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).
Although the stories may not be as prominent in the news, the refugee crisis in Europe has by no means abated. Many of the Greek islands that are set just off the coast of Turkey continue to receive hundred of refugees per day. The sea, however, is growing more treacherous by the day, as the fall/winter brings with it rougher waters. Several teammates from Helping Hands recently made a visit to the the island of Lesvos to see the situation firsthand. Here’s an update from a friend and one of our former teammate serving in Athens…
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Hello again from Athens. I would like to share a few stories with you from my time on Mytilini (also called Lesvos) island. I sat down many times to write this, but I haven’t been able to come up with words to express what I saw there. During the two days we were there, 49 people lost their lives at sea, many of them children. The seas are getting too rough for passage on boats not made for the sea, but people keep coming anyways. I can still see the expressions of terror, exhaustion, and relief on refugees faces as they landed on shore. Below are some stories from my time there…
The first day we were on the island the seas were very rough. One of my coworkers and I were on the shore when an overcrowded raft washed up. Everyone was soaking wet and had looks of sheer terror on their faces. Four different women fainted when they got out of the raft due to shock and one man was suffering from hypothermia. His entire body was shaking. As people were trying to get off the raft the waves kept tossing it and throwing people. One man broke his leg against some rock and another woman hurt her knee.
Many refugees told me that the smugglers on the Turkish side forced them into boats at gunpoint. There are thousands of refugees living in the forest away from the coast of Turkey waiting for their turn to get on boats. When it is their turn a smuggler comes and gets them. When they get to the boats and see how rough the sea is, many of them want to turn back but the smugglers force them on at gunpoint. They don’t want people backing out and they don’t want people piling up more than they already are on shore.
A two month old baby slipped out of her mother’s arms when a strong wave hit their raft. Luckily the mother recovered the baby quickly. We found the baby dry clothes, but the mother didn’t want the baby back while she was dripping wet. I held the baby while her mother looked for dry clothes for herself. I had tears in my eyes thinking about how this precious little girl almost became another statistic of a life lost at sea. Just thirty minutes earlier she could have been lost. I prayed for the little one and asked God to bless them and protect them as they continued on their journey.
It was late in the afternoon our first day there and a raft full of refugees had just come in. After all the refugees piled into vans we stuck around and talked a little on the shore. A Greek woman who’s house is along on the shore came out with a trash bag to start cleaning up refugees’ belongings that had washed up on shore or been left behind as people moved on in a hurry. We asked if we could help her clean up for awhile. She talked about how her home had been in the family for a long time and they used to vacation there when she was a child. She now lived there permanently and said it was anything but a vacation spot. She looked out at the sea and said, “This sea has become the graveyard for far too many people. I don’t know if I will ever be able to swim in it again or see it like I used to.”
We also spent time at one of the camps on the island. It is run by many different organizations. We translated, picked up trash, sorted clothes, and one of my coworkers used her medical training and language to help in the clinic. An Afghan woman was so stressed she started having symptoms of a heart attack. My coworker was able to talk with her and calm her down. After a few hours she was calm enough that she was able to leave with her family as they continued their journey.
(Back in Athens) This past Tuesday we cooked for over 150 refugees, many of them having recently arrived from the islands. I was so excited when two families recognized me from the island! We had a great time talking about the rest of their time on the island, their journey to Athens, and where they hoped to go next. I was able to pray for them again and was invited to be their guest whenever they get established somewhere!
Most of the refugees arriving on the island haven’t showered or had a real meal in weeks. They are exhausted, scared, unsure of what lies ahead, and extremely grateful for the kindness they’ve been shown. There are so many more stories to tell, but this has already gotten quite long! I can’t think of my time there without tears coming to my eyes. Many nights as I’m praying for the situation there I begin to weep again at the horrors people are going through every day. Thank you for praying with me and standing with myself and the ministry here. Lives are being impacted and I’m extremely grateful for you!
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)!
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency) recently released a report on the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers in Greece. The report is based on an assessment in the last quarter of 2014. [Check out the report summary here.] Last year, roughly 43,500 asylum seekers and immigrants crossed the Mediterranean from Turkey to Greece. That staggering number represents a 280% increase from 2013!
If you’re not familiar with the perils of the migrant trek from Turkey to Greece, here are two recent Vice News reports on the situation on the border between Greece and Turkey (note the dramatic – yet not unfitting – title, “Death Boats to Greece”)
For those who survive this journey, once in Greece these migrants face difficult living situations (many sleep rough on the streets, in parks, or in abandoned buildings), and a nightmare of an asylum process. The UNHCR report documents some of these challenges:
But problems remain in Greece’s asylum system despite reforms. These problems include difficulties in accessing the asylum procedure, a continuing backlog of unresolved cases under the old procedure, risk of arbitrary detention, inadequate reception conditions, lack of identification and support for individuals with specific needs, push-backs of people at the border, concerns over integration prospects and support for refugees, and xenophobia and racist violence.
We saw these situations firsthand while working with Helping Hands in Athens. This is a humanitarian crisis. Sometimes we don’t see these crises because we’re unaware; we’re distracted; we’re busy. But even when we do hear about these crises, in our world of 24/7 news, we can grow weary of tragedy. Or worse yet, we can be tempted to scan the news for the crisis du jour: what’s trendy, what are people talking about. We may not see, we may not remember, our compassion may be exhausted… but God cares about the oppressed, the vulnerable, and those in need.
God hears the cries of the oppressed (Deut. 26:7; just cherry-picking examples, here is one of many):
Then we cried to the LORD, the God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression.
He promises to judge the oppressors (Amos 4:1; again one example of among many, but this is a favorite one for obvious reasons):
Hear this word, you cows of Bashan, who are on the mountain of Samaria, who oppress the poor, who crush the needy… The Lord GOD has sworn by his holiness that, behold, the days are coming upon you, when they shall take you away with hooks…
And God calls us to care for the oppressed (Is. 58:6-7):
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
God cares about this crisis in Greece, and so should we. Pray with me for the situation in Greece:
- God, may our hearts reflect your compassion for the oppressed, the vulnerable, and the hurting;
- may the systems and processes in Greece that add to people’s suffering be turned on their heads; may justice and truth be the new norm;
- may the many Christians and organizations serving asylum seekers in Greece be filled with your strength and extend your hope in dark places;
- may the many refugees in Greece find peace and hope, and may they ultimately find the only lasting peace and the only satisfying hope: Jesus Christ.
Read the UNHCR report and summary here.