This is part five of a six part series written by Melissa Shaefer who interned with OMS Hungary doing refugee ministry in Europe this summer.
What can be said about a place that brings equal amounts of pain and joy? A place that serves as a wait station between certain harm and a new life. A place that is meant to grow life, but in turn contains it, making a jail of canvas walls and good intentions.
As the Greek economy started to crumble, many farms found it harder and harder survive. At the same time, Greece remained one of the favorite vacation spots for much of Europe. In response, farmers turned to agro-tourism. They added play grounds, cafes, and outdoor cooking areas.
When the refugee crisis began, one man opened his farm to a handful of families. However, when the UNHCR- The UN Refugee Agency said they couldn’t justify sending food that far for only a few families, the owner and his family opened their farm to over 80 families. At first, no one was allowed to live in the large house—they were only occasionally allowed to use the inside space for classes or clothing distribution. However, the many families had free use of the river and the outdoor spaces, as well as license to visit the many animals located on the farm.
This farm, Camp Heracles, is the hardest part of my journey to talk about. When I first arrived, a German team was engaging the older children and some adults in intense language lessons. My job was to keep the little ones from going in and disrupting. On my first day, I felt useless—I had gone from passing out necessary items in Serbia at a harrying place, to letting two little girls braid my hair. As I did my devotions that first week, though, I realized how silly I was being—how prideful, even. Of course this was important work too. Kids need normalcy. They need to feel important and cared for. What more could I do than to love these kids unconditionally? I look back on that first day, and remember their bright eyes, and joyful giggles as they wrapped my hair around their hands, or tried to imitate the braids in my roommate’s hair. For just a little while, I was able to bring normalcy to their lives. I was able to make them forget the pain of their parents, simply by sitting and smiling.
Once the German team departed, a much smaller team was left behind to provide entertainment. Andy and Rog were great with the young men, whether they were 13 or 50. They would joke and laugh and listen to music. Andy was really good with the little kids too. He’d let them climb all over him. Jacob provided games of chess and cards, while also learning whatever games the men at Heracles wanted to play (normally backgammon). Dorothee would then teach the few adults left who were truly interested in learning German. She started building closer relationships with the women as well. While doing all of this, Jacob and Dorothee also kept one eye on their children. This was the only camp their kids, Eli and Miri, were allowed to enter. Boy oh boy, did everyone at that camp love those two. At four and two, they were so full of life. They brought out the good side of the other kids, giving the older ones a chance to show some responsibility, and to feel needed. Jasmine, my roommate, was a champ with the six to eight little girls who would follow her around. Yells of “YASMINA” could be heard wherever we went, because everyone wanted her attention. There was little Susanna and her high pitched giggles and constant need for attention, Seema with her need to feel in control and useful, and Mal who seemed to be the outsider in a camp of those forgotten. Yet Jasmine always had a kind word and a smile for each of them.
I was somewhat of an outsider for a little while, until I started spending time with O. This 23-year-old Syrian had mastered English, along with her native tongues of Kurdish and Syrian. She was forced to flee Syria after just 10 days of University. She left with her husband, mother, and two brothers. Her father was unable to accompany them, as his parents were ill and he did not want to leave them. About two weeks into my time at Heracles, I noticed this bubbly young women acting more subdued than normal. The next day, I found out that her family home had been bombed. Everything she once owned was completely blown away.
But she didn’t let that keep her down for long. Instead, she studied new languages, occupied her time with the little ones, or helped to prepare food. She also started to improve the Kurdish I learned at Petra, teaching me something almost every time we were together. Through her, I met Mama G, Rose, and Mel. I laughed with them, as they told stories of their children. I cried with Mama G when her youngest boy, who she hadn’t seen in more than a year, turned 18 in Austria. I listened to them as they cursed the governments that led them here, and pleaded with those that kept them here, away from loved ones, locked far from the world. I also rejoiced with them as friends and family were allowed to move on. I sat and watched the aftermath of chemical attacks with Affer, Mel’s husband. We could only speak with each other in broken sentences, but he meant a lot to me. We’d sit in silence together, he always offering food, or drink. His stoic face would always break into a smile as I kissed Mel’s cheeks, or accepted food from him.
Camp Heracles still remains. Mama G and Rose are still there, while Mel and most of the other families have moved on. There are a lot of broken hearts there in Greece, but there are also countless spirits that refuse to be broken. They could all use your prayers. All of the people I met at this camp brought so much joy into my life. They were warm and forgiving, even when the world around them proved to be cold and harsh. They are another branch of my family, one that will be cherished forever.
By Melissa Shaefer, OMS Refugee Ministry Intern
Continue following our blog to read the rest of Melissa’s story.