Monthly Archives: November 2015

Part 4: Returning home through Serbia

Note: This is the final part of our series describing our journey to Serbia to work with refugees this past October.  If you haven’t already, please take a look at the earlier parts to get more of the story!  (Miki and Charlie)

After the conference, we drove over to Montenegro to visit friends there and to spend a couple of days resting before setting out for our 6 day journey back through the Balkan refugee route on our way to Estonia.

The journey from Montenegro to Serbia was beautiful – through the mountains filled with autumn colors.  But the terrain was often rough, and was a reminder of why the refugees were choosing the route through the more flat land going through Macedonia and Serbia.

After several hours of winding mountain roads, we were quite road-weary as we pulled into the hotel in Belgrade at around 8pm that evening.  We decided to find some late dinner and then shortly after headed off to bed.

The following morning, on our way back to the central train station in Belgrade, we stopped off at a large market and filled our van again with socks for adults and children, blankets, water, cereal bars, and any other supplies we could find.  Once again, we were discouraged by the lack of sturdy children’s shoes available.

Upon arrival at the train station, we drove straight to the park we had first visited a week prior.  As we parked, it was clear that we were arriving during a “lull” time.  There were less than 100 refugees sitting around – almost all of them men.  By now we knew that this likely meant that the morning buses to Croatia had already left with the women and children, and these men were likely staying back to wait for the next available seats on buses that would hopefully come that evening.

As we walked up to the charity tent, we were immediately recognized by one of the younger volunteers there.  She walked up to us and said, “You are the ones who brought the tents last week, aren’t you?”

After shaking hands and introducing ourselves, she told us that Andrei had stepped away from the tent for a few minutes, but would be back shortly.

While we waited, we watched several city workers who were in the park, cleaning up debris and trash – taking down old camping tents that had been left behind.  It was difficult to watch them throw all of those tents into the dumpster, but it was easy to understand why they had to do it.

Many of the tents had apparently been used several times over many weeks, and had naturally become filthy.  Inside many of the tents were old blankets covered in black clay that had crusted over, obviously over the course of many days.  In these moments, watching as the workers picked up piles of blackened, crusty socks and sweaters – all filled with holes and wreaking of filth and body odor – we received a glimpse of yet another complication in the facilitation of the mass migration of thousands of refugees – sanitation.

My first thought was, “Why can’t they just wash these things and reuse them?”  But then I tried to imagine the type of location and effort that would be needed to properly clean and sanitize camping tents, and realized that such a facility likely did not exist in Belgrade, Serbia.

About this time, Andrei walked up to us smiling, and greeted Charlie with a hug.  After a few minutes of catching up, we learned that this was indeed a “lull” time, and that they were expecting several thousand refugees to come into Belgrade that evening.  Charlie told him that we had brought more supplies to leave with them, and that we had some funds with us if he could tell us what additional supplies we could go look for in Belgrade that day.

Andrei told us they no longer needed a generator, as one had been donated just a couple of days prior.  An older Serbian women happened to own one – and said she wanted the people working with the refugees to have it.

“But what we do need now is heaters,” Andrei said.  He explained that the dropping temperatures were beginning to complicate the situation even further, especially at night.

“A few nights ago, a lady walked up to one of our volunteers holding a large bag,” he began.  “Without speaking, she just handed the bag over to the volunteer.”  Tears came into his eyes as he said, “We opened it up. Inside, there was a child.”

I also began blinking back tears, and just stared at him, totally stunned.  Finally, I asked him, “What did she want you to do?”

“We didn’t know what to do,” Andrei said.  “We took the child out of the bag, tried to clean him up, dressed him in some dry clothes, and then gave him back to the lady.”

I didn’t know what else to say.  Andrei was called into the tent.  I just stood silently, watching our kids run in circles and play freely in the sunshine.

As Andrei walked back into tent, Charlie said he was going to pull the van around to unload the supplies.  I told him the kids and I were fine to wait and play a few minutes by the tent.

While we waited, the volunteers began serving sandwiches.  Several refugee men who were in the park walked into the tent to get some food.

As they were walking back out of the tent, a small group of men seemed to be talking about me and the children.  They were not aggressive at all, just appeared to be curious.

After a moment, our daughter whispered, “Mom, they are coming back.”

I turned around to see two of those same men walking towards us, smiling and holding out their sandwiches to us.  They wanted to give us their food.

I wished at that moment to have known at least some basic Arabic.  But I just smiled and said in English, “No, thank you. That is very kind.”

They seemed to understand, nodded quietly, and walked back to their group.

A couple of minutes later, Charlie pulled up beside the tent.  When we opened the back of the van to unload the supplies, a few of the men waiting for food came over and began carrying cases of water and large bags of clothing into the tent, before returning to the cue.

I could not know for sure, but I had a strong impression that these men were just tired of sitting and waiting.  They wanted to be helpful.  They wanted to be appreciated.  Just like my husband and all of the other men that I know.  It seemed as simple as that.

Before we left, Charlie and Andrei discussed the heaters a bit more, and Charlie said he knew where he could find them in Belgrade.  We knew there would not be room in the van for all of us along with the heaters, so the children and I said one more goodbye before getting into the van, as we would not be seeing Andrei or those volunteers on this trip again.

Charlie dropped us off back at our hotel, and went to a hardware store he knew, where he managed to find 4 large industrial heaters.  That same night, Andrei sent photos of the heaters brightly lit with refugees standing around each of them.  Two heaters had been placed in the tent in Belgrade, and two had been sent down to the volunteers serving in Preshevo.

