Chris and Karen Lewis are volunteering on the Croatian border, assisting with Nazarene ministry to refugees as thousands of people from the Middle East stream through Croatia on their way to Germany and Austria. Chris shared the following update.
We spent another day in a hot white Red Cross tent sorting clothing. Piles and piles of donated shirts, jackets, shoes, jeans, and other items of clothes. Except socks. We never have enough socks.
Every day anywhere from 600 to 5,000 refugees come through the large refugee camp at Opatovac in Croatia near the Serbian border. Volunteers work 24 hours a day trying to keep up with their needs. They usually arrive hungry, thirsty and often cold. That's why there is such a great need for socks as the cooler weather has come to the Balkans.
Row after row of large green military style tents cover the camp, with an occasional white tent like the one with the piles of clothes in it. Thousands of refugees fill the camp, many sitting or standing in the dirt paths between the tents and others attempting to sleep in the big tents. Some of the tents have cots lined up side by side for them to sleep in; others just have a white tarp for them to lie on with whatever blankets we can provide. The camp is surrounded by high fences and military guards.
We managed to sort the clothes into boxes marked "men's pants," "men's coats," "women's coats," "children's coats," "kids' shirts," etc." just in time for the big line of refugees to come to the "shop" to get what they need to survive another cold night. Most of the donations come from caring individuals and organisations around the world. However, I am most touched by the donations given from within the camp. As the day goes on, refugees keep coming to us with extra clothes, shoes or blankets that they don't need so that we can give them to others who need them more.
The scene in the food tents is similar. Volunteers work as quickly as they can to prepare and distribute the food as long lines of hungry immigrants wait for something they and their families can eat. They are also kept busy giving out diapers and baby food as there are a great many young families and so many children.
I've seen statistics that say one of every four of the refugees is a child, and what I've seen with my eyes tends to confirm that statistic. It is sad to see so many children cold and hungry. However, everyone works as hard as they can to make them all as comfortable as possible in this difficult situation. As many scramble to provide food, clothing, blankets and diapers, from time to time you see someone blowing bubbles and making the children laugh. Those little moments of sheer humanity bring bursts of joy into a situation where the sense of people's human dignity is often nearly lost in the midst of the chaos.
The presence of the military and the police cannot be forgotten. They are everywhere. They control the camp, and none of us dares forget that we are there at their discretion. Fortunately, most of them are very helpful and seem to care about the refugees as much as we do. They just want to help them move on so they can find a new home. Still, as they march a new crowd of refugees into the camp or another one out of the camp onto waiting buses, one still cannot help but to think of similar images of concentration camps in another day.
Nazarene Compassionate Ministries (NCM) is blessed to be allowed in to help the people here. A lot of nonprofit organizations have been denied access, and there are not very many Christians among the volunteers who are allowed entry. The refugees can tell which ones of us are Christians, though, somehow. One Syrian man told me, "It's easy to see that there is some difference." He expressed gratitude, especially for the way followers of Jesus have helped him and others, and shown genuine compassion during their difficult journey.
We have spent a lot of time sorting clothing, but that is not all. There are three clothing tents in the camp, one in each section. When we arrived, there was a lot of clothes, but distribution was so disorganised that many times the tents had to be closed for hours to be reorganised and restocked before we were able to serve the people. This resulted in hundreds going without the coats and blankets they needed for the cold. A few days after our arrival, Karen and I were asked to coordinate the clothes tents so that distribution could happen in an organised and efficient manner. We are working on that now and believe we will have helped the camp develop a more consistent, self-sustaining system for providing clothing.
We also discovered soon that more clothing was needed and managed to arrange the delivery of 11 tons of clothing last weekend. This of course gives us even more clothes to sort! However, it ensures that thousands more will not go cold in the night.
In addition to clothing distribution, we are also looking at providing beds for the people. They need 3,000 more cots in order for everyone to have a comfortable place to sleep, and NCM is currently working on trying to provide them.
We've also provided emergency raincoats. When it rains, the refugees often have no shelter and have to stand in the rain for hours. As they come from a hot country, this is especially difficult and puts many of them at risk for pneumonia and other illnesses. This week alone we have provided 5,000 rain ponchos to prepare for the rainstorms that are coming this weekend, and we hope to provide more as the need continues.
Of course, another need that we are trying to meet is simply the need for the presence of Christ in the camp, through His people. As Christian workers are few here, we are blessed to be among the few allowed access to the people.
We've put together a small card in Arabic which we give out to Arabic speakers when we talk with them. It simply tells them that we are followers of Christ and that we are there because God loves them and we love them. It tells them we would like to pray for them and invites them to send us an email if they would like us to pray for them specifically.
This kind of personal touch has been very well received because so many times they are accustomed to being treated either like cattle or like criminals. They can see the difference instantly when someone takes time to stop and talk with them or to play with their children.
I met one Christian refugee yesterday who was incredibly grateful to meet another believer. We had a great talk and prayed together. He said, "You have made this day special. I have not been able to be in church for three weeks. This is a great day." He then took some of the Arabic cards and said he would share them with others.
We continue to pray and keep our eyes open for the needs of the people and could use your prayers both for guidance and strength as the team prepares for what looks likely to be a long-term crisis. We also pray that we can have more workers in the Balkan region so that we can maintain a continual presence for Christ among the refugees.
-- Chris Lewis is an ordained Nazarene minister, evangelist and church planter. He has led church plants in Scotland, Mexico and America and has helped launch dozens of churches and train other church planters in Africa and Argentina. He and his wife currently live in Scotland and have been volunteering with NCM in the Balkan region to help with the refugee crisis.
Reprinted with permission from Engage magazine.