An intimate look inside a refugee camp


ref·u·gee | re-fyů-jē

  1. Someone who has been forced to leave a country because of war or for religious or political reasons*


“I want to give you an idea of what to expect.”

Our car meanders through a country lane in the heart of Germany’s Black Forest. Given its pristine smoothness—a testament to German industry and perfection and far from what most developed countries would describe as a lane—the ride is smooth, save for the gale-force wind rocking the vehicle.

As we near our destination, a plastic barrier occupies the right lane. It looks haphazardly placed with no air of verboten. Easily navigating around it, our host, the Alliance regional director for that area, parks in front of a long container—which I would later discover houses the kitchen and shower rooms, as well as a few roomfuls of single men from Gambia. Next to it and divided by a narrow passageway is another—identical in shape (rectangular) and color (wood paneled). His wife continues her briefing: “A lot of kids will come running out, and they just love hugs.” I will soon discover she is right.

Peace and Gratitude

Stepping out of the car, we tug our jacket collars upward to combat the fierce gusts. As we walk through the passageway between the two containers, 8–10 kids burst from the long two-story container directly behind. Their faces are cherubic and ruddy, smiles beaming like kids who’ve just been told they are going to Disneyland.

“Their faces are cherubic and ruddy, smiles beaming like kids who’ve just been told they are going to Disneyland.”

The regional director’s wife is mobbed. She hugs each one of them, asking by name how they are doing. Introductions are made; some of them speak great English, having learned it at school back in their homeland. They shake hands, hug, and invite us to play soccer on a rough patch of ground out back. Adults pass through on their way to do laundry, cook, or hang out on the stoop for a cigarette with a neighbor.

The lower wall of the housing can barely be seen given the amount of bikes lining it—tire to tire and three deep in some places. In between the housing block and the cookhouse is a volleyball net strung over loose gravel, the large puddle in the middle an indication of the harsh, wet winter the residents endured. And as the men holler and cheer while sending the ball over the net (in probably the worst possible weather for this sport) and the women arch over full baskets of newly washed clothes, there is a sense of peace and gratitude here. Little does the outsider know, however, of the stories it took to get them here.

Gracious Hosts

The road from Damascus to Efringen-Kirchen is a long one. According to Google maps, the most efficient route by car is just under 2,400 miles and driven nonstop takes 40 hours. The journey for David and Rebekah* was more about survival, pay-offs, and faith than a computer-generated map and took them a total of 17 days passing through five countries.

Sitting in their compact but tidy room in the housing container—two single beds side by side underneath a window adorned with last year’s Christmas decorations, a fridge and TV nestled in the opposite corner, David’s mountain bike that he loves to ride through the rolling hills, and a compact table in the center for us to chat around—they are the perfect hosts. Rebekah makes sweet tea for us, and David explains their odyssey and the current progress regarding school, visas, and their new apartment, which the regional directors will help them to move into the following week.

Only the Beginning

Our media-saturated world has mostly painted the refugee crisis in broad, dehumanizing strokes, and this has largely dictated how our nation’s leaders and citizens respond to them. Even using the word migrant (a person who moves from one place to another to find work or better living conditions) as opposed to refugee (a person fleeing armed conflict or persecution) has played a huge role in whether they are perceived as freeloaders or as people escaping a war-torn land.

Talking to David, it’s abundantly clear that leaving was the only option. “The life is terrible there,” he tells me. “My father has been here two months longer than I have, and he still has not gotten his papers.” When I ask him about settling here in Germany, he gazes at the cup nestled between his palms. “My mother and sister are still back there, and that worries me a lot.”

Resident refugees enjoy a game of volleyball on a net strung between their housing blocks.

It’s hard to imagine myself in his place. Thinking about my own sisters and mother being in the same situation is deeply unsettling. David comes across as the strong and silent type, and the interaction between him and Rebekah is adorable (they are one year married at the time of writing in early February). Their story is one of a system that—while not perfect—has worked well for them. They kept all their documentation (according to David, some people throw their passports in the sea out of fear they might be sent back) and have been patient with a country trying to get a handle on a situation of unprecedented scale.

The most striking thing to me, as our conversation oscillates between solemnity and levity, is just how great God is in all of this and how bright His light shines in their lives. David and Rebekah (with the exception of a young Eritrean neighbor) are the only Christians in a community of 250 people. The three of them are also the only ones to have their visas processed and accepted. It is through the work of the regional directors and their prayers with, and over, Rebekah and David that God is drawing people to Himself in this region, and by the sound of it, it’s only the beginning.

