Thursday, 10 December 2015

The Epilogue

I was taught that a good essay always has a prologue and an epilogue. I'm at the airport now waiting to board my plane to Heathrow and I can't but reflect on the events of the past 8 weeks. So as an epilogue, here are some of my reflections.

What have I accomplished in these last 8 weeks? Very little indeed.
I was warned at my briefing session at The Salvation Army's international headquarters that this may be my response and indeed it is the response of many a humanitarian worker.

There are over a hundred thousand refugees who have come through Greece during my time here. I was only able to just meet a few. There were many who needed food, I was able to give sandwiches to very few of them. Many children needed milk, I was able to give only to some of them. Many had sore feet but I only bought plasters for one of them.

I take comfort in the fact that there are many like me who have tried to offer something, and if there's enough of us, perhaps every singe refugee would have experienced some touch of kindness, some comfort.

There is a great march of refugees that goes through Greece seeking refuge and a better tomorrow in a European country.

The Archbishop of Greece in his visit to Lesvos reportedly said:
“All these refugees are the result of our own actions, the so-called western world. We, with our actions, have forced them to abandon their homelands and now we stack them like sheep for slaughter,” 

Who am I to know who's to blame, I'm just a humble Salvation Army officer who was on a humanitarian mission for 8 weeks. Regardless of who's to blame we, in the west, have certain responsibilities towards the people who are seeking refuge here.
As long as these people remain just numbers of whom we hear about in the media we can easily be passive and just don't care.
The moment someone comes in contact with the people who are on this great march, that moment a person ceases to be a number and is a face; it is a person with longings and hopes, with fears and joys, with sadness and despair. This person is a person like you and me, their only "crime" is that they were born in the "wrong" part of the world.

I was born in a part of the world in which I have enjoyed freedom, education, sanitation, travel, work and family. They are born in a part of the world in which they have experienced tragedy, pain, loss of dignity, separation and conflict. They are God's creation, like I am, and yet their rights have been denied to them, their life is lived in fear, their hopes are dashed and their future is bleak.

My only response is to open my arms and embrace them.

You will say that I am naive. You will find many reasons to explain why there is not enough room for all of us here in Europe. You may be right. Where can they go?

I will finish this series of posts with a quote from one of my favourite writers, Fyodor Dostoevsky:

“At some thoughts one stands perplexed - especially at the sight of men's sin - and wonders whether one should use force or humble love. Always decide to use humble love. If you resolve on that, once and for all, you may subdue the whole world. Loving humility is marvelously strong, the strongest of all things, and there is nothing else like it.”

Thursday, 3 December 2015

Matthew 25:40

This evening as I see this picture that I took of Maria giving out a woolly hat to this refugee the words from the Bible come to me: "Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me." 

Christ identifies with "the least of these brothers and sisters" and He tells us that when we do something for those who are weak and helpless and in need, it's as good as doing it to Him.
I find great encouragement in this. We are all encouraged to care for the weak and helpless in our communities. When we help those who cannot help themselves it is as good as doing this to God himself.

Many things have been going on in the last few days. One of the major changes in the Refugee Crisis in Greece is that now the borders have closed for those who are not Syrian, Iraqi or Afghani. Today there are 2,500 desperate people stuck at the border. They have been through much to come all the way to Eidomeni, what can they do now? What would you do if your were in their place? Would you just willingly return to your country of origin?
I met a group of young men from Yemen the other day, they have fled their war-torn country to seek a better tomorrow in Europe. They have managed to get all the way here, what can they do now? 
As we all wait to see what will happen, probably gangs of smugglers are preparing crossings through dangerous areas (possibly Albania), areas that may prove to be fatal for some of the refugees. But for many there is no hope in going back and their only hope is forging ahead even if it kills them. And Jesus is saying to us: "Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me."

