The Evangelical Church of Greece has been helping immigrants for more than 20 years, but has grown its effort to unprecedented levels in the past few years, months and even every day.
The church has operated a guesthouse and soup kitchen at the center of Athens for immigrants since 1994. In the beginning of 2015, members of a local church learned that Idomeni had become an entry to Europe for refugees, and they began visiting refugees there twice a week, asking two crucial questions: What do you need? How can we help?
At that point, the church’s capacity to help burst into bloom, noted Rev. Dimitris Boukis, secretary of the executive committee of the Evangelical Church of Greece. “We have coordinated and organized support work in Idomeni,” he said. “Two days a week, we feed some 5,000 people. We also help by bringing doctors, clothing and shoes.”
The logistics of providing thousands of meals — all cooked and prepared in church kitchens and on the spot — are amazing, he said. “People donate their time, their money, their effort, and they come together, they take the food, and they travel 60, 80, 100 kilometres just to offer it to people.”
What makes this church’s response so effective? Its ability to listen is a big factor. “We were the very first ones who provided free internet for the refugees, because that was the greatest need at that point,” said Boukis.
Then the church found out that all of the refugees in Idomeni will be moved to so-called “hotspots,” or reception centers that will identify and relocate refugees. Again, church members adapted their response to suit the needs. They began visiting the hotspots close to local parishes. The church has some 35 parishes across mainland Greece.
Children’s needs particularly vital
Entertaining children is important but so is educating them, pointed out Boukis. “These are kids, young kids who should have their future in front of them, and they are way behind. They don’t know the language of the country where they are now. They don’t know the language of the country where they are going to. They will lose time in their schooling.”
Children have also been traumatized from leaving their countries and living amid war and violence. “We need to give something more,” said Boukis.
Refugees want a better future for their children, he said. “So they left their homes, their families, their roots, all because they want to give a better life and future to their children. So for them to be stuck here, despite knowing they have the right as legal refugees and victims of war to move to where they think their future lies, makes them very frustrated. And we can understand their point.”
The changing refugee situation
Immigrants have always moved to and through Greece, but the numbers this year have become overwhelming, changing both the response and public sentiment, said Boukis.
Idomeni, for example, was once a small border village. “Maybe a few hundred people used to live there,” said Boukis. “The actual refugee camp there hosts 12,000 to 14,000 refugees. And 12,000 to 14,000 — that’s an average city in Greece. It completely changes the dynamics of society.”
When one combines the pressure of helping refugees with the existing economic crisis in Greece, the public is sometimes left with negative feelings, he added. “I believe one of the major crises the Greek society goes through at this point is the helplessness of the people. There are a lot of people without jobs. Having almost 25 percent of your workforce out of jobs, that creates a lot of pessimism.”
Yet people want to help. “It is amazing how many people are helping by giving out goods that they buy from the supermarket, or they open up their houses,” said Boukis. “All of us, we have a soft heart for refugees since we have been refugees not very far back.”
What should the church be doing?
Boukis believes churches of all faiths from all parts of the world can work with refugees.
Churches who have closer connections with politicians should push an agenda of open borders to the refugees. “We should not hide behind the politicians,” he said. “Instead we should lead by our example, and I think that has happened in the past and we need to do it now. There are some European countries where they are not at all welcoming the refugees. The church there needs to tell them how important it is to host people. Being silent is not good. I think we should speak loudly about human dignity, and human equality, especially as Christians if we believe that all humans were created by the same God. I believe there are people already who have it in their heart to help their neighbor. I think the churches need to encourage that.”
Stronger ecumenical work will also benefit refugees and societies alike, Boukis added. “If there is something I think ecumenism can really bring, it is to bring all our efforts of different churches under an umbrella,” he said. “In cases like refugees, we need to have one voice and one face. I think that would be good for everybody.”
An expression of faith
Helping refugees has been a good way to express the love of God, reflected Boukis, “if we love others as we love ourselves — especially since the ‘others’ are people whose language and culture we do not know — but in their faces we see brothers and sisters created by the same God.”
Helping others has also given many in Greece a new perspective on their own lives. “Even today, with the crises we are facing here in Greece, we are much more fortunate than other people are,” he said. “These people would never have left their countries if there had not been war.”
“They were people who had regular jobs. They were people who loved their country and who didn’t want to leave. They had good jobs. Some of them had businesses, some were professors, others were musicians, and you see people that speak many languages as well, who are educated people as well. So for them, leaving their countries was not because they wanted a better future financially. They had to go, they didn’t have any other opportunity in life.”
They are a valuable part of any society, he pointed out, “so they need to be treated as equals. And you don’t do that out of pity, but really because we see that these people need another chance to stay on their two feet. I see that some of them are very gifted artists who I would very much like to engage with or listen to. I believe wherever they go, they will enrich society. They will be fresh air.”
People — both those in the Evangelical Church of Greece and beyond — now see that their engagement with the refugees will be for a much longer period of time, said Boukis. “In the beginning, we were just giving aid to those who were passing by. Now we are thinking of ways to serve these people as they are staying here. We look at ways for how we can engage these people in our communities.”
Ultimately, helping refugees lies at the essential heart of the Gospel message, he said. “We cannot engage only in worshipping God without really helping persons in need. Christ does exactly the same thing to us: we are the ones who are lost and He comes and saves us.”
Faith-based refugee workers – Witnessing conditions after EU-Turkey agreement (WCC press release of 21 April 2016)