The controversial EU-Turkey Deal of March 2016 resulted in expansive EU-nation border closures to tens of thousands of refugees across Europe. In the months before March 23, Courage for the Journey, a ministry of Nazarene Compassionate Ministries on the Central Europe Field, was distributing supplies to thousands of refugees who briefly passed through the Balkan Highway on their journey toward northern Europe. As the nature of the refugee situation shifted, so has the Nazarene response to people caught between war and hope.
Whereas migrants were previously travelers on a difficult road, they are now people who fall into multiple asylum-seeker categories: Some are stuck in an illegal limbo dependent upon smugglers to sneak them across borders; others reside in transit camps waiting months for an official country reassignment, and still others are now in the process of becoming residents in their new host country. The needs of these individuals are vastly different and complex.
“Though the dramatic numbers of people passing through have slowed, there are now thousands of people stuck in our neighborhoods on the Balkan Highway,” said Jay Sunberg, field strategy coordinator for Central Europe. “This is a great opportunity for the church to be intentionally and incarnationally present.”
As the EU-Turkey Deal went into effect, teams in Greece, Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Serbia, and Croatia shifted their focus to meet the needs of the more permanent camps in Greece and Croatia and those who are stranded in Serbia. The Courage for the Journey teams continue to readjust as the situation evolves.
Over the summer, a team of college students and other volunteers led by Dorothy Tarrant, the on-site coordinator for Courage-Greece, regularly visited multiple camps with focused visits in two refugee camps near the Katerini community. They spent the summer building relationships, teaching English, and facilitating food and clothing aid distribution.
Courage-Greece also partnered with the local Greek Evangelical Church in Katerini to minister to multiple families, mostly Syrian, who were temporarily settled in the community as they waited to be reassigned to a new country. The local congregation has a goal of providing temporary housing to 100 refugee families. Nazarene volunteers helped prepare homes and apartments and taught English classes. The volunteers, who were also living in the community, were often invited to share meals, which resulted in life-transforming lessons about receiving hospitality and Syrian culture. On average, volunteers interacted with close to 2,000 refugees weekly over the summer.
As the calendar shifts to autumn, Tarrant and the team have taken on additional teaching responsibilities to help partner non-governmental organizations (NGOs) fulfill EU mandates for providing school to refugee children. There are concerns among humanitarians regarding what happens to the thousands in northern Greece as winter arrives and people continue to wait for re-assignment. The un-winterized camps will not be adequate housing for the cold winter that is to come.
Unlike camps in Greece where refugees wish to leave the country and move on to other parts of Europe, in Croatia’s capital, Zagreb, volunteers work to help people adjust to a new culture and to ease integration between Croatians and the refugee population. The country is in the process of accepting their EU quota of resettling 1,700 refugees. They anticipate meeting those numbers by the end of 2017.
Chris and Karen Lewis are the on-site coordinators for refugee response in Croatia, and Dave and Betsy Scott lead the overall work for the Nazarene church in this new EU country. There is constant adjustment to the needs and the demands of the 500 to 600 refugees they are currently working with in Zagreb. Nazarenes partner with NGOs like Save the Children, International Organization for Migration, and the Croatian Interior Ministry for Refugee Response to run children’s activities, provide education for kids who are significantly behind in schooling in a variety of subjects, and English classes for local refugee populations. The Croatian Red Cross, which mediates much of the work with local NGOs, has been a strong partner for the Nazarene team, according to Chris Lewis.
Many throughout Europe have fear or mixed feelings about refugees, so the team is working on programs that will help refugees and Croatians adjust to one another. The Lewises open their home to refugees for dinner or to hang out in a home setting. They also lead a Bible study that is open to everyone. Recently, a man from Iraq heard a short devotional about the love of God and said that the message was something people from his culture needed to hear more about.
“All across Central Europe, Nazarenes are excited about how we can be a part of ministering to these amazing people,” Sunberg said. “The leaders in Croatia have done a super job of responding, and as the situation has shifted they’ve transitioned well. We are now seeing the fruit of their long-term investment in lives.”
The exact number of refugees currently in Serbia is unknown but is estimated to be more than 3,000. In mid-July, NGOs on the ground began to see numbers surge in response to a new law passed in Hungary that allowed Hungarian law-enforcement to be more aggressive in their response to refugees. Between 15 September 2015 and 23 March 2016, Serbia was the main transit country for tens of thousands of refugees. With the EU-Turkey Deal, the numbers initially began to slow as Greek camps swelled in response to the closed EU borders, but in reality the deal simply readjusted the tide.
“People are still crossing borders, but now we are forced to use smugglers in greater numbers," said a Syrian mother of three who is leading her family across Europe. "They make us pay more and it is even more dangerous than before. Many times, we have gone without food for days while we waited for the smugglers to move us on. They are very dangerous men.”
She broke into tears as she discussed the emotional and physical ramifications of this journey for her children. The family arrived in Belgrade the night before being interviewed and slept in the park with hundreds of others. In an exhausted sleep, Muhammad, the father, felt nothing when thieves slit his trousers and made off with all of the family’s resources: money, phone, and documents.
Courage for the Journey–Serbia is made up of four Trevecca Nazarene University graduates: Tori Stone, Christina Corzine, and Megan and Curtis Rich, who arrived just as the numbers in the park were beginning to rise again. The team partners with two organizations, Refugee Aid Serbia and Hot Meals Idomeni, to distribute food and clothing. They are intentional about personal interactions meant to dignify an often inhumane situation. For the specific family mentioned above, that meant connecting them with a camp that gave them refuge, several hot meals in the park, clothing, and personal items for their journey. Hours later, the mother sent a message to the Nazarenes who had helped: “We arrived at the camp safely. Thank you for your kindness.”
In many ways, Serbia’s refugee population is the most vulnerable. The vast majority arrived on Greek shores or crossed borders into Turkey after March 23, and as such, they fall into the category of people unqualified to be relocated in western EU countries per the EU-Turkey Deal. Smugglers offer the only hope for making it to western Europe and to the safe life for which they long. The non-EU Serbian borders with Croatia and Hungary make it a gathering place as people wait.
As of September, temporary camps in Serbia are burgeoning with families, and single men are rarely considered for shelter. As temperatures begin to drop, fears of a harsh winter gather strength. In the camps, children who have missed out on schooling continue to while away the hours with no formal education.
“My children had to stop going to school in February,” their mother, an English teacher, whispered as she wiped away a tear. “We never imagined that the journey would be so hard or so dangerous, but the war made staying impossible.”
The only certainties of the current global migration through Central Europe is that there is no end in sight and that more change is on the horizon. A real-time example of that very truth is a recent text from a Syrian family now connected to Nazarenes. Upon receiving word that they were being reassigned to Romania, they wrote asking about the country. A Romanian Nazarene who heard about the family responded, “As soon as they arrive in Romania, the Church family here is ready to welcome them with open hearts.” With this news, it becomes evident that Romania is also beginning to accept their EU quota, and with that decision, they become a new country on the Central Europe Field responding with welcome to refugees.