In the midst of the ongoing debates and often abstract discourse surrounding refugees, we can lose sight of the real lives involved and also despair about what can be done to help. It's important that we keep ourselves informed about what is actually going on, what the refugee crisis looks and feels like on the ground. It's important that we support and celebrate the good, compassionate, humane work that IS being done to ease the suffering. My friend Olivia works for a Christian relief organization on the front lines of the European refugee crisis. She is currently working in Greece on the islands that are often the first stop for the refugees arriving in Europe. She and I have been corresponding via e-mail and her on-the-ground reports are both heartbreaking and encouraging. Please take a minute to read her words here:
I've been on the ground in Greece for almost three weeks, and my team are in the thick of the humanitarian response. We're working on three islands (but expanding to five), and I have met incredibly kind people with heartbreaking stories.
Our organization is working primarily with water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) interventions and the distribution of non-food items 24 hours/day. When refugees come off the boats (or are brought in by the coast guard), they are brought to transit sites until they get registered. They cannot leave the island until they are registered with the Greek government. They often arrive at these sites dripping wet with only the clothes on their backs (many of them lose their bags in the sea or the smugglers throw bags overboard to make room for more people).
We are giving out basic hygiene items, sleeping mats, blankets, etc. We are also making sure these sites have an appropriate number of toilets and hand washing stations and that they're maintained well. A couple of sites have showers but not many. We're working in other miscellaneous ways, too, because there aren't many humanitarian actors and everyone is spread quite thin.
We also have a team in Athens that is working at a transit site and providing a place for people to charge their phones, wifi for them to contact their families, and tea and coffee to drink. As people are interested, they talk about religion and the Gospel. We have Arabic and Farsi speakers working for us, so they're able to talk to refugees in their native languages. We're finding that there's an incredible openness to the Gospel.
I'm the type of person who never wants to force the Gospel down someone's throat, but hearing the stories from our team working there has reminded me that God is big and is moving in mighty ways. In many of the home countries of these refugees, these conversations would be illegal or punishable by death. As one of my coworkers said this morning, it's as though the Lord has brought the harvest to us.
If you think of it, please be praying for our team! We are working every day of the week, 12-15 hours per day. We are all in need of energy and strength. The refugees are weary and desperate. Winter is setting in, and the nights are cold, especially in areas where there isn't enough shelter. Aid workers are tired. Countries are starting to close their borders. It's such a complicated situation, but there is so much need that can't be ignored.
This is the most emotionally taxing work that I've ever done, and my seasoned coworkers say the same thing. To see some of the things being said on social media, particularly by Christians, has been discouraging to those of us on the ground. I've had to start staying off of social media because of it. Your thoughtful, articulate piece was a breath of fresh air. Thank you!
What can those of us far from this unfolding tragedy do to help? Here are a few practical things:
1) Pray as Olivia suggests in her e-mail. Encourage your church to raise consciousness about this crisis and pray for all those involved.
3) Watch and share this compelling video: