Tag Archives: refugees

“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)

He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother

Before I saw the wound my staph-sniffing nose was aware of it. The dust-encrusted, fraying bandages wrapped around the teenager’s left foot were no match for the scent of gangrenous flesh. Seated on a lacquered black chair in the neatly tiled, well-scrubbed room serving as my operatory, he was unfazed by his injured foot or the wounds around his swollen left knee. Or by his missing right leg.

My interpreter, a junior doctor from Da Nang, introduced him as Thanh. Born a decade after the end of the war, Thanh did not have the benefit of immunizations. No one in Viet Nam did for the first dozen years after peace broke out. As a result, polio became the scourge of Quàng Nam Province’s humid river valleys extending from the mountains of Laos to Da Nang Bay and the East China Sea. War’s desolation had wrecked all semblance of sanitation, allowing polio to spread savagely from village to village, hut to hut.

P0001382Thanh became ill with the crippling form of spinal polio before his fifth birthday. For the first few years he hobbled on a disease-withered right leg no longer able to move, and a weakened, poorly controlled left leg. With no braces to support his atrophied limbs and no shoes to protect his feet, skin breakdowns and infections took their toll, especially on his feet. By his tenth birthday, the unavailability of antibiotics caused a bout of life-threatening gangrene. In desperation his right leg was amputated by doctors at the regional hospital in Tam Kỳ. But it was not the end of his problems.

Undaunted, Thanh propelled himself along on one barefooted leg. But that leg’s spasticity caused his foot to drag on its instep. Frequent falls, leg abscesses, fluid in the knee, and now a two inch raw infection exposing his first metatarsal bone had cratered his remaining leg like a war-torn hillside. Wearing a white baseball cap jauntily placed on his head with a few strands of dark hair peeking out, he continued to smile. His younger brother, a head shorter than Thanh, looked worried however.

NWMTI013Carefully soaking off the blood-stained dirty bandages and then layers of pus and skin debris, we faced oozing tissue and exposed bone. Marie Davis, a veteran of many mission trips, cringed; Rachael, her daughter, a young nurse herself, had to turn away. Realizing the wound’s full potential for osteomyelitis and fatal sepsis, I gave an injection of Rocephin antibiotic in the only area of his buttock with enough tissue to absorb it. Generous amounts of Silvadene on the raw lesion, covered with non-stick Telfa, followed by multiple layers of Kerlix gauze wrapped around his foot and ankle covered the ugly wound. Concealed, it looked better; meanwhile, Thanh’s smile never left.

Before we could wonder how he would keep his freshly bandaged foot clean or get around with no shoe or other leg to steady him, his younger brother slid onto the chair in front of him. In a seemingly well-rehearsed routine, the younger boy stood up carrying Thanh piggy-back style. 015_12Incredulous, expecting the smaller boy to collapse any moment, we offered to help him. Smiling, he shook his head and replied; our interpreter’s eyes welled up as he translated:

“He’s not heavy, he’s my brother.”

By this time Rachael’s tear ducts were working overtime, Marie’s eyes were filled and the dams were about to burst, and my eye allergies were acting up as well.

More than thirty years earlier an American soldier, walking with his troops in this same region of Quàng Nam Province headed to a village which had just been bombed. They passed a heart-wrenching scene – a boy carrying his dead brother away from the burning village. One of the soldiers who spoke Vietnamese stopped to speak with the boy and comfort him. When he asked, “Isn’t the body heavy?” The boy responded,

“He’s not heavy, he’s my brother.”

But Thanh and his brother would not have heard that story. The few remaining older men never speak of the pain of those years – years relegated to dusty history books and repressed memories. An American songwriter named Bob Russell, inspired by the sad tale, penned a song, colloquially naming it “He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother.”

Children_frameIt has been a quarter century since hostilities ended and pronouncements of peace were issued. But for Viet Nam peace unleashed the horrors of a war won badly. The American War they called it. Its legacy featured ruined villages, dioxin poisoned vegetation courtesy of Agent Orange, a generation of polio and birth-defected children, and a missing generation of men.

In this summer of 2001, while a new generation of industrious Vietnamese were rebuilding their country, America, ignorant of what laid ahead, was enjoying its last pretense of re-acquired innocence, before the terror and the realities of the next war were rung in.

