For more than a week, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) leaders have followed the path taken by Syrian refugees across parts of Europe as they escaped the war and violence in their own country. Holy Week for PC(USA) moderator Heath Rada and his team, has been met with heartache, encouragement and determination from the church and its partners.
Rada has traveled with Presbyterian Disaster Assistance Coordinator, the Rev. Dr. Laurie Kraus; Burkhard Paetzold, regional liaison for World Mission; as well as Derek Mcleod, mission pastor of Myers Park Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina; and Edward Taylor Stukes, a Myers Park member. Myers Park was instrumental in organizing and sponsoring the trip.
The group first met with leaders in the Reformed Church of Hungary in Budapest who are leading relief and refugee response ministries. During last summer’s crisis, tens of thousands of migrants were stranded in Budapest’s railroad station and surrounding parks. But in the midst of the chaos, Kraus says the church was at work.
“The people of St. Columba’s Church of Scotland in Budapest noticed that they had a lot of room in their building, which has housed a residential school for girls,” she said. “The session determined it could house 20 refugees a night, providing shelter and sanctuary for some of the most desperate. Within hours, beds, bedding, food and material aid were available providing a light in the darkness for scores of Syrians and other migrants waiting for a chance to begin resettlement.”
Kraus says church members and aid workers continue to accompany families who have remained in Hungary seeking asylum, providing language lessons, job training and support for finding houses and work.
In addition to meeting with church leaders and their partners in ministry, the group participated in Maundy Thursday services at St. Columba’s in Budapest. Part of the group traveled from Hungary by car to help the Hungarian Refugee mission deliver humanitarian goods to an improvised camp of 12,000 refugees who were forced to remain in Idomeni, Greece, in front of the closed border between Greece and Macedonia.
Moving on to Greece, the team arrived in Athens with little trouble accessing the country, a far cry from those who are seeking asylum.
“Watching the mountains from the plane, I marveled at how tenacious and brave the asylum seekers are, risking sea and mountain and harsh judgement from their would-be hosts for the barest hope of refuge in Germany or another country in Europe,” said Kraus. “For us, it was different. From departure to arrival, our access and transit from country to country was effortless.”
The team spent Easter weekend on Samos Island, Greece, meeting with relief workers supporting asylum seekers at their first stop, while crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey. The workers represented the Greek Orthodox Church, the U.N. High Commission on Refugees office, the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders. The team also visited a refugee camp.
“Now a locked detention center on the rocky hill above Samos, several hundred asylum seekers are no longer able to leave the camp for sundries, SIM cards or a cup of coffee in town,” said Kraus. “April 4 is when deportations are set to begin. Many of the refugees have already spent time in camps in Turkey, where conditions are rumored to be difficult and they do not wish to have come so far on hope only to be returned.”
Aid workers describe refugees in the camp as having a “heaviness of depression” as their hopes for passage to Europe begin to dim.
“We hear that humanitarian organizations on the ground are shocked about the presented ‘solution’ in the EU/Turkey deal,” said Paetzold. “They tell us, alone, these proposals are not workable and don’t meet humanitarian standards. For Europe this is not so much a refugee crisis but a value crisis. Is the European society unified and strong enough to master the influx of many or is it divided and fearful? We will need all our strength for a joint master plan. Civil society and many churches have chosen welcome over fear but some European decision makers choose to put the burden on the economically weak like Greece or deport the refugees to Turkey, whose human rights record is not good at all.”
Paetzold, who lives in Germany, said, “Twenty-six years ago the wall in my country came down – now new fences are built all over. If we choose deterrence over integration today it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy in the future. Solidarity is needed, not only among the European nations but also in the U.S., whose foreign policy has a strong influence on the root causes of the refugee marches.
Presbyterian Disaster Assistance has been working with the ACT Alliance and Church World Service to provide financial support for those caring for refugees and migrants. Myers Park partnered with Hungarian Reformed churches to support refugees.
Visit the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance web site for more information. To support PDA’s response in Syria, designate gifts to account DR000081.
Individual and congregations interested in supporting Presbyterian World Mission may click on www.presbyterianmission.org/supportwm or send a check to: Presbyterian World Mission, PO Box 643700, Pittsburg, PA 15264-3700. Checks should be made to Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and noted for fund E132192.
The PC(USA) Office of Immigration Issues has created a resource page around the “We Choose Welcome” campaign with theological and advocacy information for those wishing to study the issue and participate in action on behalf of Syrian refugees.