Reflections on Serving Refugees
August 25, 2020
By: Robbie McAlister
I am deeply saddened that I have not been able to serve refugees in Moria camp this year because of COVID-19. There are no cases in the camp, and they are trying very hard to keep it that way. Understandably there are quarantine protocols that make it impossible to go and serve for just a week or two at a time. I can honestly say the paradox is striking when I think that of all the work I have done in the last 40 years of ministry, the past 3 have been the most difficult and most rewarding.
I remember my first day in the camp back in 2016. The first thing I noticed were the smells of raw sewage and smoke from fires built to cook and stay warm. I remember walking through the gate and being vetted by the police, as if I was visiting prisoners in a prison. I remember walking up the road to the center of camp for orientation and the crowds of people lined up waiting to see a doctor, ask about asylum or to simply find a shady place to get out of the sun. I remember the children, oh how many children; thousands of them in the camp running and playing along the road with sticks and boxes and pieces of plastic and whatever they could find, but no toys. They were all smiling and would run up and with a sheepish grin say “hello” in English, then shyly smile again and wait to see how I would respond.
I remember occasionally they would come and grab my pants leg and look at me with eyes crying out for some kind of affection, whether a simple touch on the head or a hug. I could tell that a little hug meant more than a piece of gold to them, and eventually, as I gave more hugs, they also became more valuable to me than all the money in the world. There was something that transpired through that hug that was beyond this world. It was a transfer of meaning, a caring of sorts. Could it have been love like a parent or grandparent for a child? I think so. I just know they would come back for more, but I had to move on to my assignment for the day. They seemed to understand and ran off laughing and perhaps feeling a sense of worth or value that comes when someone takes notice of you or makes you feel special. Many no doubt did not have fathers or grandfathers to hug them, having lost them to ISIS or Taliban terrorists, or in some cases, unfortunately, our own bombs or simply being separated on the journey never to be reunited. I often thought, “What does the future hold for them?”
I remember as the day went on, we worked hard providing housing, blankets, food, tools and many other things most of us take for granted but for these precious souls created in God’s image, it meant the difference between, in some cases, and I don’t exaggerate, life or death.
I remember going home that night exhausted but feeling a deep sense of meaning in my life that I had been able to add value, great value, to vulnerable people who were so appreciative for the simplest things. I cried and cried throughout the day, feeling so broken at all that I, as an entitled person from an affluent country and culture, had and had for so long not appreciated and had taken for granted.
I remember meeting some of the most beautiful people from places that we associate in the West with only violence and wickedness and see them as enemies. They were not my enemies, and I knew that if given the opportunity, many could become my best friends. I remember feeling like never before a sense of our common humanity and that while we are from different places, cultures, races, ethnicities, social classes, etc… we share a common origin. In our faith tradition, that common origin is the image of God Himself.
By the end of the week, I was overwhelmed by my experiences and so saddened by the state of the camp, the people and their home countries and their plight that I knew I would never be the same. Instead of a single short term mission trip that I could go home and check the box on, I knew I had to go back again and again as many times and with as many people as I could. God has allowed me to return nine more times with a few hundred people, and it is always the same, heartache mixed with joy, pain mixed with love, sadness mixed with smiles and laughter, frustration at the state of the global political climate mixed with hope for a better future through common sense solutions to complex problems, knowing this can only come if driven at a core level by a deep love for one another.
God spoke to me deeply that first week, and as if to put an exclamation point on it, as I walked out of the camp that last day, I noticed a dove on an electric wire that feeds the camp. As I looked around, I noticed another and then another.
In my faith tradition, the dove is a sign of peace and God’s presence, and it was as if God was saying, “Don’t worry, Robbie. I am here, too.” Again, the thought touched me deeply, and I left with a greater sense of calling and purpose than I had before I went. Over the years, God has shown up in and around that camp again and again…. and again in very powerful ways that can’t be explained away in secular terms.
As I sit here this morning, I am sad that I am now unable to work in the camp currently because of my age and an understandable two week pre-work quarantine as precautionary measures during the pandemic. Because of the quarantine and my age, I don’t know if I will ever be able to return to that particular camp, although my work with refugees will continue, Lord willing.
There are many lessons to learn from this, but one that strikes me very deeply is that I am so thankful God has shown me no matter how old I am or how experienced I am or how many letters I have behind my name through decades of education or how much I have been given, I still have much to learn about His world and His ways.
One specific thing I learned through this experience working with migrating people that I hope never leaves me is that all people matter to God, and therefore, they should matter to us. We should go to whatever lengths necessary to show this loudly to the world through simply loving our neighbor no matter who they are, where they are from or what their status is.
We are all on a journey and while not always easy, I personally am eager to continue on this journey until my last day.
Maybe it is good for all of us to ask what experiences we have had that took us to a deeper place of meaning, a deeper place of understanding and love for all our neighbors and a deeper sense of relationship with our God?
To learn more about volunteering at Moria camp, click here.
Robbie McAlister has been a pastor and missionary in the US and in Europe for over 30 years. He currently helps build bridges between churches and opportunities related to global migration. He also advocates for the refugee and immigrant communities in the southeastern US.