But there were loose ends from that distant American War. Five of us were dispatched by Northwest Medical Teams to help World Concern address the rehabilitation of teenagers and young adults crippled by the after-effects of the war. Refugees in their own country from a war which ended before they were born, their deformities and infirmities sentenced them to a life in the shadows of a society eager to not be reminded of that distant war. Polio, endemic for decades after the war, and the birth defects of exposure to Agent Orange had left hundreds of attractive, kind-hearted Vietnamese young adults grappling with terrible handicaps. For liability reasons we were not allowed to mention chemical exposure, particularly Agent Orange, as a cause. However, in a mea culpa of sorts, the evaluations, the recommended treatments, and the rehabilitations were indirectly funded by the US government through USAID, before lawyers’ briefs and depositions, and world courts mandated it.

P0001383Hosting us for this work were Bob  and Kathleen Huff, World Concern missionaries in Da Nang, living and working among the visually shunned young victims of that still devastating war. Culturally astute yet uncompromisingly Christian, they did a masterful job of delicately dodging the various elephants in the room. Beside the mention of Agent Orange as a culpable cause for the birth defects, the faith-based nature of World Concern and Northwest Medical Teams represented the other elephant. Not only could USAID funding be withdrawn by overt evangelistic activity, jettisoning the project, but our Communist minders would have been thrown into convulsions of fingers-in-the-ears, head shaking denouncements.

But the world had not yet achieved full paranoid political correctness yet. All of us knew the rules of engagement, but mutual respect permitted the necessary freedom to act in our calling. We could not have had it any other way. In the Huffs’ daily demonstration of the love of Christ among Viet Nam’s outcasts, hiding their shame from their own people, the hope of the Gospel was never far from quiet conversations. Responding to their love, many of the young men and women embraced a forbidden faith.

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I watch Thanh leave on his brother’s back, his bandaged foot dangling, as the next patient is ushered in, a twenty year-old girl with one eye missing and a horrendous cleft palate. I suspect she is a victim of her parents’ exposure to Agent Orange sprayed by American planes to kill vegetation, including crops. The dioxin in the defoliant chemical has become a poison in perpetuity. The soil in this province will be contaminated for a generation or more. Grieved by the barbarism of war and man’s misuse of his ingenuity in its pursuit, I am pleased, nonetheless, to be allowed to participate in bringing hope to these lovely young men and women, many pitifully deformed.

I reflect on the years since Bob Russell’s song was popularized by the Hollies. Its lyrics still rattle in my head. I wonder if we have learned anything about love, about bearing one another’s burdens. Or is it just a waste of breath, a vaporous Christian concept for people like Bob  and Kathleen Huff?

So on we go,

His welfare is of my concern,

No burden is he to bear.

For I know, he would not encumber me.

He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother.

If I’m laden at all, I’m laden with sadness,

That everyone’s heart isn’t filled with the gladness

Of love for one another.

 

 

A Baby Named ‘Freedom,’ and a Close Shave

“If you’ve been up all night and cried till you have no more tears left in you – you will know that there comes in the end a sort of quietness. You feel as if nothing was ever going to happen again.”

C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

A Baby Named Freedom

Floria Tomaj had cried every night for the last two months. Most had been spent outdoors. Now seated on a bench near a wall in the ancient warehouse at the Mjedë train station, a newborn baby in her arms, grief and resignation are frozen on her face. Her puffy eyes appeared to have spent their last tears. Six additional children, all under the age of ten and the family’s makeshift luggage were huddled in a circle around her. Her countenance indicated that’s as far as she was willing to let her world extend, for now.

My interpreter and I approached the little citadel. In her child-like voice Ori introduced us. Sensitive to the mother’s pain and closed appearance, Ori commented on the beautiful baby. It generated the beginnings of a rueful smile. Gradually, with Starburst candies for each of the older children, smiles creasing their faces, Floria became less reluctant to engage with us. We found out the baby’s name was Freedom. He was born in Tropojë, in the mountains of northern Albania, two weeks ago.

