Youth work in a war zone

Youth work can sometimes feel like a battle - but living in a real war zone is a whole other story. Open Doors’ Dan Etheridge tells us more.

Youth work isn’t an easy job. Most of us work hours we’re not paid for (if we get paid at all), with young people who don’t always want us around. We intervene in fights, are regularly let down by the kids we invest trust and time into, clean up endless emotional messes and stresses and often get limited support from our employers.

It’s hard work, there’s no doubt about that. But it’s rewarding, and definitely worth it. When everything kicks off and the pastor’s son snogs his girlfriend’s best friend (been there!?), it can feel like you’re working in the midst of a war zone, but the reality is the issues tend to blow over and get resolved in weeks, if not days. And furthermore, those big moments give us real life situations to help us encourage young people to connect the dots between their faith and how they live their lives.

But a random snog is one thing; a real war zone it isn’t. Over the last two years, the Church in Syria has been caught between at least two warring sides in a conflict that is tearing the country apart. At the beginning of September the UN announced that two million Syrians had become refugees causing the ‘biggest displacement crisis of all time’. In this utterly insecure reality, the Christian community is facing daily threats and abuse, and is being forced to redefine the meanings of youth, youth work and church in both hopeful and tragic ways.

Teenage riot

We’re all now very familiar with the Arab uprisings that spread across some Middle Eastern countries in 2011. Harnessing the power of social media, young people led the charge in voicing their dissatisfaction with authoritarian regimes. In countries where up to 60 per cent of the populations were under 25, young people had a significant stake in challenging the political norms. In Egypt their message gained enough attention that international and internal pressure led to regime change (the success of which is now being deeply questioned).

The same dissatisfaction was true in Syria. The popular story that marks the beginning of the Syrian conflict involves a group of 15 teenagers, all under 17, who sprayed the phrase, ‘The people want the regime to fall’ on a wall in the southern Syrian town of Dara’a. As punishment, the local governor threw them in prison, sparking localised protests and anger. From there, the rest is, history.

And there you have it: the frustrations of teenagers started a war. As youth workers we’re surrounded by frustrated teenagers. We see how, as young people get older they come to understand and experience more of the world. They notice the inconsistencies, contradictions and the ways they, and others, are alienated. It’s unsurprising really, when we know young people so well, that they’ve had such a pivotal role in the Arab Spring. Unlike us, who are older, and maybe slightly more world weary, many young people are innately hopeful that things can be different. And let’s be honest, that’s why we love them and love our jobs. However, the truth is that the situation in Syria (and Egypt) is no longer so optimistic.

Old before their time

Over the last decade the Church in the UK has realised that the age boundaries of youth work are becoming broader and broader. Young people are taking longer to become adults. Youth workers are still engaging with teenagers who’ve gone off to university, and the Church is realising that those in their twenties need unique attention to ensure they stay engaged with Christianity. But this isn’t just the case in the Church. In wider society, the lines between adolescence and adulthood are blurring. Young people now tend to live with their parents longer, get married older and the responsibilities of adulthood are postponed. For good and bad, in the developed, consumer-centred West, childhood and adolescence are heavily protected and guarded.

This is a stark contrast to the teenage experiences of many other regions of the world. Although the lines between adulthood and adolescence are also blurring, in Syria this means children have to grow up very quickly (rather than slowly). The teenagers who remain in Syria are facing unprecedented challenges:

‘What is at stake is nothing less than the survival and well-being of a generation of innocents.... The youth of Syria are losing their homes, their family members and their futures. Even after they have crossed a border to safety they are traumatised, depressed and in need of a reason for hope.’ Anotonio Guterres, The UN Hugh Commissioner for Refugees

Over one million children and young people have fled the country because of the war – half of the total number of refugees. Those who stay are growing up fast, taking on the responsibilities of parents who’ve been killed or taken, or even being forced to fight themselves. The situation isn’t the same everywhere. Some teenagers are still trying to study for school exams. One parent from Allepo highlights the difficulties: ‘Our son has had a very hard time in this academic year and most of the time he studied under the candle’s light’.

But it’s just as hard for younger children. Faced with over two years of war, violence is now the norm. Deborah, a children’s worker from Damascus, said: ‘I see how the children changed. For example they pray differently, many start to cry when we pray. They ask questions we cannot answer. A child asked me: “God is with us, we should not be afraid, you said, but now my father died. How could this happen when God is with us?” They speak about weapons; they know all the names of guns and tanks.’

