Reaching Out in Faith to Refugees Stranded in Limbo
Scores of families fleeing their war-torn countries are benefiting from the kindness of American strangers
It’s stories of “beauty mixed with hope mixed with devastation” that 28-year-old Ashley Anderson shared with LifeZette about the short time she spent visiting refugee camps in Greece.
A California native now living in Washington, D.C., Anderson has co-led two short-term missions trips to Greece, where she’s interacted with Middle Eastern refugees who have fled their war-torn countries. She works for a church in D.C.
“They had walked hundreds of miles on foot, through Syria, through Turkey, across the sea … and just kind of got stuck.”
“When we were there, we spent time in three different places,” Anderson said of an April 2016 trip to Greece. “One [place] almost overnight became an ad hoc refugee camp of about 15,000 people.”
The camp originally had no infrastructure, no water. The area was near railroad tracks, which the refugees were following. This border area between Greece and Macedonia had just closed and many refugees were backlogged in Greece, as individuals tried to pass through on their way to Europe.
“There was a family I met. The mom was a schoolteacher back in Syria and the dad used to work border control,” said Anderson. “They had walked hundreds of miles on foot, through Syria, through Turkey, [and traveled] across the Aegean Sea in a dinghy. They got to Greece, thought it was just one stop on a longer journey, and just kind of got stuck.”
This Muslim family, Anderson told LifeZette, had three young boys ages 10 and under. “They welcomed us into their tent and we spent a week with them,” Anderson said. “They were pulling their kids in from play to do math and science lessons in their tent. [The parents] were scrubbing their faces before they tucked them into cots on the ground. They were just doing what they could to parent their kids well. And to provide a life for them while they’re in limbo.”
More than 60,000 refugees and migrants have been stranded in Greece since last March.
Many of these people are from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
Anderson was in Greece earlier this month and was able to connect again with the same Syrian family that made such a lasting impression on her last year.
She had been able to text and Facebook message with the family throughout the year, but “just two weeks ago, I got to give them hugs again and got to play with their kids again,” Anderson told LifeZette Thursday.
“It’s bittersweet. I wish they had been resettled in another country and were one step closer to finding a sense of home, but [it was] such a beautiful gift to see them.” She said the family in now “in a hotel outside of Thessaloniki” for the winter months. Other refugees have been placed in hotels, too, as well as in apartments and dorms.
In terms of who pays for this: The Greek government has jurisdiction over its refugee camps, as The Guardian reported, and the United Nations refugee agency, the European Union’s aid department, and international aid agencies have helped fund the crisis, too.
Since her first meeting with the family, Anderson said they’ve learned a little English; she has learned a little Arabic. “The mom of the family came up to me that night and said, ‘Today is one year, one day from when we got to Greece. Today was the first day of happiness in that.'” The family was able to host Anderson’s mission team and a local missionary family for dinner.
This is “something that God was doing through all of us together,” Anderson said.
The Syrian family got a “sense of home” for the night, as their children got to play with the missionary family’s children and “got to exercise their craft of hospital[ity] and cooking,” Anderson said.
During her 2016 trip, Anderson mostly met with Syrian, Iraqi, and Afghan refugees and was moved by their resiliency, even hospitality. “You would meet a person and make a connection and immediately they would invite you into their space to have tea.”
Anderson’s team encountered many devastating and brutal situations in their short time spent in Greece.
“We saw a guy my age who told us a story of the day he found his dad’s head on his doorstep,” Anderson said. “It was a warning from ISIS — a reminder that they were ‘still there, still in control.'” She said the man was fleeing from ISIS, clearly afraid for his life. “If he wanted to ‘be’ these people, it would have been a lot easier to stay, but he didn’t. He fled instead.”
Anderson noted it was the doctors, engineers, teachers, and people who were wealthy enough to flee who were stuck in this limbo — this transition between their homeland and a new refuge.
They’d given up their comfortable lives to set out on a new journey. They had no other choice.
Anderson last year was able to assist the NGO A21 Campaign, which works to fight human trafficking. It assists people with their basic needs and shares information about trafficking issues.
“These people are now vulnerable to trafficking,” said Anderson. “They could pay someone who’s willing to take them across the border — and that person could be a trafficker or some other crooked person. Or, the person could be honest.”
Anderson said her team also helped workers with the Christian humanitarian organization Samaritan’s Purse (headed by Franklin Graham). The camps have been decentralized; some families have been resettled in other countries since her last visit. For example, “a camp that once had 3,000 [people] now has 450.”
To help the refugees, her group helps “the people serving them every day.” She noted the need for prayer and for financial support for those who are on the ground during this crisis.
Sometimes, to be faithful, one must step outside of one’s day-to-day bubble — as this young woman is clearly doing.