This will mark the Grand Rapids couple's third medical mission trip to the Middle East country when they leave April 28 and return May 6. John will head up the dental aspect of the medical Christian humanitarian trip, with Rosa serving as his dental assistant. Joining them will be two dentists, a nurse, two assistants, an emergency room doctor, an obstetrician, a physician's assistant, an epidemiologist and two interpreters.
The Vander Kolks expect demand for dental care and healthcare in general will be high.
Alleviating pain is a priority
"We usually have quite a line of people looking for care and to get out of pain," said John. "What we've learned is the people there (from Syria) are middle class and very well educated so what we've experienced is the people know what they need and know what they would like to have."
Syrian refugees' expectations may include saving their teeth or getting a bridge implanted or a root canal done but at this point in time, alleviating their the pain in their mouths because of an abscessed tooth or other reasons, is his sole priority.
"Most would like to save their teeth and unfortunately to get them out of pain, the only thing we can offer is to take out teeth," said John. So we've run into this frustration of being able to serve them but not in the way they would like to be served.
"But the reality of it is the people there are having to make comprises all of the time," continued John. "So this is just another one of those points of which they have to compromise to be able to get out of pain and compromise the fact they want to save their teeth but can't."
The Vander Kolks realize the Syrian refugees are suffering from more than physical pain. Their lives have been shredded because of an ongoing, gruesome civil war, bloodshed due to the efforts of the militant terrorist group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS and ongoing attacks by Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.
"When you watch the news and see the heartbreak and the horrific things are happening, a lot of times as Americans, we're paralyzed and bombarded by so much stuff we begin to compartmentalized and seal things off and we begin to lose hope," said Jack.
Looking into the dazed eyes of frightened Syrian refugees changes your perspective on life, said Rosa.
"No matter what you're going through here, it is a First World problem and there is a solution and there, it is not always the case," she said. "I would say 90, or 99 percent of the time, it can't be fixed. There is no solution."
The Vander Kolks' home church is the undenominational Crossroads Bible Church in Northwest Grand Rapids, where Rosa is its nations director. Rosa said Crossroads is a "connecting point" but their Lebanon trip is not an outreach of the church.
Supporting Lebanon church
Their trip does represent an opportunity to support the church in Lebanon, said John, to be Jesus' hands and feet as they exemplify the Golden Rule, and pray with the refugees when requested.
"We realize we can't change anything that's going on in the region, the horrible plight and injustice that these people suffer," said Rosa. "But what we learned is we can make one person feel better, one family we can help and that was so rewarding."
"Our primary role is to support local church that is there," added John. "We're serving alongside them. Our primary role is to do the dentistry and the medicine and allow them to do the evangelism and the pieces they do best."
Locally, John works as a contract dentist three days a week for a dental practice eon Forest Hill Avenue SE. His work there frees him up to accomplish his medical missions trips, which include Kenya, Zambia, Morocco, Thailand, Jordan, Iraq and now Lebanon.
Syrians: loving and hospitable
Despite the Syrians' hardscrabble lives, there is much about them that is worthy of respect. Americans should not be afraid they're terrorists who want to immigrant to the United States and wreck havoc on the nation.
"Syrians are Mediterranean so they're loving, friendly and hospitable just such a warm people," said John. "We're always amazed at how much they want to take care of us while we're there."
"They're doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers, construction workers, waste collectors," said Rosa. "They're just like us and they want the same things we want and because of the war, they have lost all that."
If the shoe were on the other foot, how would you want to be treated, challenged John.
"Our vision and goal is to be like Jesus," he said. "If we can love people as unconditionally as possible that's what we feel we're called to do: love people without condition How would you want to be cared for?" he asked. "We try and bring that kind of respect, we try to bring the standard of care. It's a lot of the Golden Rule."
The Vander Kolks soon found out church leaders in Lebanon have heard all too often promises from American missions teams they will return, but then don't.
The Vander Kolks are promise keepers.
"We just feel whatever part we can play to encourage them is a huge part of it, " said John. "We keep asking the question, 'We don't want to do our thing, we want to do your thing and be able to help you and so we ask the question before we go, if this is helpful, we'll come back.'"
"And we go back," affirmed Rosa.
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