ATHENS, GREECE—Thanks for your interest in the ROOTS Athens Project! Our group numbered 11, two teams in one. The ROOTS members included Shelley, Lucy, Jess and Beth, the girls. Our guys were Ryan, Owen, Mickey and myself. Shelley and I were coleaders; with more later on how well she led us.
Three more team members joined us, Georges, Ed and Wafa. Ed and Wafa grew up in Baghdad, Georges in Lebanon. They knew Middle Eastern culture and speak Arabic. Ed and Wafa were even refugees in Athens for two years in the ‘90s – amazing! They added a significant dimension to our work.
Last June Shelley and I settled on a twofold mission: we’d care for refugees by partnering with Oasis, a refugee centre, and with Canadian Global Response (CGR). This would enable us to show compassion and generosity to refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Iran, and Iraq who’d swarmed into Athens. We learned a new term, human warehousing, and saw it firsthand.
We’d also seek to encourage aid workers in Athens who manned the front lines of this human tragedy. They minister to individuals and families in great desperation. It takes a toll.
We first connected with the workers at Oasis, a two story building (plus basement) designed to care for hundreds of refugees. On Sunday the director oriented us to the human tsunami that had swept through Athens in previous months. During that time 4000-7000 refugees a day streamed through the city towards northern Europe, fleeing war, death and destruction. Many got stuck at the northern Greek border and were forced to turn back. The numbers had dropped, but still, 1 in 5 people in Athens were refugees. Imagine this in your community, the shock and stress it would bring. That’s Athens.
On Monday afternoon our team went with Oasis workers to the old Athens airport, occupied by thousands of refugees. Families are in limbo; they can’t head to northern Europe, can’t return to their war-torn nations. They depend on food donated by EU and NGOs. We visited families living outside the buildings in makeshift tents. It’s unsafe inside, especially for single moms, for girls and children. Our hearts went out to them.
Mother Teresa’s, “Small things done in great love will change the world,” motivated us. We packed hygiene bags and gave them out at Victoria Park and Omonia Square, where refugees loitered. Put diapers in bags. Tea bags too. Packed food into bags for the Greek poor, another ministry of the center. We cleaned and mopped and washed and moved boxes. Whatever Oasis leaders asked us to do, we did with a willing spirit. How I love this team!
Tuesday and Wednesday we fed over 200 daily, experiencing the joy of serving the poor. Women in hijabs, men gaunt with worry, bewildered children. We drank tea with families and listened to their stories. So shocking! A mother with two teens, husband missing, presumed dead. It’s dangerously unsafe for her and her daughter in the lawless camps. An Afghan family, daughter perhaps 11, never been to school. People with no papers, no passports. Can’t get medical treatment. Can’t work. No schooling for the kids. They’re stuck, can’t return home. Lives of quiet desperation, feeling God’s love through us.
The famous basketball coach John Wooden said, “You won’t have a perfect day until you do something for someone who can’t do it back to you.” Our team had perfect days.
It was Shelley who first became unsettled. “We could do more,” she insisted to me Monday night. The team agreed. We decided to fast through lunch Tuesday. We’d not go to the Acropolis that afternoon. Instead we’d prayer walk and seek God’s will. I love this team, and their desire to maximize mission and not tourism!
We immediately contacted Abraham Shepherd, head of CGR, making ourselves available to him. Within a few days he arranged for us to visit a “squat house”, a seven story vacant building filled with people from Syria. Perhaps 200 families were holed up there in primitive conditions. They could be evicted tomorrow, one father said. Being Chinese helped us get past the hard men at the entrance, doing security.
We ran a children’s event on the sixth floor. Chaotic, but we did our best. We bought groceries at a nearby store and delivered them personally. My team sat on the floor of a space walled off with hanging blankets. No furniture, just matts on the floor. We listened to the story of this taxi driver from Syria. It was either flee or die from the bombings, the dad said. We spent time just listening. We drank tea together.
We had another team in the building, delivering groceries. The family they visited came to Greece in an overcrowded boat, fleeing the Syrian war. Their little girl had somehow been half-drowned. She was damaged, couldn’t walk. By some miracle, the team watched as the little girl walked over to her mom. Woah! Lucy told me, the mom was full of joy! This is what we came to do, care for the poor, encourage the refugees and bring joy.
Athens Project co-leaders,
Shelley & Paul
Would you like to volunteer with us in Greece? There are many opportunities to welcome and assist refugees throughout the country with our local teams. Please email us for more information and consider donating through the buttons below or above.