He was a 16 year-old Syrian boy in an adult body. The only telltale sign of his youth and vulnerability were the tears that came easily to his eyes. His Uncle, Muhammad, told the story and as he did, he warned that the tears would come.
‘Any time you talk of his family, the tears are coming.”
The story began as so many do: running from war in Syria. This time from Aleppo. Two brothers began the journey leading their children and wives to safety across borders and in spite of the mechanics of government agendas. Deciding that the sea was too dangerous, they made the calculated decision to take the land route through Bulgaria. They knew the risks. They had heard the stories that gave Bulgaria the name ‘Hell”, but the Mediterranean in the month of February seemed just too risky.
As they crossed borders from Turkey into Bulgaria, guards pursued them. The members of the two families ran in different directions. Muhammad, his 2 children, wife, and his nephew, Sahid, were caught. Sahid’s father, mother, and 3 sisters successfully escaped and made it to Germany, where they are currently being processed as refugees.
Sahid, along with his uncle and family, were arrested and held in a jail where they suffered abuse, lacked proper food, and were subjected to inhumane living conditions. Nine days later, they were released, having been stripped of their phones, money, and any other personal items of value. Those days would not only cost them materially and physically, it would also prevent them from making it to Germany before the borders closed.
On March 23, the EU countries consecutively closed their borders in a domino affect. The results of this decision, deemed illegal by human rights watchdog organizations, resulted in thousands of stranded people between Greece and Slovenia. What was to come continues today: thousands of people languishing in camps with challenging conditions all across the Balkans.
What About Now?
As for Sahid and his family? The last time I saw them, we shared a cup of hot tea in Belgrade. They were sleeping in the open, unable to put up tents even though night temperatures still dropped close to freezing. Muhammad’s children are small – under the age of 5. The youngest was nursing. This family, on schedule to make it to freedom before being jailed, now suffers an agonizingly uncertain future.
Their story is repeated over and over again in the thousands across the Balkans. Sahid, and other children like him are the reason that the Church in Central Europe continues a focused refugee response.
What is the Church Doing? It’s Probably NOT What You Think
This summer, an enlarged Central Europe Refugee Response team continues to be present in 3 strategic locations on the Balkan Highway: Katerini, Greece : Belgrade, Serbia : Zagreb, Croatia.
GREECE. We partner with a beautiful Greek Evangelical Church to teach English for refugees, to help prepare apartments for refugee families, and to work with families in Refugee Camps. As we add camps, our reach is 2,000 people.
What do we do?
We eat. Student volunteers are frequently invited into tents where they share meals and time together. Contrary to what might be assumed, it is the student volunteers who are receiving the meals and culture lessons. Hospitality, table and family are essential components of the Middle Eastern cultures being decimated by this war. All of us have been highly impacted by the absolute grace, generosity, and warmth that we have received.
We learn from Middle-Eastern teachers. The average Syrian child is now 1.5 years behind in schooling because of the war and their journey to freedom. Afghani children are often 3 years behind. Asylum seekers in camps have mobilized to redeem lost time for the children as they wait for change. We look for practical ways to resource these heroic teachers: school supplies, space, encouragement. We also teach English as native speakers, but even in this endeavor, we are learners of culture first.
CROATIA. We continue to work with NGO’s to serve almost 600 asylum seekers who are in the midst of being processed for refugee status. The focus here is with cultural adaption and awareness, English classes, Croatian classes, and friendship.
What do we do?
We learn hospitality. People awaiting resettlement in Croatia are teaching us how to make Syrian food and showing us the challenges they face with cultural adaptation. They are showing us what it looks and feels like to be the stereo-typed OTHER in a majority culture. We are asking them how they will hold onto the dearest parts of their beautiful culture but also make changes necessary to make this new place home.
We see fear with new eyes. Maybe for the first time, we can experience majority Christian cultures through the eyes of somebody who has lived in a not-Christian society all of their lives. It is unnerving, complex, confusing. In a word – it is frightening.
We partner. Anybody involved in refugee response on the Balkan Highway will be quick to say that nobody can do this alone. Organizations need each other. Some of the most fascinating, healthy, life-giving partnerships have been forged because we laid aside our political, cultural, and religious difference to stand together in solidarity with courageous people making a journey towards freedom.
SERBIA. There is a perplexing ebb and flow of refugees in Belgrade, Sid, and Presovo. The numbers dwindle to a few hundred and then soar between 600 to 1000. For a long time, Serbia was a crisis point on the journey to freedom, but after the March 23 border closures, Serbia has become a rapidly changing and dynamic point of ministry.
What do we do?
We have a big presence for small opportunities. The ever-changing dynamic means that we are patient and intentional to be available and flexible to needs as they arise. Often, donations and excitement are fueled by the big stories and big numbers. What if real change and real peace are forged in the quiet, small moments? We are consistently present and available to partner with other organizations in the giving of sandwiches, clothes, shoes, and water while we listen and learn.
What Do You Want From Us?
Honestly? We do not want to convince you. If you are moved to response by the global refugee story and if you want to give to a grass-roots, intentional body of people who will use your donation to respond to the practical needs of refugees specifically stranded along the Balkan Highway, you can click here (NCM in Central Europe Refugee Response).
We will use your donation for needs such as:
- mosquito repellent and netting in camps
- baby care: diapers, wipes, rash ointment, medicines
- school supplies : writing boards, paper, pens, markers, copies, craft materials
- shoes, clothes, cleaning supplies
- food, hospitality-enabling supplies
- transport for asylum applications
- housing and cultural adaptation projects
- fun activities for children (boredom alleviation)
- transportation & other local expenses incurred by the volunteers to reach camps (often located outside of the main city/community)
- flexible response to needs as they arise
Our paradigm is different. We intentionally talk about what we receive more than what we do. We are not selling you a project idea so that you can feel good about giving. In the midst of 1.5 million displaced people, feeling good about ourselves for giving or for being here becomes toxic. We seek a deeper love. We want to be part of real and healthy change – heart, societal, global. This change happens when we see, when we feel, when we learn, and when we understand. It comes with solidarity.
Solidarity. The intentional decision to become present with and to experience the repercussions of the realities of another person. To share in.
We invite you to seek solidarity with : work to learn, work to understand, work to see and then become an advocate for the complex issues that create a world in which 60 million people share one title: displaced.
Solidarity can begin here with this blog. Follow us. It can also start and be sourced in hundreds of other places on the internet. Take a step in solidarity.
Do we have faith discussions? Yes. We do. We ask you to pray – truly and consistently pray.
Our heartfelt thanks ~ the Central Europe Refugee Response Team / Courage for the Journey