Many Syrians lose everything but find hope along refugee highway

Audrey Chism’s* prayer was simple—a brief blessing over the meal their Syrian friend Amira* had prepared. But when she finished, Amira was wiping tears from her face.

“It was the first time we had met her, so I didn’t say anything at first—we just sat and ate together,” Audrey said. “Afterward, I was in the kitchen helping with the dishes, and she looked at me and said, ‘Can God forgive me?’ It was clear she was just ready to hear the gospel. God was working on her; it was nothing we had done, no effort of ours.”

And the path that had brought them both to that kitchen in Europe—that was God’s doing too, Audrey said. She and her husband, Matt*, had moved to Syria more than a decade ago in hopes of meeting people like Amira—people whose hearts were soft to the gospel. But as they opened a business, built a life and began to share their faith, what they found instead was hard ground.

“We didn’t see a single person become interested in Jesus in the years we were there,” Matt said.

Then in early 2011, things began to shift. Some Syrians started protesting their government, just as they’d seen people do in Tunisia, Egypt and other countries across Northern Africa and the Middle East. Those who protested thought the movement—called the Arab Spring—might offer hope.

But the Chisms watched with broken hearts as something else happened to those hope-seekers—their homeland shattered. Protests for a better government turned into a brutal civil war.

And as the violence escalated, the Chisms had to leave, first to a neighboring country.

“I thought we might never see any Syrians again,” Matt said.

It was a short-lived grief. A few months later, he started hearing that Syrians were turning up in their country too. At that time, there were only a few thousand. But it wasn’t long before it became a flood, and Matt’s grief turned into something more long-lasting—he became broken for a hopeless, nationless people.

Over the years that followed, Syrians spilled out of their homeland by the hundreds, then thousands, then millions. Over time, Jordan took on about 1.8 million refugees, many of them living in massive camps. Lebanon took on fewer—1.4 million—but for the small country, that meant one in four residents was a Syrian refugee. Still more millions spread to Iraq, Turkey, Egypt and Europe.

“It’s almost like God shook the whole land,” Audrey said.

Today, more than 5.6 million Syrian refugees are registered with UNHCR. Many Syrian refugees share a common story—sudden poverty, loss, violence, trauma, and a harrowing escape that not everyone survives.

They’re tough stories, but Matt Chism found over the years that he just couldn’t turn away. As he visited Syrians day after day in the refugee camps and wept with them, he felt God drawing him to see the big picture God was painting in the midst of all this suffering.

“I wondered—what is God doing with this influx of refugees? I wanted to know,” he said.

So Matt, along with a few other Christ-followers in the region, decided to trace the “refugee highway” many were traveling. He wanted to hear their stories, understand their lives and share the kind of hope the Arab Spring would never bring on its own—the hope of Jesus Christ.

That’s how he ended up the first time in the part of Europe where Amira lives. A local pastor there invited Syrians to gather at his church and tell Matt and his friends their stories, and something happened that Matt describes as a “touching heaven” moment.

“There were 20-plus Syrians there, and I asked them to tell their stories,” he said. “I asked them first who had crossed the Mediterranean Sea in a dinghy, and every single one of them raised their hand.” In the hours that followed, they got up one by one and shared the story of the trauma-filled highway that had brought them there. They wept together. And at the end, Chism stood up and shared the gospel message.

“I had never gotten to share with that many Syrians at one time, and here they were, and they were listening,” he said. “I told them, ‘You may think you are here because of political freedom, but God may give you another freedom. That’s why God brought you here.’”

And not too long after that night, the Chisms packed their bags, took their Arabic skills and moved their family to Europe.

“We are talking about an unprecedented opportunity for the gospel,” Matt said. “What a great opportunity we have out there. I think about the ‘what ifs’—if there were no civil war, if there were no refugees in Europe, how would we have this kind of opportunity?”

Josh Andrews* said he also thinks about that reality all the time. He spends his days in a different country visiting refugee camps, discipling new Syrian believers and teaching them to share their faith with others.

When he thinks of their trauma, he’s moved to tears. “It is still a devastating situation,” he said. “But there is a weaving of the gospel in areas where God is choosing to move. When we find those places where God is working, where the soil is good, we plant there and we stay there. And we keep looking for more—we don’t stop.”

He said he can’t speak to what God is doing in the entire Syrian population scattered across the region and beyond. He also said he can’t speak to the way God is moving in other refugee populations, like the thousands from North Africa who have been fleeing by boat to Europe in the years since revolutions started in their countries.

But he said he can say this: in the place where he lives, he’s definitely seen God change lives.

“We’ve seen families come to Christ, walk away from Islam because they see the truth of the gospel and they know that it’s true,” Andrews said. “We’ve seen people reaching out to their families, we’ve seen people starting home groups and starting churches. Gospel advance hasn’t stopped here.”

It hasn’t stopped in Europe either, the Chisms say. After that meal at Amira’s home, Audrey Chism had invited her to a Bible study, and a month later, Amira became a Christ follower.

And she’s not the only one. They’ve baptized others, and almost 50 men recently came to meet with Matt and study the Gospel of John.

“We’ve heard them say, ‘I lost everything in Syria, but I gained Jesus in Europe,’” Matt said. “God’s Word is advancing, and His plan never fails.”

*Names changed for security