Category Archives: Syria

“The Signs Don’t Mean Anything”

In the wintry first light two dozen heavily bundled Syrian refugees are huddled on blanket-softened benches in front of the aid station at the edge of Miratovac village when I arrive for my day’s work. Dads, moms, and children are already munching bananas and mandarin oranges and fighting off the icy fog’s chill with chai tea. YWAM volunteers from Schloss Hurlach, working with German-based Humedica and American Medical Teams International medical personnel, greeted them as they began arriving an hour ago. Led by 6-foot-5-inch Michael Gun toting children and luggage up the last hill, the volunteers welcomed cold refugees with warming drinks and needed nutrition. It had been a sleepless night for most of them.

aleppo-food-distribAt midnight, after a series of metallic shrieks from the brakes, a 1940s-vintage train had jerked to a stop with a decisive final jolt, coming to rest in the feeble yellow glow cast by three temporary light stanchions. To the unshaven men and the scarf-bedecked women anxiously peering through windows, a full moon revealed rolling hills, barren trees, and frost-covered fields – but no railroad platform and no buildings. Reminiscent of an Eastern European passport control stop when borders still mattered, it soon became clear this train’s destination had been reached. Lights came on in the carriages, children woke and asked their parents, “Where are we?” – the parents did not know, and a uniformed Macedonian conductor, his undersized hat balanced on curly black hair, strutted through the carriages, announcing, “Granična kontrola. Izlezi sité!” – Border control, everybody get out!

img_9824Borders mattered again. All the train’s occupants were by now painfully aware of that. Carefully negotiating the three steps attached to the train’s doors, lunging the last eighteen inches to the coarse rocks lining the railroad bed, the mostly Syrian travelers numbly disembarked. Children, bedding, and suitcases were handed down the steps with sleepy chatter. Well worn but not uncomfortable, the ancient carriages dating to an era when all passenger trains were dark green, had provided a four-hour respite from the life of waiting and hurrying, hoping and worrying. With babies and bedrolls strapped to winter-coated fathers and mothers, the pitiable human chain robotically followed the officials in the funny hats through the no-man’s land at the border, then a swamp, and finally onto a hastily built road made of coarse crushed rocks. By the time they reached the reception center on the Serbian side, moist clouds of exhaled breath hung over the struggling procession. Fatigued and emotionally exhausted, a dull disinterest had settled over the midnight arrivals.

Hours earlier, a spark of hope had energized Sofia, a refugee from Aleppo, as she prepared to board the ancient train in Gevgelija at the Greek-Macedonian border.img_9857

“Omar, over here. This one is going to Berlin,” she had called to her husband as she climbed onto the stairs of one of the green carriages rescued from the railroad retirement yard. Indeed, in a slide-in slot adjacent to the door, the weathered sign proclaimed Berlin Hbf – Berlin Hauptbahnhof – as the destination. Berlin! Their goal, their hope, the shining city of their dreams, rubbled Aleppo’s replacement. For a moment, it seemed too good to be true.

“Sofie, the signs don’t mean anything. The last one said Budapest Keleti,” Omar, struggling with the luggage, shouted back, as he jerked his head in the direction of the previous carriage. Having heard what a dead-end Budapest’s main train station was for refugees, and taking no chances, he played it safe and followed Sofia onto the steps of the Berlin Hbf  carriage.

aleppo-refugeesThat was twelve hours ago. A packed reception center had forced them to huddle together under the stars until the false dawn peeked over distant hills and creaky joints were prodded into movement again. Now cradling hot chai after a three-mile, pre-dawn trek to the Humedica aid station, Sofia and Omar, beginning to warm up, are gratefully receiving the kindness of the volunteers. It is not Berlin, but they are one country closer to their goal, and one country farther from their lost home.

