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.”