Closing Thoughts

Back on our first day in Belgrade, as we were driving through the busy streets looking for the central train station, we came upon a building that had huge, violent, gaping holes, which began from the roof and moved down.  The image was so grotesque that even our children noticed it.  Our oldest pointed and asked, “What happened to that building?”  

Then we noticed that it appeared to have been a government building before it was condemned, and realized we were looking at remnants of the NATO bombings of Belgrade in the spring of 1999.

We now know it was the Yugoslav Defense Ministry building – which was bombed on April 30, 1999.  

I don’t know why it had not occurred to me until that moment that barely a generation ago, there was a massive refugee migration out of Kosovo and Albania in the late 90’s, during the tragic Serbian ethnic cleansing campaign against them.  I thought about where I was during those years, and specifically during those airstrikes that spring no long ago.

I was a university student, and that was about the time that I met Charlie. 

I remembered hearing on the news about the atrocities and violence that were happening in Serbia, Kosovo, Albania and other locations throughout that region.  I remembered President Clinton’s televised statement declaring that NATO forces had begun airstrikes in Serbia.  I recalled the stories he shared of the homes and villages of Ethnic Albanians in Kosovo being burned to the ground – of Kosovar men being pulled from their homes, lined up and shot by Serbian military.

But at that moment, looking up at that blown out government building in Belgrade, instantly all of the nameless faces and stories on the television from sixteen years ago transformed into the men and women who were walking beside our car, taking their kids to school and going into the office for work.

In the next several days, as we drove through Kosovo and into Albania, this humbling, life-changing transformation continued.  Along the way, we saw bombed-out remains of farms and villages about which we had only heard of on NPR or NBC Nightly News.  We met local people who’d lost their entire families, and heard personal accounts of both Albanian and Serbian individuals who’d been forced to take other human lives for the safety of their own loved ones.

In the months and years before coming to Belgrade, I had heard similar news stories of drought, civil war and terrorism – all of which was driving people from their Middle Eastern and Northern African homes into refugee camps in places like Turkey and Jordan, and then into Europe.  But, as with the Balkan conflict of the 90s, I had barely given those people a second thought – except to say to myself, “I am so glad that place is far away from me and my family.”

But through a series of circumstances, one day our family turned off the news reports.  We left our comfortable living room.  We climbed into our car and drove down through Serbia.  And we found ourselves standing in the very scenes that had felt so far away just a few days prior.

I looked into the faces of these men, women and children who had seemed so strange before.  And the most haunting moment was the point of discovering that in real life – outside of the television screen and scrolling news reports – the women look a lot like me.  The men look a lot like my husband.  The boys and girls walking barefoot through the rain and mud look a lot like my children.

I have been continually convicted in these days since our trip with the offensiveness of my apathy – my disregard toward the suffering and grief which plagues my brothers and sisters in other parts of this little world. 

A thousand times I have asked myself, “How could I have been so blatantly unconcerned?  Did I not recognize them as brothers and sisters?  Did I doubt their worth as human beings?  Doubt that they were also created by the hands of the God Whom I claim to love?  Why?  Was it racism?  Was it fear?”

As I was considering these questions recently, I stumbled upon a particular passage in the story of Sarah and Hagar from the 16th chapter of the book of Genesis.  In verse 13, the author writes about the name that Hagar gave to the Lord after an angel rescued her from the desert:

“She gave this name to the Lord who spoke to her: ‘You are the God who sees me,’ for she said, ‘I have now seen the One who sees me.'”

And then I heard the voice of my Father, in gentle conviction and love say, “Miki, you have not seen these people, but I have.  They are my children, and I see them.”

Entirely because of His grace in those couple of days in Serbia, God began to heal my blindness, to restore to me new vision, opening my eyes so that I could begin to truly see what I had never been willing to see before.

I now believe this to be one of the greatest gifts of life for the children of God – that we may be able to see one another. 

Even more, that we may recognize one another as brother and sister, through the eyes and grace of Him Who made us, Who saved us, and Who is forever our Father.

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Part 3: The Serbian/Macedonian Border

Note: This is part three of four describing our journey to Serbia to work with refugees this past October. Please look for the final part soon! (Miki and Charlie)

The first hour of our drive after leaving Belgrade was pretty quiet. 

We had spent no more than 3 hours at the train station, but felt quite weary from what we had experienced in that short time.  As we drove towards Preshevo, we were once again uncertain about what we would find there.  Any doubts we had harbored regarding the significance of the need there, however, had completely disappeared after our time in Belgrade.

With our van now empty, we decided to stop off in Niš, Serbia along the way to search for more humanitarian aid.  In addition to tents, we hoped especially to find shoes for children who were old enough to walk, as we had learned that these were the biggest needs in these camps.

This was when we learned of yet another complication in the effort to serve the refugees coming through Serbia.  In the few stores we were able to visit, we found exactly 3 camping tents available for sale, all of which were quite expensive, and too heavy to carry.

Additionally, we learned that it is illegal to bring used shoes into Serbia.  All supplies would have to be purchased new.  However, as we shopped we found almost no children’s shoes – and the ones we did find were being sold at premium prices.

With the available funds on hand, we had to make a choice between buying blankets, socks, water, cereal bars and bananas for about 100+ people, or buying warm, fairly sturdy walking shoes for less than 10 children.  It was actually a very difficult choice for us, but we left the shoes behind.

By the time we reached Preshevo, it was around 7:00 pm.  It was dark and raining quite heavily.  As we pulled into the village, it felt eerily quiet.  There were 3 or 4 police officers directing the little bit of traffic we saw on the street, occasionally pulling cars over to search, presumably, for hidden refugees.

