Leaving doesn’t mean the stories you’ve lived leave you.
“We would play with our friends and then we would go inside and study,” one boy said. “Then the bombing would start and the teachers would hide us and wouldn’t let us leave school until the bombing had stopped.” Then a bomb hit his home.
“I was in the bathroom washing and that’s when the bomb hit,” he said. “Shrapnel hit me in my face, and I was very afraid.”
When the bomb hit is when his mother disappeared. They never found her.
The refugee story in Europe often begins with bombs in the Middle East, because these are the stories they’ve carried with them to the camps in Greece, where nearly 50,000 people have lived since March when the borders were closed between Greece and the rest of Europe.
“I did not want to leave,” said Ahmad, a 12-year-old from Syria. “It’s my country and I didn’t want to leave it, but we had to because of the bombing,” said the boy…he wants to be a doctor.
But the refugee story in Europe does not end there, because of God’s people who are not afraid to love and tirelessly serve. Samaritan’s Purse has had the opportunity to positively impact the lives of people by providing safe and sanitary living conditions, shelter materials, food, and basic hygiene essentials. We’ve offered this assistance with help from local and national governments, other organizations, and local churches.
Exciting work is developing among churches who want to care for refugees and their families through physical aid and also through sports clinics and other programs.
“I did not want to leave. It’s my country and I didn’t want to leave it but we had to because of the bombing.”
It’s difficult to imagine the world of thought behind the eyes of young refugees. Refugee children have many stories behind their smiles and almost-constant play.
But there’s an abiding hope that the children who fill refugee camps with play and laughter will be able to move on from what they’ve experienced in their home countries and during their long journey toward asylum. Their parents say, “We just want to give them a safe place where they can be educated.”
“It doesn’t matter what I used to do before as long as we can continue to move forward and have the will to do something now as refugees and to educate our children.”
Mohammed is an older gentleman who brought his family from Syria. When we saw him in Idomeni, he, his wife, and his sons had used tarps and blankets to construct a small fortress. On a short hill out back of their home they’d set out dozens of water bottles heating in the sun for their makeshift shower in a nearby pop up tent.
You could tell Mohammed was proud of the set up they’d created out of found materials—blankets and tarps stretched over wood they cut from nearby trees and staked into the ground. He said that working and building something gave him a sense of purpose as his family waited to see what’s next. The sophistication of the makeshift shelter made you wonder what he’d done before.
“Were you a builder in Syria? Or an architect?” No. He was a driver. But that was behind him.
“If we just take what people give us and don’t do something ourselves then we aren’t helping ourselves and we aren’t helping them. We aren’t helping anybody,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what I used to do before as long as we can continue to move forward and have the will to do something now as refugees and to educate our children.”
A priority of relief efforts organized by Samaritan’s Purse and other nongovernmental organizations is to provide children with education and recreation opportunities in an environment where they feel safe.
As we seek to meet the needs of the most vulnerable refugees, we are helping to create safe, child-friendly spaces in refugee camps across the country. A surprising number of children embarked on their journeys without parents or other family. These unaccompanied children are often taken into the fold of other families, but even in these cases children are still vulnerable to exploitation and other abuses.
“We walked 27 hours in the desert to come to Turkey.”
“I’ve not seen my child in 8 months,” said a man we met in a makeshift camp in Athens. His name was Samir. “She went to Germany, and I am stuck here in Greece.”
He’d brought his wife and other children from Syria. Samir speaks Arabic, but he’s also fluent in Spanish from his years as a businessman in Venezuela. He prefers this language over his native tongue.
He uses the Spanish word “vergüenza” to describe how he feels now.
“A Spanish speaker would understand this very well,” he said.
It doesn’t translate exactly into English, but it means something like “shame.” Deep shame.
“We walked 27 hours in the desert to come to Turkey. Then the smugglers held us at gun point and told us to get on a raft made for 20 people. We had 65,” he said. “If the Greece Coast Guard had not have picked us up on our way we would have drowned.”
They landed on the island of Lesbos, and still on that island you can see life vests and lacerated rafts on the shore.
But also on Lesbos is the camp of Kara Tepe, one of the official camps administered by the Greek government. Meals there are delivered door-to-door to the modular units. Samaritan’s Purse workers organize activities and classes for children, provide food for families, build relationships with families, and even recently crafted an herb garden planted in stacked, colorfully-painted tires.
“There was nothing here before,” said the camp director who works for the mayor’s office. “Just olive trees.”
At each tent we entered we were offered something to drink—coffee, tea, a juice box—coming from a family’s own supply—even in the unofficial camps where supplies were much more limited. We said no. But they insisted.
“In Syria when a visitor has come to our home, we consider that good luck has come to us,” said a middle-aged woman named Fatimah. She took such care peeling and quartering oranges to share with us. In the hands of such hospitality in the wake of such loss, an orange and all oranges mean something different now.
Lured in initially by Fatimah’s impromptu though charismatic Arabic lesson and her teacherly correction of our poor pronunciation, we stayed there for at least an hour—much longer than at any other shelter we’d visited. An orange. Then crackers. Then juice. “Eat! This is food!” as if we needed educating on what had been set before us.
“My daughters are very intelligent,” she told us. Her daughter showed us the scarves and hats she had knitted at a class in the camp. The daughter showed us the protective sleeve she had knit for her headphone cord. She spoke very good English, and translated most of the conversation for us.
We had dinner of potatoes and a type of roast and salad, which she recommended we treat with yogurt. We ate on the shelter floor. Soon we canceled our next stop and ate and talked and listened and laughed. A lot. “Why not?” was an English idiom she repeated several times. As the sun angled itself just right for more photos outside, we began to clean up to leave. She understood. We thanked her and her daughter, realizing she’d given us much more than a language lesson and a meal.
“These are human beings,” the Kara Tepe camp director reminded us. “They are human beings and they need to be treated like human beings.”
The refugee crisis seems so far away and the concern of a different part of the world. Perhaps it’s difficult to understand the desperation that would force people to flee their beloved homes and countries.
The danger is to think they are all that much different from us—whatever “us” means.
But Jesus says “they” are our neighbors. And now is the time for embracing them.
“We are here because there truly is a crisis, and central in our mandate is to help vulnerable people facing crises and to reduce suffering and meet physical needs,” said Aaron Ashoff, Samaritan’s Purse country director in Greece. “Initially we were here meeting the emergency needs of arriving refugees and seeing that essentials were provided such as food, water, and protection. And now we continue to provide these essentials, while also working to help vulnerable populations such as women, children, and the elderly. And we are ultimately here so that these people know that they can have hope in the midst of dire circumstances.”
“Our mandate is to help vulnerable people facing crises and to reduce suffering and meet physical needs.”