The Rev. Dr. Laurie Kraus, Coordinator of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, joined other leaders from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to follow the path taken by Syrian refugees across parts of Europe. During this week, Rev. Dr. Kraus wrote daily reflections about their journey, and Susan Krehbiel, PDA Catalyst for Refugees and Asylum, added supplemental information relevant to each post. These entries are below.


March 21, 2016--Monday of Holy Week

During Holy Week and the first few days of Eastertide, I will be traveling with several colleagues from the Presbyterian Church, USA and our Moderator, Heath Rada, in Hungary, Greece, and Germany. Our purpose is to follow along the path of Syrian migrants who have fled the war in their homeland and are seeking safety throughout Europe and the world. As the United States continues to struggle to practice welcome to these neighbors from the Middle East, countries in the European Union are struggling as well. Germany has provided a haven for many, but borders are closing throughout many countries and migrants are stuck on the borders of Greece and in Turkey, seeking safe passage and refuge. Throughout this journey, we will be conversing with faith partners, who are engaged in this work, and trying to see through the eyes of our Syrian refugee neighbors in order that we might share what we have seen and learned back home. It is significant to me that this journey takes place during Holy Week, when Jesus walked his way toward the Cross through the streets of Jerusalem on a path that has become known as the Via Dolorosa, the Way of Sorrows, or Suffering. For many Syrians who have fled their homeland as the war there enters its sixth year, the migrant journey—fraught with desperation and danger and the risk of death—is a via dolorosa, a way of suffering that too often ends in refugee camps, poverty, a reception marked by suspicion rather than welcome, or even a return to the place from which they sought to escape. Some fortunate few find safe harbor, welcome, and a chance to build a new life. Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, working with partners through the ACT Alliance and Church World Service, has been providing financial resources to support those seeking to provide welcome and care along the journey. Each day of Holy Week, I will post photos and a reflection to mark this journey, and to honor those who are walking this via dolorosa. PDA’s catalyst for Refugee and Asylum, Susan Krehbiel, will also be posting facts and figures about the refugee crisis in Europe and the Middle East to give context and scope to these reflections.
As I write, I am mindful that many of those migrants whose path we are following practice faiths other than my own, with differing beliefs and paths toward God. It is not my purpose to ground the journey of so many, whose religious beliefs deserve our respect, in my own tradition; but since it is from the Christian faith that I find the words and images to make meaning; it will be from that narrative that I frame these observations. At the Palm Sunday service in my home church in Louisville, the Rev. Dr. Cynthia Campbell preached from the great hymn in Philippians 2:5-11 that speaks of the death of Jesus as an emptying of himself, a choice to relinquish power through accepting crucifixion, a shameful death reserved for those who were non-citizens of Rome. He thus identified himself, in his dying, with those who were powerless, poor, and barred from the privilege of belonging. Speaking about this contrast between our human obsession with power and success and Christ’s embrace of a way many considered shameful, Cynthia quoted New Testament scholar Diane Bergant who said: the best way to enter Holy Week with (Jesus) is in the company of those with whom he has identified himself: the poor and the broken, the humiliated and the marginalized; those who suffer the abuse of others…If we are to be saved we must go where salvation takes place—in our streets and in our homes where violence rages; in the dark corners of life where despair seems to hold sway; wherever the innocent are abused or the needy neglected; wherever there is misunderstand or fear or jealousy. We must go wherever Christ empties himself for (us).
It is a deep prayer for Holy Week that the journey we undertake today may take us to those very places, with the One who is Way, Truth, and Life for us. 

