By Rev. Matt Koerber
This article was originally written last summer (2016) while our family was serving the refugee community in Greece. It is a good example of the first-person experience of someone in the midst of the refugee resettlement experience. Currently, there are millions of refugees that are waiting to be granted asylum. This is one of their stories.
I met with Khaled* for English lessons today. He is a Syrian refugee stranded in Greece. His English is decent, but rusty. He says that he was more fluent five years ago when he was using it more often. Until the Syrian Civil War, he had worked for a Petrochemical company in Syria. It was a good job. He was married, he had a son, a car and two houses. After the war started, his job ended. As he watched, bombs swallowed homes leaving nothing but smoke and ash. As food shortages swept the land, he looked for an opportunity to flee. His wife and son had a passport, but Khaled did not. Administrative affairs in Syria were often quite unpredictable to begin with and there was additional red tape in his case. Apparently, several other men shared the exact same name, and the passport was not issued. Eight months ago a window for refuge opened and his pregnant wife and son took it. They haven't seen each other since. His wife delivered a healthy baby girl, but Khaled has not yet seen her in person.
His wife flew with friends from a nearby country into Turkey. They were smuggled into Greece when its borders with Western Europe were still open, so they made their way into Germany where his wife had their baby. Khaled could not leave so easily.
Without a passport, his path there was more circuitous. He headed North from Damascus into the north-western part of Turkey which is controlled by the Syrian Free Army (non-ISIS rebels.) He paid smugglers to take him, and then paid the city officials to let him pass. After slipping hundreds of dollars worth of bribes and fees into the hands of drivers and faction leaders, he was dropped off at the mountainous border with Turkey. From there, he had to cross on foot, scurrying past armed guards and dodging bullets. Turkey doesn't want border traffic with Syria because of the threat from ISIS; the “no-man’s land” between Syria and Turkey is particularly ruthless. Once he crossed into Turkey, he had relatively free travel. He went first to Istanbul to try to enter Greece by land, but by then the borders were closing. The terrorist attacks in Paris had tightened the borders and narrowed the immigration policies of European countries just as they induced American fears.
The only option was to go by sea. He was a father desperate to be reunited with his family and was willing to take any route. He paid a smuggler 700 Euros to take him by boat to the Greek Island of Mytilini. Interestingly, the price was 300 Euros cheaper for him than when his wife went because the borders between Greece and Western Europe were now closed. Supply and demand dictates smuggler’s fees and the demand for Greece has fallen now that it no longer offers access into Western Europe. Once at sea, their small overloaded ship bobbed along the waves as they crossed into Greek controlled waters. The Greek navy picked them up and shipped them to Athens on a Ferry.
Several attempts to cross into Western Europe illegally were met with stiff resistance. Without proper identification, he cannot go forward and he cannot go back. He pays 300 Euros a month for rent, which his wife wires to him from Germany. I don't know how she gets the money. The land route that he took getting here would be just as treacherous to use for a return to Syria, and with added risk. If he tried to cross from rebel controlled territory back into the lands occupied by the Syrian army, he would risk being shot as a traitor or a spy. He is effectively locked out of his homeland with fewer prospects than he had envisioned when he first fled. He can't go forward and he can't go back. He is a man without a country.
*I share this story with his explicit permission, so I have done less to mask the details of his life.
By Luda Bates
[KS: We asked Luda Bates to share the story of her journey here to the US. As a refugee from the former Soviet Union, her perspective is unique. Her family has gone through hard circumstances, but it is apparent how faithful God has been through them.]
My family and I came to America when I was ten years old, but the journey started two years prior. My father had heard from fellow Christians that many were leaving to the US and he decided to try as well. In order to leave, one had to file an application to petition the US government, then fill out an application for each member of the family (including medical and work forms, each with the proper stamps and signatures from local and regional authorities). After sending the application, we waited for an invitation to attend an interview at the US consulate.
Because it was still the Soviet Union, getting out was extremely difficult. My father’s friend, a fellow believer, drove 1,500 miles from Estonia to our little city in Russia to pick up the application and later to bring us our visas. The documents were sent to him in Estonia so that the KGB wouldn’t intercept anything. After getting the visas, my parents, not trusting the local postal service, went directly to the US consulate in Moscow to request an interview. Every applicant had to be interviewed by the US consulate in order to gain one of two possible statuses: a refugee or an immigrant. Many Christians became “immigrants” and others, like my family, became “refugees”.
If you got the “immigrant” status, you would have to find an American sponsor who would finance your passage to the US, which was impossible. For those of us who got the “refugee” status, the US government paid for our tickets (we would need to pay them back when we were financially able) and provided all financial support when we came; a housing allowance, food stamps, and Medicaid.