In the dark and rain, we tried to find and follow signs for the bus station.  After a few minutes of driving, we had almost decided that there were no refugees there at the time, and that we should head on into Macedonia, where we had planned to stop for the night.

As we approached what we’d decided would be the last street we would search, we began to see some activity. Through the dark and rain we slowly began to make out figures walking through the street.  Once we reached the next intersection, Charlie said, “I think we’re here.”

As we turned onto the street, our headlights broke through the dark and rain to reveal what looked like thousands of people – adults and children – walking through the rain and mud in one direction down the street.

As we drove slowly through the crowd, we saw people walking together in small family groups.  Many of them had identical yellow ponchos (with UNHCR logos on them) laying soaked and heavy on their heads, water running off the bottom edge onto their feet.  Their faces, legs, and shoes all appeared to be completely soaked.  Women and men carried babies and small children.  We saw some older children walking with no shoes on their feet at all.

Everyone was making a great effort to keep themselves covered.  Parents held their own ponchos over the heads of their children for extra protection.  There wasn’t a sense of panic, but the expressions on the faces of the people reflected the reality of the long night they were facing:  sitting in the dark, in the pouring rain, huddled for hours together with their children, all soaking wet and shivering.

People also seemed to be aware of the risk of unrest in such a large crowd spending so many hours in such difficult circumstances.  So there seemed to be some effort to keep the mood light.  As people walked, many were chatting almost casually.  Sometimes children would linger in the rain for a bit, and would then run to catch up with their parents.

Other people were not walking, but were sitting huddled together under ponchos.  About 50 people had found a bit of shelter under a store front eave.  Even those who had managed to find some shelter from the rain were soaking wet, many sitting with children in their laps for some warmth.  As they sat, some talked – even occasionally shared a laugh.  Others just sat quietly. 

I remember as I looked over the scene, thinking to myself that sleep for any of them was going to be impossible.

In the dark, we initially could find no charity or service tents at all.  Finally, we came upon a small medical tent that appeared to be open. It was the only light shining on the whole block.  Charlie pulled the van beside it and went in to find a volunteer who might be able to give us direction on distributing the supplies we had in the back of our van.

The lady he met told him that at that moment, there were about 9,000 people there in that street, and that they were expecting 10,000 to 12,000 more to arrive in the next few hours.  She explained that they were all coming to Preshevo in order to catch a bus bound for Croatia.

However, we heard that there was only expected to be about 1,500 available seats on buses that evening. This meant that they were planning for about 17,000 people to be spending that night huddled there on the street in the pouring rain.

Upon hearing those numbers, we once again felt embarrassed by the scarcity of the supplies we had brought with us.  But Charlie explained to the volunteer what we had brought, and she suggested that, as in Belgrade, it was probably not a good idea for us to simply open up the back of our van and to start handing out food and water – particularly in those circumstances.  She told us that near the police station in town was a gathering place for supplies, and that maybe it would be safer for us to take the aid there.

So, Charlie climbed back into the van, and we headed off towards the center of the village of Preshevo, maybe a 7 minute drive from the bus station, in search for the police station and the supply center.

As we entered into the lights of the center of Preshevo, we were surprised at the number of people we saw walking the streets there, who also were covered from the rain.  Initially, we assumed that these people were all refugees.  We were only about 3 miles from the bus station, but we did wonder why they had walked so far from the buses in that rain, and thought maybe they had gone there to look for food or shelter.

As as we kept driving, however, we began to realize that all of the people we saw walking around the center of Preshevo were locals who were just out on the town. We saw what looked like a government building with a large crowd of people standing outside, which we thought might have been the supply center.  But when Charlie walked up to the building, he realized that it was a high school, and that the people going in and out were students who were attending a school dance.

It was a bit surreal to see people carrying on so casually with their normal lives, just a few miles down the street from where thousands of people were spending the night in the rain. 

When we finally found the police station, Charlie pulled in and walked up to the officer working at entrance gate, in order to ask for directions to the supply center.  After chatting for a couple of minutes, the officer motioned for Charlie to follow him around to the main building of the station.  Charlie agreed.  So, the officer swung his Kalashnikov rifle over his shoulder, put his arm around Charlie’s shoulders and together they laughed and walked into the station.

In these past years of living and traveling through Russia and parts of Eastern Europe, Charlie and I both have gained some experience with the local police, so I never became particularly nervous.  But I admit that those 10 minutes before Charlie and a couple of Serbian officers finally emerged from the building were a bit longer than I’d liked.

I wasn’t worried for Charlie so much.  But, I had started asking myself how much longer I should wait before the kids and I could assume he’d been arrested for some reason, and we could head on down the road to the hotel room we had reserved in Macedonia.

As they walked back out into the rain, the 3 men chatted emotively, laughed and shook hands one more time before Charlie walked back to the van.  As he was getting back into the driver’s seat, I asked him, “So, did ya’ll have fun in there?”

Apparently, the police unit of Preshevo, Serbia does not get random visits from Americans often – particularly Americans who speak Russian, and who are carrying a load of aid to distribute to refugees traveling through town.

It seemed that Charlie’s visit brought a bit of a break – even some comic relief – to the officers, who had said they were gearing up for another difficult night near the bus station.

They explained to Charlie that everyone had been working double and triple shifts keeping order among the refugees for weeks, and that even at that moment several officers were at their homes getting some sleep before coming back in for the night.

One officer said, “I don’t know what we would do if it weren’t for those kids from Germany.”  He was referring to the medical volunteers we’d just met at the tent back at the bus station.  In total, there were 8 of them serving in Preshevo.