I shared how my grandmother fled East Prussia in January of 1945, also with seven children, in another ill-begotten war. Her strong faith in God’s sovereignty over our lives, even when tempted to ask, “Where is he while this is happening?” sustained her, I tell Floria. She nods somberly. Beginning to trust us, her eyes regain some life. She hesitatingly shares bits of her story. Some I find out later.

kidsWe learn she came from a village named Izbica, in the rolling hills of central Kosovo about one hundred-fifty miles distant. Two months ago the Serbian soldiers burst into their home. They ripped the youngest daughter out of her husband Handi Tomaj’s hands, and, beating him with a bayonet, marched him off with the other men in the village. In the Serbian modus operandi, all the men were taken to a field. Then the shooting started. When it stopped, the men still alive were forced into the upstairs of the village schoolhouse. After locking them in, a Molotov cocktail was thrown into the building’s downstairs window. In a deluge of souls rushed into eternity without good-byes that spring afternoon, Floria lost her husband, her father, three brothers, and a brother-in-law.

With her home burned to the ground, Floria, almost eight months pregnant, bundled up her children after the murdering had stopped, joining the exodus of the widows and fatherless. Using dirt roads, trails, and abandoned railroad tracks, always uncertain of the next meal, they made their way to freedom and safety. Near Tropojë, shortly after crossing the mountainous border, she gave birth. What better name for the baby than Freedom?

I am confronted by the enormity of a loss and a wrong only God can avenge, and for which only he can bring comfort. Ori and I mourn with Floria. I pray she will one day soon seek the comfort and safety of Jesus.

Ten years later, in a DVD produced by American missionaries to Albania, I meet Floria again. Not far from the killing fields, now haunted by silence and wooden stakes marking the final resting places of the men of Izbica, Floria and her seven children live in a modest home rebuilt by the missionaries. In spite of the proximity to the daily reminders of the past, she has chosen forgiveness. Along the way, she accepted the life-changing power of Jesus as her Lord and as her Savior. Although life’s wounds have aged her, peace has found her face.

 * * * * *

“In our adversity, God shouts to us.”

C.S. Lewis, The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe

A Close Shave

Albania - Kosovar gandmother There are some images too poignant to forget. Not only Floria and her children, but the ninety-three year old grandmother who had outlived her teeth, holding out her hand for a Starburst candy after I treated her for conjunctivitis, and then using every muscle in her wrinkled face to beat it into submission, happy as a ten year-old; or the proper gentleman, recently released from a brutal Serbian prison, getting a close shave while waiting to board the grungy overnight train to an unknown refugee camp. Propping a pocket mirror on a weedy ledge, using an old-fashioned Gillette razor, a small can of shaving cream, and a bottle of drinking water, while standing in the shadow of a military truck, he became the best groomed man at the train station. Combing his hair and straightening out his sport coat, which had miraculously survived weeks in the Mitrovicë prison, further restored his image. He looked great, but at seven o’clock he still had to board the hellish train south to an unknown destination.

Mefloquin, my weekly anti-malarial medication while in Albania, with the notorious side effect of dreaming in Technicolor, enhanced these images on my nightly silver screen and etched them into my permanent memory. Years later, Floria Tomaj’s story, the Burma Shave man’s close shave, and to a lesser extent, the Starburst-gumming grandmother, cause me to reflect and see significance in their presence in my life.

shavingGrowing up, close shave was used to denote a near miss, a narrow escape. I have had some significant close shaves. Several almost catastrophic car accidents in my twenties come to mind; or moving my flight up a day to December 28, 1975, and seeing newspaper pictures of the blown up baggage claim area at the LaGuardia TWA terminal a day later, where I had stood exactly twenty-four hours earlier. Fourteen people died there. In the ultimate close shave, or near miss, caught up in a fast paced world of wealth, featuring fine cars, fancy houses, and fun friends, I almost didn’t make it back. The lifestyle of hedonism caused me to stumble and plunge into adversity and spiritual ruin. In spite of looking good – being well-shaved and perfectly groomed – shame, divorce, financial ruin, and, difficult as it is to say, the train to hell awaited me. In Biblical analogies, the camel was having trouble getting through the eye of the needle, the rich man ignoring Lazarus at his gate was destined for hell, the one denying Jesus was ultimately going to be denied by Jesus before his father.

