European Refugee Crisis: From Strangers to Family
By Audrey Weiger
“We boarded a rubber boat and went out in the night. After just ten minutes, we had to turn back because the waves were so high. I tried again, on another rubber boat. We were just an hour from our destination when a battleship arrived. We quickly crossed over their path to get out of the way. Then flood lights were on us and four masked men with machine guns dropped down in a black boat. They came to us; got in our boat. We were terrified. They kept shouting at us to put our hands up and don’t move. Then they opened our boat’s engine and cut all the power and gas lines and left. We were just floating there until we could get through to the Turkish coast guard to come and rescue us. I tried again, on another rubber boat, but during the day. But the same thing happened. A battleship and its men stopped us. So, I took out a loan—2,500 Euros—to buy a place on a big ship to take me. And finally, I made it.”
Late night—it’s past midnight and I sip chamomile tea and talk with Syrian refugees about their faith in Christ and what has sustained them. One young man speaks passionately, “Because there was no justice on the earth, God sent Jesus to give us justice. Heaven was shaking when Jesus came. But the earth was not awake to receive him.” It’s inspiring to speak with those who have lived so much life in such a short amount of time.
Curling my legs up on the couch, I turn toward another young member of the group and ask about her experience—boat, train, plane, more trains. Now she is staying with dear friends she met through the church. The mother of the host family is now her legal guardian. “We didn’t know them at all, and now they are our children,” the mother says. I marvel at how Christ has a way of providing family for those who don’t have any.
Six of us pile into a little car, drive through the cobblestone streets and paved roads to a dirt road and gravel parking lot just outside one of the refugee camps. Old shipping containers stacked together with plywood propped up for walls and blankets hung for doors. Here, many families have lived for months. Those I am with explain, “The government passed laws, but they need help to handle so many coming all at once. They need places for the refugees to stay. These camps were built for single people, but now there are whole families staying in each of those rooms.” Already Germany has granted close to 400,000 asylums, with an expected 800,000 to one million more refugees expected in the coming year.
Dozens of refugees play soccer in a nearby field—most are weary from boredom, caught between no-man’s land and bureaucratic steps. One woman with whom I spoke had waited eight months for her appointment with the embassy, and now must wait another year before her next appointment. In the meantime, her three daughters and husband are back in Syria.
We drive to another camp, this one with sturdier walls and doors, but no less primitive than the first. Ten men in one room with bunkbeds and make-shift lockers on one wall to store the few personal items they brought with them. On the door as I enter, I see the Arabic letter nun, which stands for “Nazarene” or “Christian.” They tell me they are the only Christians in a camp of hundreds and hundreds. They found each other through a pastor’s wife who was assisting in translation at the city court house. She noticed their rosary beads, asked if they were Christians, and invited them to her church.
More stories come out as we sit around a fold-out table and enjoy hot tea in paper cups. “The trip was like going to hell and back. And now, I’ve been here three months and still no end in sight,” says one young man. I meet up with them again at the Arabic-speaking church service later that day to give greetings. One mentioned how lonely he was, but that the church has provided a community, a place to use his gifts for others.
Pharmacists, doctors, business men, students, each left behind a life, loved ones, a career. Many told me they have so much to give, but are looked at with suspicion—misunderstandings and assumptions abound in the general population. But at the Churches of God, they told me, they are welcomed, accepted, given hope.
Some might say it’s “love with skin on.” That’s how Christ has been described. And as Christians, we are to look like him. Often “love with skin on” looks very practical—like providing translation at government appointments and assistance getting through the paperwork and processes, getting new clothes when the old ones have worn down or coats for those who have never experienced a winter this cold, and welcoming those unlike yourself to be a part of the body of Christ, to do life with you, to encourage, to receive and to give.
The practical ministries of the Church of God in Germany are simple and yet profound. “Stollen meets Falafel” is one such example. First, you should know that Germans love Christmas. Every year Christmas markets are built all over the cities—little log cabin shops selling roasted hazelnuts, candies and large cookies, homemade winter mittens and scarves, wooden and hand-crafted ornaments, and stollen (a traditional German Christmas-time bread).
This year, one church set aside their annual Christmas market fundraiser and instead held a combined event where Syrians and Germans celebrated their cultures alongside each other, hence, “Stollen meets Falafel.” “We had more than twice the people attend, but only made two-thirds of what we normally would,” one pastor explained. They chose to love their neighbors by learning more about them and their culture, and they sacrificed to do so. But the church was so energized by this event that they want to do it again.
“Christmas for us is defined by a feast.” I’m reminded of these words spoken by the same passionate, young man when asked about what sustains him. Yes, a feast, indeed. A feast where stollen and falafel are eaten, and where hope is celebrated. A feast where two extremely different cultures find common ground in Jesus and what can happen when they work together. A feast where two continents come together to be the hands and feet of the One who is the Host of hosts, welcoming all to the table.
Audrey and Josh Weiger serve as missionaries for Global Strategy to Germany. Learn more about Global Strategy at www.chogglobal.org.