I’ve seen plenty of gore in movies and on TV shows. But nothing could prepare me for the photos on Ackmed’s phone. I wasn’t really sure why he kept them or what made him feel safe to share them with me. All I know is that I’ll never get the images out of my head.
For the past hour, Ackmed had been showing me the life he left behind in Aleppo – back when there was still an Aleppo. Without a translator, we relied on a rudimentary understanding of each other’s languages and Google Translator on our phones to make up the difference.
Despite the difficulty of translating through smartphones, neither of us gave up. For hours, we sat on the bare mattress in his room, going through pictures and learning more about each other. After telling me about his life and his family, he couldn’t help but show me the hell he left behind in Syria. He pulled up YouTube videos of the bombing wreckage in his neighborhood with the most gruesome parts censored out.
About halfway through our Turkish coffee, Ackmed began scrolling through the images on his smartphone until he found a particularly horrifying series. These weren’t from the internet. They weren’t pulled from BBC or Al Jazeera. And they weren’t censored either. These were personal.
The five or six photos showed the contorted, lifeless body of a middle-aged man – eyes still open, bloody lacerations from head to toe, and half naked. The cable tie that finally killed him was still tightly wrapped around his neck.
In the first photo, doctors frantically worked to revive the man. The second photo showed the lifeless body on a table. The remaining ones were taken as officials zipped up the body bag in the makeshift hospital. They were the last sacred memories of a life lost.
As I looked up at Ackmed, our eyes met. The 40-year-old, battle-hardened father of three fought back the tears to get just two words out – “My brother.”
Walking Away From Everything
For decades, Ackmed enjoyed an average middle class life in Syria. His beautiful wife, two daughters, and son had it all – a nice apartment in Aleppo, education, and a wonderful community. Ackmed often travelled across the Middle East. From Lebanon to Saudi Arabia, he built and performed quality inspections on data towers. On the side, he designed custom men’s dress jackets. Aleppo was more than a place to live. It’s where the entire extended family called home.
But in early 2011, things began to change. In the swift political movement known as the Arab Spring, once powerful totalitarian regimes began to fall like dominoes. What started as protests in Tunisia began spreading into Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Iran. But while many regional leaders looked for concessions to prevent violent overthrows, Syrian President Bashar Al Assad doubled down.
On March 15, 2011, protests broke out in the capital of Damascus. The people demanded the release of political prisoners and a democratic government. Bashar Al Assad responded with gunfire and arrests. Later that month, protesters burned down the Ba’ath Party headquarters, leading to mass chaos.
Military operations soon began in the 20 cities where protests took place. Tanks and heavy artillery filled the streets. Thousands were killed or detained. Eventually, rebels organized, seized weapons, and began an intentional armed conflict later that summer. Within the next year, the United Nations would officially declare Syria in a state in civil war.
Today, few cities have seen more violence than Aleppo and Damascus. Government and rebel forces have struggled for control ever since the rebellion began. Using his considerable air power, Assad has indiscriminately bombed his own people, even targeting children’s hospitals with chemical weapons.
The United Nations has predicted that Aleppo will be completely destroyed within months if a cease fire agreement is not reached. But the people face violence from more than just their government.
Rebel and terrorist groups continue fighting tooth and nail for Syria’s remaining territories. When moving into new cities, all sides of the conflict resort to the same tactics – torture the men until they agree to fight, sell off the women as sex slaves, and separate the children. Neutrality isn’t an option.
The conflict has displaced over half of Syria’s 24 million citizens, contributing to the largest humanitarian crisis since the Holocaust.
Across from us, Ackmed’s wife described the horror at home to my teammate, Kathleen. Without any background in English, she used hand motions to describe her experience.
Motioning dramatically, she yelled, “Boom! Boom!” She pretended to remove her own arm, throwing it across room. Then her other arm. Finally, her head.
I asked Ackmed, “Body parts everywhere?” He closed his eyes in resignation and bowed his head.
We soon learned they weren’t describing just any body parts. They were explaining how their own parents died. With their extended family gone, they had no other choice but to leave Syria or die.
Over several months, they made a journey familiar to the 1,100 other residents living in their small refugee center. With Mohammad, their now fatherless nephew in tow, they walked thousands of miles until a smuggler could get them across the Aegean Sea. Ackmed had to revive his wife on the raft when hypothermia took over and she stopped breathing. The children, distressed beyond belief, vomited while they watched their mother nearly die.
They joined millions of others snaking across the European countryside on foot. Today, refugees still push through border fences and police checkpoints, all hoping to make a new home in Germany where Chancellor Angela Merkel has thrown the doors open to them.
