While the refugees slept, we were told some of us could, too. Praise the Lord! We divided hours of sleep among ourselves. My two guys didn’t want to sleep at all and the rest of us thought we’d get what we could. One of the plastic containers is a napping room for the volunteers. It’s full of cots, sleeping bags, and blankets… all of which are nicely folded for the next group when the previous group leaves (I choose to believe in faith that at some point these things get washed… nonetheless, we were grateful!)
It was cold and our bedding felt damp, but knowing we still had 16-ish hours left of our shift, we slept what we could the few hours we had.
We were all up by 7am, ready to get breakfast going for the refugees. We pulled a table into their large tent and filled it with milk, cornflakes, and bananas. We walked around offering hot tea and being a smiling face to welcome them to a new day.
A new day in a new land with new worries, new hopes, new ambitions.
It soon began to rain, but we remained undaunted. We pulled out bubbles, soccer balls, lollipops, and whatever else we had to entertain the throngs of children.
I understand the news in the U.S. has said that the majority of refugees coming over are single men… Yeah, not so much. This group was about half children. The rest was made up of their mothers, their fathers, uncles, cousins, and very, very few single travelers.
My students later reflected on the many hours they spent entertaining children this day. How they would begin to feel nervous when the kids would tire of an activity and had nothing else up their sleeve. One of our students noted how in every situation when he didn’t know what to do next… God gave them an idea. He knew it was the Lord guiding their time because he had NOTHING. What a joy to see Him provide even in this.
I encouraged them, as the only mama on the team, how impactful it is when other people love my children. And I can only imagine being a mama in this situation…
Where my children have seen the airplanes fly low, dropping bombs on our neighbor’s home. Cement and brick and debris landing on the sidewalk in front of our home, where minutes before the children had been playing. They’ve seen family members killed. Schools burned down. Heard the whispers. Seen the fright in our eyes… the ones who are supposed to say, “It will be okay.” But now those words don’t come, and slowly everything we owned vanishes, one piece at a time, until all they’re left with is a small bag with a few clothes, a favorite blanket, a coveted doll. The planes come again and again, and finally, in the dark of night, I grab my children, hold them close to my chest… and we leave the only home we’ve ever known. We’ve watched other families flee… but never thought it would be us. But now. Now it’s us. We’ve sold everything; we can afford some of the journey… unlike some of the poorer friends we leave behind. They have no hope of escape.
Somehow, under the cover of a few night skies, we make it to the sea. We pay $1000 for each adult, $300 for our oldest, and the youngest is free. After a few days of sleeping in the woods, waiting for calm sea and scarce coast guard, we prepare to board… a raft. A raft meant for few, yet it continues to fill with people. We’re handed life vests and quickly put them on. People shush the crowd, fearing the Turkish coastguard will see or hear us and drag us to jail mercilessly. The men at least. I would stay behind, husband-less, with my two children. Jail might be better.
We put the children in the center of the raft, we women circle them, and the men behind us. I can’t see a thing. The raft is pushed out into the water and the motor propels us for about 15 minutes before cutting out. Water splashes in from all sides, settling in the center where the children sit. Many are crying, calling out for warmth, for food, for safety. A few men grab paddles and begin stroking the water, heading toward the lights of Greece… our sanctuary. The water is choppy. Someone falls overboard. And another. They cling to the side of the raft as we move slowly, slowly forward. Hours pass and our hearts beat insanely. We’re exhausted. We’re wet. We’re freezing. I pull my daughter into my chest and hold her as tightly as I can. My son hangs onto my legs. I pray…
We make it. We make it to the shore. It’s a miracle. People grab the children and hand them overboard. My kids are frantic to keep their eyes on me or their father. We’re close behind. Someone throws a blanket over our shoulders, pulls off our shoes, wraps our feet in a shiny foil. They pull those who’ve fallen in the water to the shore, wrap them completely. I grab my children and look back over the expanse of water. Turkey blinks at us through the dark.
A bus takes us to a place to sleep. We get dry and warm and find a mat to collapse on. We huddle close, still shivering, partly from the cold and partly from the fear of what’s next and the anxiousness to keep moving. What have we done?
With the dawn comes the weight of all that’s behind us and all that’s ahead of us. If it weren’t for my children… I might never have left. Did we make the right choice? They whimper in their sleep. The nightmares sometimes wake us all… memories of the chaos, the fear, the death at our door. “We’ll be okay,” I whisper… but will we? Do I believe this myself?