FACTS:

· In 2016, the world is experiencing the largest number of refugees and displaced persons since the end of World War II – Over 60 million persons.
· Syria is the single largest humanitarian crisis. Today there are 4.8 million Syrian refugees registered with the UN refugee agency (UNHCR). This figure includes 2.1 million Syrians registered by UNHCR in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon, 1.9 million Syrians registered by the Government of Turkey, as well as more than 28,000 Syrian refugees registered in North Africa. Only ½ million of these are living in refugee camps, the vast majority are living in cities, towns and rural areas across the region.
· In 2015, the number of Syrian refugees continued to grow in the Middle East as the violence raged on and the death toll in Syria reached a quarter million. In the midst of such human tragedy, international aid to the surrounding countries waned, leading to cuts in food and other basic needs.
· In 2015, 1,015,078 individuals arrived in Europe by sea in search of safety and hope.
· As the UNHCR describes them: Increasing numbers of refugees and migrants take their chances aboard unseaworthy boats and dinghies in a desperate bid to reach Europe. The vast majority of those attempting this dangerous crossing are in need of international protection, fleeing war, violence and persecution in their country of origin. Every year these movements continue to exact a devastating toll on human life.
 

March 22, 2016--Tuesday of Holy Week; Budapest, Hungary

Luke 23:27-28
A great number of the people followed him, and among them were women who were beating their breasts and wailing for him. But Jesus turned to them and said, ‘Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children.’
 
By the time I had landed in Budapest after flying overnight from home, the world had changed again. Brussels endured three retaliatory terrorist attacks, many people died, and ISIS has claimed responsibility. In Idomeni, on the closed border between Macedonia and Greece, thousands of Syrian people who have fled from this same ISIS huddle in anxious misery, trying to find some way around the news that their desperate journey toward refuge in Europe will in all likelihood end here, in a barren field, with their eventual deportation to Turkey. Today, two refugees in Idomeni set themselves on fire in protest before a world that can neither find mercy nor kindness enough to break down the boundaries that are rising like an impenetrable wall, almost everywhere. Tonight we began meetings with colleagues in the Hungarian Reformed Church, to learn from each other how each are seeking to address this shattering moment of human need in countries whose hearts, and borders, are becoming increasingly narrow.
 
Like the women who wept followed after Jesus on his road to crucifixion, we weep for the deaths, the pain we see, and the suffering we know is still to come as refugees are refused entry to their path to new life and returned to Turkey in large numbers. We weep, and hear the words of Jesus, spoken not to the daughters of Jerusalem, but to us, sons and daughters of God who call ourselves the body of Christ. Weep for yourselves and for your children.
 
In Feasting on the Word, Jae Won Lee reflects on this text that Jesus is not rebuffing the women for their expression of sorrow and compassion, but rather, is joining in their lament and also redirecting it. They see the tragedy of an innocent man condemned to death; he sees "the status quo itself is destined for tragedy."
 
A couple of years ago, a team from Presbyterian Disaster Assistance went to consult with a community following a devastating forest fire. In a meeting with faith leaders to plan how to share resources fairly during the recovery, several people expressed their fear that funds donated would go to residents of the area who were undocumented or to others in the community who might not be believers or deserve the Church's gifts. They demanded to know: who would PDA help? One of our responders responded immediately and sincerely: PDA only helps the people Jesus loves.
 
Who did Jesus love, as he laid down his life for the sins of the world? What kind of world are we making, if we refuse our refugee neighbors the hospitality that was extended to us? While we worry about what we will become if our borders and our communities were to be flooded with refugees, what will we become if we do not let justice pour down like a flood and righteousness like an ever flowing stream? Even while we shrink in fear before the rising threat of terrorism and shudder at the cruel violence erupting seemingly everywhere, how can we say we are with Jesus, who answered the violence of the cross with trust in God and love for all our broken human family, if we do not love the people he loves?
 
Since these days are not only Holy Week for Christians, but also Passover for neighbors in the Jewish faith, let me close this evening with a quote from the Rabbi Hillel the Elder, a contemporary of Jesus, “If I am not for myself, who is for me? If I am only for myself, then what am ‘I’? And if not now, when?”
 

FACTS:

From January 1 – March 8, 2016:
141,930 persons arrived by sea to Europe
  • Almost half of these (46%) are Syrians.
  • Almost all (96%) from countries with large displaced and refugee populations – Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, etc.
  • 410 persons are considered either dead or missing
map of Eastern Europe showing refugee path

Source: UNHCR http://data.unhcr.org/mediterranean/regional.php


 

March 23, 2016--Wednesday of Holy Week; Budapest, Hungary

For most Christians of Protestant formation, very little happens on the Wednesday of Holy Week. It's not Maundy Thursday, when the family gathers around the Table in hope only to be shattered by evening's end as betrayal, recrimination, mutual suspicion and shame take their toll on disciples who have been living already with anxiety and fear of loss for far too long. Neither is it Friday, a day of judgment, abandonment and death. It is the calm before the storm, a time to think about who we are and who we hope to be, when the time of crisis is upon us.

