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Sep18WedFrom a Syrian prison cell to The Salvation Army, Maan and Marwah Dabbagh trust God to guide them. September 18, 2019 by Kristin Ostensen
For decades, Tadmur was the most notorious prison in Syria, its name practically synonymous with human rights abuses. Located in Palmyra, a desert city 200 kilometres northeast of Damascus, it was used during the Syrian civil war to detain and torture political prisoners and dissidents until it was destroyed by ISIS in 2015.
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Maan Dabbagh was one of those prisoners. He spent more than a year in a Tadmur cell, not knowing if he would ever see his family again. Not knowing when it would be his turn to be tortured by the guards—or worse, killed.
“In the Palmyra prison, it was like the devil had closed the eyes of God over that place,” Maan says. “During this time, I kept saying, ‘God does not exist,’ because if he did, what was happening to me and to my country wouldn’t be happening.”
As Maan and his wife, Marwah, now share their story in the safety of Vancouver, flashes of fear still appear in their eyes—along with relief. It’s been 13 months since they arrived in Canada, and nearly a year since they first connected with The Salvation Army.
Maan and Marwah are an unusual couple by Syrian standards. “In Syria, marriage is done through the parents, not through knowing each other, but we have a long love story,” Maan smiles.
He and Marwah are high school sweethearts—they met in 2001 and married in 2007. A lawyer and an accountant by training, Maan and Marwah had two children, Shareef and Merna, and lived a comfortable life in Aleppo.
“We were happy, life was good,” Maan says.
There was only one problem. “In Syria, every male 18 years and older has to do a year and a half of military service,” Maan explains. “The government won’t give you a passport if you don’t finish your service, meaning you can’t travel anywhere.”
So Maan joined the military in December 2010, thinking it was as good a time as any. Unfortunately, the timing couldn’t have been worse—a mere three months later, massive protests began in Syria, kicking off the civil war. When Maan completed his obligatory service in 2012, going home was no longer an option. “The military refused to release me so I decided to run away to Lebanon,” Maan says.
Not long after he deserted, Maan was captured and beaten. After standing trial, he was sent to Tadmur.
Maan’s parents paid a substantial amount of money to have him released from Tadmur, but they couldn’t get him out of his military service.
“From prison, I went straight back to the military, with no end in sight,” Maan says.
He was finally able to see Marwah and their children again, but in the four years since he’d left their home in Aleppo, everything had changed.
“When I saw Marwah, she told me the bad news,” Maan says. “In 2012, a big bomb came over the building we lived in and destroyed it. We lost all our possessions, including our car. My office was also bombed and destroyed. We lost everything.”
Back in the military, Maan was stationed in As-Suwayda, near the border with Jordan, and though he was no longer imprisoned, he was far from free. “The leaders were watching me, especially because they said that I am a political prisoner,” he says. “That means I’m very dangerous, and they can’t release me if I am dangerous.”
By the fall of 2014, Maan had had enough—he decided to run away again, but this time, with his wife and children.
It was 600 kilometres north from As-Suwayda to the border of Turkey. Before the war, the journey would have taken seven hours; now, with 27 checkpoints blocking the way, it would take 33 hours.
Maan travelled under an assumed identity. He knew that if he were caught deserting again, there would be no second chances, no prison even—he would be executed. But, miraculously, they made it through every checkpoint and across the border.
“I think there was an angel covering us,” Maan says. “Every time they looked at my ID card at the checkpoints, none of them really compared the picture and my face, to see they didn’t match. I felt like I was protected.”
“Go to Antioch”
Once in Turkey, the Dabbaghs planned to go to one of the larger cities. The day before they crossed the border, however, Maan was sent in a different direction.
“A voice came to me and said, ‘Maan, go to Antioch,’ ” he recalls. “I said, ‘Why?’ and the voice repeated, ‘Maan, go to Antioch,’ a second and then a third time.”
Maan and Marwah decided to follow the voice to Antioch, and soon found an apartment there. The day after they moved in, two men visited the building—a Turkish man and a Korean pastor, who invited the family to church. They took him up on the invitation, even though Maan and Marwah were never particularly religious—Maan considered himself an agnostic, while Marwah was raised Roman Catholic.
“When I went to the church, the pastor started to speak about the gospel of Jesus Christ and shared Mark 8:36, ‘What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?’ ” Maan recalls. “When I heard this verse, it touched me. I thought, I used to have everything, but just like that—I lost it. Having everything didn’t help me. So that’s why, when I heard this verse, I decided to give my life to Jesus.”
The Dabbaghs lived in Antioch for nearly four years while they waited to be accepted as refugees. During that time, they were far from idle. When Maan and Marwah saw that Syrian children were not able to attend Turkish schools, they immediately spotted an opportunity.