He also informed Charlie that the supply center was closed for the night.  He thought it was best if Charlie went back to the bus station and distributed the supplies himself, and then got his family out of Preshevo before it becoming “more tense” later that evening.

“This is going to be a long night,” he explained. “You don’t want to be here with your family.”

So, we headed back towards the bus station.  By the time we returned, we found that the street where the refugees were had been closed off by police.  Charlie explained to the officer there who we were and that we had supplies to distribute.  The officer didn’t ask any questions, and quickly waved us through.

When we returned to the charity tent, we decided we were going to have to do exactly what we’d hoped not to do – which was to open the back of the van and try to get the supplies distributed on the street.  Within seconds of opening the back door, the people began to notice us and started gathering around.

The children sat in the back seat of the van watching as Charlie and I began to distribute aid as quickly and easily as we could, while rain poured down on us.  Suddenly mothers were there with young children in their arms, dripping wet and asking me for leggings to put on their child.  Older children came with pleading eyes, and pointed timidly to the pile of dry blankets in the van.  All of the bananas we’d purchased earlier that day were handed out to the children and mothers in less than 2 minutes.

But when we began to hand out socks, the tension built somewhat.  Everyone was desperate for dry socks. 

One young girl came up whose shirt had no sleeves under her poncho.  So Charlie handed her a pair of socks, which she put on her hands as gloves. Men began to come up asking desperately for socks.  At this point we began to get a bit nervous, and motioned for the people to step back – which they all did easily – and we closed the door.

As the crowd slowly disbursed, we managed to get the remaining water and cereal bars unloaded into the charity tent with the help of one of the German volunteers.  Then the volunteer said, “We need to figure out a way to distribute these socks now. They really need those.”

We decided to put the remaining socks and blankets into large trash bags so that Charlie could carry them onto the street for distribution instead of letting people get them directly from the van.  I started looking through our own suitcase to find the few pairs of leggings I had brought for our daughters, in order to give them to young mothers who I saw sitting just a few yards away.  I asked myself, frustrated a bit, why I hadn’t thought of leggings when we were buying supplies to hand out.  Our oldest daughter, Isabel, who was still sitting in the back seat of the van with her brother and sister, took off her rain coat and handed it to Charlie, and asked him to give it to one of the little girls.

Then I stood by our kids in the van and chatted with the volunteers at the charity tent while Charlie walked through the street handing out socks and blankets to the families huddled under ponchos and coats.  A couple of families sent their older children to meet Charlie and to ask him for socks.  The entire time, we were confronted with the reality that in the heavy rain, the socks and blankets we gave would likely only stay dry for a short time – most certainly not for the entire night.

After Charlie gave out the last supplies, he and I spent a few more minutes standing in the rain, talking with the volunteers at the tent.  We were surprised by how much the police and the volunteers there seemed to appreciate our visit, and by how eager they were to talk with us.  We were shocked also by just how few volunteers were actually there, working in these camps.  We had the sense that through days and weeks of serving thousands of refugees, they had begun to feel isolated, as though no one else in the world cared about what was going on there.

In those few minutes, they shared several stories with us, mostly about how helpless they felt most of the time as they were unable to provide any real shelter to these travelers.  Unable to provide shoes to the children walking barefoot, or warm coats to the people traveling through falling temperatures.

They kept saying, “We just do not have the supplies.”

We also learned from them that the Serbian government had begun periodically sending military into these unofficial camps in order to relieve the local police, to help maintain calm and order.  The volunteer who had helped us unload our supplies earlier now took a moment for a break.  He lit up a soggy cigarette and shared with us a story from a couple of nights prior, when the Serbian military had been called into Preshevo.

He told us that the situation on that particular night was like most any night:  thousands of people came through the village.  Some families waited in the long line, hoping to get a seat on a bus to Croatia, while others struggled to find a place on the ground to gather together for some warmth and rest.  As the hours passed into morning, people obviously became more exhausted and frustrated.

Finally, around 4am, after the buses going to Croatia had left, the people remaining in the street began to quiet down.  A sense of calm settled back onto the crowd.

The military personnel who had been patrolling the street through those hours also began feeling that they could take a break.  Several sat down on the same street corner at which we were now standing, just in front of one the aid tents.

After sitting for a few minutes, some of the soldiers sitting on the curb began to cry.

“Eventually, there were about 30 military guys sitting right here on this curb, with their heads in their hands, just weeping,” the volunteer told us. “Seeing so many people with such incredible needs, and being able to do almost nothing for them – it’s just overwhelming,” he said. “For everyone.”

After about 5 minutes of chatting, some refugees approached the tent needing assistance.  We felt so helpless, even ashamed for leaving them there in the rain to face the night on their own.  But the children were getting very tired, and we knew it was time for us to go.  We shook their hands, thanked them again sincerely for their service, climbed back into our warm, dry van, and drove away.

Less than an hour later, we pulled into the parking lot of the little hotel in Skopje, Macedonia, where we would spend the night.  We made our way into our cozy room, took warm showers, put on dry pajamas, and climbed into our clean, warm beds.  Normally, the sound of the rain pouring down outside of our window would have been a source of comfort – lulling us off to sleep.

On this night, however, it haunted us with recurring images of the hundreds of families, just like ours, who were spending that night just a few miles down the road, sitting in the mud and rain. 

We were exhausted, but sleep did not come easily.

The following evening we were expected to arrive at the missions conference we were attending in Albania.  In the morning, we were all still feeling worn out, and were moving very slowly.  Gradually, with several stops along the way, we made our way out of Macedonia, through Kosovo, and into Albania.