We remain in Budapest today, conferring with colleagues in the Hungarian Reformed Church: a people in the calm both before and after last summer's storm of refugees that riveted the world's attention for a moment. At this Table were brothers and sisters who lead their denomination's relief and refugee response ministries; the pastor of St. Columba in Budapest, a PCUSA teaching elder who serves the Scottish Mission in Hungary and the English speaking congregation of the Hungarian Reformed Church; the presiding bishop, whose presence and experience guide the Church's relationships in a country that has endured many dramatic changes and faces, along with its neighbors in the European Union, difficult decisions about how people of faith practice welcome -- to those who are strangers on their borders, and to those estranged and hurting at home. We are privileged to be at Table with these friends, whose struggle and faith holds up a mirror to our own attempts to be faithful, reminding us that in uncertain times, we see through a mirror dimly.
 
At the height of the refugee crisis last summer, when tens of thousands of migrants hoping for refuge and safe passage were stuck in the city's railroad station and surrounding parks, the people of St. Columba's Church of Scotland in Budapest noticed that they had a lot of room in their building, a building which for many years housed a residential school for girls. The session decided they could house 20 refugees a night, providing shelter and sanctuary for some of those most desperate. Within a few hours of the decision, church members and aid organizations came together to provide beds and bedding, food and material aid, kindness and welcome. It was a light in the darkness for scores of Syrian and other migrants, waiting for a chance to begin the process of resettlement. Today, though those numbers have ebbed, the congregation and aid workers of the Reformed Church of Hungary continue to accompany families who remained in Hungary to seek asylum there, providing them with language lessons, job training, and support in finding housing and work. As we walked around the hall where both worship and work take place, I noticed two plaques on the wall (see the picture below). They commemorate a Scottish missionary, Jane Haining, who in the forties served as the Matron of the girls' home housed in St. Columba's, teaching and providing motherly care to the Christian and Jewish girls who lived in community there. Though her Church recalled her out of fear for 4her safety as the war spread Nazi hatred throughout Europe, she refused to return to safety, saying that if her care was a light to the girls in times of joy, how much more was she needed in a season of darkness and threat. So she stayed, until April 4, 1944 when the Gestapo dragged her away for harboring Jewish children, and she was incarnated and died in Auschwitz. It seems that her memory and her presence linger in this place, providing light for the way of welcome, and strength for the journey.
 
Plaque reading "Miss Jane Haining, Matron of the Girls Home of the Scottish Mission, was carried off by the Gestapo from this place, on the 4th of April, 1944, who died a martyr's death.

photo by Laurie Kraus

 
In the calm before –and after— the storm, it matters how we choose to be Christ's own in the world. The relationships we embrace with strangers and friends determine who we will be, when challenges to our security and appeals to retreat to the known and safe world would entice us. Like Miss Jane Haining, we are changed by those we recognize as bearing the face of God, and by those from whom we turn away, saying (as Peter did when he was recognized as a friend of Jesus) "I do not know him." In these hard days of accusation, anxiety, and potential, may we listen with compassion to neighbors and strangers alike, and choose wisely.
Photo of, Left to right: Moderator of the PC(USA), Elder Heath Rada; Rev. Dr. Laurie Kraus, Coordinator of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance; Rev. Dr. Istvan Szabo, Presiding Bishop of the Reformed Church of Hungary

Left to right: Moderator of the PC(USA), Elder Heath Rada; Rev. Dr. Laurie Kraus, Coordinator of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance; Rev. Dr. Istvan Szabo, Presiding Bishop of the Reformed Church of Hungary

Supplemental information:

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance assists refugees overseas through our mission and church partners. The ACT (Action by Churches Together) Alliance brings together a worldwide network of Protestant and Orthodox churches and their related agencies to coordinate their humanitarian assistance. Hungarian Interchurch Aid is a PDA partner and member of the ACT Alliance. While thousands of refugees and migrants have crossed through Hungary, Hungarian Interchurch Aid has helped set up shelters, provide emergency provisions (such as hygiene items, blankets,) and staff to provide emotional and spiritual care, particularly for the children and young people.

