Herculean Efforts Mounted for Refugees in Greece
March 10, 2016
An indigenous ministry in Greece distributes food and clothes to refugees.
While the European Union reached an agreement with Turkey this week to stem the tide of Syrian and other refugees to Greece and other EU countries, refugees continued to pour onto the Greek islands – or die trying.
At least 25 refugees perished when their Greece-bound dinghy sank in rough seas off the coast of Turkey on Sunday (March 6), while indigenous ministry workers in Athens reported thousands of refugees spilling into the Port of Piraeus and five other "hot spots." Refugees set up makeshift colonies in the coastal town of Thessaloniki and inland in Eidomeni, on the border with Macedonia, where aid organizations feared a humanitarian disaster loomed.
"After finishing our church service, we got two volunteers to visit and explore what happens at the Piraeus port," the co-director of the ministry said. "All the blanket supplies we had with us disappeared in one minute. The volunteers looked at my husband and me and said, 'We need thousands.'"
The refugees arrived exhausted at the Port of Piraeus.
"Entering the big reception venue of the port, which now was serving as a big bed for hundreds of refugees, the smell was bad," the co-director said, adding that she caught sight of a woman who appeared to be hyperventilating. "You could see she was just about to have a nervous breakdown. I asked her if she was okay. Immediately she started to cry. She was so scared."
She learned that the woman had come from Iraq with her husband and 2-year-old son.
"I kept her in my arms till she relaxed," the co-director said. "She is only one; there are thousands around."
Ministry team members help provide food, clothing and blankets to such new arrivals, and they distribute groceries weekly to more than 100 families. More than 126,000 refugees have entered Greece this year, and last year more than 500,000 arrived on the island of Lesbos alone, according to the BBC. Thousands are trekking to the border town of Eidomeni to try to get to Macedonia, which was allowing entry to only 250 refugees per day and has turned away more than 6,000. More are expected to be stranded in Greece or Turkey as several European nations recently announced caps on the numbers they will take.
"Greece was not prepared for this, so some sleep at stadiums, at squares, at beaches, at fields next to the highways, everywhere," the co-director said. "Some Greeks are getting angry and feel in despair, while some others come out and from their houses offering water and food to the refugees passing by. The elderly ones remember when they came as refugees to Greece, and tears fill their eyes."
In 2015 more than 1 million refugees braved the Mediterranean Sea seeking asylum in Europe, most of them fleeing war and Islamic terrorist groups in Syria, and most going first to Turkey before heading for Greece. The United Nations reported 3,771 of those who tried crossing by sea last year were dead or missing.
After talks with Greece's prime minister, European Council President Donald Tusk last week warned economic migrants who are not political or religious asylum refugees to stay in their countries.
"Do not come to Europe," he said. "Do not believe the smugglers. Do not risk your lives and your money. It is all for nothing. Greece, or any other European country, will no longer be a transit country."
In a bid to halt the influx to Greece and stop more refugees from drowning, on Tuesday (March 8), Tusk said EU and Turkish leaders had reached an agreement calling for Turkey to resettle Syrian refugees directly to European countries. Under the agreement, Turkey would receive from the EU an additional $3.3 billion to help keep refugees from trying to cross the Aegean waters.
Turkey reportedly would also readmit refugees from Greece, and in exchange the EU would grant Turkish citizens the right to travel to EU countries without a visa by the end of June 2016. Turkey, which is already accommodating 2.75 million refugees, is seeking membership in the EU.
The ministry co-director said all the refugees they serve ask for clothes.
"We are thankful that God knows before us what we would need, as the last months and days we had received some huge quantities from clothing," she said. "We asked the one who tries to coordinate distribution what else the refugees needed. 'Breakfast,' was the answer."
The ministry team volunteers are able to communicate with the Syrian, Iraqi and Kurdish refugees in their own languages, which is so meaningful to them, she said. One volunteer, who will go by the pseudonym of Hassan for security purposes, was a chef in Syria who lost his wife and two children in an air strike at Yarmouk Camp, in Damascus, two and a half years ago. In his first visits to the ministry, initially he sat in a corner and avoided interaction.
Children stuck at a refugee camp in Turkey are deeply affected by leaving home.
After two months, he asked to speak to the male co-director.
"I have never seen something like this in my life," he told him. "I do not understand how you can love and work all together. I must know more about Jesus."
They prayed with him to put his trust in Christ Jesus that day, and since then the team has witnessed a dramatic brightening in his demeanor and sociability.
"During our discipleship meeting, when we discussed about forgiveness, some were complaining about the hardships of their life," the female co-director said. "He picked up a plastic coffee cup, and he said, 'I picked up the pieces of my children's bodies in a cup like this! And look how I am now!'"
Another refugee, who will go by the name of Saddam for security reasons, appeared to have been a man of authority and wealth in Syria. He said he found out about the ministry because everyone at the hotel where he was staying was talking about it. When he first arrived, he asked a ministry worker if he was a Christian or a Muslim. Guardedly, the worker asked him why he wanted to know. As tears streamed from his eyes, Saddam said, "I need someone to talk with me about Jesus."
The workers summoned the co-directors, and Saddam told them, "All the Muslim countries have turned their back to us. All the Muslim nations have ripped us from our treasures. They taught us not to trust the Christians, and that they are liars. I come to Greece and I find myself in the best place with the best food for me and my children. I find love that I have never seen. Please teach me."
He wept as they led him to Jesus as Lord and Savior, then he said, "Now, you have to teach my children. These are the future. They have to be Christians. Our time is short. Please teach them."
The co-directors reported, "Yesterday, our friends from the Sunday school prayed for two of his children. He was smiling so much despite the pain in his heart."
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