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Stories from the Field: Lesvos, Greece (Part 2)

This summer a Mercy Hill City Project team traveled to Greece to work in a refugee camp alongside the Harter family. You can read a previous post from one student’s perspective on the trip here. In this post, read the Harters’ take on the trip.


You’ve seen them in the movies; the discovery of an alternate reality or another dimension, or some kind of time travel that causes a strange shift in the world as we know it; a shift for the worse. Our family experienced this firsthand.

We traveled to a place that was very similar to one of these dystopian realities. A place where wealth doesn’t determine your lot in life. A place where sharing a room with a dozen other people crammed wall-to-wall is the norm, even if it was designed for only 6 people. A place where eating nothing but rice, cheese, and beans prepared in various ways twice a day is considered nutritious. A place where one liter of water per person on a day topping out around 95-100 ˚F (35-38 ˚C) is “enough”. A place where dangerous riots and fires can and do happen at any time due to the high tensions of so many people in such a small place. A place that is surrounded and divided by high fences with razor wires. A place that cannot be completely comprehended until you are standing in the middle of it. This alternate reality was at the Moria immigrant camp on Lesvos Island in Greece. And this reality is duplicated in dozens, if not hundreds, of other locations around the world.

Our family and a small team from Mercy Hill Church in Greensboro, NC spent two weeks working in Moria camp in July. The Greek government relies on a private volunteer organization, which schedules 25+ volunteers a day to keep the camp running and organized. It is job that seemingly should be done by the Greek or EU government. We did things like general repairs, tent building, food distribution, gate monitoring, garbage collecting, housing coordination, census taking, guiding or carrying people to the doctor, and pretty much anything else that was needed. We also had the opportunity to talk to the people in the camp and listen to their struggles of leaving their war torn countries with the hopes of a better and safer life for their family. We also shared our own stories and the hope that we’ve found in Jesus.

The people coming to Moria are from all over the Middle East, Africa, and beyond. The last unofficial count in May showed that over 40 countries were represented by immigrants in Moria. They come by boat illegally from Turkey or are sent across by smugglers who charge around $1000 per person.

The people from Syria are clearly the ones that are being granted asylum and “refugee” status quicker than anyone else due to their ongoing civil war that has no clear or easy solution. The Syrians coming now are more and more women, children, and families as opposed to the prior influx of mainly single men. They arrive in shock, are taken to a temporary camp near the beach for dry clothes, food, and water, and are then taken by bus to the Moria camp. There they are put into a large tent that holds up to 100 people in bunks for a day or two in order to be processed and seen by a doctor. After that, the volunteer organization, EuroRelief, helps get them into housing where they’re added to already full iso-boxes (like shipping containers with doors and windows) or tents. They’re given a sleeping bag, a mat, a blanket, a bag of hygiene items and a set of clothes to get them started.

From there it is a long process of waiting and hoping and more waiting. Each immigrant individual or family group has an interview to determine if they qualify for asylum. This process for some can take months. And for many, they are rejected and told that they have to go back to their home country. This is especially true for some of the African countries that are considered “safe” and has been the cause of some of the riots: the apparent inequality of how people from different countries are treated. And it is true–some nationalities are given higher priority–but how else could it be done when there are such differences in why people are trying to immigrate to Europe? There really appears to be no perfect answer or way to handle the situation. Nonetheless, we were not there to provide answers, only to provide immediate love and support for people who have had their worlds turned upside down in a very short period.

What we saw in this alternate reality is that our daily struggles, concerns for well-being, health, and security are nothing in comparison to the daily lives of these people. It was a hard place to be. Just seeing the difficulty and despair and comparing that to our personal lives was overwhelming. However, we also witnessed great joy and happiness. We saw kids laughing and playing in relative safety. We observed mothers who were so thankful to be off a dangerous boat, escaping untold dangers, and who were just happy to have a place to sleep with their children.

Toward the end of our time there, we got to see a mother and two children, who had been hospitalized with scabies earlier in the week, move past their first major hurdle as they were transported to Athens to continue their journey to Sweden. We experienced something that was dangerous, beautiful, ugly, hard, and joyful all at the same time. Why? Because we believe that God called us to be at that place at that specific time. It wasn’t because we are special and more empathetic than other people. We did it out of obedience and love and because we can see the love that God has for us–and it is enough for us to share with others.

For more information on Gene & Melissa’s ministry in Europe and how to partner with them, click here

Stories from the Field: Lesvos, Greece

At first, when we got the assignment for Greece, we were a little bummed. Our initial thoughts were “Oh great, a trip to Europe. I thought missions was supposed to be hard?” The ego of a 20-something is a beautiful thing, is it not? But when we were told that we’d be working in a refugee camp on the island of Lesvos, it felt like we would be doing real missions. We were educated on the refugee crisis as much as possible by the partnering missionaries there and told to be flexible, seeing as how we had little to no expectations of what we would experience on arrival.