The recent accusations and claims of chemical weapons attacks near Damascus suggest that one-third of the victims were children, highlighting again that young people are paying the ultimate price as this war continues to unfold.

Leave or die

If this wasn’t enough to contend with, the issues facing church-based (youth) workers are even more severe. With a heritage as old as Christianity itself, Syrian Christians are proud of their historical ties to the early Church. Before the civil war began around ten per cent of the population were Christian. But now they are caught between an anti-government militia who assume they are supportive of the Assad regime and a ruling party who are - at best - indifferent to their existence. And so the Church is facing increasing and extreme persecution.

‘There are areas where Christians have been intentionally displaced... there was a half-Christian, half-Muslim town, with around 7,000 Christian families there. And from the minarets they told the Christians to leave, otherwise they would be slaughtered one by one.’ Pastor B, Church Leader from Tarsus

As a result, Pastor Edward, a church leader from Damascus estimates that 30 per cent of Christians have fled the country. It’s becoming harder and harder to stay. They are being increasingly singled out by militant groups who see no place for them in a new Syria. Shockingly the reports of kidnappings, murder, rape and attacks on Christian homes and buildings are increasing on a daily basis.

Church and youth work redefined

In this context, how can the Church survive? Forget the idea of youth work as you know it. Any kind of church work is likely to mean your life is on the line. Friday night clubs? Cancelled - power cuts and parents who no longer let their children out of their sights would put a stop to that. The same goes for after-school clubs or camps. But the Church is not giving up. A Syrian pastor said: ‘They advise me to leave my emigrate. I respond saying: I’m staying, for the Church of Jesus, that the message of Jesus may remain a light guiding those who are lost and afraid. I’m staying, because the harvest is plentiful...and the suffering is huge.’

As you can see, the Syrian Church is asking some searching and hard questions, and for some, the civil war has marked a massive change in the Church’s focus. A youth worker from Aleppo told us: ‘This is a great opportunity...We as a Church were too focused on ourselves, on our own congregation. It seems that we needed the civil war to leave the four walls of our church building and help those in need outside our congregations.’

His reflection meets reality in the experience of Pastor B from Tartus. As the civil war erupted so did the needs of his local community. At first his church started supporting 16 families. That quickly rose to 50. Then 70. Then 100. His church is currently supporting well over 500 families, providing food, shelter, prayer and trauma counselling. His motivation is simple: ‘Jesus didn’t just stay in the heavens enjoying the songs of the angels - he came down and got involved. I learned from him.’

In this horrific, hell-on-earth context, everything is being redefined. Everything is up in the air. There’s immense suffering, injustice and pain. There’s hope, compassion and love. Many have fled, many stay; both come at a massive cost. The Church and youth work, as traditionally known, are being redefined.

We all know that really good youth work comes with a heavy price. We’re there when young people need us the most. It’s never about the programmes or activities, the youth services or the festivals, no matter how good those things are. It’s always about genuinely loving and genuinely caring.

The same is true for Syrian church leaders. The context is just very, very different. To genuinely love and genuinely care means each day sees a total redefinition of youth and church work. Today it could be a secret prayer meeting. Tomorrow it’s emergency aid and trauma counselling. It could mean adopting children who’ve just become orphans. Or it could be days and days of prayer and fasting, or even opening your home to whoever needs help. It’s giving protection, food and shelter. It’s leading a small Bible study group by candlelight. It’s being a stand-in paramedic. It’s facing abuse and threats. It’s loving enemies. As Pastor B’s example highlights, it’s about trying to be like Jesus.

The challenge from Syrian pastors and youth workers is immense. But, can we apply these same principles to our own lives? Can we choose to continually redefine what we mean by youth and church work to ensure that every day we take the opportunities our situations throw at us? This choice comes at a great cost - one that Church leaders like Pastor B aren’t blind to. It seems, like Paul, they might just have discovered the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:7) and concluded that the cost is more than worth it. So will we?

Want more info on what’s happening in Syria? Visit to sign the Save Syria petition, get prayer resources and find youth leader material to help get your youth group engaged with the issues facing the persecuted Church.

Dan Etheridge is a writer and designer for Open Doors.

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