Bringing hope to Raqqa after ISIS

Free Burma Rangers bring aid to liberated parts of Syria.

One of the playgrounds in Raqqa donated by the Free Burma Rangers. (photo credit: Courtesy)
One of the playgrounds in Raqqa donated by the Free Burma Rangers.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
On his way into Syria, Paul Curtis Bradley stepped out of an SUV to take a photo of the convoy his group was traveling with. In the fading light of dusk, it captured a touching scene of hope.
The long trip to Syria was on the horizon. The checkpoints and bureaucracy were behind the Free Burma Rangers (FBR), a multi-ethnic, mostly Christian humanitarian service movement founded in 1997 “to bring help, hope and love to people in the conflict areas of Burma, Iraq, and Sudan.” Soon they would get to see the kids in Raqqa playing on the new swings and playground that they had sent ahead to be constructed.
In mid-May, Bradley, a division director of the Foreign Armed Services Ministries of Cadence International and an FBR chaplain, was helping to bring aid to people in areas of Syria liberated from Islamic State. In Raqqa they set up a new playground in a park across from a church that had been blown up during the war.
It was the latest of five missions the group has done since 2016.
“We dedicated two playgrounds – one in Raqqa and one in Tabqa – which were donated by our friends at Reload Love. This included a program for the kids at each site – singing, games, spiritual encouragement and some health education, as well as a gift for each one. We did programs at IDP [internally displaced people] sites; provided some support to local churches we’d met before; and strengthened our relationships in the area,” he said.
The team of seventeen included two medics from Burma who provided medical care to IDPs. These are people who lost homes in the war and who have almost nothing left. The volunteers gave out small snacks for the kids, T-shirts and other items.
Bradley describes it as a “miracle” that they even made it to Syria. “There are more than 60 checkpoints between Erbil [in northern Iraq] and where we ended up. We got stopped a lot by local authorities and our stuff was searched a lot, the worst we ever saw it. Once you get across [to eastern Syria] we had the proper paperwork and permission and it was much easier to access the areas we needed to go.”
The Free Burma Rangers have extensive experience in Iraq. They had come to give aid to the Kurdish Peshmerga during the war on ISIS and then worked in Mosul during the battle waged by the Iraqi Security Forces to liberate the city from the jihadist terrorist organization. Through that they gained key connections in Iraq.
BUT WITH the war on ISIS over there is a lot of bureaucracy and checkpoints in northern Iraq, so moving from place to place can be slow going.
“We weren’t in Raqqa before it was liberated, but since our first trip there in February, there are not a whole lot of changes. Streets are cleaner, you can drive on some streets; rubble has been moved; it’s a shell of a city. It got hammered due to the air strikes,” says Bradley.
“I was speaking with some kids, two 15-year-olds and a 12-year-old. They had survived it – pretty amazing. I asked them about their hope for the future... two wanted to be teachers and one a doctor.”
There is still a lot of tension in Raqqa after the liberation last fall. The shadow of ISIS still hangs in the background of people’s mind – the old religious extremism and restrictions. People are afraid, Bradley says. “The feeling we got is it’s not a safe place still; that was ground zero for ISIS. They didn’t disappear, they blended into the woodwork.”
There are few foreigners in Raqqa today and there is still unexploded ordnance, remnants of ISIS IEDs [improvised explosive devices] and other dangerous war material around. Civilian infrastructure and electricity are limited. The destruction is also unique because of the number of air strikes used by the US-led coalition to help the Syrian Democratic Forces liberate the city.
Besides the medics, other group members did programs focused on children and families, bringing help, hope and love to people while they’re in the midst of crisis.
The work of the FBR is unique. Bringing along five Burmese as part of the trip connected one group of people who had suffered conflict in South Asia with another group suffering in the Middle East.
“They come from a place where there is 70 years of conflict. They [traveled] many hours to [bestow] love on these people because they are believers in Christ and understand the situation of being attacked, understand the feeling of hopelessness that can come from constant war,” says Bradley.
The recovery for Raqqa is a long way off. Like other areas of Iraq and Syria devastated by the war on ISIS, there is a basic lack of investment to restore the areas to how they were before Islamic State arrived in 2014. Many of the minority groups persecuted by ISIS, such as local Christians, have also disappeared from cities like Raqqa where they once had churches and a community.
Nevertheless, the colorful playground in one of the ravaged city’s parks – amid the dusty grey rubble – is a sign of hope for the future.