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Gaining Even More Ground

I think that this is truly one of the happy days of our deployment.
This morning we were able to inform Emily and Vassili (pictured here with Polis and Maria) that they were the successful candidates and they will be starting to work for The Salvation Army on the 1st of December.
Emily will be the overall coordinator of The Salvation Army's response to the refugee crisis in Greece. She will be coordinating with UNCHR, the IOM and other NGOs so that The Salvation Army will be offering its services in filling some of the gaps that exist in the humanitarian response.

Vassili will be the hands-on man running the Day Centre, coordinating and recruiting volunteers and together with Emily and Polis and Maria strategically plan the Army's response to the need.

What a great moment to finally have identified and recruit these two wonderful people. Both are excellent people and very well qualified. Truly we are fortunate to be able to employ them.

Another wonderful breakthrough today was that we finally identified a warehouse (pictured here).
It has been a long struggle in trying to secure a space that we can use to store the donated NFIs (non food items) that we need to pass on to the refugees. It is a 900 square meters warehouse in a good location and on the same side of the city as the Salvation Army hall.

So now Polis can finally smile. Help is at hand, the warehouse is soon to be in place and The Salvation Army's response can be constant, well coordinated and targeted.

Ethan dressed up in his Emergency Services vest is a picture of hope for a better tomorrow.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Gaining Ground

Due to the lack of an internet connection at the flat in which we are staying I have not been able to post anything here for a few days. This evening  I have stayed behind at the Salvation Army Corps in order to use the internet but there are many things that have happened since by last post and it's hard to know what I should write here. I didn't have dinner yet and my tummy is complaining but I feel that I must stay behind and write something on this blog. If not everything makes sense just put it down to tiredness and hunger, but hey what is this compared to what our refugees go through?

I think looking back at the last few days I can say that, although slowly, we are gaining some ground in our humanitarian response to this great crisis. Yet the suffering continues and for some people things are getting worse.

I enjoyed sitting at a gathering of Churches Together in Athens with the focus on the refugee crisis. It was touching to see the Church being passionate about responding to this humanitarian crisis. Many reported of wonderful ways by which they try to help our fellow human beings who find themselves in this great march.
Also ways were explored of how we could coordinate and do more. For a number of churches the Safe Passage concept is becoming the driving force behind their response.
It was a great encouragement to me and to many others to see the Church working together.

"Happy to Help" are words that you may have seen on the T-shirt of a young shop assistant but they are words that best describe my contribution to the Clowns Without Borders.

Being new to Athens the Clowns were rather nervous about performing at the square without having someone's backing.
I gladly offered that backing as I watched them put a smile on the weary faces of a great number of refugees.

A number of volunteers from the Netherlands came this morning to help us. They are all social work students and they have come to Greece for a week to offer their help.
They helped us distribute sandwiches, clothing and sanitary things to the refugees at the square.
They were also available to talk to people.

I can never put it across enough what it really means to many refugees to be able to talk with someone.

The are now finally in Europe.

What are these Europeans like?
How would we be received?
How would we be treated?
Would I be valued as a fellow human being?
Will I be treated with dignity?

Certainly these are questions in many minds and just a simple chat paves the way for a welcome that many refugees long for.

"Heart Break" is the only way that can describe the story of many like Shahin Nasari, pictured here in the middle:
You may have followed on the news that after the Paris massacre several countries are closing their borders to all but Syrians, Afghanis and Iraqis.
FYROM is refusing entry to refugees who are not from these 3 countries. So in the last 2 days nearly 2,000 migrants/refugees are turned back.
Some are protesting at the border, others see no other way but to come back to Athens and see what to do next.

Shahin was registered as Iranian upon his arrival to the Greek islands, although his wife was registered as Afghani. Now they are stuck and don't know what to do.
Mike, from Karitas (pictured here with Shahin's family) took them over to their home to have a wash and to try to arrange some accommodation. Then hopefully some agency like the IOM may be able to help them.
This change at the borders will create a great deal of more distress and agony for many on this great march.

