Eyes have a way of conveying one’s thoughts in a way that transcends language.
If eyes are the window to the soul, then this man’s eyes allowed us to guess at a story that our language abilities couldn’t grasp. Hasty departures in the middle of the night. Border crossings on foot from one country to the next in a westward march. Boat journeys with dozens of people in an inflatable raft with a 5-horse-power motor. Wait, walk, ride, walk, wait, repeat. And yet, the man’s eyes also spoke of a dignity and hope within.
The eyes belong to the husband, father and grandfather of the M__ family, and the scene belongs to a refugee camp in Greece. This family of seven lives in one of the cream-colored shipping containers that march up the hills on a Greek island amidst olive groves and granite outcroppings. The Aegean Sea and the Turkish coast are visible a few miles away.
Stepping inside their home, we find two families of seven jostling for space, a curtain dividing the 8’ by 24’ box that serves as their temporary home. Seeing volunteers clad in orange vests, the man within asks, “Athens? Athens?” He hopes we have come to bring news that his asylum application has moved on to the next step.
Supported by many kind and generous donors, a team of ten Corban University students plus SIM missionaries worked in a refugee camp in Greece this month.
The Greek government and camp administration have allowed NGOs access to the camp, making this location a focal point in the European refugee crisis. The Corban team worked under the auspices of EuroRelief, an NGO that coordinates the delivery of refugee services. The team helped camp residents to move into new housing, construct tents, find medical appointments for their asylum or immigration applications, and assist with queries of all kinds at the camp’s Info office.
The crossing from the Turkish coast – the way many refugees arrive – takes one hour on a fast ferry, but most refugees make the trip in three hours in crowded, inflatable dinghies. Many see immigrating to Greece as an entry point to Europe – but find their applications for asylum or immigration hamstrung by an enormous backlog. Some asylum hearings are planned as far out as 2023.
The camp presents an intoxication of stimulating sounds, sights and scents. French speakers from West Africa mingle with Farsi speakers from Afghanistan and Iran. Children cavort among crowds of men sitting in the shade and women cooking chicken and hanging laundry. The call to prayer drifts over the camp through a tiny amplifier jerry-rigged in a tree.
Serving refugees showed us how human ingenuity and dignity can endure in the harshest environments. While refugees face crowded living conditions and cope with trauma they have experienced before coming to Greece, they preserve hope, hospitality and creativity. One Corban student wrote that “Many are grateful for us and what we do even though they have practically nothing.” Indeed, the dignity of each person as an image-bearer of the Creator God emerged even amidst the harshest of circumstances. “There are so many people here that know what it means to be grateful and to sacrifice for others,” wrote the student:
- A woman invited part of our team into her residence and served a fresh-cooked meal of meatballs, dates and stuffed vine leaves one evening.
- One team member helped 64 new arrivals from the Democratic Republic of Congo move into the Francophone West African quarter of the camp. Upon seeing their new neighbors for the first time, the existing Congolese residents greeted them not as an intrusion on their tiny living space, but with cries of “Bienvenue! Bienvenue!”
- A pair of students asked a family to make room in their tiny accommodation for additional residents, thus reducing their already crowded space. A full day of discussion and negotiation ensued as the family bargained for a better space. Despite begrudgingly admitting the new roommates, the family offered tea to the students as an expression of hospitality.
- We found residents were more interested in asking questions about our own country – “Trump good? Trump bad?” – than unburdening their own predicament or complaining about their lot.
Our experience contrasted with media depictions of refugees as hapless victims who are passive recipients of Western aid. Refugees also show the imago dei – the creative faculties given us by God – in more practical ways. Residents re-purpose any available building material to make life less intolerable. A bottle cap can fasten a tent to the edge of the wooden platform it rests on. A fragment of tarp serves as a shade cover for an outdoor barber shop comprised of a stool, a mirror and a few tools. Five minutes after clearing away a makeshift structure to make room for a tent, we observed a man had set up a tiny micro-enterprise: a few juice bottles set out on a blanket, offered for a few euros to passerby.
Students reflected that working with refugees helped them know how to relate cross-culturally, communicate instructions in a kind but firm way, and manage people who are different from them.
Pictures are not permitted in this location, and names and details have been withheld for security.