The last week was the beginning of a transition. The rest of our SGI team has left Greece and we are awaiting 4 new team members this weekend, before we also end our "tour of duty" in Greece. Over the next 8 days we will begin to say goodbye and pass the baton to the new volunteers.
We are beginning to make the mental transition to thinking about our return to the U.S. Recently a friend asked me what I had learned during our time in Athens. I have been fortunate to travel quite a bit and I can't say that any one piece of the trip has offered something entirely new. However, our time in Athens has served to confirm my belief that the great tragedies of our time are massively complex and defy simplistic solutions. There is no "easy button" when it comes to the refugee crisis. But in the midst of the chaos and confusion we can look to the Lord in faith and we can choose to move towards other people in love.
Here are a sample of the complicated things that swirl around the refugee situation in Athens:
Refugees come mostly from Syria, but also from Iraq and Afghanistan. Currently, only Syrian refugees are guaranteed permanent asylum in the west. Their language and cultures are different. But they all come from dangerous war torn countries where there is no hope of a quick, peaceful resolution. Most have lost all of their material possessions. Many have lost family members. These are real people who dream of a better life, love their families and face the fears of an uncertain future. They are not merely numbers. They are human beings made in God's image, with eternal souls.
In the conflict as a whole, there are lots of bad guys and few good guys. This is especially true in Syria, where it is pretty much impossible to tell which side of the civil war should be supported. (President Assad is a brutal dictator, but the rebel army split into multiple factions, include ISIS.) All of the sides use indiscriminate violence, and the stories of war atrocities that I hear first hand form the mouth of my refugee friends highlight the evil on all sides of the equation.
Greece itself is in the midst of a prolonged fiscal crisis. The solutions to their mounting debt and chronic unemployment are not obvious. The majority of Greeks have been extraordinarily patient with the refugees swarming into their city. Perhaps it is because the economy is so bad, there is no risk that they will steal jobs.
European countries are struggling to assimilate Muslim refugees and some are starting to reduce their intake. Recent violence in France was linked to a radicalized Muslim from North Africa. Some recent violence in Germany was linked to refugees from Syria and Afghanistan. My experience has confirmed my belief that the majority of refugees desire to live quiet and peaceful lives, but you cannot say that refugees offer zero risk. Multiculturalism is a wonderful dream, but a very difficult reality.
Often forgotten in the midst of these challenges is the ongoing plight of the middle eastern Christians. Syrian Christians are often excluded from UN camps and can be targeted by aggressive Muslims. Even in Greece, Muslim converts to Christianity are at risk of physical violence. (And there are increasing numbers of converts.) Ethnic Christian groups from Syria and Iraq have been scattered and killed. Large percentages of the population of Egypt, Syria, and Iraq had passed their Christian faith from generation to generation. In Iraq only an estimated 500,000 Christians remain from the nearly 3 million that lived their prior to the U.S. invasion. Throughout the middle east Christians are often targeted for reprisal when America (or another "Christian" nation) does something offensive. Friends who were religious minorities in Muslim dominated countries have reminded me how difficult this position can be.
The bitterness caused by vicious fighting will not be easily quelled. One Syrian friend told me recently, "I don't know how this war will ever end. There has been so much killing and the hate will go on and on. Before the war, Christians, Jews, Sunnis and Shia (Muslims) lived together in Syria in peace. I don't know how we can go back."
In the midst of it all, I spend a lot of time listening. We serve food, and teach English, and try to help the church provide care in emergencies. But mostly we listen to people tell their stories and pray that God will intervene. I spend a lot of time praying for the Prince of Peace to show up and bring comfort and healing. I am a lot slower to speak about these complicated things. If anything has changed in me, I think that I am less inclined to dream about grand political solutions to our problems. The world leaders will continue to fumble along with a mixture of motives. Instead we have an opportunity to love actual people who are in the midst of crisis.
We frequently speak about the amazing doors of opportunity that God has been opening in the midst of all the bad stuff that is happening. I have meditated often on Hebrews 12:27-28 - God is shaking the kingdoms of the world and establishing his eternal kingdom. Sometimes that is the only confident thing we can say about the current situation. God is at work in the midst of the horrors. Many people who previously had no access to the gospel message are being thrust outward into new and open lands. In the midst of chaos and uncertainty, doors of hope open for particular people. I don't know what will happen in the big picture, but right here, right now - God is shaking and building. I feel so privileged to be here in the midst of it all for two months this summer.
"The words "once more" indicate the removing of what can be shaken-- that is, created things-- so that what cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe," - Hebrews 12:27-28