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‘Good Neighbor Project’: Loving thy neighbor as thyself

For nearly 40 years, the Israeli-Syrian border has been Israel’s quietist, but over the last few years, it’s become one of its most dangerous.

The Syrian civil war, which began on March 15, 2011, has left nearly half a million dead. Millions of refugees fled the country and millions more stayed in Syria. But in the midst of all the danger and chaos, Israel is working to change hearts and save lives.

For the most part, Israel has stayed out of the Syria’s bloody civil war. But how could the Jewish state respond to this crisis and to the people on the other side of the border? They decided to be a good neighbor.

Lt. Col. (res.) Marco Moreno served in Israeli military intelligence for 25 years. After the Syrian civil war began, the army tasked him with finding the right response to the carnage.

CBN News talked with Moreno near the northern border with Syria.

“How far away is that fighting?” CBN News asked him. “Half a mile,” Moreno said, before explaining how the project came about.

“In the end, we took a very unique path. It was to offer humanitarian aid to the Syrian side, meaning food, medicine, [and] medical treatment, and help them in their tough hour, hard hour,” he explained.

“But asking nothing in return?”

“Yeah, asking nothing in return. It’s kind of thinking outside the box, and it’s not something that you can find usually – this set of mind – in the Israeli army,” Moreno said.

This “outside-the-box” plan became the “Good Neighbor Project.”  Over several years, it’s provided tons of food, fuel and supplies to Israel’s Syrian neighbors on the other side of the border. The Israeli military also brought thousands who needed medical treatment into Israel, despite the warlike relationship with the Syrian government.

The goal is simple.

“To gain the hearts and minds, [to] say, ‘listen Syria, we are your neighbors okay? We don’t want to hurt you. We want only to love you and help you in order to live in peace as neighbors, good neighbors’,” he said. “It’s a game changer.”

Dalton Thomas, founder of Frontier Alliance International (FAI) told CBN News, “What struck me as one of the most profound dimensions of the whole story was that these were man-to-man, eyeball-to-eyeball relational equity and trust. And that struck me, and I wanted to get involved in that.”

Moreno enlisted Thomas to send Christian medical teams inside Syria.

“The thing is they don’t have anything over there so they want and need everything on a medical level,” he explained. “The hospitals have all been bombed. The doctors have been assassinated or displaced…there isn’t anyone over there.”

But who would go into what’s become the most dangerous place on earth?

Emanuel Anzele, FAI Syria field director, said “One story that compelled me was the story of the good Samaritan.” Anzele, who led the first team into Syria, found his neighbors bleeding and dying.

“You have everything from chronic disease, where there’s diabetes, blood pressure, and you have somebody who has his leg blown up or his guts spilling out or every kind of trauma that you can imagine,” he said.

The conditions are abysmal.

FAI nurse Brittany Zimmerman remembers thinking “what did I get myself into.”

“First [thing] I saw was the hospital and I remember walking and I remember smelling they had a lot of traumas that day and I remember smelling the blood and then just walking in and being like, ‘Oh my goodness, what did I get myself into?'” Zimmerman told CBN News.

She also found herself in a war zone. She came with FAI physician Dr. Tanya Obrera, a surgeon and translator Melanie Paurus. Together they went into Syria to help people caught in the crossfire.

As chief surgeon, Obrera faced procedures she had never seen in civilian life. But she experienced God’s leading in the moments she began a surgical or other type of procedure.

“I felt like God would give me the illumination or understanding or enlightenment of how to do these procedures whether it was a C-section, an amputation, a circumcision.” Whatever it was God showed her, she said.

“But why such a dangerous place?” CBN News asked. Paurus translated her response.

“If anything, when I read the Bible what I see is a God who is mighty in battle; a God who intervenes in a time of dire distress or need,” she said. “So when I read that, it’s easy for me to trust God – that God will protect me, that God will shelter me.  And if He calls, I believe He will protect as well,” she said.

Moreno said, “They are warriors.”

“You have two kinds of warriors,” he said. “One is carrying a gun, fighting, protecting his nation like I was for 25 years. The other kind of warrior is a warrior with a Bible. With the true belief in his heart in order to serve the Lord he needs to do what he needs to do.”

“Remember the teams that are inside are not a special unit … Syria it’s the most dangerous place on earth. Everything can happen in Syria – everything – and they live in bad houses without hot water, bad food, they don’t have any toilet, sleeping sometimes on the ground, but they are believers. They are doing it because they love Israel and because they love Jesus. They want to help, in the name of Jesus, the Muslims. This is a very honorable thing,” he said.

Dr. Obrera, known to her patients as Dr. Tanya, said, “The Lord gave me the love that compelled me to go beyond the risk.”

Away from the operating room, she learned how to make bread Syrian style.

From Neighbors to Family

And while they came as neighbors, they left as family.

“[We were] welcomed in almost immediately as a part of the family because there was no one else there,” Paurus said.

“How quickly I fell in love with the people and community,” said Zimmerman. “They were amazing people and so leaving, the day that we left, was probably one of the hardest days of my life – just with leaving these people that I had grown to love so much.”

Moreno said FAI is “the only organization working boots on the ground, helping the Syrians on the medical field.” He said the FAI medical staff inside Syria is doing an amazing job.

Dalton credited the project’s success to a “three-fold cord.”

“The dynamic here is it’s a three-fold cord, you know. It’s three – it’s three ropes that have been intertwined together and the bond is so tight, but who would have thought that Syrian Arab Sunni Muslims, Christian laborers and the Israeli army? And the bond between the three is amazing. I think it in itself is a phenomenon and a miracle,” Dalton said.

“I think as believers, as Christians, I believe our life is not our own to start with so I come from that perspective,” said Anzele. “It’s the fact that Jesus has given His life to me, all I can do is give my life back to Him and allow Him to write the story of my life. So however He writes that story I am pretty comfortable with that.”

“They’re really doing this because of the audience of One: that He sees it and it matters to Him and He’s the One that’s motivated this whole thing.  And to me, that’s the most beautiful part about it because at the end of the day, everything comes down to the question of is – is He worth it?” he said.

“Indeed, the harvest is ripe and the Lord is doing something in the Middle East,” Zimmerman said.

This article originally appeared on CBN News, March 6, 2018, and reposted with permission.

Chris Mitchell
Chris is CBN News Middle East Bureau Chief based in Jerusalem.

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