Our team arrived back to Quincy late last night. Thanks to everyone who prayed – and who gave – in order to make this trip a reality! We loved, served, and gave in the name of Jesus. Thanks for making that possible! Although security issues prevent me from posting pictures of refugees, here are a few highlights from our second full week in Athens:
Our team from LifePoint Church has been here in Athens serving and loving refugees alongside Helping Hands for the past week. There are so many stories to share… but for now, I’ll leave you with some pictures from our first week (you’ll notice that I have not included direct and unobstructed photos of faces in order to protect the privacy and safety of these asylum seekers).
Back in 2012, a friend helped to tell the story of the ministry of Helping Hands in Athens. Although the numbers of refugees have increased, this still expresses well the heart and ministry of the team. Thanks for helping tell the story, Ryan and Andrew:
Ministry Profile: Helping Hands
There’s a place near the heart of Athens, Greece that feels a bit like home to those who have none. The small, dingy alleyway off of Sophocleous street in the run-down district of Omonia may seem like the last place to find the warmth of hospitality. Yet tucked into the corner of that alley is a gate, where a small crowd of people gathers most weekdays just before noon. They come as strangers, walking foreign streets in a foreign land to reach that gate. But behind it is a room where the soft glow of home welcomes all. It is not foreigners who fill the chairs or aliens who are served a hot meal. In that place, they are friends, brothers and sisters, human beings with precious dignity.
A home for the homeless: that is what the Athens Refugee Center strives to be for just a few of the half million refugees that flood the streets of the city. Each year, roughly 150,000 undocumented immigrants enter the country seeking a home in Europe, only to find a broken system that offers no care and little chance of documentation. Some flee oppression in their homelands, like Iran, Afghanistan, and Somalia, while others simply long for greater opportunity. Yet, nearly all find themselves trapped within the borders of a country in crisis and ensnared by an inequitable and bloated system.
These are the overlooked and the oppressed that fall between the cracks in Athens and their plight is the reason that the Athens Refugee Center (ARC) exists. The ARC is run by Helping Hands, a Greek Christian ministry that works with the U.S.-based organization International Teams (ITeams) to care for the sojourners of Athens. For over a decade, the ARC has spread its arms wide by providing refugees with hot meals, showers, clothing, English classes, Bible studies, and a children’s ministry on designated afternoons throughout the week.
Tuesday afternoons are among the busiest for the ARC as families with children fill the main room, eagerly awaiting a fresh cooked meal of chicken or pasta, bread, salad and fruit. During the meal, the chatter of Farsi, English, and Greek from over 140 voices melds together to create a kind of diverse harmony that rings of community, something these families dearly long for. As lunch draws to a close, the men and women pull their chairs toward the center of the room to listen to a Bible lesson in Farsi as the children scatter from the tables and run down the hallway for a Bible lesson and craft of their own. After the close of the lesson, hot tea is brought out along with favorite Middle Eastern board games like backgammon and chess for further time of fellowship. On afternoons like these, few leave without a smile on their face.
Abulfas is just one of those who has found a smile and a piece of home at the ARC. The bright-eyed 12-year-old spent most of his life in Afghanistan, but recently his family began down the long and dangerous refugee highway through Turkey and into Greece. Now his family stands fractured, with his mother and sister having made it to Paris with a smuggler, while he, his father, and brother remain caught in Athens. An all too familiar story for so many refugee families.
The staff at Helping Hands began to invest in Abulfas the first day he arrived at the ARC and cheerfully lingered after the lesson to help clean up the children’s room. Every week thereafter, Abulfas arrived in the alley outside of the ARC on Tuesday and Saturday mornings, waiting patiently to see if there might be enough room for him and his infectious smile. During the Bible lessons, Abulfas would ask question after question, curious about this person named Jesus. But one day, Abulfas did not ask any questions. He simply volunteered to pray. And for the first time, he closed his prayer with the name of Jesus Christ. Abulfas continues to come to the ARC each week, but now, he also brings his little brother. Athens may not be a home for Abulfas, but perhaps the Lord has used the open arms of the ARC to point his heart toward its ultimate home in Christ.
Abulfas is just one among countless others that have been touched by the work of Helping Hands and ITeams in Athens over the years. And from that dingy alleyway off of Sophocleous street, they will continue to faithfully serve those who long for a home. But the ministry road ahead is filled with challenges as Greece struggles through this difficult financial climate. Even in this time, Helping Hands and ITeams aim to expand the ARC’s ministry to meet the growing needs of refugees who find themselves on Athens’ harsh streets. However, realizing that dream will require very real prayer, financial, and personal support for the future and the team continues to pray for those needs as they strive to serve the needs of others.
Because right now there is a place near the heart of Athens, Greece that feels just a bit like home to those who have none. And those at Helping Hands and ITeams wouldn’t have it any other way.
Ryan Gilles – 2012 – Naming the World
A recent update from a friend and former teammate in Athens…
Hello from Athens!
Refugees are definitely in the news these days! The situation in Greece right now is difficult with so many desperate people arriving. Our team is engaging new refugees, praying for them, and seeking how we can best serve and share Christ with those who are coming into Greece.