The few days we spent in Albania with other families who were working in missions throughout Europe, Africa, and Asia were very encouraging and refreshing for all of us.  We had opportunities to sit and learn from others who had many years of experience working with refugees.  We received rich, refresher courses on recognizing and embracing different values and perspectives in intercultural and interfaith relationships.

Perhaps most encouraging for us and our children, however, was simply time spent with others whose perspectives on these things are so similar to our own.  Our children didn’t feel like they were the “strange” ones in the group of their peers.  We never felt that we needed to explain or defend our actions.  Nor were we put on any sort of “pedestal” for what we were doing.

Everyone understood that we were all living and working only by the grace and mercy of our Father, in Jesus Christ.  We all knew that at times, as a child of God, this is simply what obedience looks like.  The timing for this fellowship was very good for all of us.

There were also several at the conference who had been following our journey through Serbia, and knew we were planning to go back through Belgrade on our way home in a few days.  Many of them had brought supplies from their homes all over the world, in order to pass them off for us to carry back through Serbia.  Others gave from their own pockets, saying they wanted to do what they could to help ease the incredible burden being carried in those camps. 

The day before we departed Albania, we took some of these funds to a local outdoor market, where we found several used, but durable winter coats, which we purchased from a local vendor.  The lady was a bit shocked that we wanted to buy so many coats, but happily obliged! 

By the time we pulled out of that little Albanian village, the back of our van was already halfway full again, with clothes and supplies to be distributed to the refugees we would encounter on our way back home.

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Part 2: Belgrade

Note:  This is part two of four describing our journey to Serbia to work with refugees this past October.  Please look for the next two parts coming soon!  (Miki and Charlie)

The next morning, in the van on the way to Belgrade, I became anxious. 

I was quite discouraged by the conversation we’d had the evening before with the church leadership in northern Serbia, and an internal struggle was raging inside of me.  I was praying silently as we drove down the highway, asking God, “What do we do now?  We really thought this was what we were supposed to do, but now we are here and have no idea where to go!”  (In hindsight, I have been convicted at how quickly and often I began to doubt God throughout our journey.)

After a few minutes of prayer, I felt a peace begin to settle within me.  I heard a quiet whisper in my spirit: “Miki, right now, just trust Me.”

Two hours later, the vast countryside began to become littered with buildings, and we soon entered full-on into the speed, noise and intensity of the Serbian capital.  We had looked for the train station on the map, but there were several in Belgrade and we didn’t know where to go.

I decided to walk in a cafe to ask for directions.  I ordered a couple of coffees and asked, “Where are the refugees?”  The waitress answered, “They are everywhere!”  She was kind enough to give us directions, and a few minutes later we made our way to the central train station of Belgrade.

What we witnessed there has continued to haunt our every thought in the weeks since.

As we neared the train station, the streets became quite crowded with pedestrians –  many walking in and out of the station, carrying backpacks or pulling suit cases behind them.  Then Charlie pointed over to a small parking lot and said, “There are some refugees.”

I looked and within the crowd stood out a small family – two men with a few women and children – who did not walk with the same pace of the busyness around them, but went much slower, almost casually.  All of them, including the children, were carrying oversized back packs.  One of the men was carrying a small child on his hip.  They all wore several layers of clothing, the color of which had been grayed out by the dirt and fumes collected from weeks of shelterless travel on the road.

As we drove through the busy intersection towards that parking lot, more of these families began to surface from within the crowd.  We began to make out almost a stream of refugee families walking the same route through the street and around the corner to a park located behind the train station.  In just the few minutes it took for us to park our van, it had become clear to both of us that there were many more than 50 refugees camping near this train station.

We would come to find out later that there were many small parks in downtown Belgrade – and most of them had become small tent cities full of refugees. 

As we got out of the van, we saw a man approach one of the families and offer in English to drive them to Croatia for 100 euros.  There were flyers posted everywhere in English, Serbian, and Arabic offering rides or other information to the travelers.  We wanted to start handing out supplies immediately, but we could see from the numbers of families walking past us that simply opening up the back of our van could have resulted in an unnecessary rush, and we didn’t want anyone getting hurt.  So we decided first to follow the stream of people around the corner, and to try to find a better way for distribution.

As we walked around the corner towards the park, we began to see the tents – maybe 50 small camping tents set up in the small park, with a few people sitting and standing around each one.  Any grass that had been growing there had been trampled by the crowds, and the park grounds now consisted only of black dirt.  On either side of the park were two lines of about 30 portable toilets, all sitting in mud.  There was also a large water truck with a faucet on the rear, where a group of travelers were trying to clean up as best they could as we arrived.  There were a few charity tents and trailers (UNHCR, The Red Cross, Remar SOS) also set up throughout the park. But at that time, only one appeared to be open.

Small groups of women with covered heads and tired eyes sat together on park benches, chatting or just sitting quietly, watching their children playing in the dirt at their feet.  After a few minutes, a bus pulled alongside the park to a spot where a few men, women and children had been waiting in a line.  The men escorted the women and children onto the bus, and then stepped away and waved goodbye to them through the windows as it pulled away – we assumed on its way to the Croatian border.

Bus seats to the Croatian border were quite limited.  We learned that many refugee men were sending their families on ahead, and were staying back in the camps to catch the next free seat. In the park there were groups of these men who were now traveling alone, sitting together, talking, sometimes sharing a joke.

After a few minutes of walking through the park, we decided to go into the open charity tent, and to ask the volunteers if they had ideas on the best way to distribute the aid we had in our van.  As Charlie approached the tent, a young dark-haired man with tired eyes and a warm smile came out from behind the service tables.  He and Charlie shook hands as Charlie explained to him that we were a family who was traveling through Belgrade, and that we had brought with us some supplies to distribute for the refugees.

