by Cordelia Rickard
Cordelia spent three months serving the refugee community in Athens, Greece, as part of the FirstServe programme.
The refugee crisis is far from over. According to the UN Refugee Agency, 1% of the world’s population have been forced to flee their homes. This number has almost doubled from what it was ten years ago and that number will surely increase with the ongoing war in Ukraine. While in Athens, as part of my FirstServe gap-year programme, I served displaced people from Afghanistan and Iran: two countries that have been impacted by over 40 years of political conflict, natural disasters and chronic poverty.
Many refugees struggle to gain access to food, water and affordable housing as well as legal asylum and employment in Greece. Fortunately, there are organisations in and around Athens whose mission focus is to share Jesus’ love and light with these individuals through providing support. One of these organisations is Samaria All Nations. My work with Samaria included involvement in nearly all parts of their refugee ministry. My weeks followed a rough timetable. Mondays were relaxed with a team meeting and a weekly devotional led by one of the team, who would give words of encouragement for the upcoming week. When Covid restrictions allowed, we also shared a meal together.
Tuesday was the busiest day of the week as it was food distribution day. The team and volunteers were divided into two groups for food preparation and cleaning the church. Each week we made the same meal, spicy Samaria chicken, rice and pitta bread, served with a tomato vegetable sauce. Despite following the same recipe every week, it seemed to taste slightly different each time. There was always a strong sense of team bonding and unity, especially while we were packing the food into boxes on our version of a factory production line. Distributing the food at the end of the day was always manic, despite how well organised it was. It was a bit of a mad rush: handing out tickets, opening up some rather fiddly blue bags, deciding how many food boxes to put into each bag and passing them to the refugees, all within just over half an hour. After cleaning the kitchen, it was rather a relief to walk to the Metro to return home for a much-needed rest.
Mid-way through my 90-day stay in Greece, Mondays and Tuesdays became even busier when an American and I started teaching English to some of the refugees. As a teacher, I relished being back in the classroom and having the opportunity to use my skills to support the refugees in their English learning, which varied considerably from person to person.
On Wednesdays, I assisted another organisation, Helping Hands, with their women’s ministry. The day’s structure was relaxed and tended to involve craft or beauty activities, some sort of exercise and a Bible devotion. A passionate Iranian believer, who initially arrived in Athens as a refugee herself, led the devotions. One activity that the refugees particularly loved was doing jigsaw puzzles. The look of joy and the satisfaction on their faces when they put that final piece into place was a delight to see and we had to keep finding more complex puzzles each week for them to complete. The activities were followed by sharing a meal together as a community. Afterwards, I helped oversee the washing-up with the help of weekly volunteers, often from the Netherlands. I really enjoyed Wednesdays as it was lovely to spend time with another group of compassionate people who were also serving the same refugees.
The Samaria team did outreach on Thursday afternoons. We served biscuits and Chai tea, and chatted with the refugees about life and, if the situation presented itself, about Jesus too. I used my very limited Farsi skills to converse with individuals I met but I mainly played with the children who were there.
A passionate Iranian believer, who initially arrived in Athens as a refugee herself, led the devotions.
Friday was the day that Samaria ministered to both men and women. We organised the second floor into a cafe-style seating area with round tables and a floral centrepiece. The ladies did a craft activity, and had some fruit, chai and delicious homemade cake made by one of my colleagues. They also listened to a short devotional about Jesus. The women’s ministries at Helping Hands and Samaria church provided the refugees with a safe, relaxing environment in which they could forget their daily worries. I felt very humbled to be involved in creating that space.
Saturdays were my days off when I could freely explore the beautiful city of Athens and surrounding area; discovering and learning about the fascinating culture and history.
On Sundays, our church service was held in both Farsi and English and livestreamed. I helped with tech support and welcoming the refugees into the building. Although it felt a bit overwhelming at times to be part of a dual-language service, it was a blessing to serve fellow believers and be able to worship in a church community again, especially after two years of Covid restrictions.
A Personal Touch
During one week in Athens, alongside other members of the Samaria team, I helped at the Refugee Highway Partnership Conference for an international network of churches, agencies and individuals who serve Jesus by advocating, welcoming and assisting refugees. This particular event focused on the struggles of the Iranian and Afghan refugees. It was an honour to be able to serve hundreds of people from across the globe, who were all united in their dedication to sharing Jesus’ love with people who have been displaced.
Of the many refugees I met during my time in Athens, Tia* will always have a special place in my heart. She is a young, kind woman in her early twenties who fled Iran with her immediate family in fear of being forced into an arranged marriage by her wider family. She travelled through several countries and eventually arrived in Greece, where she became a believer. By the time I met her, Tia had been in Athens for around four years. She had been through the asylum process four times and was appealing through a paid lawyer to gain asylum in Europe and get a valid passport and ID. By getting to know Tia and hearing about her struggles, it really helped to put what refugees experience into a human context for me. It highlighted how it could very easily be me who could become a refugee. Tia’s faith in the Lord is remarkable, proving that we really can give thanks in all circumstances and trust God to lead us in the plans He has for us.
Demonstrating His Love
All the ministries I was involved with during my three-month mission were not complex. They were simple and nearly always involved food! We worked to meet the refugees’ basic needs for food, warmth and clothing in an open, loving environment and to practically demonstrate the unfailing love of Jesus. In the New Testament, the Greek term for hospitality is philoxenia, the opposite of xenophobia (fear of strangers). As followers of Jesus, we have all been called to the ministry of hospitality, not only to those who have been uprooted from their homes, cultures and communities but to our neighbours, enemies and all those who are vulnerable in our society. By becoming hospitable people we can share the glorious Kingdom of Heaven here on Earth.
As we open our homes to strangers from different backgrounds, we have an opportunity to show the healing, love and joy that Jesus Christ can bring into each of our lives.
- for the teams serving refugees in Greece
- for the witness shown through the various compassionate ministries
- for those who have fled their homes, to find refuge in the Saviour Jesus Christ.