Dispatch From The Front Line

 

IMG_4116by Rev. Wes Magruder

A group of men and women in high-res yellow vests huddle around a fire in a barrel on the beach as the wind picks up off the Aegean Sea. Suddenly, someone shouts and there is a flurry of activity, as people rush to their cars and take off screaming down the road.

Half a mile down the beach, the cars pull off the road and empty quickly. Someone shines spotlights toward the water. Medical workers, lifeguards, and people with blankets peer eagerly into the darkness.

You can hear the boat before you can see it. Voices call out in the distance; sometimes children are crying. As the boat drifts into view, lifeguards try to steer the boat toward the easiest possible landing spot. As the boat hits the shore, there is a rush to get people unloaded.

When ashore, once it becomes clear that everyone is safe and secure, there are cheers and hugs all around. A few people even pull out their phones for selfies; others light cigarettes. Dry clothing is offered, cups of hot tea are handed out.

Twenty minutes later, a large UN bus pulls up, and the refugees pile on, ready for the next leg of their perilous journey.

Welcome to the island of Lesvos, Greece, front line of one of the largest humanitarian crises and mass migrations the world has seen.

———

In the late summer and early fall of 2015, the crisis of Syrian refugees was front page news. After the body of 3-year old Aylan Kurdi was found washed up on the shore of Turkey, his photograph became the iconic symbol of the crisis, seen by most people around the world.

The plight of the two million Syrians who had fled the civil war in their country was clear for everyone to see. People of good will poured out words of support and encouragement; nations offered to take in increased numbers of refugees.

Then on November 13, 2015, everything changed. On that day, coordinated terror attacks in Paris, France killed 130 people. When it was suspected that one of the terrorists had snuck into Paris falsely claiming to be a refugee, the backlash was immediate.

In my home state of Texas, Governor Greg Abbott was quick to declare that he would not accept any refugees from Syria any longer, and other states followed suit. A wave of anti-refugee sentiment swept America, as well as parts of Europe, giving a new urgency to the situation unfolding on the shores of Greece.

I have been an active advocate for refugee resettlement in Texas for many years now, and I spoke many times to the media on behalf of the organization whose board I chair, Refugee Services of Texas.

At one press conference called by CAIR (Council on American-Islamic Relations), I ran into my friend, Abdullah Shawkey, who works for the Dallas office of Islamic Relief. He told me of his experiences working on the beaches of Lesvos for a month in November, where there were three or four thousand refugees arriving by boat per day. He spoke of unloading boats where women had lost three of four children during the journey. He told us about smugglers who made thousands of euros selling fake life vests and overloading small rubber dinghies. He related stories of inspiration, courage, and desperation.

I couldn’t get the stories out of my head. And I couldn’t get rid of the idea that I needed to be there myself. As a Methodist Christian, I believe that my faith is useless unless it leads to on-the-ground action, especially in the most pressing issues of our time. And there is nothing more pressing than the refugee crisis in Europe.

In less than two months, I put together a small team of seven people, including Rev. Rachel Baughmann from University Park UMC, Rev. Debra Wise of Waverly UMC, Iowa, the retired Rev. David Griffin from Fort Worth, Texas, and three laypersons, Cathy Bryan, Becky Ayars, and Stephen Christy. We quickly purchased plane tickets, found a place to stay, and made the trip, even though we didn’t know precisely what we would be doing once we arrived, or with whom.

Through a contact made via my colleague, Rev. Rob Spencer at First Paris UMC, I learned of an organization called Better Days for Moria, which works just outside the walls of Camp Moria, which is the official UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees) refugee site. We showed up on our first day for an information meeting, and five of us immediately signed up to work the night shift, which we have worked ever since. The other two decided to fill slots during the day.

Our work consists of helping to provide dry clothing, hot food, and shelter for the refugees which flow through the camp during their stay on the island. Unfortunately, Camp Moria is unable to provide many of these services consistently, so Better Days was founded by local residents to fill the gaps left by the UN. In the beginning of Camp Moria, only Syrians and Iraqis were allowed to sleep in official UN housing; Afghans were kept outside the camp, and slept outdoors. Better Days made sure that everyone had a clean, dry place to sleep, as well as have access to basic necessities.

For over a week and a half now, our small United Methodist team has made up nearly half of the night shift crew, as well as vital contributions in the distribution center and tea tent. We are part of an all-volunteer work crew, made up of people from all around the world, who have been drawn to Lesvos by the human need for providing safe passage for the world’s most vulnerable people.

Every night and day, bus after bus after bus arrives from the coast, carrying those vulnerable people.

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——-

Slowly, but gradually, the scope of the situation on Lesvos has become clearer.

The island has a population of just over 85,000 residents. Since January 1, 2015, 526,987 refugees have arrived on the shores of Lesvos. Let that simple fact settle for a moment. Half a million people have passed through in just a little over 12 months.

The Greek strategy has been to simply facilitate the passage of refugees through to the European mainland. The UNHCR, as is its job, has set up a Registration Office at Moria for the purpose of issuing identification numbers; but the travelers have permission to stay in Greece for only 30 days.

What we have learned on the ground is that the situation involves far more than just Syrians. In December 2015, of the 58,937 refugees who landed in Lesvos, only 27% were Syrian. 32% were from Afghanistan, and 28% were from Iran.

This is the status quo. And it is simply unacceptable.

For one thing, the European nations are slowly losing their patience with the flow of refugees. They cannot accept an infinite number of migrants — there simply isn’t room. In fact, they are already talking about closing all borders from Greece. This would create a horrible situation on Lesvos, stopping all flow off the island, while thousands would continue to arrive on the rubber boats from Turkey.

What’s the solution? There is none yet, though certainly a cessation of the nearly-five year old civil war in Syria is the ultimate goal.

The solution, as we have learned, lies largely within the purview of politicians, states, and diplomacy.

I am not called, however, to come up with a solution. I am instead, at this moment, while on Lesvos, called to welcome the stranger, to give a cup of hot chai tea to the cold and wet refugee, to clothe the child who lost his shoes in the sea, and to look each refugee in the eyes as a sign that I recognize the image of God within them.


God is in the Boat

The island of Lesvos in Greece, 2016: refugees fleeing war and hardship are arriving in their thousands. In this film, we hear from some of the refugees, and from the volunteers who feel it is their humanitarian duty to help them. One – a pastor from Texas – says, “When something like this happens people say, well where is God? The answer is, well God is with the refugees; God is in the boat with those people.”

A film by Bailey Tom Bailey and Hendrik Faller.

– See more at: https://www.truetube.co.uk/film/god-boat

 

Wes Magruder

Wes Magruder

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rev. Dr. Wes Magruder is the senior pastor of Kessler Park UMC in Dallas, Texas.

Special Contributor to UMR

Special Contributor

This story was written by a special contributor to The United Methodist Reporter. You may send your article submissions to
editor@circuitwritermedia.com
.

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1 Comment on "Dispatch From The Front Line"

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
 
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Paul W.
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I applaud Mr. Magruder and his team for their humanitarian efforts. From a Methodist perspective, the article is strangely silent though regarding anything related to evangelism, salvation, and Christ. Can we get an update on how the refugees are being offered the Bread of Life and how they are responding to the Gospel message?

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