I am currently sitting in the Athens airport and every ten minutes or so I have to choke back another wave of tears. Last night was my last shift in the refugee camp, and earlier today I got dropped off at the Mytilini airport by a van load of other amazing volunteers. In the past month I have grown to deeply love and care for the people I served and the people I served and lived with, so saying goodbye definitely hits me with a hard punch of loss. My life is filled with numerous beautiful blessings, and getting to travel the world to love other people is one of the biggest blessings. But this life does have its challenges. Working hard wherever I go to build meaningful relationships with and pour out an abundance of love to lavish upon people who I may never see again can definitely take a toll and induce some serious heartache. I would not be able to live this life if I didn’t have a mighty God refilling me every time I cry out to Him completely empty. I need His love to keep refreshing me, because the amount of love I have to give runs dry so fast. Also, He is the one who tells me that loving is always worth it, even if it means my farewells will really sting. I will share more reflections in my next blog post though. For this post, I would like to keep sharing more stories from my time of volunteering here in Lesvos. Four stories really stand out from the last week and half, and those are the ones that I will write about here and now…
Story One – The Night Shift
The first story I want to share is all about my experience of working the overnight shift. Every night EuroRelief has three people stay in the camp to guard the family compound gates from 12am to 8am. The night that I did one of these shifts, I had already just done an 8 hour evening shift, but I really wanted to give the overnight a try too, so I ended up pulling a 16+ hour shift. It was a night filled with so many mighty moments, and it was well worth the lack of sleep. Normally at the end of an evening shift I am really wide awake. It is finally cool, all the chores are finished, everyone is out playing games and talking, so it is the best time to build relationships. Whenever midnight rolls around I am always surprised and feel like I could definitely keep hanging out. With the overnight shift I was able to do just that.
For the first part of the shift I sat on the gate, painted some of the girls nails, and sang songs with the kids. One drunk guy who didn’t belong in family compound did try to get in, but he was too drunk to even figure out where the gate opened so it really wasn’t a problem. A few of the refugees around the camp really help EuroRelief out with everything from translating to running various units, and they are close friends with the volunteers, so after some time of me sitting on the gate they helped one of my partners watch the gate while I went up and continued to play chess with and chat with some of my friends living on level 3. For the first time I saw what it was like around camp when the children were finally put to bed and it was just adults enjoying the peace and quiet.
After almost everyone on level 3 went to sleep, two of the guys I am good friends with joined me and my partner on the gate just to support us. It is so cool that they were willing to stay up all night too just to make sure we were ok. There was some more chess and then our other partner who was down on another gate started singing worship music over the radio. That led to a solid session of worshipping, praying for the camp, and reading scripture over the radio. The refugees who were with us didn’t seem at all bothered by our time of calling out to Jesus, on the contrary it actually seemed to develop their trust in us more. One of my friends who had only ever told me some of his story completely opened up, he shared more of the trauma he had experienced in Syria, as well as the trials he had faced in Turkey before finally making it to Moria camp. He then told us about how the other man who was hanging out with us, who always helps us on level 3, had some serious health issues. He has already had one heart surgery and needs another as soon as possible. So we prayed for this man. My friend down on the other gate prayed for him over the radio and I prayed for him in person. At the end of it all the man we prayed for just had the biggest smile on his face and he couldn’t stop saying thank you. As the sun began to rise, our refugee friends brought us croissants and tea, even though they only get enough for just themselves each day. Even after all they have been through, and all they are stilling going through facing that depressing detention camp every day, they care about us and want to help and give generously. They amaze and move me so deeply.
Story Two – An Impromptu Intercession Session
My next story actually occurred during one of my days off. In Mytilini there is a castle up on the hill that has a really nice little beach below it. A group of us girls had also heard about a tree near this castle where refugees wrote wishes/prayers on pieces of rubber boat and hung them in the branches. So five of us journeyed on up to this tree on our last day off. We were all giggles and goofing off until we actually reached this new landmark. Without even talking about it or making an agreement we all just suddenly fell silent as we read the various pleas fluttering in the wind. Again, without even talking about it, we began to pray together out loud. We prayed for our friends in camp and prayed for the requests we read. We also sang some worship and read scripture. This impromptu intercession session was so meaningful because it reminded me that even on my days off and even when I am away, I can and should still be standing in the gap, crying out on behalf of the refugees. Also it was just so encouraging being around four other lovely ladies who all felt the same way too. Their dedication and desire to love and serve God and others well is so uplifting and also blossoms my sense of hope for now and the future.