Maybe as you read the news you’re also wondering how you can help refugees? Let me give you some practical suggestions.
Pray! Part of the refugee story right now is the humanitarian crisis. But the other part is that God is at work among these people, changing the spiritual destiny of individuals, families and even nations through this crisis. Jesus is being proclaimed to those who haven’t heard and many individuals and families are forever changed by an encounter with Him. Pray for God’s protection of refugees and intervention into their lives. Pray that His Word would go forth and that He would continue to send more workers into this harvest field. Pray that new refugee believers would grow in their faith and have the courage to share it with their own countrymen.
Be a friend! Across Europe and America refugees are being resettled. In addition to practical needs, they are in desperate need of friendship and community with local people. Often the biggest struggles for refugees after they’ve reached a stable country are not the material, but relational. The stress and adrenaline of the journey is over, and ahead of them is the overwhelming task of creating a new life in a foreign country. Being a friend is a HUGE thing for a refugee. Invite refugees in to be a part of your community, church and family.
Support a missionary! Across the world there are multitudes of missionaries who serve refugees day-in and day-out, seeking to meet the physical and spiritual needs of refugees. Support those who have given their lives to serve by praying for them, giving financially, encouraging them, and being a friend to them.
[If you’d like to support the work of Helping Hands among refugees in Athens, you can give via International Teams USA or another International Teams National Office, simply designate your gift to Helping Hands – Athens.]
Serve! Search for churches or community centers involved with refugees in your area, and see how you can be involved.
Educate yourself about refugees! Read the news or stories about the individual lives of refugees. Ask a refugee friend to tell you his/her story. To learn more about the journey of refugees, I recommend (for adults, not children) watching the movie “The Good Lie” about Sudanese refugees and their journey to America.
I can tell you through countless stories and encounters with refugees that God is alive and at work! Praise Him! He is working through His people and His church across Europe as believers answer God’s call to engage with refugees. I encourage you to ask Him how He might have you to be a part of His great work of drawing people from all nations to Himself. And then step out in obedience.
I have many stories to be told from this summer about God’s transforming work in the lives of refugees! I’ll write again soon to share some of those stories with you all. Thanks for your continued prayers, care and support!
Here’s a portion of an email update from a good friend working with Helping Hands in Athens. She is working among Afghan refugees and shares this story of one woman’s journey from Afghanistan to Greece. The name has been changed… but her story is true. Please join me in praying for “Parisa” and countless others who have shared her journey.
This week I would like to share with you Parisa’s journey from Afghanistan to Greece. When Parisa was a young girl she and her family lived in Afghanistan. They were there during the rule of the Taliban. Parisa said one day they heard gunfire, so she and her brother looked out the window. Her brother was shot in the head right in front of her. Not long after that her mother was taken and tortured for going to the market alone without a male escort. Shortly after that her father was robbed, stabbed, and killed by the Taliban on his way home from the market. Her mother took the remaining children and fled for Iran.
Parisa married and had three children in Iran. Because her family is Afghan, her children could not go to school and her husband could not get work. They decided to move to Europe to give their children a chance at a better future.
In the middle of the night Parisa and her family got on horses and rode thirteen hours to the Iranian/Turkish border. She recalls being terrified because it was the first time she had ever rode a horse and it was going up a mountain! From there they hid in the back of a truck that was carrying sheep. She recalls being terrified because the border patrol was stopping trucks, but for some reason they let the truck they were on pass without checking it. They stayed a few hours in a small apartment and then made the trek across Turkey in the back of a truck packed full with other refugees.
They arrived at night at a small village near the coast. Parisa’s family and another family were put in a room that was locked from the outside. There was a little bit of bread and cheese in the kitchen, but nothing else. They were afraid they were being held hostage or that they were going to be sold off as slaves. After three days the smugglers came back and drove them to a forest that led up to the sea. They had to lay quietly in some bushes waiting for darkness so they could get onto boats. Parisa remembers the children crying because of all the mosquitoes and the smugglers forcing her to drug them to keep them quiet.
When it finally became dark the smugglers led them to the shore where there was a small inflatable raft waiting for them. It was big enough to hold eight or nine people, but the smugglers shoved around forty people on the raft. No one in the group knew how to row or swim so the smugglers said they would stay with the group and help. About 100 yards out at sea the smugglers jumped off and swam back to shore leaving them alone. Parisa said they went in circles for what seemed like hours because no one knew what to do. They were on the raft about twelve hours before they spotted a Greek island.
As they approached the island something punctured a hole in the raft and everyone went in the water. Thankfully they were close enough to shore that the adults were able to stand and carry the children so no one lost their life. Parisa remembers the police coming and processing them. They were then told to get on a bus that took them to the island’s airport. They had no idea where they were going or what was happening. They kept asking what was going, but no one would answer them. They got on a plane that took them to Athens. There was a police bus there waiting for them that drove them to downtown Athens.