Let me finish with some good news this evening:
I am happy to report that approval has been given by headquarters for us to hire a shop very near the square. Also last night we were able to interview and select 2 candidates who will be employed to work based at the centre. More details to follow, but for now it is a matter of slowly gaining some ground.

That's it. I'm off back to the flat to get some dinner. Let's see what Rick has cooked. Poor fellow he has to put up with my vegetarian whimsies.

Friday, 20 November 2015

Joy in Times of Trouble

I was asked to help sing some songs at the Parent and Toddler group of the Athens Salvation Army the other day.
I suppose having sang nursery rhymes at toddler groups, at least once a week for many years now, it puts me in good stead for leading such an activity.
Normally toddlers have fun during our singing together and for some strange reason I seem to have fun too. My enjoyment comes from seeing others happy. To me, singing with children in Athens who probably don't have much opportunity to be entertained, is a special thing. Real life entertainment that doesn't come out of a large TV screen is something that even very young children do appreciate.

You may think that being deployed with the International Emergency Services of The Salvation Army should only be about distributing food or tents or providing shelter and so on; what does entertainment have to do with emergencies?

Today at the square I met a group from the Clowns Without Borders. I had never met them before but only heard about them; I heard how with their presence they changed the whole atmosphere at the Eidomeni camp in a big way.

Anna, a young lady from Barcelona, explained that they had been active in Eidomeni but as more team members arrived, they were exploring the possibilities of being active in the Athens camps and possibly Victoria square.

I got to thinking how
these clowns are just little people, they are not part of the big players like UNHCR or IOM or the Red Cross. They volunteer their time (any funding they receive goes to pay for tickets, accomodation etc.) and yet they make a great big difference, what little they have to offer goes such a long way.

Isn't this a great lesson in life? We don't all have to be presidents or prime ministers or great famous people. God has given each of us a gift and he calls us to use it to bless others and bring glory to God.

In big humanitarian crises such as this, a clown may help put a smile and release the tension in an otherwise very stressful situation.

That little boy of long ago only had two fish and five small pieces of bread and yet he offered to Jesus the little he had and with this 5,000 men were fed (plus thousands of women and children - sorry they only counted men in those days).

We've all got something to contribute. Prior to leaving the UK for my deployment I attended a meeting for the establishment of the Medway City of Sanctuary.  It is a group that promotes a welcoming attitude towards refugees in our communities. Even if you could be a person who offers a warm welcome it surely goes a great long way in establishing peace in our communities and a better tomorrow for our children.

Monday, 16 November 2015

Peculiar Volunteers

Today we may have gone on "business as usual" but I knew that at times I was under the watchful eye of some camera. The cameras didn't come for me but for Paul O'Grady who came for the day with his film crew to film the Athens Salvation Army's activities with the refugees.
Paul is working on a series which will be broadcast by the BBC in March or April and will probably be called something like: "The Sally Army and Me"

Paul helped to make sandwiches and then came with us to the square to distribute them to the refugees. Later on he and the team went back again to give out rucksacks to the refugee children.
We are grateful that the media is drawing public attention to our cause and we pray that The Athens Corps of The Salvation Army will have all the resources that it needs to meet the need present at Victoria square.

Today at the square I got to speak to two Afghani brothers (23 and 16 years old) who were born in Iran but have taken the opportunity to join the great march through Turkey and Europe to Sweden. I've heard of their hardship along the way. Crossing the Iranian border in to Turkey they had to stay in a small cottage near the border until it was nearly midnight and then they were smuggled as they walked through thick forest over a mountain. After many hours of walking through the night around 50 refugees were picked in a small van that drove them for several hours to Izmir. They explained how all of them could just stand in that dark van packed up like sardines, unable to move. Yet as they said the most harrowing experience was the boat crossing; although the sea was calm, there were way too many people on that plastic boat and waters were getting into the boat. They were relieved to arrive in Lesvos and be welcomed by the people at the shore.
Certainly many people are making money through this outburst of human suffering.