Rev Kathryn Viner is minister of Malone Presbyterian Church in Belfast. She recently visited refugee camps and refugee projects in Greece on behalf of the Irish Council of Churches as part of a CTBI delegation of women from churches across Britain and Ireland.
I’d seen the images on the news, read the newspaper articles and listened to the rhetoric of various politicians around the world but none of this prepared me for meeting the people who are part of what we have come to call ‘the refugee crisis’.
In meeting the men, women and children who have fled war and conflict I very quickly began to realise that they are people like me, and us. They are mothers, fathers, sons, daughters and relatives to loved ones who have or have not journeyed with them. Among those I spoke to there were hairdressers, policemen, students, paediatricians, pharmacists, accountants, lawyers, fashion designers, teachers, bakers, shopkeepers, and engineers. Not to mention the many children and their dreams and ambitions.
At the Naomi Project in Thessaloniki I met Sawsan who was sitting with her one year old son, three daughters and her husband. She lived in the city of Qudsaya with her husband and four children when it was under siege by government forces. People were starving and she and her husband made the difficult decision to pay smugglers to get them out one night. They went to Turkey and waited there for two months until the seas were calmer.
They then got on a boat with 60 other people and made the treacherous journey across to the Greek island of Lesbos. They were taken to Athens by the Greek authorities and then travelled by train to Idomeni to try and cross the Macedonian border. But by the time they arrived the border had been closed and that route shut down. The camp conditions were so bad they could only bear to keep their family there for a few nights and then they decided to use some of their money to pay to stay in a hotel until they decided what to do.
They felt perhaps they had made a mistake leaving Syria so they used some more of the money they had and paid 3,000 Euros for a flight home but at the airport they were not allowed on the plane with their Syrian passports. Now desperate they decided to go home via Turkey but on their way through one of the cities they were attacked and all their money was stolen. On the streets in the city that night the police arrested the whole family and all five of them were kept in jail for two days until the police confirmed they had registered as refugees on entry into Greece. The police dropped them off at a bus station but with no money they had nowhere to go.
Then like a miracle a woman approached them at the station and gave them the number of a lady called Dorothy, a minister of the German Evangelical Church, who runs the Naomi Project in the neighbouring city of Thessaloniki. The lady bought them bus tickets and when they arrived Dorothy met them and the Naomi Project paid for temporary accommodation for 20 days while a local Christian food bank provided the family with bread.
The Naomi Project runs a drop-in centre for refugees to come and talk, as well as hosting sewing and jewellery making groups. The evening we visited, the refugees welcomed us with a wonderful meal they had prepared.
Amidst this traumatic journey Sawsan’s 7 and 11 year old daughters were left wearing broken glasses but one of the first things the Naomi Project did was to take the girls to an opticians and get them new glasses. Just this little act of kindness gives a little more dignity to one family who have already suffered enough.
Sawsan and her husband are beginning to realise they may not be able to return to Syria. Ideally if they have to live somewhere else for whatever length of time they would like to go to Germany because her husband had worked for a German company. However it would seem that now they are willing to go anywhere because they want the girls to go to school, they want to be safe and they want to start living again with the typical routines and demands of family life.
As a mother of two young children I was deeply moved by Sawsan’s story. I am humbled by her strength as a mother amidst such adversity. I admire this family and I pray they will soon find a place to settle, work and take their children to school again.
In meeting Sawsan and others who have made similar difficult journeys with all the difficult decisions that accompany them I was greatly encouraged by the effort and commitment of the Christians from different denominations in Thessaloniki.
They are giving of their time, some have even given up their jobs or their retirement, to work together tirelessly to meet every person who arrives in Greece from a place of war or conflict, and to begin to show them compassion.
This has been one of the most beautiful images of the church that I have seen in a long time and I pray it makes the difference needed in the lives of so many people who have more value than any news headline or special government policy regarding what we have come to call ‘the refugee crisis’.
Photos: Kathryn Viner, Esme Allen, Clare McBeath