June 20th is world refugee day, and perhaps could not come at a more pivotal time in our history since there are presently 100 million people considered to be refugees around the world.
Let me share a little story about why refugees matter to me and how I got involved: It all started with a picture I can never forget. It was of a 3-year-old boy with a red shirt, blue shorts and cute shoes. The only problem was he was soaking wet and face down in the sand of a seashore. It was September of 2015 and the boy’s name was Alan Kurdi. He had drowned, and his body washed up on a Greek beach. My heart broke. Tears poured down my face. I looked over at my wife and we both knew in that moment we had been cut to the core. It was as if we had both lost a child. No parent should outlive their kids and we knew we must respond.
That was the day my eyes were opened to an unimaginable tale of tragedy. Millions of people have been forced to flee their homes because of conflict and crisis. The facts about the refugee crisis are staggering: according to CARE.org every minute, 24 people around the world are forced to flee their homes. That’s 34,000 people a day whose lives are shattered by chaos. The largest refugee population by country are the 6.8 million Syrians that have fled, which is the equivalent of the entire cities of Los Angeles and Chicago being displaced. The war in Ukraine is projected to only magnify the crisis across Europe. With these mind-blowing numbers, what can one even do?
For me, there was only one answer: Go. Engage.
I took several missions trips to the frontlines to try and restore some of the humanity that has been stolen. While there was little we could do in the grand scheme, we came to care for these refugees, hold space for them, and hear their stories. What we discovered was both heart-warming and gut-wrenching. Many flee unspeakable horrors like bombings and bloodshed. They travel on foot, stuffed in the trunk of a car, floating across the sea, in the hope of finding safety. But for most refugees this is just the beginning of a new season of challenges. The average refugee living environment is one of squalor.
On my first trip we visited a squat in Athens which is an “unofficial refugee location” for those unable able to get into a camp. There 300 refugees stayed on the floors of an abandoned school. Their reality was overwhelming –tight quarters, unsanitary living, no air conditioning, awful bathrooms and showers with little to no privacy. Yet, despite these conditions everyone we met were amazingly welcoming and seemed happy to see us.
Our team helped teach English and got to know many of the adults and families. We also did activities with the children, from coloring to sports games. The kids have nothing to do during the day and treasure getting to spend some energy. It was heartwarming seeing their beautiful smiles, and shouts of “my friend, my friend.” But we also saw pull backs from trauma, eyes filled with sadness, and outbursts of anger because they have been through literal hell. I heard one of the worst stories from a child whose parents were killed by the Taliban. Yes, there are orphans too.
On another trip our team helped paint and repaired a commercial building run by an NGO serving the “unaccompanied minor” population, which is almost 40% of the refugee community. The building houses 20-40 boys, most of whom had been trafficked in some fashion. It was a special moment playing soccer with them and getting our butts handed to us.
Some Afghani friends let us see their tent in a UN-run camp in Athens, on the grounds of an old soccer stadium from the 2004 Olympics. It was a bleak outdoor sea of tents housing smaller individual tents and cots where multiple families stay. Inside the stadium were more tents and appalling living conditions. The Afghanis’ tent was under a hole in the ceiling covered by aluminum foil protecting a leak from the bathrooms above. Saying goodbye to them tears at my soul to this day.
We also shared a dinner with two Syrian families in their tiny apartment. It was an evening filled with laughter, tears, food and camaraderie. There were hilarious group selfies, talks about marriage, family and our hopes for their future. We shed tears watching videos of Syria of before & after the War. We laughed over their story of the escape and shared the best hugs goodbye I’ve ever had.
These stories only scratch the surface of what we experience, but let me finish by telling you about Manhal, a husband and father I got to know. He and his wife Tala and their daughter escaped Syria, after he watched his friend get shot in the head by a sniper 6 feet away from him. He’s an excellent soccer player, engineer, and amazing man. Thankfully they were relocated to Portugal where I went to visit him. It was amazing to see the new life he, his wife, and their now 2 daughters have been able to have after the tragedy they had to escape. He messaged me about our time together and what it meant to him, saying
“I love you brother. You will become uncle Brian. Me Tala and Eliaa miss you a lot – you are my friend and our family and we will all wait for you in Portugal.”
This isn’t a Ukraine or Middle Eastern crisis or a “refugee crisis,” it’s a human beings crisis. It’s easy to separate ourselves from events overseas or tell us “We have enough problems here in our own borders.” It’s also easy judge people we don’t know. I did not meet a “terrorist,” nor did I experience anti-American sentiment on these trips. We met incredible people with big hearts and significant potential. They are eager to work, and value family and community. No one was looking for handouts, they want to be leaders and make a difference. I met friends I simply did not know and left with a deeper appreciation for my own country and a substantially improved worldview.
Who is a refugee to me, well, they are my family.