As they arrive in cities like Frankfurt, Munich, and Berlin, they are processed by the police and sent to nondescript refugee centers funded by the government and staffed by local NGOs.
Ackmed and his family completed the journey over nine months ago but they still take refuge at a former municipal government building in Berlin. He and his wife sleep on thin mattresses laid out on a tile floor while the children share bunks in the next room. A thin metal chair in the corner and a fold-out end table serve as their pantry.
Once a week, volunteers offer laundry service. Each member of the family qualifies for a small government stipend, a subsidized transit pass, and bi-weekly access to a clothes closet stocked with donated shoes and apparel. Daily meals are provided and a small play room is available to the children.
Since refugees are not permitted to work while under asylum status, they have no other option but to live off the welfare system while they await immigration interviews and permanent placement. The men eagerly look forward to working again and providing for their families, yet remain in political purgatory while the overwhelmed German government searches for new ways to accommodate them.
I asked Ackmed if he ever thought he’d return to Syria.
“There is no Syria anymore,” he replied.
Where is God in this?
The nine days we spent in Germany with these incredible people, while a privilege, were spiritually and physically exhausting. After the 15 hours of flight time back to Dallas, things didn’t quite feel the same. It was hard to relax. I could easily fly off the handle at any moment. I couldn’t even concentrate. It was hard not to internalize their trauma.
How can millions of people be this desperate? They trek through the desert, sometimes stopping only to bury their dead children in the sand. They cram into overstuffed rafts and cross the Aegean Sea by night, led by the same human traffickers who sell little girls for sex.
For the average family, the migration costs between $2,000-5,000. Over 10,000 children have gone missing along the way. Thousands more have drowned off the coasts of Turkey and Greece. And this still remains a viable alternative to the fresh hell they leave behind at home.
It’s enough to wonder, where is God in all of this?
Many of the Muslim refugees we met wonder this same thing, disillusioned by a religion that seems to only encourage such violence. How could our Creator, in his sovereignty, allow this crisis to unfold? Entire cities lay ruined and the lives within them shattered.
But something incredible is happening among these refugees. Many of them hail from unreached people groups, cultural communities that have little or no access to the Gospel. They come from countries that restrict the spread of Christianity, making it nearly impossible to reach them.
But as they’re arriving in Europe, the barriers are lifting. Among some of these unreached people groups, new believers are being baptized for the first time in over a century.
I spent two hours processing 20 loads of laundry with a Kurdish man who fled Iraq 18 months ago. When he joined us two nights later for a worship service, it was his first exposure to Jesus. As God began working in his heart, he told one of the long-term workers, “The first time I saw you, I felt as if you were a brother.”
In just one week, we saw four Muslim refugees drop to their knees and give their lives to Christ. We witnessed dozens of others wrestle with the Gospel message at the invitation of their neighbors in the refugee centers.
God has taken the snow globe of modern civilization and shaken it. As a result, Muslims are seeking answers while meeting followers of Jesus for the first time. At a global level, it’s often difficult to understand how God could allow something like this to happen. But when you encounter these people on a personal level, it’s hard not to see how he has orchestrated this for his glory.
For many of the Muslim-background believers who have come to faith as result of this movement, the violence at home and the treacherous journey are all worth it. They know Jesus now. They know peace and joyfully celebrate what God has done.
They’re homeless and stateless. They have nothing more than what could fit in their backpacks along the journey. They’ve buried loved ones and left others behind at home. They’re hated by many of the people around them.
But they still celebrate their new life in Christ. They give thanks for their new spiritual brothers and sisters. They pray for the salvation of their fellow refugees and seek God’s will at all cost.
The Gospel Lived Out
At its most basic level, this refugee crisis is the Gospel in action. Death, violence, and slavery cast their shadows over the Middle East, driving the most broken and vulnerable victims into encounters with Christ. In complete chaos and utter darkness, his light still shines bright. Even at our worst, he is still at his best. The brokenness is clearly on display, but so is Jesus’ commitment to making all things new again.
Their experiences are nothing short of traumatizing. You don’t have to live their stories to understand that. You must only hear them. But as Ackmed sat across from me, tearfully showing me the memories of a life that no longer exists for him, I could see God at work in his family.
That afternoon, we prayed over him and his wife. Unknown to us, she had been sick all week, yet told us she was miraculously better after our visit. And while they never came to know the Lord, their hearts were clearly open to his Gospel.
“You weren’t alone in that boat in the Aegean Sea. Jesus was still there,” Kathleen explained to them.
Neither are the rest of the refugees still fleeing their homes. Just ask those who found Christ in those dark hours.