This map shows the route the refugees are taking through Europe to Hungary

This map shows the route the refugees are taking through Europe to Hungary. Source: UNHCR.


 

March 24, 2016--Maundy Thursday

Our final day in Hungary... spent meeting with colleagues across the Reformed Tradition who showed up to practice welcome when the crisis was at its worst last September, and have been working with refugees and asylum seekers since: Hungarian Reformed Church Aid (our hosts), Hungarian Interchurch Aid (our ACT Alliance partners), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Hungary and the Ecumenical Council of Churches in Hungary. They want us to know that they choose welcome, as a gospel imperative. They acknowledge and mourn the realities of xenophobia and privilege in their nation and faith communities that constrain that welcome and limit its scope -- a confessional moment we, as part of the Church in the US, share wholeheartedly and with broken hearts. They looked back on the learnings of responding in the midst of an unanticipated crisis--last summer's overwhelming numbers at the borders of all of Europe--and look forward to a coming crisis they expect to see soon, as violence in the Middle East continues to drive its citizens to flee, and last week's decisions by the EU, to return waiting refugees to an already overwhelmed Turkey and constrain immigration into Western Europe. Many Hungarians expect a reverse flow of tens of thousands of asylum seekers to return here, to their first point of arrival and application; and they pray to have the resources and will to meet that challenge. The conversations, with partners we had never met, felt like honest communication among family members...and this was amazing grace.

This evening, our group separated, to travel separate paths to Greece: some driving through the night to visit the improvised camp now at the closed border of Macedonia, Idomeni. The remainder participated in the Maundy Thursday service at St. Columba's here in Budapest, a church of refuge and welcome, where a few from many nations gathered at Table to bear witness to the coming passion of Jesus, and to be refreshed in the midst of the desert by bread and wine. The communion liturgy, adapted from a Scottish Church School curriculum, was particularly powerful in the midst of our conversations and journeys these days:
 
Lord Jesus, we pause at this Table because all the stories have been told and the words will soon run out. Promises seem so fragile now and hope seems much thinner. We cannot find the words we need, the questions are too great. All we have is silence. Yet hear, we no longer need words. The kingdom is breaking, love is choosing, the darkness is conspiring, and we find ourselves here because there is no other place to be and nothing else to say. We can only break bread and share wine and be with you tonight. So may we use the only words left, the angels' song, that we might believe:
Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might.
Heaven and earth are filled with your glory. Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest.
These stories gathered here of people who met salvation in Jesus--
Where lines were crossed and rules broken,
Where there was the promise of redemption for the outcast and foreigner
And inclusion for all who had been excluded--
These kingdom stories are gathered here.
 
When the stories are so hard and the words run out, I think about those I have met thus far along the way, and those of you at home, and this affirmation rises in my heart:
Blessed are the ones who come in the name of the Lord.
From Budapest, A Reformed church greeting: Áidás, békesség-- blessings and peace.

 

March 25, 2016--Good Friday; Athens, Greece

Today was a travel day, moving back from Good Friday in Hungary to the fourth week of Lent here in Orthodox Greece. It felt a little like limbo: Easter is just on the horizon after a long hard Lent, and now, we are back in the wilderness, wandering and waiting. We flew south over the Balkan Mountains, still shrouded in snow, and landed in Athens. Watching the forbidding mountains from the window of the plane, I marveled at how tenacious, how brave those thousands of asylum seekers are, risking sea and mountain and harsh judgment from their would-be hosts for the barest hope of refuge in Germany or some other country in Europe.