(Note: The first, second, and last picture are wire service pictures)

The Road Less Traveled

Carrying their possessions on their backs, Syrian refugees Sayid and Nabilah are spent as they reach the Humedica aid station. Nabilah sheds her pack and bedroll attached to it, collapsing onto the blanket-covered bench in front of the clinic. The last hill of the three mile trek from the border exceeded her limit. Rivulets of perspiration course down her temples onto her flushed cheeks. She pulls off her gloves, and cradling the cup of hot tea I hand her, allows it to warm her hands. Tired eyes express her gratitude.

Sayid, in limited English, speaks for both of them,

IMG_9770“Tsank you,” he says with a slight bow. The “th” gives him trouble, just as it did me when I was an immigrant in America many years ago.

In truncated phrases Sayid speaks of their home in Aleppo, destroyed by bombs at the beginning of the war. After moving in with relatives they were bombed out again. When they survived yet another attack on their neighborhood, they had no place else to go. As he describes the destruction of his beloved ancient city, his eyes cloud over. Images of bombed out Berlin, Dresden, Coventry, and so many others in World War II come to my mind. The stories of destruction and the horrors of war, even told in shreds of sentences, are so familiar, and still so senseless.

When Sayid and his family have finished their chai, a hard-boiled egg, and a banana, there is nothing else I can do for them – except point them to the God of the universe whose Son’s immense love taught us how to love. Attempting to communicate this carefully without giving offense, I looked intently into Sayid’s face. I hope he recognized a bit of that love on this stop of his sojourn.20151223_110354

Traveling with the Arabic speaking group were a number of young men from Syria without families. Polite, less encumbered with grief and loss, immune to the rigors of four thousand kilometers on the road, they seem to be on an adventure. Hard earned money had been invested by their families in sending them to the west, one of the Syrians explains to a volunteer. Syrian families do not want their sons to be cashiered into the service of Assad’s army or into one of the rebel groups. Senseless death is not in their mindset. Believing younger men have the best chance of securing work in the west, the parents hope they will be sent for later.

Not so pleased with the adventure is a young couple, also from Aleppo. They too have lost their home, good jobs, and a good life. With a sister in the United States, they visited there, but returned when their tourist visas expired. An application for a work permit 20151222_132935was the next dead end. Now, seeking asylum, they are half-way to Germany. Fatigued, homesick, disillusioned, and without faith in a loving God, they are losing hope. Encouraging them is difficult.

As they are leaving, the next train’s refugees begin to arrive. It is a large group from Afghanistan. Among them is a burly, tousle-haired Afghani man with his ten children. His three wives accompany him. Trustingly draped across the top of his voluminous backpack is a two year-old. Wearing a pink coat with a tasseled hood she is sound asleep. Her left arm dangles over her fathers’ shoulder. Seeing him holding her hand reassures me about her precarious perch. With his other hand the dad-of-the-day is carrying a duffel bag too full to zip.20151223_082120

I approach two boys who speak some English, thinking they are part of the group. One is sixteen, the other, his brother, fifteen. They are traveling without family. After leaving the rugged mountain valleys of their home, they hiked through western Afghanistan and crossed into Iran. Walking, hitch-hiking, and riding buses when they were available, they made it east to west across Iran, and then Turkey. After a scary boat ride to one of the Greek Isles – they did not know its name – they joined the great European Refugee Road. Three months after leaving home and family, they still possess the air of two sky-larking youngsters at summer camp. Their spunk reminds me of the journey of Anne’s great-great grandfather and his brother who left the Orkney Islands at similar ages to travel to Canada with the Hudson Bay Company over 170 years ago.

As the sun ducks behind the Macedonian hills, the last of the afternoon train’s refugees have come up the hill. The road from the official border crossing joins a narrow, older road in a Y in front of the aid station. The other road is less traveled, coming from the closed border crossing at Lijane. Limping, more than walking, emerging out of the setting sun, two emaciated young men on the Lijane road approach me. They are North African, judging by their appearance, and they are without backpacks or bedrolls.IMG_9803

“Do you have any food?” the taller, skinnier of the two asks me as soon as he is within earshot.

