A letter from Al and Ellen Smith serving in Germany/Russia
March 17, 2016
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Greetings from Berlin, where the snowdrops and daffodils are blooming even as we continue to get frost every night. Although Moscow continues to get the occasional snowfall, spring is beginning to make its presence felt there as well.
Ellen was in Russia for a relatively short 10-day trip in February, and Al is headed there for the week between Palm Sunday and Easter, but we thought we would share some of our observations about the current situation here in Germany, specifically with regard to the refugee crisis caused by the massive influx of people fleeing the violence in Syria. Just as immigration and refugee policy is a hot topic in the current political debates in the United States, it is also a very hot topic here. Chancellor Merkel’s decision last year to open Germany’s borders to refugees has been both praised and criticized within Germany itself and within the European Union. Some of the countries located along the route from the Middle East to Germany have closed their borders to refugee traffic, while other European Union members are refusing to accept any quota system that would require them to accept a specific number of refugees, or to accept any refugees who are not Christians. Here in Germany regional elections held over this past weekend resulted in losses for Merkel’s party in two of the German states, losses that are directly connected with her refugee policies. We live in interesting times.
In one sense, the concern of the opponents of Merkel’s policies is understandable. The new arrivals are generally destitute and have few usable job skills. They bring with them completely different expectations about how society should operate and what sort of behavior is appropriate. They require food, shelter, and clothing. Virtually none can speak German, and only a few speak English. Education for their children presents its own set of difficulties—is it better to give them their own classes, inevitably delaying their integration into German life, or to integrate them into classrooms with German students, presenting teachers with many additional burdens. Local governments are being forced to take on many burdens, some financial, some administrative. Just providing housing for all of the newcomers is a monumental task. In some cases school gymnasiums and libraries have been converted to refugee housing, displacing youth and sports programs, which are important to many people. On the other hand, one look at the photographs from Syria is sufficient to show the horror of the refugees’ situation in their home country. What do we expect these people to do while the painfully slow processes of world politics work themselves out?
Different people come to different conclusions. A couple of weeks ago in the city of Bautzen, a couple of hours from here, arsonists burned down an unused hotel which had been donated to provide housing for refugees. By God’s grace no one was living there yet. In another case a mob blocked a bus transporting refugees; the police were only barely able to ensure the refugees’ safety. None of this presents a very pretty picture. Yet in another small town on the Polish border the locals are welcoming the arrival of refugees because the new arrivals, in a place whose population had been in decline, means new workers and children to fill the schools which were about to be closed.
Here in Berlin there have been demonstrations protesting against the government’s refugee policies. However, the community has also responded with many programs to collect donations of clothing and other items, to staff shelters and kitchens, to help newcomers navigate the bureaucratic maze of the immigration system, and to provide simple fellowship and support. Many of these programs are church-based. Both the Lutheran and the Catholic church structures here are active in this work. Since our stay in Germany is supported by the Lutherans, we have volunteered to help in their efforts as best we can.
Al recently visited the “Refugee Church,” which has been organized by the Berlin-Brandenburg diocese of the Lutheran church in a historic church building in central Berlin. They provide worship space for refugees as well as counseling services and two “International Café” events each month where refugees can gather together with other Berlin residents for conversation and fellowship. Even when there is no common language, one can play ping-pong or chess and enjoy the refreshments provided by volunteers. I particularly enjoyed my time with Samir, who has been away from his family in Syria for more than two years, having fled to Lebanon after being tortured by government forces in Syria. Samir is able to speak a little English, so he could tell me his story. He also plays a mean game of chess. I had hoped for a rematch when I returned for the next International Café a couple of weeks ago, but Samir was not there. People come as they are able.
We are accustomed to being able to talk to the people we meet in our travels. Between English, Russian, and in Al’s case, German, we generally get along pretty well. However, in working with these refugees, the absence of Arabic is keenly felt, and our German friends are no better off than we are. We have decided that Al should try to learn at least a little bit of Arabic in order to facilitate communication and widen the areas where we might be able to help. Not surprisingly, all of the academic options for learning Arabic in Berlin are over-subscribed at the moment, and there are waiting lists for all of the beginning Arabic classes. By the time a course would open, it would be summer and we would be off to Russia. For that reason we have decided to try an online course that features learning at your own pace. It will be a challenge since I notice the 60-year-old brain is not quite as flexible as the 20-year-old brain used to be. We live in interesting times.
As always, our work is the result of the prayers and support of many other Presbyterians, and we are grateful for all of you. Thank you for your financial support for our ministry. Please continue to pray for us and for those we work with. If you are able to contribute financially to the cost of keeping us on the field, please consider doing so, either as an individual or as a congregation. The ability of the PC(USA) to keep missionaries on the field depends on the support of the church as a whole.
May God bless you all in this Easter season.
Al & Ellen Smith
The 2015 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 333
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