For us, it was different. From departure to arrival, our access and transit from country to country was effortless. We are in the Schengen Area, a large swath of Western, Atlantic and Eastern Europe where, for some of us, internal borders have been eliminated. There were no stops for passport control, security or customs, and in the Athens Airport we left for the city without showing any papers or documents. This agreement, signed in 1985, makes inter-European travel matter of fact, as easy as crossing a state line in the US. But for those asylum seekers from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and parts of Africa who have made the harrowing Adriatic crossing from Turkey or paid smugglers their life savings to be transported to safety, there is no Schengen Area. The borders of Europe are closing down, the US and much of the rest of the world is mired in political argument about the risk or value of refugees from the Middle East, and last week's agreement with the EU may instigate a reverse migration crisis back into Turkey and countries of origin.
 
Throughout this week, I have been holding the passion narrative of the gospel of Luke close to my spirit. The story describes the many betrayals and human failures that resulted in the death of Jesus on the cross, in excruciating detail. Judas who betrayed him to death; Peter who denied him in fear, disciples who ran away, officials and leaders who jeered and judged. Sometimes, painfully, I identify with one of those, and with them, I weep. But the story also in two places draws our attention to another kind of person, a bystander. In verse 35, Luke says that after Jesus cried out, Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do, "the people stood by, watching." Then again, following the centurion's horrified affirmation: "Surely this man was innocent," Luke observes: and when all the crowds who had gathered there for this spectacle saw what had taken place, they returned home, beating their breasts.
 
I can't help but wonder, is that all they did? Is that all we are doing? Watching, beating our breasts in a show of grief, and then returning home, to our own kind of spiritual Schengen Area, where life and passage between hard realities and painful stories is too easy?
 
In November of 1938, Nazi violence against Jews went public on Krystallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass. The Reformed theologian and German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, read that night from Psalm 74, and wrote in the margin of his bible, "how long, O Lord, shall I be a bystander?"
 
His eventual embrace of active faith, rather than passive standing by, ended in his imprisonment and death. Here at home, across the developed world, individuals and families fleeing war and persecution are seeking welcome, refuge, and sanctuary in our midst. To stand by is to accept whatever the powers and principalities determine is best for those whose demands are inconvenient and hard. To choose welcome means to embrace uncertainty, risk, and a wider, less convenient understanding of the world and our place in it. My prayer tonight comes with the words of a sixth century hymn:
 
One:
The cross is the way of the lost
The cross is the staff of the lame
The cross is the guide of the blind
The cross is the strength of the weak
The cross is the hope of the hopeless
The cross is the freedom of the slaves
The cross is the water of the seeds
The cross is the consolation of the bonded labourers
The cross is the source of those who seek water
The cross is the cloth of the naked.
 
ALL:
O God
you have made us for yourself,
and against your longing there is no defense.
mark us with your love,
and release in us a passion for your justice
in our disfigured world;
that we may turn from our guilt and face you,
our heart’s desire. Amen.
A young Syrian refugee stands in from of a tent with "open the borders" spray painted on the side

Photo taken by Derek Macleod in Idomeni on the Macedonia-Greece border. Derek is one of Laurie’s fellow travelers on this journey.

Supplemental information

The impact of war and displacement on children is profound. Statements often made in popular culture that “children bounce back” fail to recognize the unique effects of trauma and deprivation on children whose lives have been disrupted, often at key moments in their development. So, today we take a glimpse as the impact of the Syrian war on the children.

  • One study found that 79% of the Syrian children interviewed had experience the death of at least one family member. Consider that before 2011, almost all children in Syria went to school. By the beginning of 2014-15 school year, however, less than half the children were in school and “Syria’s primary school enrollment is now one of the lowest in the world.” Similarly, studies have found only about half of Syrian refugee children living in the neighboring countries go to school, as few as 20% are enrolled in some locations. Add to this picture that the majority of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey are living in extreme poverty. International humanitarian aid has failed to meet the cries for help from the refugees and their host communities. (Source: Selcuk R. SiRinand lauRen RogeRS-SiRin, The Educational and Mental Health Needs of Syrian Children, Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute, October, 2015.)
  • The significant increase in Syrian refugees headed to Europe last year coincides with cuts by humanitarian organizations in the levels of individual food and emergency assistance. Approximately one-fourth of arrivals in 2015 were children, rising to 35% today (UNHCR data) who made this journey in unseaworthy vessels, subject to extortion, threats and violence at the hands of smugglers or human traffickers. For these children, the risks to their safety and future development continue.

