Q&A: Missionary talks visit to Greek refugee camp

Gina Grate Pottenger
Wednesday, March 23, 2016
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The first week of March, Joshua and Shannon Herndon, missionaries to Spain, visited Greece, where they will be relocating to start the Church of the Nazarene this summer (read more). They met with evangelical leaders who are already at work there, and have offered to help the family make connections and get to know potential partners.
 
They met with Michael Long, a Free Methodist Missionary. He has been visiting refugee camps in different areas of Greece to help assess the needs. On March 4, he took the Herndons, as well as Bruce McKellips, who leads the Western Mediterranean Field, which includes Greece, to the Idomeni refugee camp on the Greek side of the border with Macedonia.
 
Shannon shared what she saw and heard at Idomeni, and how it might affect their plans for future ministry there. (Read more about how the denomination is responding to the refugee situation throughout the Eurasia Region.)
 
What did you experience when you visited the Idomeni refugee camp?
 
ImageWe went not knowing what we were going to see or do. When we got there, it was amazing: You see it on the news, the thousands of people that are there. Just the week before, [Michael Long] had been to that same camp and there had been a few hundred. So he was blown away that there were thousands of people.
 
Before we went, we had bought some food, and brought clothes that Michael gathered. We distributed clothes, fresh fruit, cookies. We just went around and talked with people, saw the different nonprofit organizations, such as Doctors Without Borders. In Greece, the government has basically decided they want to be hands off. They don’t have resources to deal with the influx of people. So the real help that is happening within the refugee community comes from Christian organizations, not-for-profits, individuals that come. It’s not government driven.
 
There were 3-hour-long lines for food. Hundreds of people in line. It was a rainy day, the kids – you just see the need for shoes. I saw children barefooted, running around in the mud. Multiple children just have one shoe on; that’s the only shoe they own, maybe they’re sharing the other shoe with a sibling or lost it along the way. 
 
How did what you saw in Greece square with the news this week in which four countries north of Greece closed their borders to refugees?
 
Everybody is stuck there now. There’s this huge backup. In Greece they are building hot spots [retention centers where refugees will live until they’re processed and allowed to continue on or sent to Turkey] that are going to hold up to 50,000 people. You are talking entire cities of refugees. They expect them to be full. On average, 3,000 people arrive per day to Greece and they don’t have the infrastructure to deal with that number of people since all the borders are closed.
 
We met with Syrians; we came across multiple Iraqis, Afghanis. The Afghanis had documents to cross borders legally, but they’re not allowing Afghanis whether they have documents or not. That is what the border police are telling us. If they’re not letting anybody in, they’re just not letting anybody in.
 
There were young men 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.
 
There were many, many children. That’s heartbreaking to see. The majority you see were sick, whether it was cold or coughs, because they’re in the cold and the wet. 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.
 
ImageThere are little bright spots, though. You see the joy on the kids’ faces. The parents are stressed and exhausted, but kids are kids no matter where you’re at.  They were making balls out of anything they had to play with. Groups of kids came up calling Josh ‘Spikey,’ because Josh’s hair – it’s spikey on top.
 
Some of [the people] came up and took pictures with us with their cameras, documenting their own journey for themselves. We weren’t the only ones who were wanting to see and document things.
 
What kind of stories or comments did you hear from the people?
 
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 then how to get from the island you landed on to mainland Greece. That’s another ferry; another expense; another journey. A lot of them get stuck on the island for months before they have the finances and ability to move on to mainland Greece.
 
Once they land they have to get from Athens in the south and make their way somehow, whether it’s cars, trucks, buses or walking. It’s a five-hour drive from Athens to Thessaloniki. I don’t know what a bus trip would be. They make their journey to the north and now the borders are closed at Macedonia. There’s a fence with razor wire at the Macedonia and Greece border that wasn’t there before. Mike, who has been going the past few months, he said it’s new.
 
What does all this mean for the Greek people?
 
ImageYou can see on the other side of the fence there’s a small village there in Macedonia. What must those people have been experiencing to suddenly have a fence and wire? They could have walked across the fields to Greece; nobody cared. There was no control. Maybe those villagers are related to or have friends across the border. You think about the Greeks and Macedonians and how their lives have changed in kind of an instant. That was kind of an interesting thought as well: It’s not just the refugees whose lives are being changed and altered. It’s the Greeks and Macedonians as well. Their lives are being changed.
 
One of the pastors from Australia is a psychologist, his name is Harry. Harry was saying he was meeting with a social worker, a Greek woman, and her job works with the refugees because they’re in such psychological stress. She’s providing counseling services through the government, which is providing medical services. She said she finds herself in conflict, because she’s providing these services to refugees when she says her own people are in such need. She feels conflicted that she should be helping her own people rather than people that are passing through.
 
There’s a struggle for the Greek people to know what to do in this situation. They are in desperate need for food and electricity and clothing, and now we have these thousands of people coming through and they also need all these things and how do we provide that? The Greek people just don’t have that.
 
You’re moving to Greece this summer. When you developed the plan for launching Nazarene ministry in Greece, the refugee situation wasn’t even happening in Greece. Does this new reality alter what you’re planning to go there and do?
 
We’re still really actively praying about what our part will be. In going, we have to do language study since we’re brand new and there’s no Nazarene presence in Greece. It’s not the same as coming to a country that has a need where the church is already established.
 
That being said, there’s obviously a need and Nazarene Compassionate Ministries (NCM) is obviously involved in the refugee situation; all the work [NCM has] been doing is north of the Macedonia and Greece border. We would be capable of facilitating work on the Greek side. We have been talking about facilitating Work & Witness teams wanting to come and help with the refugee crisis and partnering with people already there. It may not be our focus, but we see ourselves playing a part in partnering with people who are already there and being active. There are good organizations already in place and they definitely need support and supplies and anything that could be provided. We might be at this point better served in partnering rather than creating something new.
 
Once you get eyes on the situation and you see the magnitude of the situation you can’t step back and say, “I’m not interested.” We really feel like our call in pioneering the work in Greece – in partnering with Greek people – our hope is with reaching out and partnering with other ministries, we will come across Greeks who are interested in volunteering to help or possibly are in real need.
 
In coming across all these refugees in need, you come across nationals in need. Maybe we would be able to reach out to the communities around refugee camps as well – to minister to the Greek people while also reaching out to the refugee community.
 
In Greece the evangelical church is very small. This will be positive to partner with others. If we want to be a long-term presence, we need to build strong relationships with the people that are already there. That would be another really positive outcome of working with refugees. With the partnerships and relationships we can build with the evangelical community a foundation for ministry in Greece.