“Europe faces an imminent humanitarian crisis,” warned the United Nations High Commissioner for refugees (UNHCR) in a March 1 report that focused on the rapid build-up of migrants in Eidomeni, Greece. A team of North Carolina Baptists recently volunteered at the border crossing to the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, where they aided desperate migrants and shared a message of hope.
Alisha Houston launched the idea of mobilizing a team after hearing one of her husband’s sermons at Beach Road Baptist Church in Southport, N.C. She felt compelled by God to serve Middle Eastern refugees amid the crisis that has dominated the lives of millions.
“It is overwhelming how many people are being affected … so many young families just trying to get to safety and make a better life for themselves,” she said. “They are broken and we have the very thing that can give them hope and a future.”
The team’s primary job was to help a local, non-governmental aid organization (NGO) relay important information and resources to incoming refugees.
BR photo by Seth Brown
They offered basic guidance in the Eidomeni camp, including directions to food, bathrooms, clothing and doctors. The team also supplied practical items like plastic handbags and helped prepare food for distribution.
“We helped them achieve the second highest production day,” she said, “we packed over 2,500 boxes of fresh pasta.”
Houston especially enjoyed keeping a small stash of treats on hand for young migrants.
“The children were all smiles when you give them candy. Just looking at them and smiling makes them light up,” she added. “They seem happy that someone is paying attention to them.”
Recent UNHCR estimates show more than 2,000 refugees arrive daily on the shores of Greece, totaling more than 1 million since January 2015. People from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran make up 94 percent of asylum seekers coming into Greece by sea, according to the latest figures.
They take the short but dangerous voyage across the Aegean Sea in inflatable dinghies or larger boats with no crew. The cold, unforgiving waters have claimed 410 lives in 2016, said UNHCR reports.
Numerous migrants said they risk the mortal hazard because there is no other option. War and terrorism have created unlivable conditions in their home countries.
“They live [in Iran] with no hope,” said *Amir, an Iranian college student. Fighting back tears, he continued, “It was so hard living there.”
Another refugee told aid workers he would rather die in the ocean than return home.
Devastated by violence
Syria’s economic collapse drove *Khalil and his wife out of the country in search of a new life. Unsure of the danger awaiting them, the couple decided to leave their two children with extended family until they find a safer place to settle in Europe.
Holding pictures of the young boy and girl, Khalil said in broken English, “I very sad, very sad. Sometimes I cry.”
The family endured the early years of Syria’s civil war, hoping for a peaceful resolution.
BR photo by Seth Brown
Alisha Houston, right, hands out candy to refugee children. “The children were all smiles when you give them candy. Just looking at them and smiling makes them light up,” she said. “They seem happy that someone is paying attention to them.”
They resisted leaving despite the apparent danger, due to close family ties and careers. But the fighting became chaotic, and they could no longer tell who was attacking whom.
It was too dangerous, Khalil said. So they decided to leave.
Conflict has spread beyond Syria as governments, rebel groups and terrorist organizations clamor for territory and power.
The Islamic State (or Daesh) and an al-Qaeda affiliate, called the al-Nusra Front, wreak havoc on fragile cease-fire agreements, fueling suspicion and spawning additional terrorist groups, according to news reports.
“It’s been five years – a war in my country,” said Khalil. “Now we leave Syria because we look for a new life, a future.”
An NGO leader said he was recently overcome by emotion when a young boy, after seeing an aircraft fly over the Eidomeni refugee camp, asked whether or not it would unleash explosives on them.
“It is so overwhelming to know that this is reality for people here,” he said.
Driven by fear
*Hassan, a construction worker from Baghdad, fled Iraq because terrorists threatened to destroy his family.
His oldest son is a popular Arabic singer in Turkey. After winning a well-known television singing competition, the son shared prize money with the family. When the Iraqi Daesh learned of the financial gift, they began making grave threats. For them, Hassan said, to be rich is considered “haraam” (sinful).
The young man must stop singing or be killed, the terrorists warned. When Hassan refused to forbid his son’s career, the Iraqi Daesh kidnapped one of his other sons. Terrorists sent Hassan a video threatening to kill the teenage boy unless he paid a six-digit ransom.
Hassan secured the child’s safety and fled the country immediately.
Distressed by uncertainty
Many refugees feel safe once they land on European shores, because they’ve escaped territories gripped by jihadists and shelled by warring armies, but additional troubles often await.
Instigated by European Union political tensions, arbitrary Macedonian border closings and immigrant flow restrictions cause Greek refugee camps to overflow, leaving people without adequate shelter or food.
The initial border camp in Eidomeni was built to hold approximately 2,000 people. The UNHCR estimated between 8,000-12,000 people were gathered near the border March 7. Nearly 60 percent are women and children. Many contract illnesses due to exposure and malnutrition.
The Greek government is making efforts to manage the flow of people and construct long-term solutions, but it cannot keep pace with the current influx. Officials recently announced plans to use docked passenger ferries as temporary housing, according to the UNHCR.
Strategies to build more “hot spots” on the mainland continue, but the country is limited by economic austerity measures and a lack of manpower.
The political uncertainty that surrounds the European refugee crisis keeps many refugees in a constant state of distress.
With a despairing look, Khalil said, “I don’t know if many people love us. … What can [we] do?”
Until a permanent resettling solution is reached, aid volunteers continue to serve those caught between violent turmoil in the Middle East and political upheaval in Europe.
Drawn by hope
James Zik, associate pastor of Beach Road Baptist Church, was among the volunteers drawn to the refugee camp in Eidomeni by a sense of urgency. His Christian convictions compelled him to offer hope to migrants in seemingly hopeless situations.
“James, you have no idea what it’s like to live under a dictator,” said *Amal, whose home in Damascus was destroyed. “Where is God right now?”
Zik replied, “You’re right. I have no idea what it’s like … but I can tell you this is not the world God created. It’s broken and tainted by sin.”
He continued, “The hope we have is in Christ. … All the brokenness you see on the planet will one day be restored.”
March 15 marks the five-year anniversary of the Syrian conflict. Many Christians are drawing attention to the date, calling for people around the world to pray, serve and give for the sake of displaced peoples scattered across the globe.
The Baptist State Convention of North Carolina’s Office of Great Commission Partnerships is actively pursuing ways to mobilize N.C. Baptists to engage people along the migrant pathway from Turkey to Germany.
The International Mission Board (IMB) and the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission have partnered with other organizations in an initiative called Pray for Refugees (#prayforrefugees). IMB has also deployed field personnel to help develop a unified strategy for serving migrants.
Baptist Global Response, a Southern Baptist relief and development organization, provides avenues for volunteering and donating at their website, gobgr.org.
Zik said to anyone considering ways to help refugees, “Don’t hesitate. Just go. Sign up yesterday and get over there.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Find regular updates about the European refugee crisis at data.unhcr.org/mediterranean. Contact the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina’s Office of Great Commission Partnerships to learn how to get involved: 919-459-5536 or [email protected].)