It was a Sunday afternoon when we drove up a dusty road to an old military base surrounded by high woven metal fences and barbed wire. Athena, a confident seasoned volunteer, and I, a less confident newbie, grabbed our backpacks and badges, hopped out of the van and walked toward the guard shack. We were at Camp Moria, one of the two main refugee camps on Lesvos island in Greece.
I’ve been unexplainably glued to the plight of the refugees for years now, and so news reports flooded back into memory. Hundreds of thousands of people fleeing for their lives had been smuggled to this island from Turkey since the beginning of the refugee crisis in 2015. I had cried at my desk and felt so, so helpless as many of them – too many – were dying as they crossed the icy waters in overloaded boats. I had prayed so many prayers for their safety, that they would find a home for their families and most of all for their hearts. I believe with all my heart that God leans toward the vulnerable, but this seemed like too much suffering, and I found myself wondering if He really cared for them.
The guard took our badges, checked our clearance and nodded as he handed them back. I followed Athena all eyes and ears, my heart in my throat. We hurriedly walked down the one-way road leading in and out of camp, lined by high concrete walls and topped by more rolled barbed wire.
We walked by a gate marked “New Arrivals”. I craned my neck to see inside, then was distracted by a handful of tall, dark, mid-twenties, Middle Eastern men wandering mindlessly down the road toward us, holding their smart phones, laughing and chatting in Arabic. I looked at them, subconsciously trying to read their individual stories until they caught my eye and then I quickly looked away, embarrassed that I had made eye contact.
“We’re running late, let’s take the short cut.” Athena interrupted my thoughts, took a sharp right and ducked into a tarp covered section. Underneath the tarp were more tarps and underneath those tarps were mazes of tents. We wound between them, hearing friendly exchanges and dirty water being thrown out of the makeshift tent homes.
We entered a modest aluminum structure that served as grand central. I later learned that this is where the refugees come for everything from a shovel to clothes to tea. I would also listen in as the water cooler talk fluctuated from the latest movies to what it’s like to live through a war when blood is running down the streets.
Tonight, we were briefed on the events of the day, then assigned our duties for the next 8 hours. “Since we’re short on volunteers tonight, most of you will be alone on a gate. Feel free to radio me if you are in an uncomfortable situation. Good?” I nodded, having no idea what “alone on a gate” meant and hoping that was the right response. The shift leader turned to the group, “Don’t forget to sign in on the white board and grab a reflective vest. If this is your first shift, we’ll take a tour right after this…Ok, I think that’s it… Who wants to pray us out?”
A few minutes later, I followed the shift leaders around Camp Moria. It was all as heartbreaking as I imagined. So many listless men standing in groups waiting for nothing at all or strolling to nowhere in particular. A few were kicking a soccer ball around. But there was something beautiful about it too. Something about being able to look into the eyes of all these precious people from previously closed countries. I was starting to believe that God could have a plan in all this suffering…
We continued walking by different structures housing approximately 40 different nationalities camp wide. Pakistani music blared from one area and then around the next corner a group of African men were in a football-style huddle, chanting and singing a worship chorus.
After the quick tour that left me disoriented in more ways than one, I was dropped off at the gate of the family/vulnerable women section. The walls weren’t quite as high here and it felt a bit friendlier, but only a bit. I breathed a prayer of thanks. I was told that my job was to let only the refugees with red cards into this section. No one else could come in, only those with red cards. I took my post by the gate, put on a smile that was braver than I felt and settled in for the 8 hour shift.
It was easy to get the hang of the job. The refugees were used to showing their cards and most of them were just carrying about normal business. Some were interested in a new face that broke up the monotony of their days and they would hang around practice English, others brushed past me.
It was harder to get ahold of my heart. I could hardly believe that I was finally with them. I had so many thoughts and prayers and questions rolling through my brain.
“Hello. Are you from America?” I was jolted from my thoughts again as I turned to see a beautiful young woman, about my age. She forced a tired smile and spoke surprisingly good English.
“Yes, I am from America! Where are you from?”
Through the metal gate, she introduced herself as Raha*. She told me that she was from Iran, where she and her husband were professional volleyball players before they were forced to leave the country. They had arrived only 4 days ago. She teared up and was visibly shaken as she told me about the boat ride, “It was so, so scary. We capsized 4 times and almost died. We were praying so much. And, honestly, it was only Jesus that fished us out of the water and saved us.”
Years of prayers for this very thing flashed through my mind. I started crying as I looked into her eyes and said, “Raha, I’ve also been praying that Jesus would keep you safe in the water.”
“He did keep us safe.”
“And my husband and I promised each other that once we get to a safe place, we will come back and help. Just like you’re doing.”
After a bit more conversation, she drifted off and I stood in silent worship and wonder and repentance for my unbelief. God heard my cries, and He heard their cries. Of course He did. Just like He promised He would. There are still so many hard things, but never once has He taken His eye from any part of His creation. All who will come, He is intimately involved in bringing them to safe places for their families and their hearts.
“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.” Isaiah 43:2