This May I had the opportunity to spend a few weeks abroad, splitting my time between Greece (Thessaloniki) and Cyprus. At this time, the number of refugees from the Syrian Civil War was beginning to balloon from tens of thousands over the span of a few years, to roughly eight thousand each day. Of these eight thousand, five thousand would cross the Greek border to gain access to the European Union.
Almost daily we would walk past the north of Aristotle Square in Thessaloniki and see dozens of Syrians in the park, different than those from the day before, all tired, quiet, and holding closely their single bag of belongings. One day, three of us interested in hearing why they were there, and where they might be going, went with hopes of making conversation with some of these people.
The first group we timidly approached was small – just a man, his wife, and a friend they made on their journey. They had been walking for a few days from the south, hoping to make it through Macedonia, and eventually to Stockholm where they had family. They were scared and skeptical of any advice or help offered, and reasonably so. The first man had seen his house bombed and most of his village destroyed, knowing that any of his friends that had been there had not made it out alive. The second man fled Syria after rebel forces tried to strong-arm him into their army, only successfully escaping when they began killing women and children and tried to force him to do the same. Their oppression came both from the government of Syria, and the rebel forces, making their home completely destitute and hostile.
Taking the only reasonable road before them, they fled their homes in hope of starting a new life in Europe.
The path with the most promise for these refugees was to gain entrance to the European Union through Greece, whose borders are internationally infamous for a lack of security. Once they have entered Greece, the European Union’s Schengen Area makes it possible for open travel through the 26 countries within it. In order to make this journey, many refugees take the perilous route across the Mediterranean by boat with dozens to hundreds of other hopeful travelers. These short rides will cost many refugees most of, if not all of their money (the ones we spoke to paid around $5,000 USD). The man and wife we spoke to were on a boat that ultimately sank off the coast of Greece, leaving them one of the few survivors. Left with no money, but grateful for their lives, they would begin their long journey.
Through broken English, clumsy Greek, and a shoddy translation app to fill in the gaps, we pieced together the stories of our new friends. We heard from a few others for hours, speaking of the hardships they had faced, and the hope they had before them. Without any money, valid passports, possessions, or a place to lay at night during the coming months of travel, simply for the hope of a life away from the brokenness of evil men that now control the place they had once called home. I think about these friends every day- their strong will, their trials, and how incredible it was to see such hope and joy pouring from a group of people who had lost everything and were enduring to create a better life.
I cannot help but see this topic through a different lens than I would have in the past. The most simple step we can take toward humanizing a problem like this is to shift our thoughts from the massive concept of 4 million people, to the idea of one person with a striking story. When you see one single person as a unique expression of humanity, the rest of those 4 million all of a sudden look a lot less like a massive problem, but something that your heart breaks for time and time again.
As Americans, we should see much of our own history in the story unfolding for these refugees. Moreover, as Christians, we should recall that our faith begins with a little baby boy Himself forced to be a refugee in the Middle East. As people, our hearts should break upon hearing the stories of our fellow man subjected to such a life. Maybe the next time you hear a staggering number like 4 million refugees, don’t just wash over that number- think about the story that every single one of these fellow humans carries.
Let’s ask ourselves how we would respond if the entire combined populations of Denver, Seattle, Washington, Boston, Jacksonville, Pittsburgh, and Atlanta were all displaced.
It is far easier to think of such a large number and label it a single entity, and label that entity a problem. But the reality is, these are 4,000,000+ individual human beings struggling to find a place in this world, while we dehumanize each and every one of them while comfortably sitting in our home or our workplace, living in the same comfort that we’ve lived with our entire lives. It’s time that Christians behave as the reflection of Christ we claim to be. We should daily be praying for the persecuted all over the world, regardless of race or religion. We should be fasting as means of identifying with those without. We should be giving- not just of our comforts and our excess, but of everything we have.
The bible actively puts forth three groups we should go out of our way to care for- the widow, the orphan, and the stranger (Deuteronomy 10:17-19, Deuteronomy 27:19, Zechariah 7:9-10, Jeremiah 22:3). The first two are common practices for many western churches, but for a variety of reasons “the stranger” is neglected. It is time we push past our fears and step into the love that we have come to know ourselves, and extend it to those who need it most in our world.