We partnered with Greater European Mission, which operates under the umbrella of Euro Relief, to serve in the camp. Euro Relief is one of the only Christian organizations left working in the overpopulated prison-turned-refugee-camp that has not lost funding. To understand the overall climate inside, imagine a place surrounded by tall fences with barbed wire, guarded gates, exhausted living space, limited funds, volunteer laborers, and desperate people. And amidst this difficult environment exist people who represent every race/ethnicity, political belief, status of wealth, and religion all squeezed onto an island recovering from economic collapse and slow asylum processes. Regardless, this is where Christ had called us to go as his hands and feet.                                                                                                          

“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’” “And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’” Matthew25: 35-36& 40

Our days were broken up into 8-hour shifts where we would pass out basic needs like food, clothing, and means of shelter. Much of our time was also spent monitoring the different section gates to make sure the right people got to the right places, but the language barriers made it difficult to communicate, so we did our best to learn what we could of Arabic, Farsi, French, and Kurdish. Seeing the desperation in a mother’s eyes in need of formula for her child, families sleeping on top of each other in a tent, a man in need of a blanket on a chilly night, or the clever bartering of children to get more food didn’t require a common language to be understood. But even with all of this, it was there at the gates that we built relationships and had spiritual/gospel conversations.

Carefully we began talking about Christ and the message of reconciliation in this majority-Muslim, male population. There could be no record of our conversations or the Greek military could remove Euro Relief from serving the people, which would leave the people without any long-term missions organizations. In two conversations with two different men, we could see the work God was doing in Lesvos. One man who had landed on the conclusion that his labor for Allah would be enough to guarantee his paradise still conversed with us for an hour over the holes in his eternal hopes. The other man openly prayed in the wee hours of the morning with one of the City Project interns asking to learn more about Jesus. Praise God! Lastly, on our second Sunday, we prayed for God to move in Greece and got the chance to worship among the people in an off-site church. We sang in French and Arabic, which was such a taste of heaven.

These explicit glimpses of how God is in control of the refugee crisis sustained us in moments where it felt hopeless. On a day when we were not in the camp, we visited what is known as the “life jacket graveyard” in the neighboring town of Molyvos. In this landfill lay thousands of life jackets, boats, rubber boats, and tires refugees had used to make the dangerous cross by night from Turkey. Suddenly we could see a visual representation of all the heartbrokenness and depravity that had come from this war; how the side effects of sin had brought so much pain; and how our own sin was no better than the sin that had led to this crisis. Looking at those piles of rubble was like staring in our own hearts. In that moment I was grateful for a Savior who has the power to save those who had caused a lifejacket graveyard to exist in the same way that He can save me.

“But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore, God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.” Hebrews 11:16

Psalm 46 was the scripture we held onto in the many moments of grief. Through ethnic riots, evacuations, fires, ambulance rides, and other difficult moments, we were reminded that our God is sovereign and we were encouraged to see Euro Relief so strategically placed, acting as the hands and feet of Jesus.

Was it safe? No! But it is where we were called to go and I hope we will continue to go to hard places so that Christ may be glorified.

“Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth! The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress (10-11).”

Resources for Getting to Know Orphans and Refugees

The following are resources to help us get to know the circumstances surrounding adoption, orphans, and refugees. Hopefully it will plant seeds in our minds as to how we as Christians can help and help well. As always, the resources recommended are great for thinking through, but they are not scripture. We always recommend reading with a mind that is open to reason, but also ready to reject what is against scripture. Yet, wrestling with hard things (some of these resources can surely take us out of our comfort zone) can be a tremendous source of growth.

Orphan Care

  1. Adopted for Life – Russell Moore

This book is built around the theology that we, as believers, are adopted into the family of Christ, and this should fuel our passion for adoption here on earth. The author, Russell Moore, draws from personal experiences and shares things he would have liked to have known before beginning the adoption journey. The Moore family has two adopted children of their own, and he gives invaluable insight into the questions he had when going through this process. This resource is helpful for those considering adoption but also for someone who is interested in its processes. Even more, this book shows how adoption goes further than just families that want to adopt, and proves that the idea of adoption displays the gospel in fullness.

  1. Orphanology – Tony Merida

In this book Merida helps readers know how to biblically care for orphans and “functionally parentless” children. It is a compilation of stories, experiences, and illustrations relating to gospel-centered orphan care. It empowers not only the church but individual believers and gives practical ways that we can respond in caring for the growing number of orphans and functionally parentless children.

Refugees

  1. Refugee Services Toolkit (RST)

The RST is an online resource that trains churches, non-profits, and individuals that serve refugee families (specifically focusing on refugee children) to help them to be able to understand what they go through during the resettlement process. By going through this toolkit, groups/individuals learn how they can best assist the family during this potentially traumatic time. Although a login is required to access the resources, the toolkit is free and helps to ensure that refugees are getting the intervention and support that will most help them.

  1. World Relief Blog

World Relief is a nonprofit organization that works within 17 U.S. cities and 14 countries around the world. Mercy Hill has had the privilege of partnering with their High Point and Winston-Salem offices as they focus on refugee and immigration services. World Relief’s role in assisting refugees can be most easily seen in the process of helping them to resettle and rebuild their lives within a new country and environment. Their website contains a blog that gives valuable insight into the lives of the refugees that they work with, basic information about refugees and their experiences, and the steps that someone could take to help.

Alex Nolette (Community Groups/Equip Coordinator)