On Monday we went out to the refugee camp for the first time. The camp is right on the Northern border of Greece with Macedonia near the town of Idomeni, about an hour north of Thessaloniki. The first stop on the way to the camp was at a gas station along the highway, where we saw about 10 charter buses stopped. These buses were full of refugees who had arrived in Athens over the last few days and were heading to the border. Refugees mulled around in the grass, and we met 4 smiling kids as we got out of the car to have lunch.
We continued to the camp and took a small tour of the camp. Currently no one lives in this camp; it is just a transit point. The charter buses arrive from the gas station in stages and refugees stream off. They receive a warm meal, water, and supplies such as sleeping bags, toiletries, and diapers for parents of young kids. Our main job was to hand out big black shopping bags to those who had too many small things to carry easily. After dark when it started getting cold, we also passed out winter hat and gloves to men, women, and children who needed them.
A few months (even weeks) ago, refugees from many different countries passed through this camp, but right now Macedonia is only accepting those from the war-torn countries of Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Many are single men traveling alone, but there were a large number of families with small children, even babies. We saw a few pregnant women and old or injured people who could barely walk on their own. It was sad to see some others turned around because they came from “less needy” countries.
Many of these refugees have been through crazy situations. We talked to two Kurdish guys from Iraq who had left their country only 3 days ago. From Turkey, like most refugees, they crammed onto an inflatable motor raft with 45 people to cross over to Greece. The motor gave out when they were about a mile from shore, then the raft filled with water and they had to swim! Thankfully they were rescued by a fisherman. One of the guys showed us how his stylish jeans had been stained badly by sea salt.
Most of the refugees speak only a little English, but that first day we had the chance to meet some Syrian university students with very good English. As they were standing in line to cross the border, we had the chance to get into a very good conversation. One guy named James* mentioned that his family lives in a country where people are very religious and he “hates those people” because they are hypocrites. That opened the door for us to talk about Jesus’ teaching that following religious practices does not make us right with God. We asked him what he does to remove the sin debt that we all have against God, and he mentioned basically the Islamic rituals of prayer 5 times a day. He asked what we do, and we were able to share about the hope we have in Christ as “the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29). We also talked about how Adam and Eve’s first sin of disobeying God has consequences that separate us all from God even today, though we are still responsible for turning away from him. James* was fascinated and said, “Yeah, I have often thought our lives would be so much better if they didn’t eat that fruit!”. As we were just a few feet from the guards at the border crossing, we quickly shared the story of the Prodigal Son and then had the chance to pray for James right there in Jesus’ name that he would have a safe journey. A few seconds later he crossed the border.
On our second day before heading to the camp, we read Revelation 7:16-17. Make this your prayer with us for these refugees. Pray that those who are hopeless would find their only true hope in Jesus:
"Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat down on them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes."
*name changed to protect his identity