In order to get the “refugee” status, my parents had to prove that they were persecuted for their religion. As members of the Baptist church, that wasn’t very difficult to do. When he was young, my father was a pilot in the Soviet army, but he became a believer in God and was kicked out. From then, our family lived in Eastern Ukraine and my father worked as a coal miner.
When we received our tickets the only thing that my mom could read was “metropolitan area” and she was terrified that we were going to live in a metro. We arrived in New York City and got our next tickets to St. Louis. There are cities in the US that are refugee relocation centers and the US government works with local agencies to resettle refugees.
We were placed in the care of the International Institute of St. Louis and they worked with local businesses, schools, churches, landlords, and other organizations to resettle the thousands of refugees that arrived each year. Each state has different programs for resettling refugees, but in Missouri we got a housing stipend for 9 months, giving my parents time to learn English. In order to receive that money, refugees had to take English classes, so the institute was full of foreigners: Russians, Ukrainians, Bosnians, Serbians, Africans, and many others others learning English, and about American customs, holidays and culture. They found my dad a job and helped us to get on our feet. When the US government resettles people, they try to settle people with others that come from similar regions, so there were already a few Russian Baptists in St. Louis, and therefore a church. A local American Baptist church let us use their building to hold services and within a few years the church was full of Slavic people who continued to arrive from the former Soviet Union.
Sometime during that first year, someone local found out about my dad’s story and decided to write an article about our family in the St. Louis Journal. A few months later, an American woman saw us taking a picture in the neighborhood, recognized us from the journal and befriended our family. Lenita, a Catholic who worked for the city of St. Louis, petitioned the local parish school to accept us children on scholarships, which was instrumental in giving us a good education, from elementary school to college. She found out about scholarships, helped my siblings and I to find odd jobs kids our age could do. She also helped us talk to potential landlords to make sure no one was taking advantage of us.
Along with Lenita, there were other American Christians who helped our family. There was a local man from a Baptist church in the suburbs who took it upon himself to help the Slavic people. From bringing gifts on Christmas, helping us navigate medical jargon, to organizing a VBS in his church for Slavic kids, Don Wilson has been a servant to our people.
Growing up in Ukraine, Russia, and the US, I always remember my parents talking about God’s grace and kindness to our family. They never sat us down and explained this to us, but through their conversations with each other and others, the reality of God’s kindness and mercy was like the oxygen that my family breathed.
God was merciful: the journey out of the Soviet Union took many years for most, but the process took us two years. God was comforting: though we did not fit in at our private Catholic school, we always had a close group of Russian Christian friends. God was caring: when my father got fired from his job, it led him to a better job and to pursue his dream of being a pilot. When we had murders and death take members of our extended family, even in the midst of that darkness and deep pain, God met us in our need and provided His comfort and presence.
Truly, God has been extremely generous and kind to our family. When I think of all of the things that could have gone wrong but didn’t, I can’t help but see God’s generosity. When I reflect on my own life, I see God’s grace and mercy clearly. Even in the midst of the harshness of life from unimaginable sorrow, loss, loneliness, fear, anxiety, uncertainty, and from carrying the burden/gift of being a third-culture kid, I revel in knowing that God has been so loving and kind. I can see God’s mercy to us in our circumstances, but the most kind thing that God has done is lead us to know Him deeper.
In the Soviet Union, Bibles had to be smuggled, churches had to register with the government and the ones that didn’t had to meet in secret, and premarital counseling consisted of “don’t be affectionate in public”. In the US, we were overwhelmed with all of the resources available to learn about Jesus, which was like rain on parched lands.
Being connected to Russian Christians in a foreign land, getting married to an American man and growing in and being part of his (now our) church has led me to weep at the goodness of our God. He didn’t have to be this kind and generous, but I add my voice to the Psalmist in wonder: “What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?” God used different people, and global and local events to care for me and our family. I can’t help but be grateful.
MK: This is a reposting from a good friend who is working at a refugee camp on a Greek island in the Mediterranean. I got to know Lizzie last summer when we worked together with refugees in Athens. She is a recent college graduate who has devoted her life to serving on the frontlines of the refugee crisis. As I got to know her I was deeply impressed by her courage and sacrifice. This past winter she returned to Greece, but instead of working with refugees that were in the process of moving towards asylum, she is now working with the refugees who are not yet in the system. On the whole, this group of refugees is in a far more difficult place. I asked Lizzie if I could publish two of her most recent updates because they offer a rare window into the frontlines of refugee ministry.
