by Jack Noble
If you would like a picture of the refugee migration in Europe, go to refugeemap.com. Visit sbcv.org/missionconnection for the latest updates on mission opportunities to Greece and Germany.
Today, I traveled from Frankfurt to Greece and, within two hours of landing, I was standing among 1,200 refugees on the Macedonia border. Today alone, 8,000 people are expected to cross the border. They are bussed to the border after making a dangerous voyage across the sea. Everyone I talked with said the boat trip was terrifying and they would never do it again.
People of every age were in the camp—people I would gladly have as my neighbor. As I asked about their trek and their family, they returned the questions. They wanted to know about my family.
Without exception, every person was traveling to an unknown destination, at the complete discretion of the governments along his/her path. They dream of safety and a life absent of fear.
The refugees wait in the camp for a few hours as they are processed across the border. They receive food, water, tea, clothing, and shelter. There is a children’s play area where laughing and giggling can be heard. It is an incredible opportunity to serve.
As we approached the camp this morning, we passed 60 buses lined up, each filled to capacity with refugees. The buses were waiting in line to drop people off at a food line, which served cold sandwiches and water. The refugees would then huddle in large tents to wait for the Macedonian guards to allow them to walk across the border into Macedonia to board a train. Refugees have to wait hours in the weather between the bus ride and the train.
Most days, the weather is a manageable 60 or 70 degrees. Today, it is 40 degrees with a strong, pouring rain. The road- and sea-weary refugees are now cold and wet. Their only clothes and shoes are now soaked. As I write this, I have been inside for an hour, had a hot coffee, and am wearing dry clothes; yet my body still hurts from the rain and temperature. Meanwhile, there are 8,000 wet and cold refugees on trains crossing into Macedonia, most with no jackets or any other way to protect themselves from the weather. Rain is expected again tomorrow, and the supply of disposable ponchos only lasted 15 minutes today.
The bright spot of the day was when a group of six Syrian men felt comfortable enough with our group to want to have tea with us. The heartbreaking part was hearing their tragic stories of some of their mothers, fathers, and children being killed. These people are seeking not just a better life but a place free of carnage. They are willing to cross a boisterous sea and stand in the cold rain to escape life at home.
The opportunity of the day was to distribute dry shoes. My spot was some sort of crowd control. Ninety-nine percent of the time, my size, smile, and voice control were adequate, but the refugees vented their strong emotions from time to time. No one was hurt, but I could tell the refugees are in a simmering mode with their emotions and mental health.
In the press of the people, I felt someone occasionally tugging on my vest. I turned around to discover a toddler girl in her mother’s arms. She was playing a game with me. She didn’t know her plight but was just a child looking for a kind face. We played a game of peekaboo as their number was called to cross the border. It was a brief time of joy and laughter in the midst of the crisis. (see picture in article) Won’t you pray for this girl and her mom?
I spent most of the day greeting children and their mothers as they came to the children’s ministry area. It is such an incredible honor to share a smile with a child—a child never refuses a smile. Many children were crying today out of exhaustion, but the giggles started as soon as the bubbles and balloons began. Bubbles and balloons are the international symbol for “let’s be kids.” Children also love stickers, and we gave them out by the hundreds. These children are important to God, and they deserve to hear about the hope of Jesus.
One of the opportunities to serve at the camp is in childcare. The tent and supplies await volunteers, and children are ready to play. Are you ready to serve?
I had one of the most unusual conversations of my life today. A younger Arabic-speaking man approached me and began to share his heart. Not a word of English was spoken by him, not a word of Arabic by me, but there was communication as I listened to his story. Our body language, the tone of our voices, and our facial expressions spoke far louder than words. When we parted, we each had tears in our eyes as we knew a connection had been made.
The flow of refugees is far from ending. People from Syria, Iran, Iraq, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Somalia, and Eritrea have all migrated through the camp in the last few days.
This afternoon, I went to a local church made up of many nations. In attendance were people from Greece, Poland, Italy, Iran, China, and America. The world is our neighbor, and we need to engage in the conversation.
I have been on this adventure for 12 days now. When I left home, it was just a simple trip to Germany to make some face-to-face connections with local German churches that have a desire to minister to refugees. I was primarily just thinking about Syrians. That part of the trip was extremely productive, and Virginia churches have some unique ministry partnerships available to them. The opportunities range from assisting with a German Christmas party (to introduce refugees to the seasonal culture of Germany) to serving in cafés, which provide a place for refugees to gather outside of camps and learn German. You don’t have to speak German, but you could attend and learn some. Almost every person I know would be valuable in this adventure.
The Greece adventure is a bit more strenuous—not just physically, but emotionally and mentally too. Most of the people going through the camp are just like you and me. As a matter of fact, I saw what appeared to be someone just like me: a man in his late 50s wearing the same clothing as me, even down to the blue sweater vest. I looked twice and checked my own matching clothing. The only difference was his jet black hair. I think we even had the same gait and chin-up attitude.
Gratitude oozed from the camp today. We often hear, “thank you,” but today these groups raised that expression of gratitude with embraces and hugs.
I spent most of the day doing crowd control for the children’s clothing distribution. I had a good number of animal stickers and, of course, I had to make the sound of the animal every time I placed it on a child. My elephant imitation was a hit with the young and old alike. It is fun to watch a dad doing all he can to keep from smiling at my antics. If he was being hard-core stoic, I would up my game and get his child to do it also. Who can resist an elephant imitation? With each child I touched, I prayed, “Please, Lord, please may they have a family that honors You.”
Day 17 (two days since leaving Greece)
It is a tough assignment to put a mission adventure into a perspective that speaks to those who did not go—to cause them to desire to hear what God is doing and to act. This is significantly more difficult when the event is the crisis I witnessed in Germany and Greece.
In Germany, it was easy to perceive that God was present and already at work in the lives of those we met at the churches and the seminary we visited. It was clear there were great connections, we had discovered open doors, and God was at work. In Germany, volunteers arrive in a place where God’s presence is clear. The key is to follow and serve. I hope you are packing your bags to go.
In Greece, I met some incredible people with the presence of the Lord in their lives, but the light did not seem to venture beyond the imprints of their shoes. The spiritual darkness was sometimes overbearing in the path of the refugees—so that the presence of Christ was difficult to sense beyond our own persons. For volunteers in Greece, we are the presence of the Lord in a place where no one is declaring the name of Jesus.
You can go and declare the name of Jesus. There is no need to wait to engage the refugees until they arrive in our neighborhoods. We can go now and make a difference closer to their homes. The need is great, and we must be the light.