The Politics of Return: Syrian Refugees Will Be Saved From the “Aid Industry” Only Through Genuine Hospitality

This article originally appeared on the ABTS blog on May 4, 2018.

Jordan-Iraq Brief – May 2018


The financial crunch of refugee presence in Syria’s neighboring countries is pushing countries like Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon to accelerate refugee return prematurely. The international community has failed woefully in its commitments, both to receiving refugees and to supporting host countries financially. Their policies are shifting towards resettlement in neighboring countries, while their actions show less and less commitment to the host countries. Only 43% of funding pledged to Lebanon in 2017 at donor conferences jointly organized with the UN to meet a national response plan, was actually received, down from 46% in 2016, which was down from 54% in 2015. On the other hand, only 62% of Jordan’s national response plan budget was met in 2016, and 65% in 2017.


The Middle East Office of the Carnegie Center recently carried out conversations with about 320 Syrian refugees to find out what they needed in order to consider returning home. The results of these conversations were what one might expect from any refugee fleeing death and destruction and total loss of home and property. The World Bank estimates that 30% of Syrian homes have been completely destroyed or damaged since the start of the war. And many others have been occupied by army, militias or internally displaced persons (IDPs). All refugees expressed that what they wanted was a sense of safety and security. Parents wanted safety for their children. Young men, in particular, wanted an end to conscription. And families wanted homes to return to. The idea that the creation of “safe zones” in northern Syria through Turkish military intervention, or in the area of Damascus by the Syrian government and its allies, will somehow create a situation where refugees will be able to return, is simply ludicrous. Populations do not return to random regions, absent some form of social safety net familiar to them.

Theological Perspectives

When it comes to the Syrian refugees, it seems that most countries would rather view them as someone else’s problem. The US and its allies believe that the solution rests with resettling refugees in the receiving countries, particularly Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. They push the narrative that the refugee crisis is the outcome of internal Arab and Muslim tensions (Iran-Gulf and Shiite-Sunni, and that it is therefore up to Arab and Muslim countries to take responsibility for the horrors perpetrated by groups like ISIS, the Nusra Front, and other splinter groups. Arab and Muslim countries, on the other hand, argue that these violent groups emerged as a result of the security vacuum left by the US and its allies in the aftermath of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some even offer the narrative that ISIS was “created” by the western intelligence community in order to cover up for Israel, and with the intent of creating regional chaos and furthering their plan for a complete restructuring of the Middle East.

There may, in fact, be some truth in both narratives, and this brings us back to a fundamental realization: the refugee crisis concerns us all and is the responsibility of the entire international community. The voice of God that once called to Cain with the solemn question, “Where is your brother Abel?” continues to call out to all of us. And we continue to respond with hypocritical despondency: “I don’t know” … “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4.9)

God, who loves the refugee and migrant, will waste no time arguing with us on whose fault it is and who started it. But we hear his voice once more: “Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground” (v. 10).

God’s judgment descends on the international community on account of our brothers and sisters the refugees: “Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand” (v. 11).

Missiological Implications

It often feels like the Syrian crisis has transformed into a cynical aid industry, through which thousands of humanitarian workers are simply furthering their careers. Even within the church, we must be on our guard so that the Syrian crisis does not turn into an opportunistic situation for furthering our mission strategies.

The Bible’s teaching about our responsibility towards the poor and the refugee is not a call to “fix a problem,” but a call to human solidarity. God’s command to the Israelites to deal justly with the poor among them derived from the essence of their own experience. “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt,” is the constant refrain of the book of Deuteronomy (5.15, 15.15, 16.12, 24.18, 24.22, etc.). The prophets of the Israelites entreated them: “Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place” (Jeremiah 22.3).

It is wrong for the international community, including in Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey, to experience Syrian refugees as a burden, as though we had no hand in their condition. It is equally problematic somehow to feel good about ourselves when we do things “for” them as though we were doing them a favor. The Bible’s teaching on how we ought to behave towards the foreigner is rooted in principles of hospitality, and hospitality in this view brings as much honor to the host as it does to the guest. But as hosts, we too often act like Martha, Jesus’ friend (Luke 10.40), who was “distracted by all the preparations that had to be made.” But challenging her busy-ness, Jesus commended instead her sister, Mary, who simply sat at his feet. “Mary has chosen what is better and it will not be taken away from her,” was his response to Martha (Luke 10.42). Martha chose to “do for,” whereas Mary chose to “be with.”

In the same way, we are to remember that God does not primarily call us to do things “for” Syrian refugees, but rather to be “with” them. The powerful act of divine incarnation is encapsulated in the name of the child through whom God came to us as Immanuel, “God with us” (Isaiah 7.14 and Matthew 1.23). Immanuel should also be the foundation and source of the Church’s “presence with” refugees through their ordeal. They are not a problem to fix, but a privilege to be with. This understanding should drive Christians everywhere, informing their perspective and the influence they have on the policies of their countries.

About Martin Accad