The price for serving refugees: Family forced to become refugees themselves

Despite the war that gripped *Lela’s country for many years, she and her husband had never thought of leaving. They were happy as part of their church’s thriving ministry to the many refugees who had fled fighting to find peace in their area.

Then, their family was threatened.

A masked person confronted the pastor of their Nazarene church to give him the message: “If you don’t leave the country, somebody will get hurt.” The message was for the pastor’s family – and for Lela’s family.

“We had decided we will stay here – we’re ministering, so we’ll not leave,” Lela recalls. “But when this threat came, we were afraid because we have children. It was very hard for us at the beginning. We started crying. It was not our wish.”

Lela had already come a long way and paid a heavy price for her faith. Now, as a direct result of showing God’s love to refugees, Lela’s family became refugees themselves.

A child seeking God

From a young age, she thirsted to know the true God. Deep inside, she always felt that something was not right in her family’s traditional faith. The Christians she knew were intriguingly different.

“These Christians are peaceful people and they are nice,” she thought. “Whenever I met a Christian I used to ask about Christianity. I wanted to know more.”

Secretly, she decided that when she grew up, she would marry a Christian so she could be a Christian, too.

One family who lived in their neighborhood was traditionally Catholic, and she liked their son, Samir*. She tried to get to know him.

He didn’t claim to know Jesus Christ personally, but he gave her a Bible. She read the Gospel of Matthew first, and it increased her thirst for the Christian God.

“Everything is different in this book,” she thought. In her heart she decided “I want this. I’m for Jesus. I’m a Christian.”

Choosing God, losing family

Through their friendship, Lela and Samir fell in love. It was Lela’s dream come true – the chance to marry a good Christian man. At 22 years of age, Lela defied her family to marry Samir. Her parents cut off contact with her, the punishment for not marrying a man who followed their faith.

Her family wasn't the only ones. When the couple looked for a church to attend, many churches turned them away because of the dangers of accepting a mixed faith couple into their congregation. Under their then government, it was against the law for Lela to change the religion on her identity documents from her former faith to Christian.

Finally they found a Baptist church that allowed them to join. The style of worship was very different from what Samir had known in the Catholic church – where he had never understood the liturgy. Being able to understand the service awakened a keen interest in Samir to know more.

In this church, the couple prayed for the first time to commit themselves as followers of Jesus.

When the government was toppled by war, the law was relaxed. Lela and Samir took the unexpected window of opportunity to change Lela’s identity papers to Christian. But in the meantime, they struggled to stay faithful to their church because it was so far away and they couldn’t afford the cost of weekly travel to get there. When someone told them about a closer Church of the Nazarene, they visited.

Ministering to the displaced

Soon they became heavily involved in the Nazarene church’s ministry and lay leadership. Samir was a trusted assistant to the pastor while working as a salesman for a food manufacturer. Lela ran a small childcare service from their home during the day. They gave birth to a baby girl and life was good.

As war raged around their country, thousands upon thousands of people became displaced; refugees poured into the community. The congregation responded to the challenge of ministering to these people in their time of great need.

"We had a full church. Ministry was going on,” Lela said. “We used to distribute food packages to those who have left their area and we even went to the refugee camps and provided food packages. The church was very well and full and we were thinking of getting a bigger place and everything was great.”

But their growing influence and activity was noticed. And so the threat came against the pastor and key families.

Finding a new place to serve

Samir and Lela reluctantly made the decision to flee the country. In 2015, they followed other members of their church to Lebanon. Now, they were refugees, too.

The couple joined a Church of the Nazarene in Beirut, and Lela began volunteering with the congregation’s weekday education program for refugee children in the community. The church has hired her as one of the teachers.

“I like working with children,” Lela says with a big grin. “They pass through harder times than us. We are adults, we can bear more. They saw the war; it’s harder for them to leave the country. It’s a ministry for me before being a job.”

In addition to classes in math, English, Arabic, and life skills, every day the children participate in chapel services, and Lela teaches them from the Bible. Most of the children come from families that practice a different faith.

While math and English and Arabic are important, she added, “most importantly, if they don’t learn anything else, it’s important for them that they learn about Jesus.”

“Lela is so gifted with children, and her dream is to open a special center for the marginalized children,” said their district superintendent. “Lela and her husband have a clear call on their lives.”

The district recognized and affirmed their call by recommending Lela for a district preaching license, after having a local license for one year. The district also gave Samir, a musician and worship leader, a local preacher’s license.

--Church of the Nazarene Eurasia

*Names changed and locations omitted for security

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