Then the smiling faces come in our tent. They offer hot tea. It’s sweet but warms me up. The kids all begin to rise, driven by the curiosity of these strangers. They speak funny. They look a little funny. But something about them says I’m safe for now. They pull out bubbles and laugh as they dance around the children. Soon, the children are dancing and laughing as well. Even though it’s begun to rain outside and the weather is dreary, there are smiling faces everywhere. One of the strangers approaches my children, hands them a candy as they hide timidly behind my back. The candy wins them over and they peek behind. I nod permission. They creep out and follow the smiling strangers into a room of fun… blocks, puzzles, music, bracelets, toys. My young son joins a game of soccer in the small yard. For a little while, I feel at home. I rest against my husband, reflecting on the last few days. My daughter comes running in, her face beaming. She holds out a bracelet that she’s made. Her smile finds my face and I think it’s the first time in a long time… she runs back out with other children, joining the games and songs and biscuits of these strangers. These loving strangers. Why? Why would they do this?
You can love me (verb) and it will speak volumes. But if you love my children, you will lift my soul from dark places and help me forget, for a while, the burden of all I carry. Loving them is like double-loving me.
This was how I hoped to encourage my students after hours and hours of loving on these children… knowing that the momentary happiness and laughter was like medicine for their whole families. A chance to just be kids again. How my mama-heart soars to think about it. How my eyes well up with tears at the grace God would show me in caring for my children through such a traumatic journey. At how we, through His grace, got to care for them through theirs. I hope my students caught a glimpse of the greater story… that it was so much more than just playing with kids to keep them busy… but a precious gift for the whole family.
This is what we did clear up until lunch, when the Greek woman who cleans the camp came and asked if she and some local friends could make lunch for the refugees. You see, it was Lent that day, and the villagers wanted to give the gift of their warm hospitality to these illegal foreigners. How heaven came to earth in that very moment.
The Greek villagers came to the camp and cooked for hours. Seriously. Hours. We set a big table in the large tent and loaded it with goodies from the villagers… locally grown olives, homemade olive oil and wine and olives, traditional greek salad and a whole variety of dishes. Homemade bread. An amazing rice dish. Octopus and olives (which was surprisingly gone FAST). A Greek Orthodox priest came and shared with the refugees the meaning of Lent and why the villagers wanted to share this meal with them. According to our host, it was unlike anything he’s ever seen at the camp… villagers, volunteers, and refugees coming together for a feast, with the message of Lent.
I suppose it’s not completely coincidental that I’m writing this on Easter, the day we celebrate that our God didn’t stay dead. If Lent is a reflection of our sin and the practice of self-denial, then Easter is the culmination of the ultimate self-denial for our sin, a complete flip in the sky. The day when generations of failing to live up to the standard of the law was fulfilled in one single and final death… a death that covered it all. All that sin we reflect on during Lent was blotted over with the Son of Man on a tree. The self-denial we practice is pale compared to the tears of blood He sweat in Gethsemane, pleading for a new plan, a new cup, yet giving Himself anyway. The feast we shared with the Greek villagers and refugees was only a taste of the feast He sets before us. Then Sunday comes and death is conquered and the prize is claimed and the gift of freedom is offered to all.
And it was freedom that brought each of us to the table that day in Skala.
Some fleeing for it. Others present because of it. Some having tasted it and wanting more. Others still on a journey of receiving it. But together, regardless of which chapter of our life we’re living, we met at the table and feasted.
What a gift.
Happy Easter, friends. May you relish the freedoms you have, the gift you’ve been offered, and hopefully received.
And remember these 70 who joined us at the Lenten table, who now spend their first Easter in a new land, with new hope, and the opportunity for Love to reach them freely in ways never before.
Pray for them. One of the women I met at this camp has made it to the border… but she and her children are ill. These families are spread all over, persevering through the next daunting part of their journey… crossing closed borders, living in awful conditions, overcoming illness, safety among many desperate strangers, safety from brutality, the fear of being sent back, the conditions of the newest agreement between the UN and Turkey… some feel helpless, hopeless, and defeated. Let’s pray for God to join them in visions and dreams (as He’s done for so many), to open borders and boundaries in their hearts and in their actual paths, and for true freedom, in every sense.
I leave you with one of my favorite quotes (year-round):
“Do not abandon yourselves to despair. We are the Easter people and hallelujah is our song.” -Pope John Paul II