Hundreds of thousands of people fleeing the Middle East have trudged across southeastern Europe for weeks, buffeted by the rapidly changing policies and politics of various European governments, as they try to make their way to Germany or Austria.
When Hungary shut its border on the 15th, Croatia threw open its borders and welcomed the travelers with open arms.
In Croatia, resident Nazarene missionaries Dave and Betsy Scott, and Ashley Huber, now find themselves with an overwhelming, unexpected opportunity as so far 35,000 people have entered Croatia in the last week. According to Betsy, Croatian authorities estimate another 80,000 refugees are on their way. (Read more about the latest developments in this Snapshot.)
On Monday, Betsy explained what our team in Zagreb have been doing and what the current situation is for the refugees in Croatia.
Eurasia Communications: What have you been doing to respond to the refugees needs?
Betsy Scott: Such a variety of ways, from helping to coordinate mobilization in Zagreb and eastern Croatia, being proactive in partnering with people and learning the up-to-date needs on the ground. Just that alone has been a 24-hour job. We’ve also been able to help by
- picking up trash
- helping shut down a refugee camp
- buying and delivering much needed tangible material things, like providing tents when there were only 10 tents for a group of 1000 people,
- helping set up a mobile Internet hot spot station for refugees to connect with their loved ones,
- buying hygiene products, baby food, food, water and other supplies.
Eurasia Communications: What kind of stories are you hearing from the refugees?
Betsy Scott: The stories and images shatter stereotypes. They are not pushy, but afraid, tired and exhausted. Maybe there are dangerous people in the mix, but I have to tell you, it didn’t matter, none of it mattered. My heart is completely broken. I’ve never seen such desperation, such heartache, such determination, such bravery, such sadness, never. They have walked over 1,200 km (750 miles) just from Greece to Zagreb, and many are families with really young children, ranging from 3 months old to teenagers.
We met a woman who had been traveling by herself with her 3-month-old. Her husband is still in Syria. She found security traveling with another family. We noticed that she needed shoes, and we were able to get her a stroller for her baby. I think of her every day: the kind of strength it would take for a woman to travel this far with just her baby and no husband. And yet, they press on.
I wondered: What must their lives have been like for them to endure something like this, to put their family through this type of journey? They’ve endured such low living conditions, depended on food handouts; their children have sores, are sick, dehydrated, hungry, so exhausted … and yet, this life is better: They are safe.
One woman said she was disgusted by her own smell. Many are given water and food, but the truth is they need another level of care. They desperately need a shower and want to feel human again.
Many saw things they needed in front of them, but they didn’t ask for it. So we began to bring it directly to them, and then they would take it. They didn’t feel they could go to the table and ask for something, but when it was offered, they smiled gratefully and said “Thank you.”
Betsy Scott: A group of men kicking around a soccer ball in the middle of the camp and passing it to volunteers and back. I realized then that we focus so much on providing the “level 1” basic needs – food and water – that we often overlook the soccer ball purchase that reminds them of who they are, what they love, where they’ve come from.
One man, Mohammed, asked if he could help us, and put on a yellow vest and began carrying crates and sorting things. In that moment, we didn’t have separation of “us and them” – of the giver and the taker; we were both helping, both caring. It was lovely.
Eurasia Communications: What is the nation of Croatia or the city of Zagreb doing at the moment — political, civilian, nonprofits, Christians, etc.?
Betsy Scott: At the moment, part of Zagreb doesn’t know refugees are on their doorstep (or that’s what it feels like when you’re in the city) and part of the city has dedicated their time and resources to helping people. Often, it has felt that these refugees are just game pieces in the bigger political picture: close the border here, open it there, don’t let them pass here, bus them there, put them in a camp there, go now – it’s open.
But, given the political tension, there are so many organizations working together. We have personally had the privilege to partner with local non-government organizations, Protestant churches, the Red Cross, friends and colleagues, and other missions organizations who have come to help, and keep coming, from Youth With a Mission to Intervarsity to others.
We have not just served with local Croatian entities, but also with Austrian, Hungarian and Slovenian volunteers, and the cooperation has been a beautiful thing.
The Red Cross has been a great way to partner with others. We knew right away we needed to register because many places were only allowing Red Cross volunteers to help. So Dave signed up and that first night worked with the director of the Red Cross in Zagreb, setting up a facility with 1,000 beds. From there, broader networks formed, and as of right now, he’s been working with the organizer of one camp we helped set up on one of the borders between Slovenia and Croatia. That border was closed tonight, and they had to move the whole camp elsewhere.
Eurasia Communications: What difficulties are the refugees facing in getting through Croatia? Where are they heading?
Betsy Scott: One huge danger is that if they don’t stay on the road, from Tovarnik they will run into many landmines still in the fields and forests. Many were also taken to an old army barracks in Beli Manastir (half an hour north of Osijek) for “holding,” which is close to the Hungarian border. But, in what seemed like one day, they had some 7,000 refugees in a camp that was outfitted for 1,000 people, so that became a dire situation.
Other difficulties include people taking advantage of refugees by charging them an absurd amount of money for transportation, or taxis bringing loads and loads of people to the Slovenian border before Slovenia had agreed to open it. These bottleneck situations then formed at two borders, and that’s where most of our efforts have been in the last few days.
Betsy Scott: Please learn about this situation, and be open to hearing stories that will keep you from stereotyping or being directed by your fear. And allow it to challenge your thinking. Many of us have giant needs in our back yards that we can choose to be aware of and do something about, or we can keep living our lives as if they aren’t there.
PRAY for the strength of these individuals and families to keep going, for healthy babies, for those who are sick to get the help they need, for fewer infections, for better living conditions. PRAY for the volunteers who are giving all they have to help complete strangers. PRAY for new volunteers to help, to come alongside what others are already doing, to seek new creative ways for a long-term plan.
PRAY for the love of Jesus to reach these refugees, and that they would feel loved and cared for.
How to respond
Nazarene Compassionate Ministries has developed several resources, including bulletin inserts and a Powerpoint presentation, to educate your congregation or Sunday school class on the refugee crisis. Click here to download.
Churches and individuals around the world can support efforts to minister to refugee families through local Nazarene churches by giving to the NCM Refugee and Immigrant Support Fund.
In Germany, please donate through Helping Hands e.V., IBAN: DE56 5075 0094 0000 022394, SWIFT-BIC: HELADEF1GEL.
For other countries, please give through your local church or district, designating your gift to the NCM Refugee and Immigrant Support Fund.
Download a booklet with suggestions and guidelines for supporting refugees in your local community.
Photos courtesy Teanna Sunberg.