This is part three of a six part series written by Melissa Shaefer who interned with OMS Hungary doing refugee ministry in Europe this summer.
Katerini, Greece, has been a home for refugees for almost a century. After the Greco-Turkish war, people living in Turkey with Greek ancestry had to return to their forefather’s land. They came with very little, to people unable—and perhaps unwilling—to lend a hand. Many of these refugees were Evangelical Christians. They settled down and their settlement started to grow. People flourished.
With several refugee camps within an hour of the town, these people have been touched by the recent hardships faced by Greeks, but still their faith stands. After people in the church there started volunteering at these camps, one elder and his wife decided they could do more. They conferred with UNHCR- The UN Refugee Agency, and decided to take a number of refugee families into their home. Through their radical love, and obedience to God’s call, 11 families moved out of camps and into apartments and homes. In addition, the Katerini church offers food distribution three times a week.
Nazarene Compassionate Ministries (NCM), who I worked with throughout my internship, decided the best way to minister in this area was supporting the local church. As such, my home when I got to Greece was part of a beautiful duplex near the Evangelical church of Katerini.
There is so much history and stories of strength and celebration to tell from my time in Greece. Zay, a 13-year-old Syrian girl living in Katerini with her sister and father, started from Syria accompanied by their mother and younger brother. While in Turkey, their family was robbed. With only enough money left to send two people on, their father, a shoe maker, decided that their mother, a doctor, and their little brother would be the ones to go. Zay and the rest slowly made it to Greece where they got stuck in a camp called Idomeni. If you have ever heard any horror stories of refugee camps, Idomeni takes the cake. In Idomeni people faced flooding, tents without heat, hour-long lines for food, and barely any access to showers. Zay, her sister Kitty, and her father lived there for months, able to be with distant family, but stuck in inhumane conditions.
They were taken in by the Evangelical church, housed with another man, Ai. Ai had left his home to bring his daughter to the European Union so that she and her young son might be reunited with her husband. When they got to move on, he got stuck. He became like a brother to Zay’s father and a beloved uncle to the girls. He was a translator in Syria, and Zay became a translator in Greece. She knows Kurdish, Arabic, Turkish, and English fluently. Zay and Kitty volunteered at the food distribution center. They came to English class, and sometimes helped the teacher translate.
They were so strong, so smart, and so brave—but they were not immune to the hardship they faced. I remember once, going to their apartment, and Zay just hugging my roommate, crying. She missed her mother so much, and was so tired. But as we held her, and whispered encouraging words, she straightened her back, told us she loved us, then moved on to comfort her sister and to prepare dessert. The war in her home country caused her to grow up quickly. She has seen things I can never imagine— images burned into her mind in the supposed safety of her home. Recently, on Facebook, I was able to view the reunion between Zay, Kitty, and their mother. The joy on their faces cannot be explained.
There was also a man I met called Kabir, his wife Fey, and their three children who came to English class. One of the first things I learned about him was that he was a Christian. This tall, strong, imposing figure lit up when he talked about his conversion. He had never been sold on Islam, always questioning. Then one night, Jesus Christ came to him in a dream.
He said, “I want you,” Kabir told my roommate and I. “How could I not follow him? Yeshua is my savior. I owe him everything.”
Fey, we later learned, was not his first wife. His first, the mother of the two older boys, left because she would not stand by his conversion. But Fey, with her one-year-old daughter, converted and refused to leave him. In fact, she traveled while pregnant. She gave birth three weeks after I left. Though Fey spoke very little English, she was always so welcoming. Hospitality was such a huge part of their life and way of living. Despite being eight months pregnant, Fey was always trying to do things to make my roommate and I more comfortable. The two boys were so full of energy, but they were respectful and loved their step-mother very much. Both the boys loved soccer, getting into playful arguments with us over Barcelona vs Real Madrid. Our team, along with a church member, started a Bible study for this family and another couple. The boys would sit quietly, always listening so intently (on a side note, the very first Bible, study their daughter, Jackie, fell asleep in my arms #blessed). Kabir and Fey were at peace with their decision to follow Christ and to flee their home. They came to church every Sunday, though they spoke no Greek. They are now on their way to Germany. Please keep them in your prayers as they attempt to settle in.
There were so many wonderful people in Katerini. My teammates were absolutely amazing. As the blogs continue, I will be sure to talk more about them. Our primary job as members of NCM and partners with the church was to re-humanize the refugees—to rebuild their dignity. We wanted to let them know they are loved and are more than just numbers and statistics. We did this by teaching English and visiting them at their homes.
I wish I could tell you the story of Emad and Soher, a beautiful Muslim couple full of love and friendship whose love of life and people brought comfort and joy. I wish I could speak more of the love of one family who would sing every evening and kindly correct my Kurmanji. I wish I could share of the strong woman who fought her way out of depression to bring wit and beauty to our English classes. These people welcomed us with open arms, their hospitality knowing no bounds. We were supplied with amazing home-cooked food and more tea and coffee than we could drink. The meals I had there were divine, but the relationships built were even better. Even though these people had nothing, they offered everything.
Please keep all the people of Katerini in your prayers. The refugee situation is always changing, but our God is bigger than these struggles.
By Melissa Shaefer, OMS Refugee Ministry Intern
Continue following our blog to read the rest of Melissa’s story.