SIM SA missionary Henry Jooste reflects on what he learned during his recent trip to a refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesvos, just off the coast of Turkey.
I have just spent two weeks on the island of Lesvos helping with refugee ministry in a camp. I want to start this newsletter by first thanking each one of you who played a part in helping me with this ministry. Those who helped by praying for me during this trip, thank you so much, those who gave finances, thank you so much. Those who sent messages of encouragement, thank you so much. This has been a remarkable experience and a great ministry opportunity. We will only see the consequences in eternity, but I was used by God in various ways during this time. I was also able to minister in an English International Church in Zurich and visit some refugee workers in Germany. In between, I was able to do a little bit of sightseeing, especially in Athens where I went hunting Paul’s footsteps on the Acropolis.
Before going I tried to prepare myself as best I could by reading and watching material as much as possible on the issue. These are my observations requiring further research. Besides doing some hands-on ministry I tried to spend as much time as possible observing and engaging people who have been involved for much longer than I have.
One of the first questions I am asked is how much evangelism and ministry I was able to do, and how did it go? While I understand the question there is some misunderstanding in this question based on our preconceived understanding of what ministry is. No, I did not get many opportunities to evangelise. Yes, I had many opportunities to show care and concern and actually help people in need and even at times to pray for them and with them.
The first thing we have to understand when we go into these types of situations is that there are legal constraints. More about this a bit later. But there are some very good reasons we need to carefully think about connecting our humanitarian aid to forcing people to listen to our message. I am against forceful conversion. Having served in Asia we soon learnt the term rice Christians. We need to guard against this.
My duties varied in the camp, from helping house people to setting up and repairing ‘tarps’, visiting tents to see if the people were ok, handing out washing powder, shavers, trying to determine what clothing needs they had and then finding, if possible what they need in the clothing container, helping with distributing tea at tea times, often having to accompany people from one point to another or being at a control point and only allowing certain people into some areas. At one point I was asked to make some shelves from old pallets for the information tent.
So let me give you a few stories to illustrate the type of ministry I got to participate in.
After a few days of my working at the information tent in the camp, one middle eastern young man, 21 years old had spent a lot of time at the information tent interacting with us and helping here and there with translations. During a quiet time one day, he was standing next to me and asked me why I had come to help. My simple answer was because I was a Christian. He then said he did not understand what that meant and could I explain what it means. Because he had asked me, I now had freedom to share with him. This was a wonderful time and opportunity. This same young man was able to leave the camp with others and attend a Bible study nearby in that week.
In one of the tents, I met some people from Eritrea. They were Christians and had fled due to persecution. Time and the circumstances we were in with other refugees present did not give them the freedom to share many details but they were prepared to share briefly. They were very open to us spending some time in prayer together. This was a great privilege for me to be able to meet with them and pray.
In another tent, I met a Nepali family who had lost everything during the earthquake a year ago. They left Nepal and travelled to Turkey and now found themselves in this camp on Lesvos. I asked them from where they flew. Their whole trip, over a year, was done by foot. If you look at a map of the world you will see they had crossed many countries, some of them at war. This is amazing tenacity and perseverance.
So the stories kept coming. Following my time on Lesvos, I did visit Germany very briefly to see how they deal with the refugees who arrive to stay. The central German government apparently gives every town a certain number of refugees to care for. The local town government receives funds per refugee and then has to feed the refugees and accommodate them. There are different levels that the refugees go through as they are processed to determine if they qualify for refugee status. We were not allowed to go into these centres where the refugees are housed because we were not accredited workers. However, we were told that many of these refugees are seeking the Lord and looking for churches to teach them. Many are putting their trust in Jesus Christ.
Ministry to refugees is a very complex and multi-faceted task to undertake. Here are some of the categories that need to be considered in order to gain better insight into the situation, each of which is intricate to varying degrees.
- Possibly the first issue to come to grips with, is the various issues that cause people to become refugees and or migrants in the first place. The people who become refugees or migrants face complex issues in their countries of origin. These can vary from political issues, social matters and tensions, financial crises as well as natural phenomena such as droughts or earthquakes. Historically, we know that the global movement of people has taken place for various reasons. Today, in our post-modern world of religious extremism and ideologies, the movement of people continues around the world. From the Middle East into Europe, there are various mixed motives.
