Plight of Syrian Refugees Extends into Greece

October 10, 2013

Greece has become a gateway to Europe for the more than 20,000 Syrian refugees who have entered its borders during the past three years.

It´s 11 p.m. on a Tuesday night and Elias´ phone is ringing off the hook.

“Hi, is this Elias? I´m sorry to call you so late, but someone gave me your number if we needed help.”

There is a pause before the man launches into his request. “We arrived in Greece a week ago. My wife is pregnant and her due date was yesterday. Where can I take her?”

Elias calls a friend and makes arrangements for someone to pick up the couple and drive them to a doctor´s office the next day so the woman can be examined.

He barely has time to hang up the phone when it sounds off again.

“Hi, are you Elias? I just came from Holland. My brother was smuggled into Greece. Their boat sank with 30 people on board. Sixteen were picked up alive. Two were lost in the sea. Twelve are dead and we think their bodies are still being held on the island of Kos, waiting to be identified. Can you help us get there?”

Elias reassures the grief-stricken man he will do what he can. He makes a call to a Syrian friend—an Orthodox priest now living in Greece. The priest has spent the past several months trying to make life at least a little more bearable for the refugees who cross his path.

So has Elias. Since the start of the Syrian war over two years ago, he and his wife Voula have devoted their spare time to assist the refugees in Greece. Elias has taught Bible classes and helped with serving hot meals. Seeing their immense need propelled him to deepen his involvement.

Moved by compassion, he gave up his job as an electrician this spring to go into full-time ministry with the refugees. It´s a decision he has not regretted.

“More and more Syrians were asking for practical help and directions with their decisions,” he said. “So we had the first good fruit as some got converted, some came to church, and some were baptized. Others got help to find legal aid or a job.”

“This implanted in me the question if the time had come for me to give more of my time to the Lord. When we took this step of faith and started to invest more time coordinating with agencies and meeting people, the response grew immediately,” he said.

Ministry workers deliver mattresses to a needy family.

In the last two months alone they have provided assistance to over 200 people.

But Elias does not desire attention or accolades. In fact, he will be the first person to tell you how working with Syrian refugees and tackling their myriad of problems has become both a heartache and a headache.

Attending to their needs has become an all-consuming, unending task. He can´t erase their horrific war experiences. Nor can he bring their loved ones back to life. Sometimes all he can do is hear their stories and pray with them.

Gateway to Europe

While most war-weary Syrians have sought sanctuary elsewhere in the Middle East, tens of thousands envision Europe as their promised land. Entering through Turkey, they cross the Evros River or traverse the Aegean Sea into Greece with hopes of migrating northward into places like Germany or Scandinavia.

These are typically middle class families who can afford to pay smugglers to help them cross illegally onto Grecian soil. The fees reportedly range from a few thousand to upwards of $10,000.

Traveling aboard overloaded dinghies in the middle of the night, refugees experience a harrowing and sometimes deadly sea voyage. Hundreds have drowned when their vessels capsized. The situation is equally perilous for those who cross the Evros in inflatable boats.

Those who safely navigate the waters may receive a rude reception as they near the shore. Although the allegations have been denied, human rights groups report instances of the Greek Coast Guard forcibly turning boats back into the sea toward Turkey.

More than 150 refugees gather for a monthly fellowship.

Sadly, life does not get any easier for the refugees who do manage to enter the country. Without legal documentation, they are detained by police and placed in woefully overcrowded detention camps. Most are released after a few months. Less than three percent ever obtain asylum status.

Most disconcerting are the rise in attacks on Syrian refugees and other illegal immigrants—253 such incidents in 2012, according to the Greek Ombudsman´s office, an independent watchdog group. Officials attribute the violence to supporters of the anti-immigration, neo-Nazi political party known as Golden Dawn.

But resentment of the Syrian presence extends into mainstream Greek society, too. Hard-pressed by their country´s collapsed economy, the last thing Grecians want are foreigners to compete with them for jobs and social services. Beleaguered refugees, left to fend for themselves, face an uphill battle to seek the assistance they so desperately need.

That´s where Elias´ ministry can fill the void.

Building Bridges

Elias´ vision is to serve as a bridge, connecting refugees with agencies who can provide them with a place to live, schooling, medication, food, legal aid, emotional counseling, and other essentials.

“They need someone to be a bridge to lead them to Jesus, a bridge to the church, a bridge to the hospital, a bridge to the police station, to the lawyers, to counseling, a bridge to the restoration of their lives,” said Elias. “They need someplace to go where they can pour out their worries and their fears, their anger and their hopes.”

In one instance they were able to help a 15-year-old boy who had been referred to their ministry. With no family, the Syrian teenager needed emotional and financial support as he tried to figure out how to start life anew in a country where he knew no one and couldn´t even speak the language.

The ministry found living accommodations for the youth and provided food and other necessities for him. He is taking lessons to learn Greek and attends Elias´ church.

Sharing the gospel with the refugees is a major priority. Time is limited, however, as many come to Greece for a mere stopover until they can find more permanent arrangements elsewhere in Europe. Most of the individuals Elias assists stay for a month or less.

Even during these brief snatches of time, the Word of God is penetrating hearts and transforming lives. Some walk away with a new view of Christianity; others receive Jesus as Savior and are eager to delve deeper into the Scriptures. Wherever the refugees end up settling, those who choose to follow Christ carry a new sense of hope and peace with them.

Two men, both Muslim, recently prayed to accept Christ and were baptized. One has already left Greece, headed to a destination in a Scandinavian country. The other man also plans to relocate to northern Europe.

What the ministry sees most often, however, are women with children. Some are pregnant or clasping infants in their arms. Usually they travel with extended family, and there may be a half dozen or more youngsters in the group.

Voula helps prepare hot meals for guests.

Because they are immigrants, refugees live in fear of harassment by neo-Nazi gangs but they also do not trust the police. Some are afraid to venture outside their homes.

In those cases workers with Elias´ ministry go to them, delivering a bag of groceries or personally accompanying them to social service agencies.

“It is very important to be respectful in the way we offer assistance to them. They have lost everything, but they do hang onto their dignity,” explained Elias. “Despite the fact that there are some public agencies or NGO´s that offer services, the Syrians have no use for them or stay isolated because of a lack of knowledge or fear. So as soon as they have a phone number of a person they trust, they think this number will have the answer to everything.”

The ministry is seeking support to meet a variety of practical needs for Syrian refugees in Greece. In addition to providing food staples, shelter, and medical treatment, gospel workers arrange transportation for doctor visits and legal and business matters. There are plans to host fellowship meals once or twice a month. They also would like to purchase more Bibles and discipleship materials for refugee families.

Missionary support is needed as well, as Elias is considering taking on some electrician work in order to provide for his family. He also asks for prayer for more interpreters, particularly women, who can speak Arabic.

Truly the Grecian fields are ripe for spiritual harvest, and souls are hanging in the balance.

“As the war in Syria keeps going, and even if it stops today, we know that still thousands of Syrians will leave their country and move to Europe,” Elias said. “We want to reach as many of them as we can, helping them through the trauma, providing practical ways to restoration, making their transition from the war to their new lives as safe as it can be, and offering ourselves as bridges to faith, church, and agencies that can satisfy part of their needs. Our vision is to leave them with such a mark of love, relationship, and help that they will trust their lives to Jesus forever.”

Needs for the ministry include: