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Tortured journey

A million migrants have made their way from war-torn countries to Europe, prompting threats to security but also opportunities for Christian service

Tortured journey

Migrants wait for food in a camp at the Greek-Macedonian border, near the Greek village of Idomeni. (Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images )

Sipa via AP

The “life-jacket graveyard” on Lesbos

Nat Belz

Nahid and her dog, Niko, at Moria camp

Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images

A man and his son walk in Moria camp.A man and his son walk in Moria camp.

Nat Belz

Voula Antouan, director of Bridges ministry

Nat Belz

Hiba and Mary at Kara Tepe camp

Nat Belz

Migrants face off with French riot police in the Calais Jungle.

Editor’s note: WORLD agreed to withhold the last names, and in some cases whole names, of refugees in order to protect from ongoing threats family members they have left behind.

LESBOS, Greece—The mountains on Lesbos Island rise high on its northern end, yet somehow the life jackets rise higher still. Up a winding dirt track that falls sharply off to the sea, a once-barren hillside is known locally as “life-jacket graveyard.” There nearly a million discarded life vests speak of the dangerous passage migrant refugees have made from the world’s worst war zones, across the waters of the Aegean Sea from Turkey to reach Greece, the gateway to Europe.

More than 1.3 million migrants applied for asylum in European Union countries in 2015—the highest number on record, and double the previous record high set in 1992, the year of the Soviet Union’s collapse and the launch of the Bosnian War.

The majority who arrived by sea came through Lesbos, sometimes 5,000 a day, quickly shedding their life vests on the beaches. The vests sit heaped on this windy mountaintop dumping ground, bright oranges and blues visible for miles but watched over only by rangy pigeons and one lone terrier.

This influx challenges every country in Europe. The great 2015 migration coincided with terror attacks in Paris and Brussels, plus a string of attacks and Muslim-led criminal activity in other European cities in 2016, acts that yanked welcome mats for even those most deserving asylum. The threat of Islamic-led terror and crime has prompted European countries to close borders to asylum seekers, leaving more than 54,000 migrants currently trapped in Greece. That leaves Greece—beset with its own economic crisis and high unemployment (currently at 23 percent)—to shoulder the ongoing burden.

The reality for Greece, and the West, is the migrants are coming still. Despite an arrangement in March between the EU and Turkey—a highly suspect agreement obligating Turkey to retain hundreds of thousands of refugees in exchange for up to $6.6 billion in EU aid—migrants continue making dangerous seagoing escapes.

Since January 2016, more than 265,560 arrivals have come by sea. Two-thirds of them arrived in Greece and one-third in Italy. In one day while I was in Lesbos (July 28), 140 migrants arrived in two overstuffed rubber boats from Turkey.

The risks, I learned in days of visiting several Greek islands and interviewing new arrivals, include being shot at by Turkish police or abandoned at sea or abused by smugglers who man the illegal sea passages. As of August, missing or dead migrants this year number 3,151—or 450 a month, according to the United Nations.

For Christians fleeing persecution in Iran, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, and other countries, those risks multiply: They face threats from an increasingly Islamic Turkish government, and told me stories of harassment and violence at the hands of Muslim officials as well as other migrants and smugglers, even after they find supposed safe haven. “We thought we’d left all that behind,” one migrant told me, “only to discover we must face new threats.”

‘What I receive from Islam is only trouble. … It hurt me. It hurt my family and my friends. Now I recognize it is not real.’
—Rahad Rashid, an Iraqi Christian in Belgium

Following this new influx across Europe from the crystalline Aegean waters to the murky breaks of the Atlantic, I discovered refugee camps have sprung up in nearly every major European city. I found migrants buying phone cards near Brussels’ Grand Place and selling bottled water near the banks of the Seine in Paris. They live in illegal migrant camps in wooded groves north of Paris; in the former army barracks of Le Petit-Château in downtown Brussels; in a beachside holiday camp south of Amsterdam; at the Tempelhof airport built by Adolph Hitler outside Berlin; and other unlikely places. Their uneasy resettlement is roiling European politics and raising concern across the Atlantic, where only a small fraction of the 2015 migration may make its way to the United States.

Legitimate concerns abound over terrorist embeds in migrant ranks, radical Islamists seeking to spark violence and establish Sharia law and Muslim hegemony over the enduring landmarks of Western civilization. Besides the terrorism issues, the migrant wave has provoked crime and housing controversies in Germany and elsewhere and has stressed traditionally generous European social welfare programs.

