In the midst of misery there is hope
by Kathy Melvin | Presbyterian News Service
MYTILLINI, Lesvos — The Greek island of Lesvos, just off the coast of Turkey, has become an important stop for migrants fleeing from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Africa. The Moria Refugee Camp was built as a temporary shelter for 3,000. Today it holds more than 13,000 people living in terrible conditions while their asylum cases are being processed.
A group of mission co-workers from the Middle East and Europe attending a meeting in Lesvos did an external visit to learn about the camp. Jalal, a refugee from Afghanistan, spent time with the group talking about his own journey and what it’s like working every day in Moria. He has been in Greece three years and works for a non-governmental organization.
Jalal was a journalist in Afghanistan. He left the country with his brothers fearing for his life. They made it to Turkey and tried to get out of the country through Bulgaria. They finally took a harrowing journey across the Mediterranean to Lesvos. The remainder of his family left later, but were stopped at the Iranian border, where all their money was taken. They were finally able to continue to India, where they set up a training center for refugees. His family is committed to helping others despite their own difficult situation.
“He put a very real and deeply human face on the suffering and emotions of refugees who simply see no other option for themselves or their loved ones than leaving the violence of their native lands,” said one of the mission co-workers from the Middle East who cannot be identified. “Throughout our conversation, I found myself increasingly admiring his bravery, strength and care for others, especially his younger brothers. In many ways, I experienced his stories like Jesus’ listeners must have heard the parable of the Good Samaritan. Like Samaritans, Afghani refugees are not stereotyped as models of virtue. Nevertheless, his actions again and again embodied the love and courage God calls us to practice.”
Rev. Ryan White, who serves as pastor of the Iranian Presbyterian Church of Berlin, said one thing that struck him was Jalal’s comment that all refugees/migrants are economic refugees.
“That stood out to us because there is often a distinction made between refugees fleeing war and violence and those leaving for economic reasons (sanctions, not enough work, not enough pay, unfair trade policies between countries, etc.). His point is that war and violence create enough destabilization that people feel their economic stability is threatened or the overall economy becomes unstable and not able to provide for its citizens. Parallels can be drawn from the situation on the southern border of the U.S.,” he said.
Burkhard Paetzold, World Mission’ regional liaison for Central and Western Europe, had been to Moria before and had invited Jalal to meet with the group. While the group was meeting in Lesvos last month, Turkey, just a short boat ride away, invaded Syria.
“As we saw the overcrowded Moria camp and visited with several Greek civil groups who told stories of hundreds of people landing daily and their creative approach to restoring the dignity and hope of some of the most vulnerable, I am still in shock about the news that Turkey, with the U.S. government’s tacit acquiescence, invaded the north of Syria, causing another brutal wave of terrible harm to civilians and forcing 100,000 to flee and risk destabilizing the region even further.”
The picture Jalal painted of life inside the camp was bleak. He said 2,000-3,000 people wait in lines inside the camp every day for food. Showers and bathroom facilities are insufficient. There are not enough blankets. Pregnant women, he said, give birth inside the small tents that families occupy, and many children are sick.
“I try to be positive,” he said. “I tell them, ‘Go to the classes that are offered, keep your mind busy, improve your skills. Take advantage of what is available.’ But they say, ‘If we go to class, we cannot stand in the food line and we must feed our family.’”
White said he was struck by Jalal’s positive outlook, despite being surrounded by misery on a daily basis. “He said he gets a lot of hope from the children there because they are able to continue playing even if it’s just with trash and he likes to see them play and laugh together when they can.”
After the visit to Moria, the group met with members of Lesvos Solidarity, which operates the Pikpa Camp and the Mosaik Cultural Center, with its life vest upcycling workshop, and the Nan Restaurant refugee cooperative to learn a contrasting truth to the Moria camp situation. Paetzold said they exemplify how active living and working with refugees helps to strengthen empathy, creativity and the dignity of all involved.
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