For this story, AFA Journal staff writer Anne Reed conducted on-site interviews at Camp Ichay, Israel.
June 2018 – Carefree giggles and joyful chatter should ring through the air as innocent children play with friends. Instead, they live in fear of explosions and mortar shells. War is all they have ever known. Homes are gone. Family, caregivers, and friends are lost to unspeakable violence. Laughter is silenced.
Over a half-million men, women, and children have been killed since the start of the civil war in Syria over seven years ago. More than a million have been wounded, and the majority of the country’s original population have fled from their homes. Street fighting, shelling, and barrel bombing have left severe physical and emotional scars on the land and its inhabitants.
In a movement known as the 2011 Arab Spring, many protested the authoritarian rule of President Bashar Hafez al-Assad. A few students in the region of Derra joined in by painting disapproving words about government oppression on a school wall. As a result, police arrested and brutally tortured 15 local boys.
After a month of their captivity, the people of Syria rose up, took to the streets, and called for the release of the boys. The anger of everyday citizens could not be contained. What had been peaceful protests morphed into armed uprising.
Militias formed and fought on behalf of the government. As tensions continually grew more hostile among religious groups, primarily Muslim sects, men who had previously fought under Assad’s rule rebelled and formed the Free Syrian Army. Its formation initially sparked hope among the Syrian people but began to lose support as criminal behavior and violence stirred within its own ranks. By the end of 2012, jihadi groups began to dominate the uprising.
As violence continued to rage, the Israeli government began to see hundreds of thousands of traumatized Syrian people living near the Israeli border without electricity and proper shelter – in desperate need of necessities such as food and water.
A need unmet
Don and Sondra Tipton, founders of Friend Ships Unlimited, a Christian humanitarian-aid organization based in Lake Charles, Louisiana, crossed into Syria and saw the living conditions of its people. Grief-stricken, they knew they had to do something. But what? The need was staggering.
The couple had become friends with Israeli government officials as a result of prior humanitarian work in Israel, so they called their long-time friend Ran Ichay, executive director of the ministry of Jerusalem, for advice. Ichay immediately referred the Tiptons to the Israel Defense Forces, and they were soon communicating with the colonel responsible for humanitarian aid.
Although Syria is considered an enemy country, Israel had already been helping the Syrian people by leaving pallets of food and supplies at the border. Ideas for furthering the work of Israel’s Good Neighbor Project were welcomed by the Israel Defense Forces.
“The army was very impressed by photos and ideas Friend Ships could show as possible ways to help,” Ichay told AFA Journal. “We explored the needs and possible answers for these needs. It took a lot of time. At first we were talking about general humanitarian aid – feeding them, giving them clothes and toys, letting them have some good times – because these kids, they know nothing but war.”
In light of Friend Ships’ extensive history of establishing and operating short-term medical missions in areas ravaged by natural disasters, the conversation began to shift. Though the situation in Syria was unique, the need was unmistakable. Syrian hospitals and clinics had been blown up or otherwise destroyed, and most doctors had been killed.
“So the idea came up for the medical aspect,” Ichay explained. “We still didn’t have anything for kids that needed to be observed and watched by a doctor – examined from time to time. Something like that did not exist for the 80,000 Syrians in the immediate area around the camp.”
A way made
Israel gave Friend Ships access to a protected area at the border, a former IDF outpost equipped with bunkers, watchtowers, and bomb shelters; and surrounded by land mines, razor wire fencing, and trenches. But there was much to be done before the area would look like a medical clinic.
Friend Ships had its military-style tents and medical supplies shipped from the U.S. A small crew began the hard work of setting up camp. Meanwhile, IDF established strict safety standards and committed to providing long-term security. Six months later, on August 16, 2017, the first group of Syrian refugees entered Camp Ichay, named after Ran Ichay, to receive free medical care.
In the months that have followed, Syrians have reached Camp Ichay clinic on almost a daily basis. In addition to medical care, they have received food and clothing donated by generous Israeli citizens.