Yet in the midst of the migrant-driven upheaval and controversy, another massive movement is also under way—of Christian-led organizations, churches, coffee shops, and safe houses. By extending welcome to newly arrived migrants, they are helping many start over, and already seeing fruit from their labors as many building new lives in Europe are also finding new life as Christians.

MORIA CAMP OUTSIDE MYTILENE, the largest city on the Greek island of Lesbos, sits on a hillside surrounded by olive groves. The Greek government runs the camp, with police in charge and meals provided by the military. Tall security fences suggest a detention facility more than the transit camp Moria started out to be.

Last month the facility was full with new arrivals coming every day, particularly after a July 15 attempted coup in nearby Turkey sparked crackdown and fear. As Afghan and other refugees lined up for midday soup, a fire broke out July 28 in the olive grove outside Moria’s entrance. It spread quickly, forcing aid workers to evacuate the camp and fire crews to battle the blaze for hours. Aid workers said refugees likely started the fire trying to cook their own food.

Tension and temperatures soared as Nahid, whose name in Farsi means “Venus,” arrived at Moria. The Iranian Christian made the sea crossing early that morning from Turkey with her sister and brother-in-law, two nephews (ages 13 and 16)—and her dog, Niko. The medium-sized terrier survived the 10-mile sea crossing July 28 along with a group of 85 migrants jammed into one large rubber boat.

Hours after she arrived on Lesbos, and EU border officials had registered and fingerprinted her, Nahid burst into tears when I asked her about the journey (see video clip below). “He helped me, He helped me,” she said, crying and still shaken from a sea passage made in total darkness: “Jesus helped me is the only way we are alive.”

Nahid said she left Tehran for Turkey six months ago, finding life “too difficult” after she converted to Christianity and began worshipping in an underground church. “Because I became a Christian,” she said, “Iran is not safe for me.”

Camps in Turkey proved unbearable too, she said, and her family members, also Christians, eventually sought out smugglers to make the journey to Europe. Nahid and her sister bore bruises on their arms from where smugglers, they said, forced them into the too-crowded boat. Shortly after launch it “blew up,” she and others aboard told me, punctured by Turkish police, and they had to return to land. Another passenger on the same boat, Syrian Muslim Kalephe Omar, showed me video images taken on his cell phone of the migrants, including at least a dozen small children, confined to a police detention center and sleeping on the floor.

Once released, most of those passengers were willing to risk a second boat ride. “The Turkish police are doing a lot of trouble for us,” Omar said. Nahid added, “They took us to dirty places and take our fingerprints and bring us bad food. We had to sleep outside.”

Smuggling networks account for transporting 90 percent of migrants arriving in Europe in the last year, according to a May report from Europol. The smuggling rings amount to organized crime and are trafficking humans at an enormous profit—an estimated $5 billion to $6 billion in 2015 alone—and without significant penalty from Turkey or the EU. Many observers suspect Turkish officials of taking kickbacks from smugglers.

For nearly all who make the journey, what they encounter upon shoving off from land is frightening and unexpected. Smugglers guide inflatable rubber boats, essentially large rafts, into water using small outboard motors under cover of complete darkness. Then, without warning, they jump overboard and swim back to shore, leaving the rudder and navigation to migrant passengers who’ve never made the trip. A number of people I spoke to told of multiple attempts to cross to Greece, as boats sank or were attacked by Turkish “police”—officials in uniform who might be police, military personnel, or coast guard—who sometimes punctured the vessels and forced passengers overboard. One family provided a video of such an attack.

The lawless atmosphere in the Aegean only adds to a surreal humanitarian scene. Tourists in straw hats on annual European holidays debarked from ferries on the Greek isles I visited as coast guard ships towed in rubber boats bearing dozens of terrified migrants. The new arrivals may have left behind most possessions but are remarkably connected: One migrant father described using his iPad’s “find my iPhone” feature to track his wife and children in another boat, and the coast guard used it to rescue the boat, which had gone off course.

Before the 2015 migration, Greece and other parts of Europe were seeing their share of refugees escaping war in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere. In 2014, said Voula Antouan, director of the Athens-based Bridges ministry, “99 percent of the refugees we saw were legal, they had their papers. Now most are crossing into Greece illegally, paying anywhere from 1,000 to 10,000 euros per person to be smuggled.”

Voula’s husband Ilias was born in Aleppo, Syria, and still has family living there. In 2013 he and his wife started seeing Aleppo refugees in Athens, sleeping in public parks. “We would go and listen to their stories,” recalled Ilias. He, Voula, and others in their church began taking them meals. Bridges was born.

By June 2015, Bridges was feeding 850 refugees almost every day. Some of their earlier recipients now support the new arrivals, and Bridges works primarily with Arabic-speaking refugees from Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Jordan.

“The first people here were mainly Christians, well-educated, and with financial support,” said Voula. “Now most who are coming are Muslims.”

On July 27, Bridges opened in downtown Athens a new reception center, where refugees may receive legal aid, language training, and other services. Bible studies take place throughout the week. “We don’t discriminate. In Bible studies anyone can come, and we don’t ask their religion.”

The new space is bright and clean, with newly covered white sofas filled with colorful pillows lining one wall. Tables and chairs are scattered throughout the room, and coffee and tea are always available. “We are a place for tears,” said Voula.

Bridges has seen some Muslim refugees come forward with interest in Christianity, but evangelism is not the group’s primary focus. The group, said Voula, doesn’t want to “create false Christians who are here only to get help.” (Area churches also report interest in Christianity among some Muslim refugees.)

KARA TEPE IS ANOTHER CAMP ON LESBOS that began as a transit camp and is now reaching capacity. U.S.-based relief group Samaritan’s Purse manages shelter allocation and supplies at the camp under the UN. South Africa–based Action Aid and the U.K.’s Save the Children also run programs in the camp.

There’s a lot of frustration here,” said Patrick Angle, Lesbos program manager for Samaritan’s Purse. “They know they will be staying in Greece but don’t know how long they will be in a camp.”

The camp’s population was nearly half Syrian—344 out of 762 residents—followed by Afghans and Iraqis. The camp also includes migrant Palestinians, Congolese, Eritreans, and even four residents from Dominican Republic whom no one can say how or why they made the journey from Central America to Greece. As in other camps, fights break out as varied people are thrown together—in late July Palestinians and Syrians tangled in Kara Tepe, as did Iraqi Yazidis with Iraqi Arabs.

At the same time, fighting in Syria is prompting a flood of new arrivals. Osama, a Muslim father, took his family to Damascus in 2013 to escape shelling in their hometown of Deir Ezzor. When Deir Ezzor came under attack early this year, with ISIS killing about 300 residents and taking 400 captive, Osama decided it was time to leave Syria. “Everyone knows what ISIS is doing,” he said. “Why would I stay there with my family?”

Osama owned a successful construction business and worked with oil companies, he told me, and left behind three houses and business property in several cities. He arrived in Bodrum, Turkey, on Jan. 10 with his wife Hiba, who is from a Christian family, and four children, ages 7, 5, 3, and a newborn girl, Mary.

From Bodrum he arranged with smugglers for passage to Greece, paying about $1,200 for each family member. Shortly after the boat left shore, he said, pursuing Turkish police punctured the vessel, striking it with long poles. “We were already inside the boat, and it went down in the water. Everyone came out of the water one by one, and nobody died. But our baby Mary was under the water so long she had to be hospitalized. For a month.”

Osama said Turkish soldiers rushed Mary with his family to the hospital in Bodrum, but put him in jail for endangering her life. He remained there for a month, and police threatened him with deportation back to Syria. Desperate to leave with his family, Osama borrowed money from a friend and left as soon as Mary could be released from the hospital. On this trip, he told me, his family didn’t have life jackets: “We were very scared.”

Once arriving at Lesbos, local officials placed them in Moria camp for two months (“Moria was like a jail,” Osama said) before transferring them after the family received legal papers as refugees to Kara Tepe, where the family lives in a one-room trailer with outdoor benches and a table for serving tea and meals under a canopy.

Osama wants to relocate his family to Belgium or Luxembourg, but realizes the only option may be Greece. “If we had made the crossing the first time, we would’ve arrived before the Europeans shut off migration. I’d be in Germany by now,” he said. “Greece is beautiful; but because of so many refugees, it’s hard to find a place and a job.”

Samaritan’s Purse is one of the few American aid groups working directly with arriving refugees. The relief organization mostly focuses on large-scale global disasters, and Greece is unusual, said country director Aaron Ashoff. It began as a humanitarian disaster with refugees arriving 5,000 or more a day. “But none of us foresaw the arrivals would continue so long and the situation become both stabilized and somehow always changing. We have to be ready for anything.”

SAMARITAN’S PURSE ALSO IS INVESTIGATING cases of persecuted Christians, who he said are “quite outside the margins here” and need special help. The group partners with local churches who helped establish Alliance Relief, a volunteer organization helping refugees resettle permanently in Greece.

Among those from majority Muslim countries, there is “definitely” more openness to the gospel, said Alliance Relief director Alan Brown: “We are pressing the importance of discipleship as part of our program.”

Other church-related groups report similar findings across Europe as they begin working with newly arrived refugees.

In Germany the MissionMosaik movement started a church in Frankfurt that in five years multiplied to 10 congregations, with approximately 50 conversions, primarily among refugees from countries closed to the gospel, according to founder Stephen Beck of Greater Europe Mission. Anywhere from a dozen to 100 recently arrived refugees are showing up at some of these church plants, and in July one site baptized 14 Iranians and Afghans, all former Muslims.

Belgium has taken in 30,000 asylum seekers in the past year, double the number from the year before. Most are from Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. The government supervises 50 reception centers, but is rapidly moving refugees to individual housing within months of arrival, and that’s where churches are stepping in to help.

“We are confronted with the need in this migrant crisis. But as soon as we say yes, you are welcome, we face many challenges,” said Filip De Cavel, coordinator for Evangelical Christian Churches in Flanders, an alliance of Flemish-speaking congregations. Volunteers help newly arrived refugees move, navigate public transportation and markets, and learn the language. The alliance is also part of a group helping to resettle 90 Syrian Christian refugees who began arriving this month.

Ghent, where De Cavel lives, has 53 evangelical and Protestant churches, and two-thirds of them are ethnic or immigrant churches, he said, including Filipino and Persian- and Arabic-speaking congregations. The ethnic churches tend to average 50 to 80 members, while European evangelical congregations average from 20 to 60 people.

At an Arab Evangelical Church service I attended in the Leuven suburb of Brussels, pastor Hary Khano, a Syrian who has lived in Belgium for more than a decade, supervised the baptism of seven Iraqis—all former Muslims and all men in their 20s and 30s.

Janee Angel, the American wife of Khano who serves in Belgium under Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, said the new wave of Muslim immigrants has a changing perspective: “Islam has done something in their country they don’t know how to justify. When they get here, they are very open.”

Iraqi convert Rahad Rashid told me stories similar to those I heard in Greece. When ISIS took over his home in Ramadi and tried to force him to join its forces, he escaped, first to Baghdad and then by plane to Turkey. He left for Greece in an overfull boat, then made his way to Macedonia, Serbia, and Hungary, where he and four other migrants paid a taxi driver about $1,800 apiece to take them to Belgium.

“What I receive from Islam is only trouble,” Rashid told me after his baptism. “It hurt me. It hurt my family and my friends. Now I recognize it is not real. I change my way.” He said he never thought about Christianity until he visited the Arab evangelical church in Antwerp last September.

AT ANOTHER COASTLINE, this time overlooking the English Channel from the French port city of Calais, the illegal migrants collect once again. Many of the 7,000 residents of the city’s infamous “Jungle” have made the 2,000-mile journey from a rubber boat in the Aegean to the edge of France without ever registering as asylum seekers. They are living sans papiers, without papers, outside the registration system.

The Calais Jungle is a scattershot camp of tents and tarps set atop coastal sand dunes and overgrown fields near an overpass leading to the Chunnel, the underwater passageway linking Britain to Europe. The highway now is lined 20 feet high with security fencing, razor ribbon, and in some places surveillance cameras to keep migrants from hopping trucks or hitching rides across the channel.

The day I visited the camp about 200 French police in riot gear had taken over part of the Jungle, closing makeshift restaurants on alleged health violations. France has tried to close the Jungle multiple times, only to have it resurface somewhere nearby. Migrants take up residence in Calais Jungle or other illegal camps because they don’t know what else to do, they’ve run out of places to go, or they simply want to go to Britain and feel they will never make it there legally. A Syrian family arrived while I was there, the husband pulling a suitcase over sand, his wife walking alongside with an infant over her shoulder.

Another Syrian, Mohammad Alfrouh, told me he escaped fighting in his homeland and had family living in Britain. He’d tried to jump trucks and get to Britain four times. The last time, just two nights before, he paid a “smuggleman,” who got him onto a truck, only it was going the wrong way.

“The inflow here is bigger than the outflow,” said Landry Mawungu, a Belgian Christian who works with Convoy of Hope in the Jungle, and decided three months ago to move into the camp to live alongside its migrants. He believes French authorities will shut down the camp before summer ends. “I wanted to be a testimony of Christians coming alongside the migrants,” he said.

Mawungu believes Europe’s migrant crisis is “a normal consequence of what’s happening in the world.” But the story of the Calais Jungle “is my story too. My dad is Congolese, and he escaped to Angola with a fake ID.” Often, he said, the public defines such migrants by their flight: “I understand it’s important not to forget where these people came from, who they have been, not just who they are right now.”

What’s the hardest thing about being here? I asked him. “Having no answer about their situation. These people stepped into a boat, they stepped across the desert from Libya, they paid people to give them lifts from Sudan. They know what danger is like. But they have no idea what their future holds.”

‘This is nonsense’

Voula Antouan of Bridges extends a real welcome to refugees in Greece, but Voula is outspoken about the political factors leading to the current crisis: “I am against free borders. I believe they should never have been opened. At first we had mostly Syrians and Iraqis, but when the borders were opened, all others came—Afghans, Moroccans, everyone. The smugglers taking their money is what determined who came.”

Leading EU countries like Germany were willing to see Greece bear the brunt of the crisis, Voula believes. “We are suffering as a country, and now this makes us less secure. Everyone knew this would happen. The first who came end up in other parts of Europe, and the ones who need the most help are left here.”

Last year German Chancellor Angela Merkel refused to set a cap on the number of migrants her country would accept, calling the migrant wave “a historic test for Europe.” Her welcome prompted many non-war refugees also to migrate illegally for the chance to make a home in Europe. She seemed to speak for all of Europe, yet Macedonia, Croatia, and Slovenia formally closed their borders earlier this year.

“This is nonsense, saying to the world’s neediest war victims, ‘We are going to offer you asylum, but you find the way here,’” said Voula. “What happened to orderly asylum and resettlement? To countries opening their embassies and receiving those they are willing to take? This is a money game, a political game, and it’s all benefiting Turkey. It’s not hard to figure it out.” —M.B.

Mindy Belz

Mindy Belz

Mindy wrote WORLD Magazine's first cover story in 1986 and went on to serve as international editor, editor, and now senior editor. She has covered wars in Syria, Afganistan, Africa, and the Balkans, and she recounts some of her experiences in They Say We Are Infidels: On the Run from ISIS with Persecuted Christians in the Middle East. Mindy resides with her husband, Nat, in Asheville, N.C. Follow her on Twitter @mcbelz.


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  • Steve Shive
    Posted: Mon, 08/22/2016 05:13 am

    Wow! Only God can do something in this mess. I am so glad to read about so many Christians who are willing to reach out in the name of Jesus.

  • Nick Stuart's picture
    Nick Stuart
    Posted: Tue, 08/30/2016 08:18 pm

    Ms. Belz would like to sign us up for the chaos and Islamification that's taking place in Europe while we watch.

    To go along with the positive stories cherry-picked for this article, here are some dispatches from Realville:

    Maybe Ms. Belz can get back to us after 10 or 20 thousand unassimilatable Muslim refugees are located in Asheville, NC and let us know how it's going.

  • MB
    Posted: Wed, 08/31/2016 04:48 pm

    Be happy to, Nick Stuart. But we'd have to agree to talk apples to apples reality, not hyped up stories designed to confirm whatever armchair narrative we've decided to stake ourselves to. The county including Asheville, for example, is in fact a candidate for refugee resettlement. How many? 120. Over several years. That's .00000002 percent of the global refugee population, and they would be predominantly from countries like Myanmar and Bhutan, though some among them might be Muslims. In a metropolitan area approaching half a million, I'd stake my bets on churches and civic organizations having a good chance at helping those folks assimilate (given a 4,000:1 ratio local population to refugee) in a positive way. Concerns about terrorism are real, but inflated rhetoric that equates every genuine refugee with a terrorist—and scorns those who choose to try to help them like those I found in Europe—won't encourage assimilation and seems to undermine what's best about America, plus it's pretty far from Realville. See my upcoming story on Germany, and will appreciate feedback.

  • Trig52
    Posted: Mon, 10/17/2016 07:59 pm