“God spoke to us and told us to open a school,” Maan says. “There are hundreds if not thousands of Syrian families in Antioch, who need to hear about the true God. The main idea behind the school was not just to give the children education, but also to share the gospel with the families.”
The school quickly grew from one class of four students to five classes with 60 students. And as the Dabbaghs built relationships with people and shared the gospel, about 25 people from an Islamic background came to faith.
“We were sorry to leave Turkey, but when the Canadian ambassador called us and said, ‘You are ready to travel,’ it’s a chance you can’t miss,” says Maan.
When the Dabbaghs arrived in Canada in August 2018, something new was about to begin at The Salvation Army in Burnaby, B.C., a suburb of Vancouver.
For many years, Lieutenants Peter and Lorri-Anne Mitchell had felt a call to church planting, so when they were brought in to lead a new corps in south Burnaby, it was a divine appointment. The church plant’s ministries began last September in a building that was previously occupied by the Army’s Metrotown Community Church. While Metrotown was on an extended hiatus, the nearby Southmount Citadel kept some of its ministries going, including a Monday soup kitchen and Christmas assistance.
When they were planting the new corps, that established presence gave the Mitchells many opportunities to connect with people in the community, particularly as the Christmas season arrived.
“In the past, the church had given people a grocery gift card instead of a Christmas hamper,” explains Lieutenant Lorri-Anne.
“So we had a barrage of people coming to the door to get these cards,” Lieutenant Peter says.
Two of those people were Maan and Marwah.
“The Burnaby School District gave us a paper and told us to take it to The Salvation Army to get some presents for our kids,” says Maan.
When Maan arrived at the church on a Friday morning and handed Lieutenant Peter the paper, he got an invitation in return. “He said, ‘We have a fun night tonight. Come here at 7 p.m. if you want,’ ” Maan remembers. “I said, ‘Why not?’ ”
The Friday fun night was the first program the Mitchells launched at the new corps.
“Our children, Marshall and Lily, attend the school right across the road from the church, so we thought, let’s do a Friday games night because that could be a great way of meeting their friends and connecting with the community,” Lieutenant Lorri-Anne says.
The first night, five people gathered to play games. Within three months, that number had grown to more than 40. Today, the program is known as Common Ground and averages 60 to 70 people each week—more than half of whom are children. Along with games and activities, the program includes a conversation café where newcomers can practise their English.
At their first Friday fun night, Maan and Marwah immediately felt a connection to the church and eagerly accepted Lieutenant Peter’s invitation to a Sunday meeting. They had tried a few churches in the Vancouver area, but none had the same feel as The Salvation Army.
“One of the most important things that I taught the kids is that church is a joyful place,” Maan says. “The first time we attended the service with Peter and Lorri-Anne, it was a happy service. We came out cheerful.”
Coming from a Methodist church in Antioch, Maan and Marwah are at home theologically in The Salvation Army and, like the Mitchells, have a heart for evangelism and service among the Arabic community. For Maan, the Friday fun night is the perfect opportunity for outreach.
“A lot of people—especially Muslims—are very shy to come to the church because they have an idea that these people are not helping us because they love us, they are helping us because they want us to change our religion,” he says. “But when the people come, they see that we are just having fun and we want to show them that we love them. Then when we find someone who is interested in asking questions, we say, ‘Come on Sunday!’ ”
Given how much the church has grown in the past year, it’s fitting that it has been named Harvest Community Church. “When we were coming here, God gave us a word from Matthew 9,” Lieutenant Lorri-Anne explains. “Jesus had compassion on the crowds because they were like sheep without a shepherd, and he turned to his disciples and said, ‘The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Pray to the Lord of the harvest for workers.’ We are seeing it here. There are so many people and different cultures—the harvest is all around us.”
In addition to Common Ground and the Sunday afternoon meeting, which draws around 25 people each week, the church recently wrapped up a six-week vacation Bible school and is launching an after-school program called Kids Finding Connection this month.
Maan and Marwah were enrolled as senior soldiers at the British Columbia divisional congress and commissioning weekend in June.
“We are excited to be soldiers,” says Marwah. “This is God’s plan for us.”
The Dabbaghs volunteer at Common Ground, teach Sunday school and provide translation assistance. And now that they are soldiers, the Dabbaghs are interested in becoming candidates, and dream of planting churches themselves in the future.
“I told Peter that if I had the chance to go back to Turkey or Syria, I would go back under the name of The Salvation Army and plant churches,” Maan says. “The war will end sooner or later in Syria and when it does, there will be a good chance for missionaries and pastors to go and share the gospel.”
Marwah agrees. “As we know about God’s love, we need to share this love with other people.”
“Maan and Marwah are such a blessing,” Lieutenant Lorri-Anne concludes. “With their love for Jesus and their desire to see people come to freedom in Christ, I’m excited that God has brought them into our lives and into The Salvation Army.”