Late night Belgrade (Serbia) and the temperature is below freezing. A family of 4 from Kabul, Afghanistan arrives at the central bus station. This is just one of many exhausting links that move the young family closer to their destination of Germany. But, each time they arrive in a new country, the rules, the language, the people have changed; the resources are smaller, the window of opportunity is closing. Fences go up, politicians change their minds, the weather worsens, the body weakens, and the time for delivery draws nearer.
Five months pregnant, R. and her her husband, A., guide their 2 children toward freedom. Their 10 year old daughter is the only English speaker in the family whose first language is Pashtu. She is their link to the world and much of their journey depends upon her ability to understand and to translate.
It seems that everyone in this family carries a weight beyond their limits. The strain on A’s face is visible. As the father, he feels the responsibility to lead, but how do you lead when you cannot understand the rules? How do you protect, when danger masquerades as salvation?
Jay and I engage the family as they arrive in the city’s Central Park. It is 10:30 at night, raining, and cold. There is no information posted anywhere. This vulnerable family is completely on their own in a culture that they do not understand, operating in a language that they do not speak, with limited resources and extreme exhaustion.
We tell them about the REMAR tent where they can get out of the rain and receive a free hot and healthy meal while they wait for the midnight bus. REMAR, a Spanish Christian organization, has tents set up all along the refugee highway in the Balkans making their presence sometimes the only consistency in this uncertain journey.
As we walk toward the tent, we offer to help carry bags. To the observer, we appear to be part of who they are. A Serbian man with a badge stops us. In broken and heavily accented English, he implores us to come with him to a site that offers a free bed and hot food. We refuse. He insists. This does not feel like an invitation and our instincts immediately warn of danger.
The journey to freedom through the Balkans is full of danger. A young group of Syrian men that we interview the next day tells of beatings and robberies in Bulgaria and Macedonia. And then they tell of dead bodies as they crossed the border with Iran.
As the migration continues, the refugee highway through the Balkans becomes both more systematized and more perilous. Black market syndicates that deal in organ harvesting, forced prostitution, and illegal labor are adapting to lure vulnerable people into deathly oblivion.
In these harshest winter months, the tide of displaced people has slowed to a trickle of approximately 2,000 per day. With spring’s warmer currents will come a growing swell of freedom seekers. Unprecedented numbers of undocumented and vulnerable people are a trafficker’s dream. Smugglers and dealers are prepared to capitalize.
On a daily basis, refugee transit camps are able to reunite families who have been separated somewhere in the journey. These are the miracles in the midst of a nightmare and they are the minority. This migration has resulted in an estimated 10,000 children who are now alone and moving through foreign countries. Without resources, their identities untracked, their whereabouts unknown, they are easy prey for traffickers.
As almost a million people make this unprecedented journey across Europe, one of the greatest tragedies of the current crisis is that those who are victims have been so easily vilified. Ninety-five percent of ISIS or Taliban victims are Muslim. And as those victims flee, they become victims of a new predator – the European trafficker.
Families like the one we encountered in Belgrade are normal people heroically fleeing extraordinary circumstances. They are strong – stronger than I could ever hope to be in similar circumstances. There is an eternal importance in learning to see people, not as the danger we suppose that they may represent, not even as needy people to be helped, but rather simply as people – just like us.
To those of us who have homes, warm places to lay our heads without fear, places of faith and worship … let us rise up with courage. Let us be slow to see people as stereotypes and wise in where we source our information. Let us be voices that proclaim mercy for our brother and cry out clear, compassionate, non-manipulative directions amidst the long night of another soul.
To those who have left so much, endured so much, and now carry hope across thousands of dangerous kilometers – we pray that God gives you courage for this journey. And with that prayer, comes a promise: the people of the Book are present and we will remain with you. By God’s grace and in his strength, you do not make this journey alone.
Now rise up Church. We stand in the midst of bravely desperate people – vulnerable and in danger. Gather your courage, for this is our generation and we are called by God to be a house of light in this stormy sea. We are called to know and to understand the truths of this situation. Called to find ways to help. Called to fight for and to protect the vulnerable.
We are called the Church.