At first the man was a bit speechless.  He glanced over at the kids and I standing a few feet away, then looked back at Charlie and finally said, “What?”

We learned that there were very few volunteers working in the camps in Serbia.  It was quite common for each volunteer to work 14-16 hours in a row, before being told by their coordinator to go get a few hours of sleep before coming back for another shift.  Many of these volunteers had begun to feel very isolated, believing that no one even knew what was happening in those camps, or perhaps simply that no one cared.

So when an American family of 5 randomly strolled into their tent in Belgrade saying we’d brought aid given by supporters who were from all over of the world, it was for them like a cool breeze of fresh, damp air in the midst of a fire storm.

The volunteer, whose name we learned was Andrei, asked Charlie what specifically we had with us.  Charlie told him we had tents, socks, sleeping bags, shoes and winter coats. Andrei smiled and said, “Those are exactly the things we need.”

He explained to Charlie that they were getting more than 100 requests for tents every day, and that dry socks were one thing that almost every single person who came through the tent was needing.  They agreed that we would pull the van around to the park, and unload our supplies directly on site.

Then Charlie asked him about food.  Andrei said they were preparing to serve a lunch, but were out of bread, margarine and marmalade.  Charlie asked how much he thought he would need for lunch that day, and Andrei told him about 25-30 loaves.

“OK,” Charlie answered. “I think we can do that.”  So the 5 of us made our way back to the van, and on the way stopped in 4 different shops to buy all of the bread we could find.

Obviously an American walking in and asking to buy all the bread in the shop draws some attention – and at one of the shops a cashier asked him, “Why do you want to help those monsters?”  The cashier probably assumed that Charlie wouldn’t understand Serbian, but there are many similarities with the Russian language.  Charlie just smiled and thanked them for the bread. 

As Charlie and Isabel were coming out of the last shop nearest the van, they came across a refugee man who appeared to be in his mid 60’s, traveling with a young boy no older than 5 years of age.  When Charlie and Isabel found them, they were rummaging through a dumpster.

Charlie approached the man and asked him to come back with him and Isabel to our van, where I was waiting with our younger children.  As they approached our van, Charlie explained to me where he had found them, and asked if I could look for them some supplies before we drove around to the park.

The man pushed an old bike beside him, which had a small rack on the back.  Tied to the rack was a blanket and a few clothes.  Both the man and the boy carried large back packs.  The boy wore pink hiking boots, which appeared to be too small for him.

Both of them were timid and quiet.  The man seemed embarrassed as he stood there watching us search through the mounds of supplies in the back of our van.

The boy had scratches on one side of his face, which were filled with dried blood and dirt.  His dark curly hair was matted in places with mud.  But it was apparent that he had gotten a hair cut recently, no more than a few weeks prior.  His eyes reflected fear and even shock, and it was clear that he had recently seen tragedy.

Charlie offered the boy a sleeping bag.  The boy glanced up at the man, first waiting for his approval.  When the man nodded, the boy accepted the bag from Charlie, and a small smile broke through in his eyes.  We then offered a 2 person tent to the man, who nodded and thanked us as he swung it over his shoulder.  

Then I asked Charlie to go the front of the van and bring me a bottle of water, as I searched through our bag for a towel.  As I poured water onto the towel, Charlie asked the man where they were from. “Iraq,” the man answered quietly.

I slowly knelt down with the wet towel in front of the boy, and looked up at the man to ask if I may clean the boy’s wounds.  The man nodded, so I gently pressed the wet cloth onto the boy’s cheek.  Gradually, I saw the boy’s shoulders relax, and he lowered his head into my hand.  I laid my other hand onto the other side of his face – and for almost 10 seconds, he closed his eyes, and just rested his face into my open hands.  

For those few seconds, we all were quiet, and I could tell the man also saw the boy resting in my hands.  We knew none of the details of the circumstances that had brought them to this place.  But in those quiet moments, we could hear the silent tears of that little boy, who in the midst of all of the chaos and confusion, just clearly and desperately missed his mom.

After cleaning his face a bit, we offered them some pastries, a loaf of bread and a bottle of water, which the man put onto the back of the bicycle.  Then they thanked us one more time, and slowly walked off towards the park.

We all got back into the van, and had barely gotten the doors closed when our 9-year old daughter broke down into tears and climbed into the front seat into my arms.

After composing ourselves, we drove the van around to the park to begin unloading the supplies at the charity tent.  With Andrei, another volunteer, Charlie, myself and the children all carrying supplies, everything we had brought was unloaded in only a couple of minutes.  For a moment, I felt almost embarrassed at how little it now appeared to be given the massive size of the need they were seeing come through every day.

After unloading, Charlie explained to Andrei that we would be coming back through Belgrade the following week, and asked what we could try to bring them.  Andrei said that they were needing a generator so that they could stay open later as the nights were becoming darker.

Andrei also suggested that we try to make a stop in a little village near the southern border of Serbia, called Preshevo.  He explained that most, if not all, of the refugees coming into Serbia were going through Preshevo, and that the situation there had also become overwhelming for the few volunteers who were working there.  We agreed to fill up with another load of aid on the way, and to stop through Preshevo that evening on our way into Macedonia.

The kids and I thanked Andrei, said our goodbyes and began to get back into the van. Charlie shook Andrei’s hand one more time, when Andrei looked at him curiously and finally asked, “Why are you doing this?” 

Charlie was a bit surprised by the question, and responded, “Well, why are you doing this, Andrei?”

