Still processing, but the first thing I want to say is that my team members were amazing! Everyone says mission trips change your life and I can now say that that is true. It wasn’t as much helping the refugees, important as that was, but meeting 15 people who are unlike most people I’ve ever known. They live and work joyfully, wisely, boldly, selflessly, tirelessly, passionately, COMpassionately, and fearlessly, just like Jesus. My tribute to them comes from the song “For Good” from the Broadway play, “Wicked”: “It well may be that we will never meet again in this lifetime but let me say, though we’re apart, so much of me will change from what I learned from you, you’ll be with me like a handprint on my heart. And whatever ways our stories end, I know you have rewritten mine by being my friend… Because I knew you, I have been changed for good.” (Kathy)

IMG_0365-1As I continue to use today to process, I have to say that crisis/disaster relief work is frustrating. I was very surprised that things were not organized “better” but as we worked I came to realize that things change daily – the number coming, the weather, the supplies you have, what they actually need…and you have to adjust. I’ve never been very good at that.

I worked in tents that were small and had very little light and people just kept coming. Having women point to themselves and their chidern in sopping clothes and having to try to communicate to them that we didn’t always have what they needed was very hard. Should illegals coming into a new country by the 1000’s expect a hearty hot meal, a warm and dry change of clothes, a dry, soft bed to sleep in when they arrive? Maybe not, but when you see them your heart breaks and you wish you COULD give them that, esp the ones who are literally running for their lives…The great majority of them were so gracious and appreciative for what little we did have – a sleeve of crackers and a bottle of water, maybe a small bowl of something hot later at night, a blanket that had to sometimes cover a whole family…Again, if you are interested in this type of work – disaster/crisis relief – whether here
or abroad, I would tell you to find a good organization that you believe in (our own SGI, Samaritan’s Purse, Operation Mobilization, to name a few) and send as much support as you can and earmark it for whatever is the most pressing need.

IMG_0346.JPG-1And if you can, VOLUNTEER! People ask why we spent so much money to get there, have a place to stay, etc, instead of just sending the money – they NEED “boots on th ground” and the ones who are there longterm need encouragement. I can’t imagine doing that work day in and day out for months on end! All the longterm people thanked us over and over for coming, even though we felt like we were sometimes in the way (or at least I did! LOL). So please pray for these people and the ones they are serving. (Kathy)

IMG_2736On our first day at the site, I met “A,” a single man in his mid- to late-20’s from the Diyala province of Iraq.

While he and some of his fellow Iraqi travelers waited for the next bus to arrive, “A” shared part of his story with me: he had been a member of a SWAT unit in Diyala until he was captured by ISIS and imprisoned for several weeks.

His family sold their house to raise the $40,000 ransom ISIS had set, which allowed him to go free.

He then went on to share – with a look in his eyes that I’ll never forget – that a friend and colleague, captured under the same circumstances and during the same period of time, had since been beheaded by ISIS.

His family left the Diyala province to seek asylum in Kurdistan, in the north of Iraq. They told “A” that he needed to leave altogether, that he wasn’t safe anywhere in the country. So he fled for Europe – whichever country will take him, as he explained it.

I asked him if he ever expected to see his home and family again. He looked down, shrugged, and shook his head. (Dave T.)

IMG_0172.JPGOne of the greatest joys I experienced on this trip was getting to witness the global body of believers come together, crossing boundaries of denomination, political affiliation, and country to love and serve in the name of Jesus. As one of the site coordinators – a vibrant young Greek church-planter – said, “While this camp is really just a bus stop, I’ve seen God work in this place. And we’re not just here for the refugees; we’re here to be Christ to each other.” (Dave T.)

IMG_0078.JPG“On our fifth day, I was tasked with ‘guarding’ the back ‘gate’ . . . really just a length of rope we used to form a rudimentary queue.  My job was to keep the refugees in the facility and to facilitate compassionate bus loading by keeping families together.  I would go up and down the line making sure that all families were together, remembering family numbers, and sending whole family units to the buses.

One stocky man of about 45 years indicated that his family was together and that they had seven total.  I stopped to engage him for a minute.  I found out that he was from Syria.  I asked about his family.  In broken English he indicated that this was really his extended family.  His wife and all his children had been killed in the war.  His eyes filled with tears as he began to break down.  I reached out for him and we wept great sobs on my shoulder.  For just a few minute we both reached over the cultural chasm to recognize each other’s shared humanity.  I could only hold him and say ‘I’m so sorry.’