God’s mercy, my medical practice partner Mark, my wife Anne, and a movement of men called Promise Keepers convinced me anyone can be turned around, even I. I stopped being afraid of what I would have to give up to follow Jesus, instead seeing what life with Jesus offered. Repenting of my lifestyle, submitting to Jesus as my Lord, and allowing myself to be guided by his Holy Spirit, has opened wonderful doors. Some of those I am writing about in this book. It has also made it easier to resolve the unforced errors, the adversities I had inflicted on myself.

Best of all, my faith is being strengthened as God continues to reveal his purposes in my life. There is joy in that. Perhaps not as much as a toothless ninety-three year old’s joy in chewing a Starburst, but significant joy, nonetheless. There is also peace in that. I saw it on Floria Tomaj’s face on the DVD. With more loss and grief than I will ever experience, her peace in her patched up life and meager surroundings stretched my understanding. Understanding-stretching peace is available to each of us when we follow Jesus, when we choose to live our lives for his glory. It is the best choice I ever made, in the nick of time. A close shave, indeed.

 “Aslan is a lion – the Lion, the great Lion.”

“Ooh” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he-quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion”…

“Safe?” said Mr Beaver …”Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobeimg039

Whose Idea Was This?

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him,

Proverbs 3:5-6 (NIV)

A Crisis of Belief

Continental breakfast on the Hotel Rozafa’s sun drenched patio is  where each day’s adventure for Northwest Medical Team members starts.  The dominating nine-story hotel in the center of Shkoder grabs the attention of visitors. Locals have learned to avert their eyes. With stained concrete slabs and an antenna farm on the roof, some pointing north to Russia with rumored linkages to the KGB,  it is a tribute to Communist era bleakness, a visual affront. Refugees from Kosovo are crowded into the unfinished upper five floors now. The tired but furnished lower floors are spoken for by more affluent refugees, some NGO’s like my roommate and myself, and a collection of pick-pockets and other unsavories who frequent the cavernous lobby, hiding in the smoke of their cigarettes. The refugee crisis has transformed this lowest-tier hotel to its highest use. During breakfast the senior team leader gives out the daily assignments. On my first day of work in Albania I am assigned to the clinic at the Tobacco Factory.

Unlike the charming ride into town the previous afternoon, past shops with outdoor merchandise displays and small restaurants overflowing onto sidewalks, we are now bouncing along the remnants of a road headed to the poor side of town. Yesterday’s nose tickling aromas of curried lamb sautéed with onions, fried meatballs seasoned with mysterious spices, and freshly baked Burek pastry, are replaced with the putrid smell of garbage. Today’s journey takes us past decaying buildings, over garbage ground into the dust of the road, piled next to it, and even scattered in front of broken down houses. Yesterday’s panorama of diners and shoppers spilling into the street, mingling seamlessly with honking cars, fuming buses, and swerving bicycles, is replaced by stray dogs, partially dressed dirty children, and young men in tight pants milling about. The sights and smells of poverty and neglect overwhelm me. Panic and doubt unleashes itself. For ten minutes I wonder if I was meant to come here, if I can handle this. I had not anticipated this crisis of belief.

“Was this God’s idea or Henry’s?” I ask myself.

Then we arrive at the Tobacco Factory. It was one of many factories closed and abandoned years ago during Enver Hoxha’s devastating forty-five year reign as supreme leader of Communist Albania. Fenced in by barbed wire stretched across eight foot high concrete posts, the top eighteen inches angling outward, security appears to be a priority. A uniformed guard opens a wide metal gate for us – and closes it behind us, locking it, I notice.

Black chemical stains run down the four-story buildings’ brick walls. Weeds grow out of cracks, along walls, and under pieces of dead industrial equipment rusting in peace. The evenly spaced windows of the three tall buildings flanking the courtyard are black holes set deep into the masonry. With no glass and no light in any of them, they possess the lifeless appearance of empty eye sockets. The buildings look devoid of soul.

I am reminded of an abandoned prison from a different time. I know I have seen this place before. Where? When? Then I remember. Auschwitz.

helping_oldOver four thousand refugees live in the Tobacco Factory, I hear someone tell me through my fog, as I attempt to come to grips with harsh realities. I catch myself referring to them as prisoners. A tour upstairs in the Tobacco Factory through the refugees’ accommodations does nothing to dispel the notion they are imprisoned. Curtains hanging in makeshift fashion separate families. The floor is covered in dust and grime. Dark corners and dingy light from naked bulbs on strings create a B movie atmosphere. A mother gave birth in one of these squalid family enclaves last night. Life is tough here – but it is also resilient.