“Of course,” I reply and invite them to sit on chairs in front of the store room.

Before I can go inside to see what I can rustle up for them, he steps close to me, and almost pleadingly, asks,

“Are the Serbian police bad?”

Caught off guard, I ask him in turn,

“Do you have something to hide? What have you heard? Are your papers not in order?”

Given a choice of three questions to answer, he chooses to trust me, and bares his soul.

“We are Moroccan and we don’t have any papers. What will happen if we go down the road?”

Knowing that any refugee who comes down the road from the closed border is entering Serbia illegally, I sense trouble for the two starving boys.

But that is not in my purview. Meeting their most basic need we feed them eggs, bananas, juice, and rice cakes. They devour all of it with eagerness. Between bites they tell us they walked the length of Macedonia. It took four days. They said they were robbed by the Macedonian Mafia along the way. Maybe. It is a common story among the Moroccans who pass through the closed border.

Glancing at their shoes reveals another pressing problem. The top leather on each boy’s shoes is separating from the soles. Gaping open, the shoes reveal socks and toes. While the volunteers manage to find two new pairs of shoes and socks for them, we bandage their blistered feet and speak of why they left home.

“There is no future for us in Morocco,” the emaciated one states emphatically. It is a theme echoed by Sayid, the young couple from Syria, the boys from Afghanistan, and countless others since I arrived here. Poverty, repression, and endless wars certainly bring the lack of future into sharp focus. But so does living poorly among the wealthy, or living richly without meaning.

Caught between their desire for a better life and EU rules declaring only asylum-eligible refugees can cross Serbia – which excludes Moroccans – the boys don’t know what to do. Without permission to move forward, or resources to return, they have reached what appears to be the end of their long journey. My heart aches for them as tears well  up in both  boys’ eyes.  Their plight is beyond our ability to help.

An hour later, on this most unusual of Christmases, I watch the Moroccan boys head down the road to their inevitable encounter with the authorities, and I reflect on the lure of the West’s materialism. In time it may fill their wallets and their bellies, but contentment will be elusive. Only a relationship with the God who is Father to his wandering children and with his son Jesus can provide the hope of a real future. Sadly, chasing their most basic needs, none of the refugees passing through the border crossing at Miratovac appear open to that message yet.

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A Grief Too Far

It is 7 am, three days before Christmas in many parts of the world, but not here. Already two dozen heavily bundled Syrian refugees are huddled on blanket-covered benches in front of the Humedica aid station. Dads, moms, and children are munching bananas and mandarin oranges handed out by volunteers, while fighting off the icy fog’s chill with chai tea. The volunteers working with German-based Humedica greeted the refugees as they began coming up the hill from the border an hour earlier. After arriving by train at the Macedonian-Serbian border at midnight, some of the families had to spend the night outside at the packed reception center. At first light they began the three kilometer trek up the winding road to Miratovac village.

With a mixture of gratitude and guilt for having slept in a warm sleeping bag on a soft futon – indoors – I help unpack our bins of medicine in the small store-front clinic, part of the Humedica aid station, and prepare to treat patients. As a Medical Teams International volunteer augmenting Humedica’s refugee relief effort, I arrived in Serbia four days ago.

IMG_9797Two men with toothaches, another with a headache since leaving Turkey four days ago, a few runny noses, an upset stomach, and a kind young dad with four little girls wait for our attention. The youngest of the four girls, a one year-old, is blind. Her two year-old sister Mayd, sporting a runny nose and a cough, bravely allows me to examine her. Her right ear is flaming red infected, but she does not fuss. With Amoxicillin and Paracetimol in hand, the dad places his hand over his heart and thanks me in the genteel Arab way as he departs.

