Day in the life of working with refugees

Guest post by: Brynna L.

Waking up in Greece is a wonderful experience. But waking up to the knowledge that your goal today is to bless people who are overlooked by the world and are overwhelmingly grateful for every kindness is an entirely different kind of wonderful.

I woke up at eight o’clock, per usual, to have time to myself and to prepare spiritually for the day. As my fellow volunteers migrated from bedrooms toward the main part of the house, I enjoyed our heartfelt greetings and offers of shared breakfasts. I reflected on my surprise that, by the beginning of week two in a house with 12 other women, this introvert was nowhere near the overwhelmed breakdown she had anticipated when she arrived to find such a small house filled with so many volunteers. In normal circumstances, I could never have handled it, but these were not normal circumstances! These were not sorority sisters or college roommates. These were skilled women with hearts of gold who traveled across the world in response to cries of help from a struggling people. Their love and desire to serve was not about to be broken by clashing personalities or petty quarrels. This was a volunteer role requiring selflessness and emotional support all around.

As eleven people got into two five-seaters (and this is a European’s idea of a five-seater, not the American five-with-room-for-ten-seater) we had the last volunteer in pile the supplies on top of the ones already seated (who needs rear view windows anyway, right?). We knew the drill, and most of these women had spent the last hour hauling the daily supplies up from the store room to make sure babies would have diapers and moms would have some nutritious food. Then we were ready for our day!

Though our house was always full of laughter and shared meals in the mornings and nights, car rides to and from the camp were usually quiet. Not from awkwardness, but from the need to prepare ourselves for or to talk ourselves through the day we had just had. Each car went to a different camp and each camp had its own personality. Today I would go to a smaller camp, and also my favorite. Though less supplied, dirtier, and with only one other NGO permanently in place besides ourselves, this camp had captured my heart. The refugees who had been placed in this camp were Kurdish and, as a people group who have been oppressed and discriminated against for generations, there was less formal education and fewer English speaking refugees.

We drove through the gate and walked to the Greek military guard house to show our passports and with which NGO we were affiliated. Our day would be from 10-4, and our team divided into two tents. One tent was for our infant feeding specialists, consisting of midwives and lactation consultants, and in the other tent was our baby Hamam (bath house) volunteers. Here we kept a constant kettle of hot water going to provide baby baths so mothers could have a time of bonding and a clean environment to bathe their little ones.

Our NGO goal was to care for mothers and children under two years old, to provide education, lactation support, diapers, ready-to-feed formula if needed, and some weekly food packs for moms. It was our way to care for these people and show them that they were not completely abandoned.

When we got to our tent, we would assess the tent’s most recent child-inflicted damage and clean up any knocked over drawers or supplies. Though we locked up the tent every evening, one can do a lot of damage by kicking the outside or climbing to the top of the tent. We swept and organized, while early-bird mothers occasionally came for diapers. We never wore shoes in the tent and had a mat at the door, but we still couldn’t keep the floors very clean. Fortunately, however, it had not rained last night, so we were spared the hour-long ordeal of mopping and moving equipment around. We unloaded the supplies from the car, and I hid the food under a sheet as I carried it into the tent. A coworker explained to me when I first arrived that even the best of people find it hard to watch food being given to a mother just because she has an infant when their own 3-year-old is hungry. No one blames the grumbling and discontent of parents who are worried for their children, but we didn’t have the resources to give food to everyone, and our NGO was for mothers of 2-year-olds and under. To avoid causing trouble, we were discreet.

Next, we filled our eight water jugs for the Hamam, five gallons each, and carried them back to the tent (sore shoulder much?). As I rested from this I looked around at the camp full of people whom I was coming to know and love. Each family with their joys and sorrows, with their qualities and their flaws, with love and pains just like me. They are all waiting to be accepted into a country that will welcome them as people in need, not as an inconvenience.

The first impression I got of this camp is hopelessness. Tents lined up in rows inside a warehouse labeled with a letter for each row and a number in the row. Each family, usually of 5-7 people with the possessions they were able to carry in their flight from Syria, were living in tents less than a foot apart. The air of purposelessness and hopelessness is stifling. One wants to give them an occupation, but refugee status doesn’t allow them to make any attempt to earn money.

The women, looking tired and sad, clean their tents, cook food, and wash clothes all day, sometimes with the help of husbands and young daughters. Day to day, I saw the transition from two mindsets; one of hope, that surely after seven months of the torment of life in the tents, it won’t be much longer! But another of tired hopelessness: working all day with no chance for improvement, watching children without education disobey and fight, and self-conscious shame at their lack of control in this hectic environment. These women are tired and insecure, but they have a purpose and are kept busy. I surprised myself by finding I had an almost greater pity for the men.

I watched from morning to night while fathers and young men walked aimlessly around the camp, looking dejected and weak. They are stripped of the ability to protect and provide for their families. With no control over the future, they are unable to earn money and are culturally awkward with housework. I couldn’t imagine the lack of purpose they were suffering under. Young men with no way to learn a trade or prepare for a wife and children milled around. They behaved like children, unable to become anything more, in this stifled and stagnant life. The future is completely blank to them as they rely solely on the political decisions of foreign countries who seem to only dislike and fear them.

