Greetings from Estonia. Since our last newsletter, I (Charlie) have visited the Calais Jungle refugee camp in northern France again and Miki has just returned from the Greek island of Lesbos.
The scale of the refugee crisis in Europe has obviously focused our efforts in the last year, so we thought it would be good to dedicate this update completely to that aspect of our work. While in France, I made one short video which you can view here:
Feel free to browse around and watch the other videos from France and Greece located there as well.
Now, I’ll hand over the rest of the newsletter to Miki and her update from Greece.
It has taken a few days for me to put together a brief update on my time in Lesbos, Greece. As you can imagine, it is not easy to describe. I have now learned that the only way to really understand any of it is by actually going there and seeing the situation first-hand.
Practically, the work is pretty basic – assisting in preparing and distributing lunch and dinner to 2 different refugee camps on the island, one with 1,000 residents, the other with around 3,500 residents. This means a lot of repetition – from cutting peppers, potatoes and onions for 7 hours a day, to preparing 1,000 food boxes and bags assembly-line style, twice a day, every day. There is also the process of distributing the meals to the refugees – either by serving people individually as they come through a line, or by distributing boxed meals tent by tent. And of course, a lot of post-distribution time is spent scrubbing and mopping to prepare to do it all again the next day.
The hardest part of the work to describe is the weight of urgency that covers each day with the knowledge that the majority of the residents – particularly in the smaller camp – are children under the age 12. Until our group is able to get their meals prepared, packaged, and delivered, the people there will not eat. If we find we did not order or prepare enough food, or if the oven glitches out mid-morning, or we are short on volunteers, or any number of other issues that may make the distribution late, the parents, grandparents and children will not eat until we work out our issues and get to them.
In the Camp
Due to their resiliency, even those children with unhealed wounds and burns still visible on their bodies from their recent journeys are filled with joy to see us arrive in the food truck, and usually want to play or help us distribute the meals around the camp. One can almost forget the tragedy they have all come through – until in mid-play, a 5-year old boy jumps into your arms, wraps his arms around your neck, lays his head on your shoulder, closes his eyes, and for a few brief moments grows very still and quiet.
In those few seconds, you can feel his little body relax and breathe deeply in the support of your arms (which are already shaking from your own exhaustion). Despite your weariness, you think you could hold him for hours. “Oh, right,” you think to yourself, “You’ve been through hell to get here. And you’re hungry. Ok, let’s get this food over to your tent, where your mom or dad is certainly waiting.”
After a moment, you put the boy down, and give him one more hug. Then you go over to the truck, grab as many boxes of food as you can manage to carry, and the distribution process begins.
The residents in these camps are considered “extremely vulnerable” to risks of trafficking and abuse. So it is our job twice a day to get in, get the meals distributed, and then get out as quickly as possible, in order to maintain general security and calm within the camp. Generally, the people are happy and grateful to see you and to receive the food you are bringing. However, there are days when the overall mood in the camp is low – maybe due to some deportations that have taken place that day, or because of the rain that is keeping them and their children inside their tents all day. On those days, when issues of hopelessness and discouragement are most rampant, the people may seek to exert some sort of control over their situations, and may complain to the volunteers about the food, or about the team arriving late. Some days go more smoothly than others.
Almost everyone involved in preparing and distributing the meals is working on a volunteer basis:
1. There are those who, like myself, have independent sources of income and are able to pay for their own transportation, housing, and food in order to volunteer for a short period – generally 2-3 weeks. The funds we pay for our housing and food goes directly towards the cost of buying the food needed for the refugees.
2. There are other “long-term” volunteers who commit 4-6 months in Lesbos. These individuals generally do not have another source of income, and so they work in Lesbos in exchange for housing and meals. They do not receive any additional income for their work, and typically go several weeks without a day off (due to the urgency of the work, and the continual shortage of volunteer help).
3. The third group of volunteers is made up of refugees who are residing in the camps, and who have developed a relationship with the workers. These volunteers are almost always young men who are either serving all day in the camp, or who are brought each morning to the food prep center around 8:30am, spend the day preparing and distributing meals, and then are taken back to the camp after the work is completed – usually around 9:00pm.
Working each day side-by-side with these refugees, who may come from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Syria, Nigeria, or any number of other locations, can of course present certain tensions. But, if you are able to come in with a willingness to serve and to learn, these relationships can be among the most rewarding, humbling, and enlightening parts of the experience in Lesbos.
With this work, there have been a few unexpected issues that I don’t remember experiencing with other types of work we have done – at least not in the same intensity. For example, there is the physical, emotional and spiritual fatigue that I continue to experience, even after being home a few days now. I am distracted frequently as my thoughts keep “going back” to the people and the images I experienced in Lesbos, and I am constantly picturing in my mind what the volunteers and refugees must be doing right now as I prepare meals for my children in my kitchen, or as I sit in my warm, comfortable chair writing out these thoughts.
I have been dreaming throughout every night about the people there, and about their circumstances. And I am frequently and unexpectedly overwhelmed with waves of emotion, which seem to be triggered by the simplest things – i.e.: tying my son’s shoe, washing breakfast dishes, or listening to my daughter describe her costume for an upcoming halloween party.
Honestly, I believe there are times when both Charlie and myself almost wish we’d never learned the things we have learned. It seems clear that things would be easier and simpler for us now if we had never traveled into these camps in Serbia, Greece and France.
But we have been in those camps. We have seen and learned things that we can’t unsee and we can’t unlearn. And in the end, we can each of us only answer for our own actions.
We still do not fully understand what precisely we are to do with all of this we have seen and learned through this incredible and extremely difficult, complicated situation. We know that feelings about these circumstances and these people are strong – and that there are many who simply do not feel we should be involved at all. We also realize that this is not just a case of misunderstanding. The reality is that people in these circumstances are hurting, and are grieving, and at times are very angry about what they and their families have experienced.
So we appreciate your unfailing support and prayers as we continue to navigate our way through this season. We know we are bound to make mistakes and missteps, and we appreciate your grace and patience as we are praying and waiting on the guidance for each step from Him Who never fails, Who never missteps, and Whose grace never ends. He is still our Lord.
Charlie is planning his next trip down to Greece in November, to help lead a large group who will be serving in Lesbos from our ministry partners in Düsseldorf, Germany. We appreciate your keeping this trip in your prayers in these next few weeks.
Love and peace today,
Charlie, Miki, Isabel, Jasper and Celia
Ways to donate to this ministry:
By Check: Send a check to the following address, noting “Chastain/Russia 322” in the memo:
The Mission Society
6234 Crooked Creek Road
Norcross, GA 30092
By Credit/Debit Card: Go to: https://themissionsociety.org/give
In the box noting: “Give to a Missionary”, fill in the amount and 0322 for the “Four-digit Missionary ID#”