Tears came into Andrei’s eyes as he answered, “Because I know that God is alive.” Charlie nodded and said, “Yes, I know that, too.” The men hugged one another, then Charlie climbed into the driver’s seat, and we headed off towards the Macedonian border.

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Part 1: So many unknowns

Note:  This is part one of four describing our journey to Serbia to work with refugees this past October.  Please look for the next three parts coming soon!  (Miki and Charlie)

When we drove out of Tallinn – our three kids strapped in the back seat of our van filled with coats, socks, sleeping bags and other humanitarian aid – we had no idea if we would even meet a single refugee.

In the weeks before our trip, we had been so encouraged by the outpouring we received from many friends and churches who shared our desire to provide aid for the refugees seeking asylum in Europe from the Middle East and Northern Africa.  Seeing people from our childhood community coming together to raise awareness and funds, so that we could carry aid down to refugee camps on our way to a missions conference in Albania was great confirmation for us of God’s hand in what we were doing.

However, in those same weeks, we had also encountered fairly significant hostility from several others about our plans to help the refugees.  Even as we had explained how we came to our decision, inside we couldn’t help but acknowledge our own concerns about what we were doing.

We had been compelled to act by the images we had seen of thousands of men, women and children floating across the Mediterranean on rafts, walking miles alongside Hungarian highways and sleeping in the dirt in public European parks.  A part of me actually carried the hope that we would arrive in Serbia and discover the stories we had heard were an exaggeration, and that the situation was not actually as dire as it had been portrayed.  What a relief it would be to discover that there was no longer a need; that the refugees traveling had every comfort met.

But another part of me was scared of that very same thing.  We had heard the accusations:  that these people were not refugees, but were instead “terrorists and rapists” forcing their way into Europe – not fleeing oppression or danger but coming only for the financial gain they intended to obtain through exploitation of the social systems, with the ultimate objective of converting the EU into a Muslim-extremist society through acts of terror and oppression.  I have to admit, even as we made our way to Latvia that day, quietly inside I was asking myself, “What if we are making a huge mistake?”

And then, the darkest fear whispering in my heart:  ”What will people say about us if we have made this huge announcement to everyone that we are driving down to take supplies to refugees, and we get there only to discover that they were right – that there really was no need for us to do this at all?”

For the first 3 days of our journey, as we traveled through Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary, this struggle continued to play out inside of me.  I was conflicted between a true compassion and desire to show the love of Jesus Christ, and a deep, dark hope that I myself would be vindicated, even called savior for a day in those refugee camps.

A friend who had recently been in Belgrade, Serbia told us that she’d seen many refugees there, particularly near the central train station. But that had been weeks prior, and we knew that the routes and locations of the traveling refugees were changing frequently.

So we made arrangements to spend a couple of days with a church contact just north of Novi Sad, Serbia, near the Croatian border.  Our hope was that they would be involved with the refugee crisis, and could provide us information and assistance on logistics for us to deliver the aid we had brought from Estonia.

When we arrived, we were warmly welcomed at the church, and felt very comfortable in the guest apartment they offered on the church grounds.  However, the information we received from the leaders there was not as helpful as we had hoped.

“There really is not a need for aid for refugees in Serbia any longer,” the pastor told us through a translator.  She explained that the church was working at the open borders, through which refugees were traveling on their way to Germany. She told us that at the both the southern border with Macedonia and the northwestern border with Croatia the church was there, and that they had all of the supplies and help they needed.

She also confirmed that there were no longer refugees at the train station in Belgrade.  “They are not stopping in Belgrade any more, but are going straight to the border,” she reported.  “If any are there, it is just a small number – 50 at the most.”

She offered to carry our aid to the northwestern border camp near Sid for us.  But we explained that the supplies we had were donations from individuals and churches, and that we felt we needed to take the responsibility of delivering them ourselves, if possible.

She said that in that case, we should plan to carry the supplies further south, into Macedonia where the people are poorer, and where there is still a need for aid for refugees.

After this conversation, we realized that our original plan to stay with this church for 2 days was not going to provide the opportunity for us to work with refugees or distribute any of the aid we had.  So we thanked them sincerely for their generous hospitality, and decided to get up early the following morning and head further south.

But precisely where we were to go, we still had no idea.  We remembered our friend who had visited us in Tallinn a few weeks earlier, had said that she had seen refugees at the train station in Belgrade.  Then we considered the pastor’s report earlier that same evening that no more than 50 refugees were still there.

Finally Charlie said, “Well, then we should be able to help those 50 with what we have in the back of our van. Let’s go to Belgrade tomorrow.”

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Our thoughts on the Paris attacks in light of our work with refugees

Like many of you, Miki and I have been gripped by the news reports of the terrorist attacks that occurred in Paris on November 13 – and the subsequent investigations taking place in the region.  We’ve been both horrified by the violence and inspired by the outpouring of love and heroism of everyday people in a city we so dearly love.  

Paris has been a dream of mine since I was a little boy.  My parents recall me proclaiming as a young child that I planned to move to Paris and be an artist.  My father’s family can trace their roots back to France.  Miki and I honeymooned in Paris.  I have been very fortunate to work and make music in France – and through that journey I’ve gained many beautiful friends in Paris over the years.  I love “ville lumière” (the “City of Enlightenment”).

By itself, the fact that I’ve friends in Paris and have traveled there for different reasons over the years does not give me any particular insight into this event or justify your reading my sentiments here.  The only reason I’m compelled to talk about this tragic event is because of our recent work with Syrian refugees traveling through Europe and their connection to this terrorist act.  


