Greece (MNN) — More than 6,000 refugees, mostly Syrians, crossed Greece’s border on Thursday and Friday, August 27 and 28.
Ongoing violence in Iraq and Syria and “worsening conditions” for Syrian refugees in Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon are driving people to seek asylum in Europe. But is it the dream they hoped for?
In most cases, it’s a jarring reality. Tasos Ioannidis with AMG International says many of the refugees used to have good lives before the civil war started. Some even managed to hang on when the Islamic State entered the fray. However, when the barbarism proved to be too much, many of these families decided to head for greener pastures. “There are people that will charge 1500-2000 Euros a head to bring people into Greece, and they will dump them wherever. Then they leave it to the Greek authorities to pick up the refugees and deal with them.”
Greece has served as a gateway country, adds Ioannidis. “Geographically, it’s located between the crossroads of Africa and the Middle East and Asia and Europe. So it’s a main entryway for people coming from the East from Asia, or from the south–from Africa, into Europe.” The current estimate of refugee arrivals on the Greek islands like Kos, Mytilene, Samos, Chios, and others is between 3,000 and 5,000 new refugees per week.
They all arrive with a plan to pursue a new life out of the war zone in a stable, economic environment. “From the islands, they try to take them to the port of Athens. From there, the refugees either try to find something in Greece, or most of them want to try to continue north and make it to other places in Europe.” Instead, they get stuck. “People are living in the open–basically camping out wherever–at the ports, for those who make it to Athens–in public squares, on Mars Hill. They have turned those places into campsites, and it has been very difficult for everybody,” notes Ioannidis.
Not only that, but the Greeks aren’t exactly welcoming. ”There are a lot of people in Greece that don’t want these refugees in the country because it puts a strain on the country, so they want them contained. They associate the flow of refugees with violence in Greece, and they also associate them with an extra cost for them.”
Refugees need food, housing, clothing, and medical care. Among them there are small children, pregnant women, and older people. And at a time when the country is borderline insolvent, nobody has much to spare. However, Ioannidis reminds us that these are normal people who have been forced to flee from war zones in order save their lives. Many have witnessed the murders of family members; many have walked for weeks in the mountains to reach the “paradise of Europe” only to find more hardship.
Ioannidis says the evangelical community of Greece has responded from the first day providing any help possible in order to serve the physical and spiritual needs of these people. They’ve provided the simple things that go a long way toward human dignity: showers, medical attention, food, clothing, and more. As a result, “It’s a great opportunity to share the Gospel with them, which the evangelical community has been doing. There are a number of Christians among those people groups, and they’re sharing the Gospel with them.” In fact, Ioannidis says, “We have seen new ethnic churches started in the Athens area. There are a lot of people that are coming to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ among the refugees, and we praise the Lord for that. One estimate said that there are 90 ethnic churches in the Athens area.”
However, the local Church has been stretched thin by the needs of their own congregants. Greece’s unemployment rate is hovering around 28%. Homelessness (due to joblessness) spiked 40% since May. The government says at last count, there were 20,000 homeless people in Athens–among a population of 660,000. AMG’s Greece and Eastern Europe Director, Fotis Romeos, estimates there are 30,000-40,000 believers of all denominations in the evangelical community in Greece. They are trying to serve more than 150,000 new refugees arriving in Greece every year. Increasing needs and decreasing resources equals pressure. Ioannidis says, “We need people to be praying for the evangelical community and for its leaders who are so stressed right now, that they will be able to continue to minister to the refugees that are flooding the country, and also for funds for resources.”
What do “resources” look like? $20 will feed a family of 4 for 2 days. The refugee families will need warmer clothes and blankets now that the summer is drawing to a close. Some will need tarps for temporary shelter.
AMG plays a vital role connecting the evangelical community in Greece in situations like these. For example, partner Dimitris Tsoukalas is using a mobile medical van in a joint effort with Agape movement in Greece in order to distribute food to the refugees trapped in the northern borders of Greece. AMG’s St. Luke’s hospital is also providing medicine and other medical needs along with local churches and other non-profit organizations.
It boils down to this: the refugee crisis in Greece is a humanitarian tragedy with hidden opportunity. As Romeos challenges: “The question is what would Jesus do in this case? Let’s do it together!!”