry in Persecution updates

Pastor George Moushi, leader of The Alliance Church in northern Syria*, is deeply impacted when he talks about what he’s seeing in his country. Decimated by nine years of civil war and ISIS, Syria is now navigating COVID-19.

 

“I saw men and women crying of hunger,” he says.

 

This week, our field shared a new report from our ministry partners in Syria—a difficult picture of how the country’s government-enforced strict coronavirus lockdown has fueled even greater desperation among believers in Syria, especially in the north.

‘The need is bigger than ever’

The pandemic and lockdown measures have severely impacted Pastor George’s church and area, especially those who are day laborers. His church gathers in the northeastern town of Qamishli, near the Turkish border.

“The need to provide for their family members and especially their children is bigger than ever,” he says. “Due to the restrictions that prevent the virus from spreading, the damage is huge on those families who were already needy in Qamishli.”

In a country where 80 percent of the population lives in poverty, millions have been displaced and hundreds of thousands live in overcrowded IDP camps, the situation was already critical.

The need now is dire and extensive, says Mourad, who oversees the work Open Doors does through local partners in Syria. “We hear the cry for help now from all over the region,” he says. “Every pastor and priest we partner with says similar things.”

Stand with persecuted believers in this global crisis

For Christians in Syria and around the world who are already persecuted for their faith, the global pandemic is making life even more difficult. They have less access to healthcare, medicines and community services. Open Doors is committed to standing with the least of these—to ensure that the vulnerable have what they need too. God’s people need our help urgently—will you give today?

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Now was a time to show Jesus’ love’

Pastor George distributes food relief packages at his church in Qamishli.

In late 2019, when Turkish troops invaded northern Syria with the intent on creating a “safe zone,” Open Doors worked with local ministry partners like Pastor George’s church to distribute food and other relief to displaced believers and families who stayed and needed food. The original plan for 2020 was to reduce the emergency food distribution and give only to the poorest and neediest.

“This was to encourage the people who can do so to take measures to improve their situation,” Mourad says. But in the last six months, he has seen increased need because of the economic crisis and in the past month, because of coronavirus.

So has Pastor George: “At first, we stopped distributing relief packages,” he says. “But when we saw the increased need, we restarted the distribution. We gave people food and washing detergent coupons. Our church saw that now was a time to stand by the people, support them and show Jesus’ love in difficult times.”

Mourad adds: “The church in Syria, like [Pastor George’s] church in Qamishli, could not see their congregations suffer from lack of security, shortage of food and the new health threat and do nothing about it.

“The needs are overwhelming now, and we need our brothers and sisters who can support us now more than anytime before.”

Pastor George echoes Mourad’s urgency: “The biggest need I see around me right now is the need for food.” For two hours, his church distributed food coupons to 80 families.

“The number of needy families is much higher than 80,” he says. “We’re trying to help as much as we can with the means we have. People are hungry. Some called me crying because they have no food for their kids and families. Especially displaced families who have no relatives here so they can’t even ask to borrow money from anyone, just to keep them alive until this crisis ends. We’re in dire need of funds to support a larger number of families.”

Mourad notes that Open Doors has plans in place to help people who are crying out, in desperate need. “We’re organizing ourselves, and our local partners try to identify the neediest people,” he says.

70 percent of medical workers have left

Streets of Qamishli full of roadblocks and sandbags typify the kind of destruction the city has sustained after nine years of civil war and the occupation of ISIS.

So far (as of April 20), Syria has reported 39 cases and two deaths from coronavirus, all in or around Damascus, the country’s capital. A health system almost completely destroyed by war, especially in Syria’s northern region, adds to the fear of the further spread of COVID-19 in the country of 18.5 million people. Hundreds of medical facilities have been bombed; half the hospitals and health centers are functioning only partially.

The Associated Press reports that 70 percent of medical workers have fled the country. Medical personnel still in the region have resorted to making protective gear out of garbage bags. The territory has been cut off from outside aid, including U.N. shipments that used to arrive from Iraq but were vetoed by Syrian government ally Russia.

Part of the response to the pandemic includes a daily 16-hour curfew. From 2 pm until 6 am the next morning, no one is allowed out of their house; only a limited number of people go out at all to buy essentials.

“The police patrol the streets to ensure the curfew is observed,” Pastor George says.

Staying connected and praying together through COVID-19

Like everywhere else, churches in Syria were forced to find a new way to meet as services are not allowed right now. Pastor George’s church stays connected through WhatsApp. He even created a WhatsApp group that includes almost all the church members.

“We have three meetings every week, every Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday at 6 pm. We have devotions and we praise and worship together,” he says. “Everyone prays and shares their thoughts and feelings. At the same time, we share our prayer requests with each other and exchange the latest news.

“Many are encouraged that the church cares for them and keeps in touch with them.”

Pastor George also regularly calls and visits church members to check to see if they need anything. He goes to great lengths—and, at times, great personal risk—to reach out to his church and community. “Because I’m a pastor, I can move more freely in the city, so I can provide for the needy families if they need something they can’t get themselves.”

The need is not just material. Many people are weary and afraid, he says. He prays with them and visits those who are ill and discouraged to comfort them.

“That way, I try to keep in touch with the people.”

Pastor George asks us to pray with him and his church, as well as the rest of the world: “Pray that the Lord would intervene to lift the epidemic away from our country, Syria, and off the world. We also pray for more help and support for needy people. We pray that this crisis would end as soon as possible to save many people from hunger.”

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