Story Three – Facing and Responding to a Crisis
This next story is one that describes a very challenging incident I witnessed a few days ago, but I do have more of a purpose for sharing it other than simply telling you about something shocking. I was heading back to the gate to check on my partner when I witnessed a woman beating her daughter who is only 4 with her fists as the daughter lay on the ground screaming. The woman was screaming also and I ran to grab our radio. As I did that the mother took the little girl and slammed her head against the wall behind our milk container numerous times. I started chasing after the mother as she dragged the little girl by her hair and neck skin, but when I reached her she screamed at me, pushed me back, dragged the girl into her room, and slammed the door. I opened the door and found the mother kicking and screaming at the daughter as she lay on the floor crying in their very small family space that is outlined by blankets. Again, I went to stop the mother, but she pushed me away and waved her arms while screaming in my face trying to get me to leave. She was completely hysterical, and while I don’t understand Arabic, I could tell she was repeating something and I could also tell she was having an absolute psychological breakdown. Having struggled with PTSD, anxiety, and depression for 10 years myself, I know what it looks like when someone is really not even themselves anymore, when they have instead become just a raw expression of all their inner turmoil. Finally, another woman came and held back the mother and I was able to grab the little girl and flee to our staff room where I locked us in their together. The girl soon stopped crying, but I could already see bruises, cuts, and bumps on her head, and her lip was all bruised and swollen too.
As shocking as this incident was, sadly, I wasn’t that surprised. I had been talking about this mother and how she neglected her younger son (who is not even 2) for weeks now. She would even tell me ‘this baby needs no mother’ as she would leave him to wander and get lost in the camp by himself. She would also wander around. Either glued to her phone or just staring out ahead, always with this blank, dead look in her eyes. She has three children under the age of 7, she is only 30 herself, and she isn’t sure if her husband is unjustly locked away in jail or just dead. After the incident, I was called to the camp police station. The woman was there too and she begged me not to say anything. She said she would never do it again, and that if I did make a report she would surely be locked away in jail, leaving her children without a mother. I tried to explain to her through a translator that while what she did was so wrong, I had forgiven her, and that I cared for both her and her children and wanted them both to get help which is why I wanted to officially report the incident. Sadly, I don’t think she believed my motives. The next morning myself and some other witnesses were taken into town to make an official statement and I greatly stressed the fact that the woman needed psychiatric care, that she needed to go to a hospital more than she needed to go to jail. I am happy to report that two nights later she had an appointment with the UNHCR psychologist and that she seemed to be trying somewhat harder to care for her baby. I don’t know what else will happen and it is very hard leaving without being able to fully follow up.
So, why did I share this story with you? To show you how desperate things really are in the camp. I talk a lot about how the past was hard for my new refugee friends, and I talk about how great it is that they are safer now and we get to hang out now, but when it comes down to it, the people need to leave Moria because it is not a nice place. The media can make it seem like the urgent, crisis part of this refugee crisis is no more. That is not the case. The camp is not a place human beings should be living in for months on end. I assure you, something more needs to be done. A great MANY things need to be done. There are some amazing things already happening to be sure, but it is not enough. The camp needs more supplies, like tents, blankets, and clothes, it needs more volunteers, especially those willing to stay long term, and definitely those with counselling backgrounds, and it needs more prayers, a continuous hedge of protection. I thankfully did not witness any riots during my time in Moria, but there have been riots in the past where it honestly seemed like people would die and it was a miracle they did not. The camp needs more help, and more action needs to be taken so that people are moving THROUGH camps like Moria, not just staying there for what feels like an endless amount of time with such limited support for their physical, emotional, and spiritual health.
