Missions News & Stories

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Syrian Refugees Drown Trying to Reach Europe

November 12, 2015

After surviving a trip by sea from Turkey, a Syrian refugee boy enjoys food distributed in Greece.

Syrian and other refugees trying to reach Greece by sea are still pushing off from shore in record numbers, including more than 300 whose boat recently capsized in harsh seas off the island of Lesbos. At least 43 people lost their lives.

Desperate refugees have defied expectations that their numbers would dwindle as the changing seasons bring more tumultuous waters. An indigenous ministry in Greece serving Syrian arrivals from Turkey is helping to keep up with the needs of immigrants fleeing war and the Islamic State (ISIS). A ministry team recently went to the Greek island of Lesbos to help refugees who survived the treacherous trip from Turkish shores.

Arriving by boat from Athens, the team headed to northern Lesbos, where most refugees arrive, the ministry co-director said. It was 11 p.m. when they began the 90-minute drive to the shores of Skykamia. As they walked toward the beach, she said, they saw many freshly arrived refugees walking in the dark, as well as piles of discarded life jackets.

At a plateau leading to the beach, they saw some movement shining in the moonlight, said the co-director, whose name is withheld for security reasons.

"We thought it was trash," she said. "Getting closer, we realized it was not trash but 53 people, 10 of them children, who had just arrived from Turkey. Someone gave them thermal blankets. They were scared to death, as it was nearly 1 in the morning, and they were in a deserted area, not knowing where to go or what to do."

Drunk, angry villagers were shouting at them, while others were trying to persuade them to pay 25 Euros per person to take them to the port.

"A father was staying awake, trying to protect his wife and a few-months-old daughter," she said. "We calmed them down. We called the police, and they said they would come to pick them up the next morning. My husband [a ministry co-director] made sure the locals would go away and not return back."

Kinder locals were cooking food for the newly arrived, and the team spent the next day helping to bring refugees to a distribution site and serving the hungry.

"Certainly, the kids wanted to wait not even one minute," the co-director said.

The next day the team brought food to the port where hundreds of refugees had only the shadow of the ferries to protect them from the sun as they awaited registration. Just as the ministry provides aid and orientation at its base in Athens, team members came alongside the refugees as thousands boarded a ferry for the Greek capital and, upon arrival, walked to the subway to make their way to the city center. Listening to refugees' tragic stories, team members also found many just wanted to know where to catch a bus for Germany.

Though in exile and need, the survivors counted themselves fortunate. After the boat with more than 300 aboard sank on Oct. 28, authorities recovered the bodies of 20 children, 17 men and six women who drowned. It was the highest number of fatalities from a refugee boat in Greek waters since fighting began in Syria in 2011. Four days later (Nov. 1), six infants and five other refugees drowned after their boat sank off the island of Samos. The next day, four refugees died and another six went missing when their boat capsized off the island of Farmakonisi.

That weekend (Oct. 31-Nov. 1), Greece's coast guard reported rescuing more than 1,400 people in the Aegean Sea. The number of migrants and refugees entering Europe by sea in October was 218,394, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees – just shy of the total figure for all of last year, 219,000.

In Turkey, the country from which most refugees are setting out to sea, indigenous ministries are among organizations helping to keep the 2 million Syrian refugees there from risking the trip across Aegean waters. A ministry Christian Aid Mission assists in refugee camps near the south-central city of Adana recently provided 125 boxes of food and other relief items to 125 families.

"The aid you supplied provided very well for each family," the director of one indigenous ministry said. "Thank you so much for your help for these desperate people in the name of the Lord Jesus. When they received the boxes from us, they were so happy."

The need for clean drinking water continues to be critical. The ministry team provided 1,500 bottles of water, 12 bottles per family or 24 bottles for families of seven or more people, the leader said.

A Syrian mother arrives in Greece carrying her child and her only remaining possessions.

"God gave us opportunity to serve these people in this way, and we are preaching the gospel at the same time," he said.

Another ministry based in northern Turkey visited a 1,000-tent camp in the south. The indigenous director said the team visited tents one-by-one, discussing needs with the predominantly Muslim refugees and praying for them. Team members previously had given them New Testaments, and on this visit they left them with booklets in Arabic entitled, "Why Jesus?"

"Now we want to prepare the wood that the refugees will need in winter," the director said, adding that a single family needs 40 sacks of wood at a cost of $180 in total to survive the cold season. The wood is used for cooking, keeping warm, and heating water for bathing.

"In Turkey, they don't sell wood as a bundle, they sell it by sacks," he said. "We are planning to give each family 40 sacks, but we can't give it all at one time. We must provide the 40 sacks over two or three visits, because they can't keep 40 sacks in their tents."

At the Adana camp, refugees told ministry team members that they are concerned about their children's futures, especially as many have gone years without attending school. Such needs tempt parents to head for Europe, putting their children onto overcrowded boats ill-equipped to withstand Aegean waves, and the ministry team prayed with families about schooling.

"They have been unhappy and worried about their kids' future," the ministry leader said. "Every person we talked with, when we provided help, they always reminded us about their kid's education. They never wanted to be this way. They want this war finished, and they want to go back to their country."

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