Serving People

“Working with these people has helped me understand more of the culture of those where our international workers in the Middle East and the Balkans are and what they face on a daily basis,” the regional director’s wife tells my wife, Val, and me over a cup of tea and a warm fire at their home a few hours later.

How did she get involved with the camp?

“I kept hearing from our workers in the Middle East and the Balkans that people were leaving their country and coming to Germany, and I thought, I live in Germany—where are all these people? When a friend of mine told me in March 2015 that she was volunteering at a refugee center 15 minutes from our house, I said, ‘Where is it? I want to go!’”

Since then, her resourcefulness and drive has helped mobilize the community in a variety of ways, from English speakers working at the camp to people inviting refugees into their homes to connecting with the local German church to have a monthly joint service.

“On the site we can’t share Christ openly,” she says, “so it’s been great to partner with this church once a month where we can share the gospel and give away Bibles. We are super thankful for doors that God is opening not just on this site but also with Germans and their desire to share the gospel with these kids and their parents and the single people here, too.”

Hearing her speak on this subject makes me want to get out of my chair and do something immediately, such is her love for the lost. It forces me to acknowledge the comforts I (and probably most of us) take for granted and the laziness of the Western approach in general. Unless the crisis is happening to us or affecting us directly and thus taking away our comfort, we are unlikely to even bother to look online for the nearest camp or other ways to get involved.

It takes a Christ-centered community to make a difference in these situations and begs the question of me, What more can I do? I am using my skills as a writer to shine a light on it, but it mustn’t stop there. I am taking note of what I’ve seen here with Alliance workers, who are the hands and feet of Jesus, and asking the Lord, How can I serve these people better? It really is that simple.

It may not even be refugees. People wander lost in all our communities, and whether it’s refugees in a small town in the heart of the Black Forest, the homeless on the streets of Paris, or a next-door neighbor in rural America, we all have an opportunity to serve. May we not measure ourselves by how high we can reach up for our own benefit but by our willingness to reach down to those who need Him most.

“Though the Lord is on high, he looks upon the lowly” (Ps. 138:6).

*Names changed

New Beginnings

Walking the streets of our city recently, I saw refugees everywhere. Listening to their stories of escape from danger and destruction in their homeland was heartbreaking.

Words failed me as I watched a mother anguishing over the news she had just received from her husband in Syria. She had fled a month earlier with her five-year-old daughter because the family had only enough money to send the two of them.

This woman had left behind her husband and four other children to face the brutal war ravaging her country. Now she had word that her three-year-old son had drunk poisoned water and lay dying in a hospital bed.

This mother was dressed in black, already mourning the death of her son. She could not be consoled.

I sat on her bed in her tiny room where four other refugees lived with her in bunks. I listened to her story and shed a few tears of my own, hugged her, and told her that God was watching out for her. He saw her pain, and He loved her so very much.

A few minutes later, a friend called the woman’s home in Syria and got her husband on the line. I heard a small voice say, “Don’t worry, Mom, I’m OK. I got better!” It was the son who had been on his deathbed. Her friends told her to get up, wash her face, and rejoice that her son was alive.

Later that day, as we walked along the street, we met up with a couple who had a newborn baby. We introduced ourselves and listened to their story of escape. (Most refugees describe their ordeal as living through a death experience and coming back to life.) I can’t imagine the trauma these people have gone through.

Think about this young woman, thrown into a rubber raft in the middle of a cold winter’s night, eight months pregnant, with only the clothes on her back, wondering if she would live to see the child she was carrying.

Words are hard to come by when encountering such situations. But we happened to have a New Testament that we offered the man, and he took it with great interest. He said “thank you” several times and kept looking at it and thumbing through the pages. It was as if he could hardly wait to get home and read it.

Syrian refugees have been crushed in every way—body, soul, and spirit. But there is hope for them if they put their trust in our loving God. This is why we do what we do.

—an Alliance worker serving in Germany

Editor’s note: The German C&MA, International Ministries (IM), and Compassion and Mercy Associates (CAMA) have partnered together to plant a church among Arabic-speaking refugees in Germany. To begin, CAMA has committed to fund an Arabic-speaking pastor to serve alongside an IM couple supported through the Great Commission Fund. The Alliance is also looking for others to help teach German to refugees. Please pray for other like-minded organizations to partner with as the task is great.

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