The children had school some days, provided by an NGO, which lasted for an hour a day. When not engaged in this activity, there was a general crowd of children, ages 3-10, who ran around the camp without regard for adults or infants, playing in whatever fashion they chose. As we have all seen in children play can often be more fun if it is destructive, so our NGO tent was often under attack. Fights between the children, who continually felt the stress of their parents, were constantly breaking out and some were so in need of attention and affection that they would cling to us and cry when we had to let them go. This cycle of people in pain creating more pained people was very difficult to bear each day. It was hard work as a volunteer to maintain a joyful and encouraging demeanor when I was completely unable to give them what they truly needed, a place of safety from war, where they could create a home.

This cycle of people in pain creating more pained people was very difficult to bear each day. It was hard work as a volunteer to maintain a joyful and encouraging demeanor when I was completely unable to give them what they truly needed, a place of safety from war, where they could create a home.

In the children, however, were also some of the first glimpses of hope. In the children who carried the full responsibility of their younger siblingss, I saw the tending and protection of the natural human capacity for love. They showed me their ability to forget all the pain in little moments of joy and small pleasures. Children showed their desire to help, to learn, to be loved and their unfailing desire and ability to love other people. This was how I saw the joys and sorrows of the camp.

Mothers came to us for a moment of rest, a cup of tea, to get supplies and, on a good day, a piece of clothing for their children. Fathers would sometimes come too, proudly carrying their little ones and yet humble to receive our help. Children were always around u,s being their complicated selves, one moment tearing holes in our tent then, when caught and scolded, hugging my neck as though they would never let me go.

I spent my days at our small Hamam tent, and the beauty I saw there nearly made me forget the pain outside. A baby who doesn’t know anything of life can sometimes draw us out of our own weary cares and remind us that joy, in its simplest form, will always be available to us. Mothers seemed to be really at peace for a moment when they were able to step away from their troubles and just care for their little ones. Sometimes, if we weren’t busy, they would just step into the feeding tent and breastfeed for a while and have a quiet respite. In these moments every pain and discomfort was made beautiful for me. Knowing that just showing up, cleaning, unpacking, filling jugs, and the constant up and down of cleaning baby tubs and refilling water was not just busy work. They were the building blocks that created this moment of tranquility and a mother’s ability to have time with her baby.

I never spoke with any of these moms, the children knew more English, but to say “Hello” and “How are you?” There was something so much deeper than words to every encounter. These mothers had so much gratitude and gave it so freely. We were always being given food and coffee and invited to their tents for lunch. Though my first impulse was always to refuse, knowing that food for them was scarce, I soon came to see that the joy of giving cannot be only one sided. Everyone needs to help others and feel the gratitude of those they helped! I can only hope they felt our gratitude as much as we basked in theirs.

After a long day, I was always tired. The car ride home was quiet as we each processed our many emotions,  and thought about the men, women, and children who had welcomed us into their homes and lives in their most vulnerable time. I was always ready to go back. Every day was a new, beautiful adventure and every day I further realized a beauty in humanity that I would never have been able to see in my routine, comfortable life at home.

God did not call Christians to a life of protecting ourselves or our prosperity. Though I don’t feel called politically to change policies or to write petitions, I can still serve God in the way he has called me. As a normal Christian living my normal life, how can I use the knowledge of people suffering around the world to serve and glorify God? By giving of my time and money to bless and share the gospel with people in my life and community. There may be Syrian families resettled in your town, or there may be people living in a cycle of poverty or abuse. We will always be surrounded by people in need and we are ALL (no matter how ineffective we may feel) uniquely gifted to serve people and honor God. As Christ washed the feet of his disciples so should we be living!

What will you change? Who will you serve? What new joy is God calling you into? Be prayerful, my brothers and sisters! Life becomes so much deeper and people so much more valuable when we meet them in this way, not for what they can do for us, but for what we can do for them.

Note: There are currently 57,000 refugees waiting in Greece for their asylum papers to be processed, over half are women and children. Because they registered in Greece, not any other country, they must stay until their claims have been processed, which can take over a year. Until then, they live in camps as described in this blog post.

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Categories: Lost in Translation, Spiritual Life | Tags: , , , , | 4 Comments

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4 thoughts on “Day in the life of working with refugees

  1. Thanks for hosting this article, Adrianne! I’m encouraged by Brynna’s stories of love and pain, hope and humanity. These kinds of first-hand accounts are so important for us to hear, to make these distant stories real.

  2. I’m glad she shared this with me and allowed me to share it with others! I learned a lot, too, especially Bryann’s point about letting the families share their food with her–it helps them maintain their agency/dignity/equality. What a good leasson to learn.

  3. Tanya Karasek

    Adrianne, so glad you shared this post. So much to learn and very heartfelt. It is a call to prayer and to action. Her thoughts and insight and compassion are so moving. I have read it several times. Thank you.

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