Dear Family and Friends,
Some days I have grace-filled stories, and many other days I sit empty handed and heavy hearted. This past week has been especially difficult. From hearing more details of friends’ stories to a deeper realization of the hardships of living in this camp: I am burdened. When I was in Athens, I saw many difficult situations, but this camp has a hopelessness unlike anything I’ve experienced before. Many of these men have been here for over a year. They have no information on the status of their asylum claims, they sleep most of the day because there is nothing to do with their time, and the food is limited in portion and nutrition. They are crammed in their living spaces, have limited electricity, and often are treated as criminals by the Greek military and police. Minors are forced to sign papers saying that they are 18 so that the government does not have to protect them or provide additional resources. A man I knew drowned the other week and the police didn’t show up until an hour after the emergency call.
Everything in me wants to find them a bright, clean space to live in. With windows and fresh air and real beds. I want to give them access to education and training programs so that they don’t waste months of their life sitting in this camp. I want them to feel respected and to be treated as equal and worthy. I want to feel confident that their current suffering will be worthwhile in the end.
But for now, I can keep showing up for my shifts. Cleaning rooms, opening gates, welcoming new arrivals, and sitting and listening. While I cannot make any substantial changes, I can be faithful in my small part.
Even when the news stops reporting, these men remain. Even when you have to go out of your way to hear about these camps, thousands sit with their lives on hold. My desire is that a part of my purpose here is to tell their stories, to relay the situation to others back home.
The situation is difficult in every way you could imagine. There are no quick fixes or easy answers - but it demands a response, a deep compassion. Whether you feel convicted to show up in person, to donate money or resources, or to advocate back home – I encourage you to not forget these people.
Could you keep me in your thoughts and prayers? For strength to keep showing up when my heart feels like it breaks a little more each day? And much more so for my friends who live with intense anxiety and fear of the future - that they could keep going, that they could hold onto hope even when everything seems to suffocate it?
Also, I am struggling to figure out my future steps after my time here is finished. Could you pray that doors would be opened for me to stay if that is what is needed, or for new opportunities to present themselves?
Dear Family and Friends,
When you’re constantly surrounded by pain, flashes of joy burn bright. I’ve been honest in my updates, resisting the pressure to include a ‘silver lining’ or to sugarcoat the reality in this camp. But I also want to be honest in the tastes of hope I’ve experienced.
In the past few weeks more families have moved into M – and my organization regained access to their section of the camp. After weeks of only being able to shake hands and being constantly guarded, getting to scoop up babies and sit with my arm around my new friends is heaven. There are two Syrian families with several teenage daughters that are my new shadows in camp. We giggle and talk about boys and make up and what they want to be when they get older. There are a few toddlers that run straight into my arms and I’ve gained several new ‘mamas.’
The other night I got invited to an engagement party in the compound. I sat with the girls, Arabic music blaring as we fixed each other’s hair and they caked about 10 pounds of eyeliner on me. Paper flowers and streamers decorated the small room filled with gray UNHCR blankets and metal bunkbeds. I was the lone Westerner laughing my way through dabka lessons and pretending like I knew the words to the songs.
And as I sat on a cot on the edge of the room, a friend’s little baby asleep in my arms, I watched my beautiful new friends spin and stamp their feet, faces lit up with joy. Here it was – the glimpse of hope, stubborn and resilient in the face of injustice. I felt it in my bones, in my heart – these beautiful people will thrive. And I felt that swell of intense conviction, an understanding that my place is beside them, for them.
While there have been situations that have broken my heart all over again the past few days, and that flash of hope seems a little dimmer – it was there. And it is precious and worth sharing.
For most of us, conversations about refugees are theoretical and abstract – we speak more of them as a group than as individuals – simply because most of us have had little direct contact with refugees. This can make it harder to view refugees as individuals who are image-bearers.
We believe that people are made in God’s image. Part of this involves recognizing that others are individuals who think and feel as we do (psychologists refer to this as our theory of mind for other people). A 2017 psychology study showed how our empathy and moral judgments about others can change depending on whether we see them as groups or individuals. Participants were told about a number of individuals going through some experience, and had to rate those individuals on their capacity for experience (“How able are they to feel pain or pleasure?”) and agency (“How able are they to control their actions and act morally?”). Some participants were told about “a group comprised of 15 people” (highlighting the group), while others were told about “15 people in a group” (highlighting the individuals). Participants who rated individuals when their group was highlighted gave significantly lower ratings of the individuals’ capacities for feeling pain/pleasure and acting morally.
This result comes from an experimental setting, while our conversations about refugees are often complex and dynamic interactions. However, it does suggest what we know to be true – it is harder to be empathetic for people who are faceless and distant. The converse is also true – it is easier to be moved to compassion for those we know and share space with.
There is a clear biblical echo of this in Jesus’ command to “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31). Neighbors are not faceless groups; neighbors are individuals. “Who is my neighbor?” asked the lawyer, and in response Jesus told the parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). My neighbor is someone in need that I have access to, and who has a claim on me.
