I recently went to Slavonski Brod, Croatia, and then to Sid, Serbia, where our church is working at transit stations for refugees. My friend Jon, who works as a videographer, and I were there to gather stories of volunteers, staff and refugees. I work for the Nazarene denomination, with our Nazarene Compassionate Ministries staff. We have truly wonderful people across the Middle East and Europe who have been working with refugees for many years, and I feel proud to have joined that team of people in this work.
In Slavonski Brod, about 2,000 to 3,000 people were arriving on trains, registering with the Croatian Red Cross, receiving food and clothing and medical attention, and then re-boarding the train to head to Slovenia, then Austria, and on to Germany. While here, they also have access to private spaces for nursing mothers, prayer spaces, and counseling and psychosocial support, and they can also look at photos posted to find lost or disconnected family members.
Here, many refugees stopped me to say that this is the best camp they have experienced. It felt good to be even the smallest part of that, and I felt proud of the staff and volunteers who are placed here to serve through the Nazarene response team. They are doing the work of the Kingdom among those searching for something, and someone, good.
The Long Boat Ride
Almost every single one of the tens of thousands of refugees who have come through the stations where we were has made the treacherous boat trip from Turkey to Greece and then made their way north to Croatia or Serbia. We met a man who wanted to share his story.
“Look, look!” he said, holding up his phone to show us a video. The footage showed part of his six-mile boat ride from Turkey to Greece.
“I was the captain,” he said proudly.
On the video, we could see more than 30 people wearing orange life vests, all crammed onto a small rubber boat designed for about half as many people. Smugglers charge about $1,000 U.S. per person, so it’s in their interest to push the boat beyond a safe capacity, even if it’s not in the interest of the passengers. Hundreds of thousands of refugees have taken similar rides, but not all make it. Thousands of refugees, many of them children, have drowned trying to get to safety.
Resilience, Gratitude, and Hope
The work at the transit stations is hard. The volunteers are in shifts around the clock, meeting trains at sometimes unexpected times, waiting for refugees to flow off the trains and through the camps. They welcome the refugees, hand them new shoes if people need them, pass out clothing, ensure any medical needs are met, direct them to food packages, and provide information on what comes next on their journey.
They also blow bubbles for the kids, hand out trays of tea for cold and weary travelers, and embrace the broken in a way that expresses admiration for their courage rather than pity for their situation. I marvel at our staff’s strength and poise, but I’m left in wonder at the demeanor of the refugees.
At one point, a mother, father, grandmother, a young girl, and a younger boy came through the area where the Nazarene response team was working. The little girl, who is 7 years old, was the only family member who speaks English. “My grandma needs a coat,” she said. “My brother really, really needs shoes. Please!” After fulfilling her requests, the team noticed that the little girl’s shoes were in pieces. They looked for shoes in her size but couldn’t find any. “That’s OK,” she said while local police were pushing for her family and others to leave. One of the team members ran quickly to a storage tent, found shoes that fit her, and got them to her right as the girl was boarding the train. She seemed grateful, but the fact that she was concerned only about her family members did not escape us.
What I saw in every person I met was resilience, gratitude, and hope. I am almost certain I could not express this same strength and dignity under the same circumstances, and it humbles me to my core.
Holding Onto Hope
I have for some time made the argument that hope is only hope when it is really difficult. Sometimes we say “we hope… ,” and I think what we really mean is, “It would be nice if… .” I hope you have a good day. I hope your interview goes well. I hope you find your phone. That’s not hope, though — it’s just a kind gesture. Hope is hope when it seems impossible, when it takes a bit of faith to believe it’s possible. I hope the cancer doesn’t take me. I hope you forgive me. I hope they find your son.
I hope we make it out of Syria. I hope we make it to Germany. I hope we don’t drown in the sea.
In Sid, Serbia, I met Hassan (not his real name), an 18-year-old refugee from Northern Iraq. From the moment he approached us until after we finished talking with him, he trembled. At first I thought he was nervous but soon realized he was traumatized.
Hassan’s family is part of a religious minority being targeted and killed by militant extremists in Iraq. His family pooled all their money to send him ahead to Europe in hope that they will be able to join him after he establishes a new, safer life. At 18, he bears the responsibility for his family’s future. If he cannot succeed, his family will very likely die.
We asked where he was going. “Germany,” he said. But he did not know which town or what he would do when he got there.
We asked if he knew when he would see his family again. “No,” he answered.
Hope is almost all that Hassan has to hold onto.
Love With Substance
I’m beginning to think that, like hope, all virtues are true virtues only when they are really difficult. Hospitality is only truly hospitality when it’s inconvenient. Courage is only courage when there is real fear involved. And love is truly love when it’s hard.
The love I am seeing in the camps has substance to it. It is hard for refugees to walk off a train, dragging the only things they own, and move through a camp where precious few in charge speak their language. It is hard for volunteers and staff to work hour after hour, communicating as much as possible to ensure needs are met. It is hard to meet with families missing brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, and children. It is hard to walk alongside a sick mother holding a sick child. It is hard to watch a child take responsibility for her extended family because she speaks the best English.
And yet, from refugee to worker, and worker to refugee, there is love present. A hard love, a jagged love, one that shows its wear. It’s why the embraces are so powerful and the tears so heavy. The chests heave with emotion, and the arms hold tighter than you would expect from a stranger.
Hospitality. Courage. Love.
They’ve been hard fought for here. And I’m understanding them better because of it.
-- Brandon Sipes works with Nazarene Compassionate Ministries, Inc. One of his roles is helping to coordinate the church’s response to the refugee crisis. This story was reprinted from NCM's blog with permission. Photos courtesy Jon Morton. To read more updates, visit blog.ncm.org.