Recognising refugees as people

07 Jan, 2016 | Greece
Nicole James
A welcoming smile and safe hands - Hein van der Merwe greets and helps the refugees arriving on Lesbos island who have just made the crossing from Turkey. Photo credit: Kathryn Berry
Driving through endless muddy ruts on the way to the lighthouse on Lesbos, Hein van der Merwe who oversees OM’s relief work on the island noted the road’s steady deterioration. Both sides of the winding brown lane were strewn with the life vests that have been abandoned across the island, some perched on sticks like shipwrecked scarecrows. “I can understand by looking at places like this why [locals] would not want the refugees here… This road was smooth a couple of weeks ago,” he noted. Now, “it’s trampled and washed away.”

Ruts notwithstanding, the drive marks a familiar route for Hein, who’s spent countless days helping to unload inflatable boats overfilled with people landing on the rocks below the lighthouse. Up to 7,000 refugees per day have arrived on Lesbos, climbing its steep banks then trudging uphill towards the nearest town—a two-hour walk for young men, a six-hour journey for some families.

The sheer number of refugees involved creates a crisis in Turkey and Greece that is now spreading to Germany and Sweden, but the thing to remember, according to Hein, is that “they are people. That’s it.”

People. Who, if given the chance, would never have left home. “These people don’t move because they want to. They are being forced out of their homes,” Hein emphasised. While helping on the beach and in the camps, Hein has spoken to many Syrians. When asked if they would like to go back to Syria one day, “they all said, ‘Yes, we would love to go back home one day.’”

A while back when Hein was meeting boats below the lighthouse, a man who had just arrived told a volunteer working with Hein, “Everyone is just so friendly to us. Everyone is just helping and really good to us. This is how Syria used to be.”

Giving help and receiving truth

It seems that in the western part of Europe, and even in some volunteers, Hein said, “There’s a fear, a mentality that the people are just going to be lazy. But they’re not.”

One example was the six boys who excitedly ran over to hug Hein in the camp the morning after he’d helped them exit their boat. When they saw that Hein and a few other workers had to set up tents at the camp, they volunteered to assist. “Without their help, we would have never been able to do it,” Hein said.

Another group of young men walking down a particularly bad stretch of road one afternoon, still wearing the silvery foil emergency blankets given upon their arrival, noticed a photojournalist whose car was stuck in the mud. Together, they pushed her out of the rut.

Other times in the camp, Hein remembered refugees asking him for trash bags so they could help clean the site. “A lot of them are hard workers,” he said.

A handful have also connected with him personally and spiritually. Once, Hein talked to several men who said they were from Damascus, Syria.

“Oh, as Christians, we read a lot about Damascus in our Bible,” he said. “What? You know about Damascus from your Bible?” they asked. “What does the Bible say about Damascus?”

Hein told them about Jesus, about Paul, about the church in Antioch and about Paul’s journey to Greece. “They’re really fascinated by this, and I say, ‘Would you be interested in reading this if you had a Bible?’” “Yeah, really,” one of the guys responded. “Would you mind if I bring you a Bible?” Hein asked. “Is it in English?” “No, it’s in Arabic.”

Overhearing the conversation, another man asked for a Bible as well. And when Hein returned with the first two, a third Syrian also asked for a Bible. “Is this Matthew, Mark, Luke and John?” the third man wanted to know. “No, this is the entire New Testament, the entire Injil,” Hein said. “Thank you very much.”

Reaching people on the road

Already the team in Greece has heard stories of how God’s Word has changed refugees’ lives. Word came back to Lesbos from a partner NGO working on the Serbian border about a man who had received a Bible after arriving in Greece. He read the Scripture as he travelled north, and when he encountered the believer volunteering at the border, he prayed to give his life to Jesus.

Hein also met an Iranian pastor at the lighthouse beach during a surge of six boats arriving back to back. “When we helped the people out of the second boat, there was a guy behind me that lifted up his arms, and he screamed, ‘Jesus!’” Hein said. “I turned around and asked him, ‘Are you a Christian?’”

“Yes, yes,” the man answered. He couldn’t speak much English, but his wife filled in the details, explaining that he was a pastor. Hein exchanged contact information with them and offered to arrange accommodations for the couple in Athens. However, a couple days later, Hein received a message from a Serbian number—the Iranian pair had already moved quickly through multiple processing stations and border crossings. And that morning the pastor had led another refugee to Christ. “He was ministering as he was walking as well and helping people, so we keep praying for them,” Hein said.

The others Hein has connected with – a Syrian man and his cousin, a 19-year old, people from Burundi who had fled first to and now from Syria, Afghani men who were hungry and another who wanted a Bible – have not followed a specific pattern. “Maybe it’s just God sending people my way,” he mused.

God has also used others to help the refugees. On Hein’s toughest night on the island, the same day he met the Iranian pastor, he stayed on the beach until after dark. As the final boat’s passengers got onto shore, Hein noticed a middle-aged man, around 40 years old, very sick. Hein wanted to take him straight to the hospital, but the man said he wouldn’t leave his family: 16 people ranging from 80 years old to a weeks-old baby.

“We had nothing for them. We had a couple towels, and it was starting to get cold. We had to make the toughest decision we’ve had to make and leave them on the beach, knowing that the baby and the old man and the middle-aged man might not make it,” Hein remembered. “I was really struggling that night. I promised them we would come back for them.”

Later that night, Hein loaded sleeping bags into his car and drove back to the camp, but he didn’t find the family. The next morning at team devotions, Hein was still struggling, angry at God, frustrated at the lack of resources to help the people. Then the evening team told him, “Oh, by the way, we ran into the family in the village.” An elderly local man had taken them in, providing an indoor place for them to sleep.

“I just realized that, again, I thought God exclusively uses me to reach these people, and He was saying, ‘No, I want that old man to reach out to people as well,’” Hein said.

Is God calling you to reach the people forced to leave their homes and countries? An OM project, called Safe Passage, focuses on meeting refugees at their initial entry points, providing information as well as water, food and essentials. To give to OM's relief efforts, or for more information about how to get involved, please contact your local OM office.

Nicole James is a freelance journalist, ESL teacher, and adventurer. As a writer for OM Middle East North Africa, she’s passionate about publishing the stories of God’s works among the nations, telling people about the wonderful things He is doing in the world.

Credit: Nicole James · © 2016 OM International This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

OM’s role in the Church is to mobilise people to share the knowledge of Jesus and His love with every generation in every nation. OM pioneers and leads initiatives to redeem lives, rebuild communities and restore hope in over 110 countries.

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