In the courtyard, tacked on a tree, a sign announces Birberi.  Under the shade of the tree a barber plies his trade.  Nearby, with their wares set on a make-shift table, young boys try their hand at being merchants, selling the essentials of life – toothpaste, soap, gum, and cigarettes.

On the ground floor of one of the soul-less buildings, behind barred windows, life is returning from the ashes. A school has been organized. Albanian essays are tacked on the walls of one room. Another displays art work. The art gives glimpses into the souls of the children living here, and transfers their wounds to paper. The teacher tells me it has been therapeutic.

In the art room a child’s multi-colored map of Europe accurately renders the outline of most countries until it gets to the eastern portion. mapLarge red question marks cover Serbia, Kosovo, and the other Albanian-speaking countries. War motifs dominate a lot of the paintings. Serbice and NATO are inscribed on a number of them, often picturing tanks and burning houses. The painting gripping me the most is a Paradise Lost pastoral scene, a road through a series of rolling green hills headed in the direction of a rising sun. The teacher says this is what Kosovo, their home, looked like before the troubles started.

On one side of the courtyard is a row of outhouses with heavy canvas curtains acting as doors. On the other side are wash-up stations and water troughs. A tar-stained water truck stands near them. Women, dressed in colorful long skirts, carry buckets of water. Some are on the ground in the shade of the truck doing laundry by hand on large flat rocks. A precious plastic tub is shared between the women. Drying laundry is hung on trees, walls, benches, and on the one available clothesline. The essential tasks of life are going on, even as the almost complete absence of men is inescapable.

A smaller building, across a courtyard of children playing among building scraps, places me back in a familiar world. Inside, the smells of disinfectant, the sounds of blood pressure readings and medication doses being called out, and the sight of curtained off exam areas reconnect me to my comfort zone. As I am introduced to my work area, I pass scales to weigh adults and babies, neat metal shelves with basic medicines lining the wall, a dispensing table with the Northwest Medical Teams’ banner on the front of it, and a long line of waiting patients. The faces of the patients reassure me. They are the same weathered faces with high cheekbones and beaten down expressions I saw in the New York Times, which reminded me of my refugee relatives, and called me to this moment.  I am reassured,IV_lady

“This was God’s idea. You’re in the right place.”

A Watershed Moment

“But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your father in heaven.”

Matthew 5:44-45 (NIV)

You can’t blame The New York Times or Starbucks. Waiting to pay for our lattes and a slice of banana loaf, a picture in the newspaper display rack catches my eye. A night shot of a blazing five-story building spanned four columns on the front page of The New York Times, the latest drama in the escalating Kosovo war.

A ethnic Albanian boy peers through the window of a bus taking him with other refugees from the border town of Blace to a refugee camp 03 April 1999. Refugees forced out by Serbs from Kosovo continued to arrive today, joining an estimated 15,000 Kosovars, who have been waiting days for trains to take them across the border into Macedonia.
An ethnic Albanian boy peers through the window of a bus taking him with other refugees from the border town of Blace to a refugee camp 03 April 1999.

As I wait in line I scan the headlines above and to the side of the picture and read, “NATO Hits Belgrade Center,” and “Missiles Strike Headquarters for Serbian Police Forces.” But the smaller headline below the picture rivets my attention, “Refugees Flee One Nightmare, Find Another.” I want to know more. Before I can crane my neck far enough to read on, it is my turn to pay.
“Two double tall lattes and a slice of banana loaf, will that be all?” the barista asks.
“And a New York Times, please,” I respond, unaware how this April 3, 1999, newspaper will change my life forever.
We find a table and sit down to enjoy our lattes and each other’s company. On this lovely, warm Saturday, the day before Easter, my wife Anne and I are celebrating. The previous week we had made the final payment of a loan to cover an IRS debt. Delivered of a burden which had shackled us and limited our life for the last eight years, our steps are light. We feel free. It is a turning point for us, a watershed moment.
Sitting down with our lattes I take a closer look at the front section of the newspaper. Proclaiming “all the news that’s fit to print,” as it has every day for over one hundred years,