In this day and age, technology renders some distance irrelevant – the plight of many refugees in distant lands are accessible to us, and we can provide help that can reach them. But look closer, and we will find refugees (and opportunities to know them) closer to home. The refugee is our neighbor, too.
Refugees share similarities (they are all fleeing hardships and are often in great need) but they are also a diverse group of people (with distinct stories and perspectives). In this week’s posts, we will hear from those who have more direct experience with refugees than we do. Let us take the opportunity to listen to them and become more intimately familiar with the stories of refugees, so that we might become empathetic neighbors moved to compassion and action.
By Carla Farias
Kevin: I originally invited Mauro and Carla to both to write about their experience leaving Brazil for Mauro’s education here. Mauro was traveling for a conference, as is common for graduate students, so Carla stepped in. While she is now in graduate school as well, she came here initially as Mauro’s dependent. As challenging as it can be for immigrants, the dependents (spouses and children) of immigrants have an even more challenging time. I’m grateful that Carla could share her experience – sojourners sometimes come with loved ones, who we cannot afford to overlook.
Three years ago my husband and I moved to Pittsburgh for graduate school. It was an unusual decision, since the two of us had well established careers in our home country, Brazil. Mauro got accepted into the Materials Science and Engineering Doctoral Program at Carnegie Mellon University. Even though I had not been accepted to the programs I had applied to, we knew that the best decision for our family was to go, despite all we had to give up back home.
I knew God had a plan for us as a family, especially for me as a wife. So, I moved to a different country for a sabbatical year, where I would re-invent my goals and face new challenges. Being part of the labor force for nearly ten years, a sabbatical year was a big break to my busy schedule and endless working trips.
Adjusting to our new lifestyle was not easy for us. As newcomers to the community, Mauro was consumed day and night by his academic activities, while it was left to me to find a place in the community I could fit into.
Spouses of international graduate students are much more limited by visa restrictions. As F- 2 visa holders (dependents to F-1 visa holders), we are not allowed to study or work full-time. With this status, I felt invisible and completely unproductive to society. I was allowed only to exist. Nothing else.
I was not allowed to have a Social Security number. I was not allowed to rent and sign any utility contracts under my name. Even to get a driver’s license, PennDot had to have verification from USCIS (Citizenship and Immigration Services), since I was also “invisible” to their system.
I recall when we entered the country, the Immigration Agent at the airport going over my visa restrictions and asking me, “What are you going to do, sit at home and watch TV all day?” In the early days of us getting to the US, my sabbatical experience turned out to be different from what I imagined. I could not come up with a reasonable answer that would bring peace to my heart. It hit me that I had given up a home I owned, my senior position at a firm, my friends, my family, and even my dog to “sit at home and watch TV all day”.
I left my country and my professional life to pursue my husband’s dream at CMU, but I found that I could not eliminate the dreams of my own. And so, I started interacting with professors at CMU and got involved in volunteer research work. Then, I applied again for graduate school and was accepted to be a full-time student in the Masters program at CMU, giving me my own student (F-1) visa. Along with that, we experienced our greatest fulfillment as we now have a new addition to our family, our 3-month-old son, Daniel. And so, God transformed my life. He picked me up from the ground and filled every gap in my professional and personal life, in spite of the challenges and limitations I faced.
Because I was once “legally invisible”, I couldn’t just close my eyes to a reality that affected not only me and my household, but also many other spouses of international graduate students. These are women (and men) who are typically well-educated themselves and want to be intellectually challenged. But instead, they end up feeling lonely and lost, just as I did. These spouses look beyond coffee meetings and social gatherings. Like me, they don’t have personalities suited to being locked up at home.
I reached out to other wives here as dependents on F-2 visas and helped them design plans for their stay in the US, helping them to find research opportunities and academic programs at CMU that matched their interest, and to initiate conversations with professors and advisors. We brought up to the University the importance of belonging, and the need to embrace this group of spouses to enable personal and academic growth in the school and wider community.
As I look back on the past three years, having to reshape my life and face the limitations of my immigrant status was not easy. The feeling of being unproductive and intellectually stagnant was cruel to my mind and soul. But on the other hand, it urged me to find new dreams. I found strength and care in our community group, as we got to know the people from City Reformed. Having new friends in our faith, who prayed for and with me calmed the anxieties and uncertainties of my heart, and refreshed my hope in the Lord’s greater plans for my family and me. Maybe the paths taken were not the easiest, but I can see God’s perfect plan being fulfilled in my life. God honors his children and He honored me, and I could not be more thankful for the changes I had in my life and in my family. My experience has made me a more humble, sensitive, thoughtful, and stronger person.