Are We Ready to Welcome Refugees This Time?

Refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan walking towards the Croatian border in Serbia, September 2015

I am at this time working on putting together my first book. It will be a selection of a number of my articles, released and published over the years. This one is a candidate for the book. I would like to share it with you today: 

The currently developing crisis in Afghanistan, with the anticipation of a new wave of refugees fleeing the return of the Taliban regime, reminds of the situation five years ago on the refugee trail in Southeast Europe.

The moment our international team of volunteers moved to the Hungarian and Croatian borders in Serbian mid September 2015 we were under attack from Christians who could not approve of our action. They were scoffing at us and warning us that we were “naïve and misguided”.  Some even said that we were “aiding terrorists and human traffickers”.  

In their view a daily inflow of thousands of refugees from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and other neighboring places, including Kurds and a number of Christians, that led across a number of European countries, was the result of a sinister and guided plot to conquer Europe with Islam. They often used the Bible verses to buttress their accusations. Their concerns, shared often aggressively, unfortunately resonated with many Christians across the world whose attitude towards the refugees and immigrants were formed by questionable hermeneutics and confused prophetic interpretations.

The experience of our team, led by the Renewing Our Minds (ROM) initiative in cooperation with EUS Serbia (Evangelical Association of Christians Students), could not disagree more with the loud concerns of those Christian friends who saw the rapidly developing refugee crisis as a serious threat to the “European Christian culture and identity”. 

Our ROM Community Refugee Response, as we nicknamed the action, involved a group of followers of Jesus, mostly young leaders from Serbia, Romania, Croatia, Israel/Palestine, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Albania, UK and the US. We believed that if there was ever a time to demonstrate the love of Jesus toward the people in distress, the time was there and then when Europe was facing the most overwhelming challenge since the end of the World War II. 

We wanted to make a statement of love, compassion, empathy and example. The summon of Jesus was clear to us: “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me”. (Matthew 25:40. NIV) Our hearts resonated with the words of the Old Testament too: “You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:33.34. ESV)

The refugee trail of the late 2015 followed through Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, Hungary, Slovenia, Austria and Germany. But among them Serbia carried the heaviest load at the time.  Its government and people treated the refugees well. Croatia joined Serbia in sharing the burden almost immediately, when Hungary decided to seal its border with Serbia and the refugee trail moved to Croatia.

The encouraging news was that in Serbia and Croatia different Christian church communities and organizations, including a number of self-organized faith groups acted as the first responders almost immediately.  Baptists, Pentecostals, Reformed Christians, Adventists, Lutherans, Orthodox, Catholics, and some more visible faith-based humanitarian agencies were in the fields, on the roads, and in the camps assisting the refugees too.

The refugees on the move were not terrorists. They were the young people, desperate yet daring men and women, families with children, many of them babies still who left their countries because they did not want to be killed, raped or kidnapped. We heard them say: “It is not only one side that you have to dread. There are several militant groups there that are equally evil. If you are a man they want you to fight for them. Otherwise you are a dad man. If one group doesn’t kill you today, the other one will tomorrow. And if you survive those two there are always others that will be after you soon enough.” One refugee said: “People should not judge us because we have smartphones. I have nothing in Syria to return to. We are here because we have no other choice.”

It was not hard to communicate with refugees at all. Many refugees we met were well-educated people who spoke good English. They were always available for a heart-to-heart conversation. Among them were those who already suffered more than the others from a prolonged journey. Some of them had walked for two weeks and some for two months since the day they left Syria. Their feet were hurting, and many walked with crutches, or were helped to move forward in wheelchairs. 

The most moving scenes were those of small children walking with their parents on the dusty dirt road through the cornfields leading to the Croatian border. Those were the days of the late but very hot summer. In two days, in our four cars, we drove close to one hundred children, mothers and people with crutches or walking difficulties the final miles to the border. Hardly anyone in our team could hide our tears.

Our presence, and the presence of the mostly Christian groups at the Hungarian and Croatian borders in those initial days of the refugee crisis were the most meaningful statement of our faith. As we were distributing food, water, some clothes and shoes, and were giving warm hugs and handshakes we heard the refuges saying in a number of different ways: “Our people have forgotten us, but you Christians love us!” Or they would simply say with a smile: “You are good people. Thank you.” At such precious moments we were “little Jesus’” to the hungry and tired refugees on their journey to safety. 

The  refugee crisis placed an enormous pressure on the EU, and especially on Serbia and Croatia. In those late months of 2015 both countries were doing their best to treat the refuges well, and when compared with some other countries along the refugee trail  their record was the best one. Three months later, around Christmas 2015, when our team served in the winter transit refugee camp in Slavonski Brod, Croatia we witnessed many acts of kindness done by numerous civil society groups, faith based humanitarian agencies, Red Cross, even the Croatian government and Police. It seemed everyone involved was proud of being given the opportunity to help.

But it did not take long for the welcoming atmosphere to change. In 2016 the refugee honeymoon was almost abruptly over, while the need to save the incoming refugees remained to be an urgent matter until today. Governments of Europe shared a common attitude that the refugees are not their problem. Aggressive populism grew in Europe and the US towards refugees and immigrants. Border walls and pushbacks replaced the spirit of welcome. And yet those thousands of refugees, hundreds of thousands, alas millions are the real people, real men and women, real families with real children are still waiting for our unconditional embrace.

As we are at this time bracing ourselves for a new wave of refugees, mostly from Afghanistan, let’s hear Jesus speaking louder than ever: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” (Matthew 25: 35.36. NIV)

Are we ready to welcome refugees this time with open arms and hearts?

About Tihomir Kukolja

Tihomir Kukolja, born in Pozega, Croatia. Studied, lived and worked in Yugoslavia, Croatia, United Kingdom, Australia and the US. Educated in theology, communications, and radio journalism. Worked as a church pastor, media professional, radio producer and presenter, journalist, religious liberty activist, and reconciliation and leadership development activist. Lives in Houston TX, USA. Until recently served as the Executive Director, Forum for Leadership and Reconciliation (Forum), and Director of Renewing Our Minds (ROM) initiative. Loves photography, blogging and social media.
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