The Chinese proverb “the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” reminds me every journey’s first step usually requires faith. My journey working with Syrian refugees began with a phone call, a trip of ten thousand miles, and stepping out in faith. I pray my story inspires you to take those scary journeys that will grow you the most.
As I see it, my journey had four overarching steps.
Step One: Listen to Your Callings.
In November 2015 good friends called to say they were going to Greece to help the Syrian refugees. They passionately described the needs there, their plan to leave mid-January, and about the GoFundMe page they’d created to raise money for their expenses and items needed for the refugees.
I wanted to go. I felt a desire to help and be useful, especially now that I was retired. But I came up against a roadblock. My husband didn’t get the same calling, and he couldn’t understand mine. He didn’t want me to go. He was afraid for my safety. Besides, we’d planned to spend February and March in Florida.
For the next two months I would teeter totter between letting the idea go so as to make him happy and feeling I had to go. Does this kind of struggle sound familiar? I hated the back and forth, and he hated my bringing it up when he thought it had been put to rest. But callings are like that—they won’t let you go. They get louder and louder.
I knew if I persisted in going, I had to find a way that would work for both of us. It didn’t make sense to me to leave him hurting so I could go help ease the hurt of others. So I suggested his friend might drive to Florida with him. Two days after the friend said yes, I was on a plane for Greece where I stayed for the month of February 2016.
Step Two: Do What Is Yours to Do.
I volunteered with the Starfish Foundation founded by Melinda McRostie, owner of the Captain’s Table restaurant in Molyvos on the Greek island of Lesvos. Her foundation’s name was inspired by the little girl throwing washed up starfish back into the ocean because her efforts “will make a difference to that one.”
The residents of Lesvos were making a difference aiding thousands of refugees since the fall of 2014. They’ve been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. But the islanders became exhausted of energy and resources, so the Starfish Foundation was formed to solicit volunteers worldwide.
There were seventy of us who shared the varied duties. We worked in eight-hour shifts covering night and day. My favorite was working the harbor. We met the rubber dinghies designed for thirty people but filled with sixty. The Turkish smugglers overload the boats and under-fill the gas tanks. Each refugee pays one thousand to twelve hundred American dollars for their passage and wears a life jacket purchased on the black market. You might wonder why then did 3700 refugees drown in 2015 and 1800 so far this year ? Because their life jackets were made from packing material that can’t float.
Initially the Greek Coast Guard were only allowed to pluck refugees from the Aegean Sea. In other words, they had to be in the water. Refugees knowing this would slash their boat. What they didn’t know was their life jackets were useless. Eventually they would bring refugees to shore where medics would meet them and offer medical assistance as needed.
We then offered water and cheese sandwiches which we would make by the hundreds in the “sandwich factory” up the hill. We also provided dry socks and shoes since most were wet up to their knees. Then we’d usher them through town along the narrow and hilly streets. It took thirty minutes to walk to the buses that would take them to a camp called Moria for registration by the Greek government. They would stay for a night or two before taking the ferry to Athens for the journey to the Macedonia border and onto Germany.
At Moria we worked settling the refugees into their dorms for the night. The next morning we’d clean the dorms, fold hundreds of blankets, and prepare for the next group. Other shifts were spent in warehouses sorting donated clothing and shoes. What I remember most in my interaction with the refugees was the look of gratitude on their faces when they made it to shore and we were there to help. They were exhausted, relieved, scared, and hopeful for a new and safer life.
Step Three Wasn’t so Easy: Reduce Your Expectations.
Occasionally the boats would stop coming. Hearing there were thousands of refugees stuck at the Macedonian border because the EU (European Union) was trying its hardest to keep the refugees from leaving Greece, we decided to go there to help. After a nine-hour ferry ride to the mainland, we began the three-hour drive to the border. On this trip we ran into a number of “road blocks” both literally and figuratively. The farmers were striking and blocked access to parts of the highway. When we finally got to the border, we only saw about thirty Iraqi refugees, the others had been allowed to cross. With so few people, they didn’t need more volunteers.
After two days, we headed back, stopping at a market in Thesiloniki to purchase backpacks, sweat pants and shoes. The car was full! And then because of a port strike, we had to wait four days before returning to Lesvos. We kept wondering what the delays were about. Why had we come all this way to the border for “nothing”? But faith asks us to believe that something is happening beyond our vision and when our expectations fall short.
For instance, I befriended a little Iraqi boy who sought comfort on my lap for a while. Then there were two illegal Iraqi refugees who asked us for money. Their hands were literally shaking when we offered them some Euros. In gratitude they showered us with kisses and hugs. Then there was the lady sitting on the sidewalk barefoot outside the market holding her sleeping baby. We gave her Euros, gloves and new pair of shoes. She was so happy!
And This Brings Me to My Last Step: Know That You Are a Blessing, Even When You Can’t See It.
This journey cost me thousands of dollars, and I came because I thought there’d be more to do. In the “quiet times” I wondered why I had been called so far from home. But I came to see that just being present made a difference to this one and that one. Our being there helped the local economy which relies on tourism which has nearly been decimated by the refugee crisis. My friends gave medicine to a volunteer medical truck. We spent thousands of dollars locally, raised from myself and many others, on clothes and shoes for the refugees. And I got to minister not only to people, but to the many stray dogs and cats in Molyvos. And I experienced the truth of Unity’s first principle: We are all one.
The refugees are people not terrorists. Just like you and me, they want a life, a job, a safe place to live and bring up their children. I’m grateful for all of these experiences and the courage to have stepped out in faith by taking that first step. What “first step” are you being called to take?