IMG_2735He collected himself and turned back to his extended family.  He had lost almost everything.  His wife was gone.  His children were gone.  His house, home, and country were gone.  He stood before me in wet clothes holding his only worldly possessions in a plastic grocery bag. But he turned to the only family he had left, determined to lead them to some place safe.

I returned to the US, looked at my petty problems, and remembered this man and his determination to rise out of his sorrow and help those family members he might still have the power to help.” (Rob)

IMG_0158.JPGThere was a woman and her family needing dry clothes and shoes for her child. I had to tell her we were all out of any clothing that would fit her child and that all the shoes were gone. She went into the tent for the night with her husband and kids. In about an hour she was back out asking me if any thing had come in for her family and once again I had to tell her I am so sorry we are all out. Then her husband called for her to come back to the tent and at that point she looked right into my eyes, collapsed on my shoulders and wept uncontrollable. All I good do was hug her, cry with her and let her know she was safe and would soon be on her way. (Lisa)

IMG_0148.JPGWhen we arrived at Karatepe, the Syrian family camp in Mytiline we met the director of the volunteers. We had a very good discussion about their overwhelming needs and how we might help in the future. When asked what was the hardest part of volunteering ( they had been there for 4 months already), he said it was not running out of the food. His answer was: ” We cook and serve for 1,000 then another 1,000 then on 2,001 we run out and the next person in line gets none. He will say to me “thank you.” Not angry or resentful, but thank you for even caring. This grown man speaking broken English with a French accent breaks down into tears. (Lisa)

IMG_0155.JPG“Give me an ‘O’, give me an ‘H’, give me an ‘I’, give me another ‘O’. What’s that spell? ‘Ohio’!” After enthusiastically belting out this football cheer, the young Syrian girl waiting in line repeats my words and hand motions. She finally cracks the first smile since I watched her and her family enter our refugee station. Her parents, now smiling too, thank me profusely in their broken English for all we have done to help. As I am getting the 50 other Afghans and Syrians travelling with them in line and ready to board a bus to another camp for registration, I find myself doing whatever necessary to make all of them feel welcome. A sports chant may be a trivial thing back in my corner of the world. However, for a seven year old whose short life has been long on barrel bombs, sniper fire, and public decapitation, the banality of everyday life in middle America was no doubt a comforting change. “Welcome, God bless you, I will be praying for you all on your journey,” I tell them as I escort the next group of Syrians and Afghans to the bus. I wave goodbye and receive some of the most warm and sincere “thank you’s” I have ever experienced. (Paul)

IMG_0313.JPGAt the bus station, we all find our roles. Some handing out food and water, some passing out the socks and supplies that were so generously donated by Christians around the US, and others mingled with the refugees to hand out toys to the children and make their families feel welcome.

Since I speak a little Arabic (and I emphasize “a little”), I was tasked with organizing and lining up the refugees for transport to the camp where the Greek government would register them and ship them on to other countries in Europe. I would occasionally take a break to walk through the station and get to know the families there. It was great to watch the barriers fall as our team began reaching out and getting to know the traumatized foreigners, even if only for their brief time at our station.

IMG_0348-1Whatever apprehensions anyone on our team carried into the camp dissolved on contact with Syrian and Afghan children smiling and laughing as they played with their first balloon. And the families noticed. The love and warmth was unmistakable, and the more I reflect on how different we in the west are to them, it was also supernatural. This is a big part of why we all came – to meet needs both tangible and intangible, physical and spiritual. (Paul)

IMG_0129.JPGI sat in the corner of the tent talking with an old man from Syria. As he told the story of the death of his young son and the demolition of his house by bombs we watched a man from our team with a white beard bat a balloon with several small children. I asked the man if his heart was in Syria. He responded, “No. My heart is here. I see these people helping me and treating me like a human being. Look at that old man,” he said. “He is playing with a balloon with children. Hear their laughter. In our country there is only shooting. I want to be like him.”

12063728_10156171666290092_2772875441895428130_n“About to start heading home. And I’m not ready in the least. The greatest need is presence- hands to pass out donated supplies, voices to explain and comfort, hearts open to bearing one another’s burdens. I have learned more about graciousness and kindness from a people many would portray as dangerous or hostile than anyone else in my life. This crisis will not disappear. These people I have met and hugged and sat with will not disappear. Incredibly awed at the privilege of this week, and confident that I will in some way be back again to advocate for the friends I have made.” (Lizzie)