Warmed up, topped up, and medically treated, the families leave to trudge the last 500 meters to waiting buses taking them to Presevo’s one stop registration center ten kilometers up the road. There, comfortable buses wait to take them across Serbia to the Croatian border. More registrations, more hikes across no-man’s land at borders, more buses, and more trains are in store for them as they make their way to the hoped for land of milk and honey. Every kilometer takes them further from the comfort of ancestral homes, but also the conflict of senseless war.IMG_9775

From Turkey to Germany, Europe has become a refugee board game. As they hopscotch from one country to another, for most the goal is to reach Germany or Sweden. If you are not Syrian, Iraqi, or Afghani, however, you cannot pass Go or collect the proverbial $200. Two Moroccans tried to access Serbia illegally yesterday; their game ended with a Go-To-Jail card. For those deemed legitimate asylum seekers, the game starts with a hazardous boat trip from Turkey to one of the Greek islands. With the hucksters who run the boats fleecing the fleeing, the desperate game ends prematurely for one out of every 50 players. Desperate to escape, new players come by the thousands. Nearly a million so far.

There are good cards and bad cards along the way. If you land on the road to Hungary, you miss a turn, maybe even get trapped dealing with unfriendly police. If your train arrives after 10 pm at the border of Macedonia and Serbia, you miss the last bus from Miratovac to the Presevo registration center. If the border reception tents are full, it might be your fate to stay outside in freezing weather. Worn out shoes, or worse, worn out feet, will also slow your progress. Ditto if you get ill. They are frequently drawn cards.IMG_9773

But there are good cards too. An exhausted Syrian woman collapsed on the bench in front of the clinic and pulled off her disintegrating boots to look at her purple feet. While the feet looked like she might need to exit the game, she was in luck. After re-warming her nearly frost-bitten feet, the Humedica volunteers cheerfully outfitted her with wool socks and new boots from the storeroom of donated items. With two warm cups of chai warming her insides, she was made road-worthy again. A baby sitting on a mother’s lap next to her received clean diapers, a new hat and mittens from the baby room. A man whose woefully inadequate jacket left him shivering received a new winter jacket. These travelers drew the Christmas card. With at least as much gratitude as most children display on Christmas day, shukraan’s – thank you’s – were offered with hand over the heart and a bow of the head. And then the race to the goal resumed. For most it is Germany.

By the time the muezzin’s recorded chant sounded through the tinny loudspeakers calling the local Muslim Albanian population to noon prayer, we had seen an additional 25 patients, with hundreds more receiving sustenance of some type.

While we were running out of bananas, Leann, an English lady who had come to Miratovic with her dog to “help the refugees” was hard boiling one thousand eggs for the next wave of players. While the eggs were still hot, they began to arrive. After visiting the food tent and getting a cup of chai, many came to the clinic, particularly the pregnant women. Teresa, our nurse from Oregon had brought her fetal Doppler. Hearing the baby’s heart invariably brought smiles.

With the sun burning off the icy fog, a warm winter day had developed by 1 pm. Perspiring in her heavy fur collared winter coat, Genan Asaad, collapsed as she crested the hill in front of our aid station. The three kilometer walk had been strenuous for her 52 year-old body afflicted with high blood pressure. By the time she was carried into the clinic, her exhaustion, the daunting task of an additional 2,000 km ahead of her, and, most of all, the weight of the loss of home and country fully impacted her. No longer numb to the bottomless anguish of her life, the dam burst and the tears flowed. And flowed! With her daughters hugging her, and Teresa and I comforting her, tears became contagious.

But they were also cathartic. Privileged to be part of the intimacy of a grief too much, I was amazed as Genan recovered. Having spent her tears, she enjoyed one more hug from each daughter, one more comforting squeeze of the shoulder from each of us, wiped her tears, reined the emotions back in for another day, and resolutely got up. With “God bless you’s” and “As-salamu Alaykum’s” to send her off, she passed the test of this watershed moment, assuring her survivor status.

And so it goes for half the population of Syria and a good many from Iraq and Afghanistan, afflicted with a grief too much, fleeing one home and seeking another.