- Politically, we can consider some examples such as the Syrians and Palestinians. War and genocide drive the innocent to flee. Initially, people are probably simply ‘internally’ displaced, but as war and violence escalate and resources for survival become more difficult to obtain, the internally displaced people more often than not become refugees and or migrants driven across borders as they flee and/or seek survival. There are other forms that may not be as dramatic yet also cause people to become refugees and migrants. If a political opposition member is targeted to eliminate opposition this could lead to refugees and migrants of an entirely different nature which we are currently seeing in 2016.
- Social matters. I have not had sufficient exposure to this aspect to be able to give concrete examples from personal experience. However, people do become refugees and migrants due to social pressures in their home countries. One example that I did come across during my trip was a man from a middle eastern country who had to flee because of social/cultural pressure. Due to the long-standing conflict between neighbouring families, he had to restore family honour by killing a member of the other family or be killed himself. He chose to become a refugee. How closely this would be tied to the following issue namely, financial, I am unsure. It is logical however that many of these issues are interconnected or even interdependent.
- The Financial reasons seem to be obvious. The cause, however, may not always be as obvious. War, whether the armed or social conflict with endless violence can cause disruption to economic activity and lead to deprivation.
- Many of the refugee camps are holding facilities, run by the UN and the Greek police. Asylum seekers and refugee are processed from these camps and will eventually be moved on, or move on by themselves. For most refugees, arriving here is a relief but a huge cultural shock.
- Careful consideration of the legal aspects of the host country and/or countries refugees may move to or pass through. What rights do the different categories of people have? Who has and takes what responsibility for the refugees? Should migrants, if you categorise them differently to refugees, share the same rights and protection? For instance, we were informed that to give a refugee a lift in a car could be seen to be participating in an illegal act of supporting and helping illegals in Greece and can lead to prosecution. The legal issues do not end there. Many refugee camps are jointly run by local law enforcement bodies as well as the UN which in turn would have very clear legal guidelines and requirements. Humanitarian aid, for instance, cannot be linked to any religious information being shared. This would be seriously frowned upon and deemed unacceptable.
- Helping refugees and migrants while they are en-route, with the variety of cultural backgrounds they carry with them. Cultural and national sensitivities can become problematic. While those in the west may not understand the cultural issues or appreciate and even agree with national sensitivities, they are however present. A simple case of housing in a refugee camp for example hereby becomes a major issue. Do you house Iranians with Iraqi people? Some tribes from within certain countries cannot tolerate each other, especially when they have a history of conflict from rural areas. The Kurds and Turks along the border of Turkey and Syria are a current example. We have not touched on religious differences, although some of the above-mentioned problems may have a religious undertone and be more or less prominent in the conflicts between the various tribes from within a country or people from neighbouring countries.
- Terminology used. What is meant by the different terms that are employed: What is a refugee? Who is a migrant? Where do ‘conscientious objectors’ fit into the picture?
- The Biblical and theological positions taken up whether Christians should or should not be involved.
- What type of involvement? Where does the local church fit into the scheme of things?
- The complications of offering humanitarian help linked to religious propagation?
- Are we to be driven by the humanitarian need in the first place? If so, does this mean that the group that gets their story told best by some international media person, gets the most help?
SOME DANGERS TO CONSIDER
Simple emotional reaction with no long term support can cause much psychological damage. Dealing with traumatised people, both children and adults needs to be approached with care and sensitivity. Our motivation for helping needs to be very clear and not simply a ‘knee jerk’ reaction or responding to a felt need of a humanitarian nature. The goals and objectives, both short and longer term need to be clear. Following through the process from the initial contact to the settlement and integration phase should also be considered. To what extent does one get involved with ‘illegal’ immigrants? This again is a different category of people in crisis. Those who have entered a country, not primarily as part of a mass movement or as a result of a specific crisis but simply looking for another better life and have entered illegally, also need to be processed accordingly.
Having considered all of these facets, we have not even begun to address the huge dilemma of people-smugglers, human trafficking, criminals, religious extremism etc.
Friends, the harvest is indeed riper than ever before! We need to combine Matt.9:35 and 36, our compassion for the lost needs too motivate our prayers, that they to will come to worship God and bring Him glory.
Henry & Sonia Jooste