While inside the camp, children play in the tent filled with toys, playground equipment, a trampoline, and a bounce house. They are served popcorn, hot chocolate, snow cones, and ice cream. For a short time, they are invited into a world of innocence and fun.
“From the time they come through the gate, they become the most important people in the world,” explained Don. “And we don’t speak the language, so we have to speak the language of love. It’s amazing to watch the transformation in these people when they’re not under the oppression of war.”
“It’s not only a lifesaving place, it's a soul-saving place,” said Ichay. “It’s giving people back their sense of hope – of belief that things can be better.
“When you see someone in need, it is not a question of who he is – if he’s a Muslim, a Christian, a Syrian, or an African. It’s a question of who you are. Are you the kind of person who stands back and lets things happen? Or are you the one who steps forward and does something about it?
“Whoever will be involved in this will never forget it for the rest of his or her life. This is something that one will always be able to tell oneself, ‘I was a part of it.’ It is something you take with you everywhere you go.”
In addition to medical personnel, Friend Ships welcomes short- and long-term non-medical volunteers. While roles are typically shared, possibilities include: cook, housekeeper, site support, individuals who oversee clothing selections, and others who play with the children.
Of 511,000 killed in the civil war so far, 85% were civilians. While 5.4 million have fled to other countries, 6.5 million have sought refuge inside Syria. Friend Ships serves about 80,000 refugees who have settled in a demilitarized zone of Syria near the Israeli border.
Friend Ships, Unlimited
1019 N. First Ave.
Lake Charles, LA 70601
WHAT MEDICAL VOLUNTEERS ARE SAYING
Liz Inzitari said she expected sleeping bags, cots, and primitive style camping, but was surprised to find heated dorms with semi-private quarters, real beds with linens and comforters, and hot showers.
“If God wants you here, you will have a peace about it. I think God will alleviate the fear. Our life's in His hands, and when our time is up, our time is up. Just coming here to serve these people, and just showing them the love and compassion we need to show as Christians – it’s all worth it. Even the IDF is very curious. They've asked me why I would have come all the way from Australia. So, when they ask why, I can tell them it's Jesus.”
Liz Inzitari, RN
“I was at Camp Ichay for two weeks in January… We saw about 40 people a day – as many as we could. I would encourage people to pray about going. But it’s not a picnic. It’s challenging circumstances.”
David Johnson, MD
War and peacemaking . . . a Syrian perspective
A Muslim, Syrian woman who volunteers in the field clinic as medical personnel shared some insights with AFA Journal. While her English is broken, she serves in the valuable role as translator between the English speaking medical personnel and Arabic speaking Syrian patients.
AFA Journal: Do you deal with fear in your work with Camp Ichay?
Anonymous: In the start, I had fear, but now I no longer do. People don't like the idea of working with Israelis because we have a long war between us.
Of course, I feel much safer when I am here in Israel than I do in Syria [where] the bad people are fighting. Just like one day it is cold and one day it is hot, that is how the fighting is.
AFAJ: As a Muslim, have your views about Israelis and Christians changed since you have started the work here?
A: My view of the Israeli people has changed. I think communication with Israel will improve.
I had friends from school who were Christian. They were kind, friendly people who don't hurt anyone. We don't have any bad ideas about Christian people. We all live together a long time, and we don't have any problems with each other.
AFAJ: Have you seen any changes in the mindsets of the Syrian people you live among?
A: Yes, they [have] changed their minds about Israelis. They are not bad people like we were told in schools – they are good people. They help us more than Arabs – like in Jordan and other Arab countries. Israel is more helpful than other countries. People are starting to understand that.
AFAJ: Why do you continue to volunteer your time at the camp?
A: My favorite thing is the kind people and the playing for the children. We give people their medicine they can't get from any other place. And we give people their treatments that are very expensive in Syria. So, we help poor people.
AFAJ: What would you say to encourage American medical personnel to come to Israel and volunteer in Camp Ichay?
A: I would say that we are kind, friendly people. We don't hurt anyone. We are in Israel, so it's safe. There's no fears to come here. We need them.