SKO13:YUGOSLAVIA-MACEDONIA-REFUGEES:BLACE,MACEDONIA,3APR99 - An elderly ethnic Albanian refugee rests in a wheel barrow at a field where more than 25,000 ethnic Albanians are camping at the Yugoslav-Macedonian border April 3.  Macedonia, deluged by Kosovo Albanian refugees, said it would take more refugees only if they could be transferred to other countries, and declared a partial mobilization of the army to fortify its borders after effectively closing them on Saturday.  ds/Photo by Damir Sagolj REUTERS
An elderly refugee rests in a wheel barrow at a field where more than 25,000 other ethnic Albanians were camping near the Kosovo-Macedonian border April 3. Photo by Damir Sagolj REUTERS

The New York Times provides all the news I need on the war in Kosovo and Serbia’s ethnic cleansing of its Albanian population. Chased into flight by unspeakable atrocities, the refugees’ escape from their homes into neighboring Albania and Macedonia is described in vivid detail.
My latte gets cold as I am gripped by this story. Every word and every picture sinks deeply into my being. It is a visceral, moving experience.

Images of refugees in heavy coats trekking through fields and woods, following railroad tracks to uncertain destinations, disturb me.
One particularly haunting picture of a young woman with a child is etched forever in my memory. Part of an ad, the woman’s face appears preoccupied by painful memories and detached from the crowd around her. Eyes above prominent Eastern European cheekbones are squinting, perhaps after too many tears, and stare vacantly to the right. The ache of the soul shrouds her face. A sleeping or comatose tousle haired two-year old hangs limply in her arms. Dazed women with heavy overcoats and suitcases surround her. White lettered words across the center of the full page New York Times picture announce:
“One month after Passover, we are witnessing an exodus of Biblical proportions. But it’s not about freedom.”
Underneath the picture a further caption pleads,
“When the Jews of the world look into the eyes of those fleeing Kosovo, we see reflections from our own past. Fear. Death. Destruction. Flight. Wondering how lives and families will be reunited.”
“We cannot stand idly by.”

SKO08:YUGOSLAVIA-MACEDONIA-REFUGEES:BLACE,MACEDONIA,3APR99 - An elderly Kosovo refugee rests against a tree in a field where more than 25,000 ethnic Albanians are camping at the Yugoslav-Macedonian border April 3. More than 10 people died overnight in the camp due to the cold weather and lack of medicines.  yb/Photo by Yannis Behrakis   REUTERS
An exhausted Kosovo refugee rests against a tree in a field where more than 10 people died overnight due to the cold weather and lack of medicines. yb/Photo by Yannis Behrakis REUTERS

Genocide and ethnic cleansing always look the same. So do the faces of those fleeing it. In these Kosovar faces, in their eyes, and in pictures of lines of disconsolate refugees stretching beyond the horizon, I see my parents and grandparents fleeing the ethnic cleansing of East Prussia in 1945. I see the Jewish genocide of World War II and its Holocaust horrors. I, too, see fear, death, destruction, flight, and splintered families.
And I know I cannot stand idly by either.

Not ready for my deep feelings, I weep. The burden for the fleeing Kosovars touches a long dormant thread to the refugee past in my own life and consumes my thoughts. I know I need to respond to their misery and their needs.
On the way home, Anne and I discuss what God appeared to be placing in my heart. And we pray about it. As always, she is very supportive. Setting out to celebrate a watershed in our lives, this day was becoming more of a pivotal moment than I had anticipated.

* * * * *

A New Adventure

cropped-699.jpgWe are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

Eph 2:10 (NIV)

After twenty years of practicing community pediatrics, I was blessed with the opportunity to take my trade and my craft to needy parts of a world unknown to me. Committed to bringing the love of Christ through my practice of medicine among refugees, it became my privilege to treat diseases new to me and minister to wounds of the soul inflicted by war and disaster. Experiencing foreign cultures and delightful people on three continents, privy to bitter-sweet outcomes and sad tales sprinkled with the harshness of hate and sometimes the power of forgiveness, I came away deeply enriched time after time. As I prepared to share stories entrusted to me by these suffering sojourners, as well as personal blessings and hardships encountered along the way, some surprising realizations unfolded for me.

IMG_4467Unpacking this journey in a book, Seasons and Sojourners, will be a first for me; so will teasing out snippets of it on these pages. I would be pleased if you would join me on my adventure.

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