Yesterday (Fri/10-9) my host and I returned to work again the Syrian Refugee “Camp”. We re-joined an Evangelical Church team, bringing again a WORLD REACH presence along with other missionaries here from IMB, CRU (Campus Crusade) and others, as well as assorted international volunteers. First we gathered at the Church for prayer and preparations – loading vans with clothes, food, hygienic and medical supplies to distribute. Each trainload can hold up to 1,000 refugees, and authorities expect these daily deliveries to keep coming through next year.
Cooling temps and wet winds mean winter is coming, soon to make life harder for these modern day nomads. But more change is evident than just the weather. Upon arrival at the train station/camp site, just since our visit a week before, I notice more guards stationed at the entrance road and wire fencing now establishing camp boundaries.
The Refugees’ journey begins long before we meet them. One family said they spent a month walking to reach transport. Another family reported walking six days to reach Turkey, then four more to reach Greece. The trains bring refugees.
As they unload, hungry and some needing medical care, the various religious and “NGO’s” (Non-Government Organizations) are lined up, striving for order in the midst of chaos as hundreds unload from the train cars. We spent hours waiting for their (delayed) arrivals, yet when the refugees emerge, our ministry unfolds like a tornado sweeping over us. Yesterday’s crowd became almost threatening at one point – pushing, reaching or grabbing, some pleading others insisting. But God’s grace and loyal team work kept order, and meaningful ministry prevailed. This group, largely made up of young people, especially singles traveling in packs (friends from home? comrades met along the way?) – came from Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Palestine, and North Africa. They were largely if not entirely Muslim. “Welcome!” “God Bless You!” along with smiles and handshakes initiate our ministry.
Gratitude and desperation swallow the moments of exchange. Our plastic “Gift Bags” strung on their arms like bracelets, the Refugees’ hands clutch our love offerings of sandwiches, bananas and bottles of water. The young people form standing circles, while families tend to huddle on the muddy ground and fields, sharing the unexpected meal provided by our missionaries and other workers.
Like spreading flood waters, the travelers surround the vehicles parked side by side before the railroad tracks – evangelicals, Muslim, Orthodox and Catholics lining up their vans and distribution tables, a phalanx of mercy and good works. With surprising selectivity, mothers and fathers work through stacks of children’s clothing. The crowds soon make for the separate tables for men and women – with socks & shoes, clothes, plastic ponchos. A privileged few clutch backpacks or retrieve a cast-off cardboard box to transport their new treasures.
After a respite, quite brief compared to the travels behind and before them, the refugees disappear. Babies shift from one parent’s arms to another, siblings carrying smaller brothers and sisters on their backs. One African family attend an elderly member who is wheel-chair bound. Like sands dwindling in an hour-glass, the streams of Refugees become a string of pilgrims, as they follow the railroad tracks, trudging along a dirt path that will carry them across fields and woodlands to their next stop at the border. But this next segment of their journey, some four kilometers, must be made on foot. Once there, more ques await them – registration lines and train tickets to their Northern European destinations. No sooner do these refugees disappear over the border, than the ministry teams scurry to reorganize their stuff and bring on more food. Another train is coming.NEW FRIENDS: Volunteers endure long waits for the Refugees’ arrival because trains schedules are varied, changing and inconsistent. There is comfort in the adage “those also serve who stand and wait!” But these lulls are opportunities to explore and make new friends. We walked a mile or so to an impressive white post that appeared to be an important marker. but then pressed on to reach added destination points suggested to us – “the old farm house” and then “that big white metal post.” Weary but not totally confident we had reached our goal, we turned and headed back to the train station. But yesterday I met a volunteer (from Canada I think he said) who had a more scary experience that very day. He too wanted to walk to the border but at a certain hilltop four military men, guns in hand, warned him to stop. “We could arrest you,” they threatened, “But it’s been a good day, so we will let you go – just go back the way you came!” He did.
Then there was a member of our team for the day. Medium in height, he bore his huge backpack without effort. His straight brown hair pulled back in a neat pony tail, he sported at first a handsome scarf tied fashionably around his neck. He is a carpenter from a small town in Switzerland. The son of a pastor, he confided that there was a time he resented his Christian heritage; but now he is a devoted follower of Christ. He would like to serve the Lord as a missionary one day, but right now his burden is for his town. God is opening doors for him to witness to co-workers and friends.
Career missionaries,inspired me with their cheery spirits and determined efforts even in the midst of this international crisis that brought us together. They represented different mission boards but a shared faith and solid friendships (the kind hard times develop). For example, there was a great worker, with a helpful command of the language and culture. He serves with CRU (Campus Crusade). As we share our stories, he realized that he was one of the students in my Bible Institute class during my very first visit to this area some years ago. Small world!
Another “new friend,” whose mission van was a few yards down from ours, was a stranger from Ireland. He looked younger than middle aged, with sandy hair and shining eyes. He was serving with the Sisters of Mercy, and his work with these nuns was just one more of a lifetime of mercy missions this layman has given himself to, from Thailand to Europe. As we shared our faith stories, I turned the discussion to the purpose of good works. Why are we here? I quoted Paul’s words (Ephesians 2:8-9), emphasizing that salvation is by grace…God’s gift [to be received] “not of works, lest any man should boast,” as the great Apostle admonished. We do good works not for merit, not to be saved – that is God’s gift through His Son and our Savior Jesus Christ. No, the good works we do are not for merit, but to say “thank you” for the salvation already provided, already received. Well, refugees would soon be coming, so with more work to do, we shook hands and parted, each encouraged by the exchange.