March 27, 2016--Easter Sunday; Samos Island, Greece

Today you shall be with me in paradise.

The word is a rare one-- used only 3 times in the New Testament, it might instead be translated "garden." Paradise as God's garden -- a place where the scent of orange blossom is in the air, trees are heavy with fruit, the ground brings forth abundance, both in produce and beauty.
 
Such was my first impression of the island of Samos, where we flew yesterday to meet with relief workers who are supporting asylum seekers at their first stop after the sometimes perilous crossing across the Adriatic from Turkey. The scent of orange blossoms was heavy on the light breeze, and everywhere we looked, even so early in the season, trees were laden with olives, oranges, lemons. The sea was beautiful, with just a hint of the violence in the waves that has endangered so many on their crossings. Samos is a beautiful place...for some.
 
Our conversations were with representatives and relief workers from the IOCC and Apostoli, the response and development agency of the Greek Orthodox Church; with the team leader of the UN High Commission on Refugees office, the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders. At the camp-- now a locked detention center--on the rocky hill above Samos town, several hundred asylum seekers from many countries, are no longer able to leave the camp for sundries, SIM cards or a cup of coffee in town. All time is measured here by two dates: March 20, when the EU approved its refugee return policy with Turkey, and April 4, when the deportations are set to begin. Many 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. The aid workers describe a heaviness of depression settling over the camp as hope of a successful passage to Europe dims and their conditions worsen.
 
That heaviness was mirrored in the voices and stance of the Doctors Without Borders Staff and the UNHCR, who, according to the practice mandated by international human rights standards, they may no longer work for relief within the camp's locked fences. "We do not support those who imprison refugees," explained one of the physicians there.
 
At the port, small IKEA prefab houses wait for the continuation of migration-- more numbers are expected even in the face of such small odds for success. It is hard to silence hope. On this Easter Sunday, we celebrate the triumph of hope over despair, life out of death. Let us also bind ourselves to the Love that death could not conquer, and in the name of the Stranger who on this holy day long ago greeted his friends by name in the Garden, believe and act as though no one, especially no refugee, will be condemned as a stranger among us, or refused welcome in our midst.
 
My favorite Easter hymn was written by a pastor from the Reformed Church of Hungary at the end of the 16th century:
There in God's Garden stands the tree of wisdom, whose leaves hold forth the healing of the nations.
Tree of all wisdom, tree of all compassion, tree of all beauty.
Its name is Jesus, name that means "our Savior," there on its branches see the scars of suffering. See there the tendrils of our human selfhood feed on its lifeblood.
Thorns not its own are tangled in its foliage, our greed has starved it, our despite has choked it. Yet look!, it lives, it's grief has not destroyed it, nor fire consumed it.
See how its branches reach to us in welcome,
Hear what the Voice says: "come to me, you weary
Give me your sickness, give me all your sorrow, I will give blessing."
This is my ending, this my resurrection;
Into your hands, Lord, I commend my spirit
This I have searched for, now I can possess its, this ground is holy.
graffiti that reads "no one is illegal"

photo by Laurie Kraus

Supplemental information

In October 2015, Hungary closed its borders to new arrivals leaving refugees and migrants stranded in Athens. With over 9,000 daily arrivals at its peak, Greece still receives over 1,000 persons a day even as the European Union seeks to end sea arrivals under agreements to return all refugees and migrants to Turkey. In 2016, approximately 150,000 more refugees and migrants have arrived by sea to Greece. While understanding that this level of spontaneous arrivals presents challenges for the European countries, we also need to remember the right of individuals to seek protection for themselves and their families. And any decisions to relocate refugees from one country to another, particularly in returning them to Turkey or other transit countries, must take into consideration the ability of that receiving state to adequate protect the refugees from further harm.

 
 

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