Story Four – My Last Shift
My last story for this post is all about my last night of volunteering in Moria camp. Of course I spent it on level 3 of the family compound; I only ever worked two shifts away from level 3 my whole trip. It was such a good night and I left feeling like I had just spent 8 hours being able to bond with dear friends, not work really hard in a camp that ultimately is in fact a prison. I guess that is just a testimony of how powerful relationships and perspective truly are. The chores part of the evening went especially smoothly, with multiple refugees telling me not to leave and that it was no good that I wouldn’t be there tomorrow. The whole level was also busy painting protest signs, so that could be one other reason why everyone was too distracted to fuss over how much milk or food they were getting. I hate the fact that they are in a situation where they need to make signs like that, but I seriously have mad love and respect for everyone on level 3 for getting together as a group and making signs that peacefully and openly express how they are feeling. Other volunteers have commented on how ‘rough’ it can be working on level 3. I think that is actually one of the reasons why I enjoyed working there so much though, and bonded with the people so deeply. I can really relate with being a bit rough around the edges and difficult to initially reach, but then being all the more passionate and caring once that outward wall is broken down. Also I definitely have a heart for calling out what is precious, worthy, and great about people who are deemed hard to love. We aren’t supposed to call the refugees family, but I left feeling like level 3 was my family for sure.
On my final night, I spent some time playing chess and teaching card games to one of the guys who is helping us manage and translate on level 3. He is such an interesting person, very intelligent and open to any kind of conversation. He has so many questions about Jesus and Islam and what is good, and right, and true. He has definitely inspired me to read more about other religions when I return home so that I can have conversations that are less one sided. He is currently praying that Jesus would send him a sign that He is real. He loves watching ‘The Bible’ TV series scene of Peter walking on the water and says he gets chills every time Jesus says “why did you doubt?” He asks pretty much every volunteer why they think Jesus is truly the Son of God, and after noticing that each volunteer gave a very different but heartfelt answer to that question I asked this guy if he thinks maybe all those stories are in fact a sign from God. He just smiled when I said that and answered ‘maybe.’
I spent time playing and cuddling with all the children on level 3 who have completely stolen my heart, and then spent some good quality time with the women. I did make-up with one girl, played cards with some of the other women, and then just started saying goodbye to people. The amount of gratitude I received was astounding. Almost every one of my friends assured me that they would never forget me as I was now in their hearts, and I assured them that I felt the same way about them too. Twice I was told by different refugees before I left that I was like an angel, which proves to me that the love of Jesus did meet these people through me. I am most certainly not an angel (you can ask my parents and they will testify to that real quick) but I am still able to carry the light of Jesus out into the darkness and I will be praying that His light continues to shine bright and bring new life to each of the people I interacted with while I was in Lesvos.
I have so many stories and memories from my time in Lesvos to process through. Many of them I will cherish for forever more. I most certainly will remember, cherish, and pray for the friends I made for forever more. In a week or so I will write one more post just to share some more of the big picture ideas I have a new perspective on and what lessons I learned during this season of serving. For now, I most certainly am mourning. A friend shared a song by Johnnyswim with me the other day called ‘Let It Matter.’ I feel like it is such a good reminder of how important is it to go through the grieving process and to really let yourself feel and come to terms with the trials you may experience or witness. I have seen some hard, heartbreaking stuff, I have heard many personal, shocking stories about people suffering, and I am missing the people who I developed good relationships with. I still have great faith and hope in the reality of redemption and restoration, but for now I need to acknowledge the very present pain. I know that once I acknowledge it, I can hand it on over to God, and He is the one who will know what to do with it. He will know how to take it and bring healing and wholeness out of the brokenness. Glory to God for this amazing opportunity! May He bless each one of you on each of your own journeys too! Thank you for reading!
“For my sides are filled with burning, and there is no soundness in my flesh. I am feeble and crushed; I groan because of the tumult of my heart. O Lord, all my longing is before you; my sighing is not hidden from you. My heart throbs; my strength fails me, and the light of my eyes—it also has gone from me. But for you, O Lord , do I wait; it is you, O Lord my God, who will answer.” -Psalms 38:7-10, 15
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” -Matthew 5:4