When they arrived in downtown Athens the police told them to get out of the bus and they were left there with no direction or help in what to do next. Some Afghans that had been in Athens awhile found them and took them to an apartment. Parisa and another woman she had been traveling with were afraid to go outside and were overwhelmed by everything they had just been through. Someone told them about the refugee center I work at, Helping Hands. They decided to leave their apartment for the first time in a week and come to our refugee center to get some clothes.
Last week she told some ladies from a short-term team visiting from America that the women that work at Helping Hands are like her sisters and one of her biggest blessings from God. She is excited to move onto another country in Europe someday, but is really sad to leave the staff at Helping Hands. When the ladies asked if they could pray for her, the only thing she said was, “Pray I get a visa quickly when I move to another country so I can come back and visit my sisters here. I’m going to miss them so much when I leave.”
Parisa has felt love and acceptance at our refugee center. Please pray that she finds that in Christ before she leaves. She said many times throughout her story that they were near death at this point or that point, but she would do it all again because it brought her to a new family and the chance for a future for her children.
There are so many stories like Parisa… People on journeys, full of hope and fear. People who are precious in God’s eyes. Thanks for caring and for praying!
As we announced Sunday morning, LifePoint is taking a team to Athens later this year to serve alongside the ministry of Helping Hands. I’m pumped! As many of you may know, my family and I spent five years working at Helping Hands (more here). As a cultural, continental, and religious crossroads, Athens provides a unique opportunity to join God’s work among the nations. If you are a LifePointer who is interested in joining us, be sure to come to the informational meeting on Sunday, May 3rd (12:30pm; downtown).
While you’re here, let me also encourage you to poke through the blog a bit to learn more about the ministry and the current situation in Athens:
Lost in Greece: Last year, roughly 43,500 asylum seekers and immigrants crossed the Mediterranean from Turkey to Greece. Learn more about these perilous crossings… [MORE]
Ministry Profile: A friend wrote up this brief summary of the ministry in Athens. It’s a great overview… [MORE]
My Best Day in Athens: A refugee’s thankfulness for the Christmas parties (where our team will serve)… [MORE]
Nine Years Later: A testimony nine years in the making… [MORE]
Journey for Truth: “I thought that I coming to Europe for a better job, a better education, a better life… but God has shown me that it was a journey for truth.”…[MORE]
I Want This: After many weeks of studying Jesus, “R” made a bold pronouncement, “I want this!”…[MORE]
Finally, here’s a video documenting a day in the life of Lisa, one of many working to share the love of Jesus in Athens…
For LifePointers, if you’re interested (or even interested in being interested), join us for the informational meeting on May 3rd or email me with questions (firstname.lastname@example.org)!
Back when we were in Athens with Helping Hands, we regularly partnered with Hellenic Ministries (HM) – a great ministry that does a number of fantastic outreaches around Greece. Beginning Saturday – and continuing into next week – HM is hosting several “love meals” at their ministry center in downtown Athens city. Many refugees will hear the Christmas story of God’s hope and grace in Jesus. Join me in praying for these Christmas outreaches this week! May Jesus be exalted among the nations!
Today begins our week of 4 Christmas parties—gifts, dinner, a family photo shoot by a Christmas tree, music, and a program, all for 450 invited guests. The Christmas parties were my first ministry experience almost 5 years ago when I arrived in Athens and have a special place in my heart. Recently a refugee friend unexpectedly reminded me again about the importance of these parties. Let me tell you a little about her story.
“Mina” is a strong, independent, fiercely loyal Afghan woman. Somehow she always manages to survive, although not much has been easy in her life. She was married off at age 12, after finishing the 5th grade. Her first husband beat her, and her second husband had three wives at one point. When the second marriage eventually ended, Mina was faced with the difficult reality custody of the children is always given to the man in her country. Mina, who loves her three boys very much, made the difficult decision to “steal” her boys and begin the refugee journey to Europe.
They left Afghanistan 7 years ago, when her youngest son was an infant. Traveling through Pakistan, Iran and then Turkey, with one time being deported back to Afghanistan and beginning the journey again, 4 years ago they made it to Greece. Two years later, Mina sent her oldest son (~16 years old) alone to find his way to another European country more hospitable to refugees. He eventually made it to Austria where he applied for asylum. Last month Mina and her other children received approval for reunification with her son in Austria.
The journey of 7 years was coming to a close. Before Mina left Athens, I asked her what her best and worst days in Greece were. Her worst: the first month in Greece when they didn’t have any money and were living in the park. Her best days in Greece, answered with absolutely no hesitation: the Christmas party at our refugee center last year.
The importance that she attached to that one evening blew me away. I love the Christmas parties, but for it to be the highlight of a woman’s entire 4 years in Greece was a surprise to me. Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised though. Typically a refugee’s life consists of a struggle to survive each day with little comfort, beauty or laughter around them. Her comment reminded me again just how important special events are to refugees. They are life-giving and dignity-affirming. They leave an imprint in hearts long after the party is over.
Please pray for us this week as we have our parties. Pray for our team and volunteers to love others as Christ loved us. Pray for the program to run smoothly. Pray that this Christmas many refugees will understand the gift of Jesus, Immanuel, God with us.