When news reports started trickling in about hundreds of refugees making their way across the Mediterranean every day to seek refuge in the EU from their war-torn homelands, Miki and I started paying attention.  Mind you, there has been an ongoing refugee crisis for years now in Turkey and Jordan – and I’m ashamed to say that it was out of sight, out of mind.  

As the numbers shifted from hundreds to thousands of arrivals every day, we began to ask God if and how we should help.  I’ve only had a few times in my life where I feel like I received a clear word from God – and one of them was the call to help these travelers as they made their way north into central Europe.  Miki felt the same conviction – and we decided to act.

Knowing that we could not enter into this work alone – we began asking for your support to help us to do what little we could to try and assist in the humanitarian effort.  We were surprised by the response – mostly positive, but also some very negative reactions to our plans.  We’ve lost some support because of it, and have received both public and private criticisms of our efforts.

Miki and I really hadn’t considered the geopolitical implications of this mass migration into Europe.  We simply saw people in need and felt called to help.  As the negative responses came in, we began to understand how polarizing this whole event could be.  People wanted to express their opposition from a political or strategic position, but we continually expressed our desire to keep that out of our decision.  It’s not that we don’t have political opinions about what we’re witnessing – it’s just that we felt very strongly that God wanted us to focus our attention on the human cost and relationships. 

In short, our work with the refugees in Serbia was life-changing.  It was clear that we were right where we were supposed to be – and it was so much more than just handing out humanitarian aid.  We felt like we were witnessing whole chapters of the Gospels occur before our eyes.  And it was evident that this was only a starting point for us.  


So imagine the disgust and heartbreak as details slowly came in about the individuals who brought about these sickening attacks in France. 

The information has been changing sometimes hourly as the investigation continues – but what we know now is that there is a real possibility that at least two of the attackers found at the soccer stadium had traveled north from Greece within a group of refugees in early October.  Syrian passports found nearby were registered with the Greek government upon arrival on the island of Leros on October 3.  The Serbian government says that one passport was again used to cross its southern border in Preshevo on October 7.  

My family and I worked in Preshevo – distributing a van load of humanitarian aid to 8000+ refugees waiting in the rain for busses to Croatia.  

There are a lot of unanswered questions at this point about the authenticity of the passports, the true identities of the dead attackers and the motive of why someone with intentions to die would carry a passport in the first place. 

Still, Miki and I have had to deal with the discomfort and anxiety of people with murderous-intentions exploiting the plight of these refugees and the people who are trying to help them.  Its nauseating to think about.  

At this point, I want to address my friends in France.  We are so sorry.  I don’t really know what else to say.


I’ve lost sleep and have been kicking myself about all of this.  Could I have done something different?  Did I put my family in harms way?  The shame and confusion that hit us since the attacks is NOT of God.  We know that.

We expressed (even before we left) our awareness that there were probably people in these crowds with ill-intentions towards the west.  But when events such as Paris confirm it, it doesn’t make it any less troubling.

If nothing else, this is a telling reminder that Kingdom work is messy.  It can be dangerous and infuriating.  There are no easy solutions to any of this.  People die.  People have been dying since the beginning.  And yes, people reject God. 

There have always been temporary failures in Kingdom work.  But I’m reminded that the same Grace that ensured the final triumph over evil is the same Grace that carries us today.  


So where does that leave us with our desire to help refugees?  What about my plan to bring more aid down to Serbia in December?

At this point, the plan is to keep going.  Yes, some of the concerns raised have come to pass.  But those were never our concerns in the first place and there are so many that still need help.  

 

Here’s where our conviction resides:

We are called to love our neighbor. (Mark 12)

We are called to offer hospitality and care for others in need.  (Hebrews 13)

We are called to love our enemies.  (Matthew 5)  Even the ones we’re not aware of in our midst. 

We believe in the words written in Romans 12 by Paul – an ex-terrorist:

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. 2 Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

3 For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. 4 For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, 5 so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. 6 We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; 7 if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; 8 if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead,do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully.

9 Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. 10 Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. 11 Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. 12 Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. 13 Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.

14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.

17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. 20 On the contrary:

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;  if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.  In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”  21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Overcome evil with good.   

 

While there may be ISIS individuals within these masses, it is clear that the vast majority of these refugees are fleeing the threat of ISIS in their home countries.  Many of these travelers are themselves victims of ISIS, just like those in Paris. And, among them may very well be another Saul of Tarsus waiting to become a Paul.  

We believe God’s love, mercy and grace are for the refugees just as much as for you and me.  In fact, we believe that only the blood of Jesus Christ can reconcile the darkness that pervades in this world.  

Darkness cannot overcome the light.  We, as the Body of Christ, are called to be that light.  

We are also reminded that Christ was a undocumented refugee.  Mary and Joseph had to flee with Him to Egypt to avoid Herod’s sword.  

Matthew 25 says:  ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’   

We believe these refugees to be the least of these in our midst.  For us in this time, serving refugees is serving Christ.  

Finally, we believe that the lives of these refugees are intertwined with yours and ours.  That our actions, our in-actions, our choices and our opinions affect one another from one end of the globe to the other.  We still have no policy agenda to propose.  We have no way to perfectly ensure my safety or the safety of those with whom these refugees are directly interacting.  

We will continue to be overwhelmed with the magnitude of this crisis.  We will have our hearts broken, and we may face more opposition moving forward.  

We will still try to love as we hope to be loved.  

And we will carry on.  We hope that you will continue to join us in this effort.  

Over the next few days, we will be telling stories on this blog about our work in Serbia with refugees, and hope that you will read them and find encouragement in all that we have to do – together.  

May God bless and keep us all.

Charlie

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