Nations close borders to refugees, Nazarenes seek way forward

Gina Grate Pottenger
Thursday, March 10, 2016
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When missionaries Joshua and Shannon Herndon arrived at the Idomeni refugee camp, at the Greek border with Macedonia, they were struck by the sight of children running barefoot in the mud. Or those who each wore just one shoe.
 
“Maybe they’re sharing the other shoe with a sibling, or lost it along the way,” Shannon surmised (pictured above).
 
The Herndons, who are planning to start Nazarene work in northern Greece when they relocate there this summer from their current assignment in Spain, visited Greece last week with Western Mediterranean Field leader Bruce McKellips. They had been invited by evangelical leaders already at work in the country, who offered to help the Herndons make connections before they arrive. The group arranged a prayer tour of the country, including a final stop 4 March at Idomeni, where some evangelicals are working alongside other nonprofit organizations to serve Middle East refugees who are waiting to cross into Macedonia.
 
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Idomeni had long been just a small, sleepy Greek village situated on a wide open border that allowed locals to cross back and forth freely. Refugees began passing through Idomeni last year on their way from Turkey, leading to an unplanned refugee camp when Macedonia closed off the border several months ago with a chain link fence topped with razor wire.
 
Just a few weeks ago, Michael Long, a Free-Methodist missionary, had visited Idomeni and told the Herndons he saw just several hundred refugees. The camp was set up for a maximum capacity of 2,000. When he returned with the Herndons and McKellips last week, he was shocked to see it had swelled to thousands. On 9 March, ABCNews.com and DeutscheWelle reported the camp’s population numbered 14,000.
 
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The refugees are standing in lines up to three hours to receive food, which is reaching a point of shortage.
 
“We were observing that if you were going to eat three times a day, by the time you got your food, you’d have to go to the end of the line and start over,” said McKellips.
 
“Young men were talking about their entire villages -- the men were being killed. The option was to join [extremist groups], or be killed, or run, so they chose to leave. We heard that story echoed many times,” Shannon said. “They talked about the experience of being stuck. So many people said they had been already a few months in Greece. Once you get from Turkey to the islands, you have to figure out [how to get] from the island you landed on to mainland Greece. A lot of them get stuck on the island for months before they have the finances and ability to move on.”
 
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Many migrants may be stuck a lot longer, or even sent back, as political dominoes fell in rapid succession this week.
 
 
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The longer the people are packed into crowded camps, the more vulnerable they become to numerous dangers, from trafficking to illness. One refugee told McKellips that he worried an epidemic could sweep through the camp.
 
 “The majority [of children] you see were sick, whether it was cold or coughs, because they’re in the cold and the wet,” Shannon said. “They don’t have good food to eat, not healthy things that keep your immune systems up and going. You don’t sleep well when you’re in a tent with large numbers of people. The kids, you see them suffering.”
 
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In spite of the short-term and long-term uncertainty created by the rapidly shifting political climate, the Nazarene church in Eurasia, and internationally, is committed to ministering to the needs of refugees in the countries of origin in the Middle East, in their places of transit where the denomination has presence, and in the nations where they are permanently settling, including Germany and Poland. (Read more.)
 
On 10 March, five people representing the Central Europe Refugee Response Team began a road-trip from Hungary to visit four to five refugee camps at the Serbia-Macedonia border, in Belgrade, and at the Macedonia-Greek border, including Idomeni, according to Teanna Sunberg, who coordinates communication for Central Europe.
 
“The story of a young Afghani man whose entire family had been killed by [extremists] -- this is the story that captured my heart last night at dinner with 20+ Macedonian and Albanian pastors. Two days ago, [that Afghani man] became a believer,” wrote Teanna on her Facebook page Friday.
 
ImageOne of the group’s objectives is to meet with local, indigenous pastors near these border camps and understand how they are already responding to the refugees. Another objective is to finalize plans to receive a shipment of 300 winterized, multi-family tents that are being provided by Nazarene Compassionate Ministries International (NCM).
 
“We ordered them a while ago because we realized that when a disaster strikes, it takes a lot of time to get tents ordered and shipped, so we bought a bunch to have on hand for situations like this when they’re requested,” wrote Beth Luthye, NCM communications manager. “The tents are very large and will fit many people, so 300 tents will serve many hundreds of people.”
 
Jay Sunberg, field strategy coordinator for Central Europe, where most of the migrants are in transit, and McKellips, in whose field Greece is located and where most refugees are first arriving in Europe, have entered into a partnership between their fields to coordinate refugee response going forward. The Central Europe Field is putting into place the framework to bring Nazarene volunteers willing to give up to one month to support ministry to refugees in the camps. Now the leaders are evaluating how they can bring teams of Nazarene volunteers to support other nonprofits already working with the refugees in Greece.
 
NCM International has established a fund for supporting the Church of the Nazarene’s Refugee Response in Central Europe.
 
“We have budgets made for refugee response in Croatia and Serbia where we already have ministry happening,” Teanna said. “We know that we will encounter overwhelming needs this week in Macedonia and Greece. We believe that Albania may become a crisis point. If you want to give, this NCM link is dedicated completely to NCM-Central Europe Refugee Response. 100% of what you give goes directly to refugees in the Balkans and our response.”
 
 
-- Photos courtesy Joshua and Shannon Herndon.