Holmes County volunteers share state of refugees in Greece, Jordan

Photo by Project Elea. Refugee families often escape with the clothes on their backs and maybe a bag of belongings when they flee their homes in search of safety.

*This story originally appeared in The Budget’s Feb. 14, 2018 Local Edition

By Beverly Keller
The Budget

“There are 65 million refugees around the globe,” explained Selena Herrera last Friday night to a crowd of nearly 100 at Village Hall in Berlin during “Salam, Hello,” a refugee awareness event. “They leave everything they know. They leave jobs, friends and homes. The journey is difficult.”

She explained that many times boats meant for 10 – 12 have upwards of 50 people on them. “These trips are short but they are dangerous,” said Herrera, who volunteered as part of Project Elea in Greece. “Most of the time they arrive with nothing. If they had anything to start it is often stolen before they get to a camp. And when they make it to the island, they sit in a camp, sometimes for years. If they are lucky they are moved up to another camp on the mainland. It breaks my heart.”

“Imagine living in constant fear,” shared Krista Hochstetler of Millersburg, who also volunteered with Project Elea in a camp in Greece. “There is no certainty. You don’t know if your children will come back from school alive if you send them each day. You don’t know if you will come back if you run to the grocery store. The risk is great to leave but the risk of staying is far greater.”

Herrera of Berlin met Hochstetler, who hails from Millersburg, during her work in the Eleonas Refugee Camp in Greece last year. The duo is working to raise awareness of the refugee crisis as well as funds to return to help the hurting through Project Elea. The pair hosted the forum last week that also included the stories of other local volunteers.

Through Youth With a Mission (YWAM), Brittany Miller, Lachelle Troyer and Sheila Mast served as gate guards in a refugee camp on the island of Lesvos in Greece for several weeks. “This camp is huge and overpopulated,” Mast explained. “There are 4,000 people in a place meant for 2,000. There are 45 nationalities, and many didn’t get along.”

For Mast, the situation was eye-opening but also a lesson in heart. “I realized I had a negative view on refugees,” she said. “The first day was overwhelming. I was scared.”

“I really had to look at myself,” Mast said. “I was used to doing ministry in other ways. I was told I can’t share the Gospel unless asked. I didn’t know how I could do that.”

Mast was assigned to work a gate at the family compound. The gates were needed to keep everyone safe. “This is pointless,” she said of her thought process. “I’ m guarding a gate. I’m not making a difference. I’m not sharing God’s love.”

But God was at work in Mast as she met more people, including Malok, an 18-year-old from Syria who was in the camp because his house was bombed. “All he wanted was to get to Germany so he could finish medical school,” Mast explained.

There was also Ali Ali Babba, a little boy who liked to steal, who visited with Mast every day. “He was always in trouble,” she explained. “But when I told him I was leaving on the last day of my work, he went running. He brought me back his teddy bear. These people have nothing. He had nothing. But he gave me his teddy bear and told me it was because I was his only friend.”

These experiences changed Mast’s outlook. “I didn’t realize I was making an impact,” she said. “They were learning that God loves them through me. I realized you don’t have to say it, you have to show it.”

Brittany Miller agreed that the conditions of the camp were less than ideal. “People lived in tents. There were four to five people in each one,” she shared. “Each person had a sleeping bag and two blankets. I was in shock.”

Miller noted that she, too, worked as a gate guard of her own choosing. “I could have opted to do something else, but as the guard, I got to talk to people,” she explained.

One day, a refugee from Afghanistan approached Miller at the gate. They began to communicate, and he showed her photos of his family on his smartphone. “I met barbers, teachers, a celebrity and doctors. They were all refugees… fleeing… looking for hope, safety and a future.”

On her last day in the camp, Miller reflected. “I spoke to many, communicated often and even spoke Dutch to some,” Miller said with a laugh. “I was upset with God. Why bring volunteers here only to have them leave again? Yet, I heard God when He said to trust in Him.”

Lachelle Mast said she was downright terrified when she arrived at the camp in Greece. “God changed my perspective,” she said. “I learned about generosity. People who had nothing gave to me. A couple invited me in and shared what little they had. God opened my eyes. I learned that there is more to showing God’s love than saying it. It is showing it.”

Lori Yoder, Natasha Yoder and Lester Yoder from Holmes County worked with refugees who are living in Jordan through a trip organized by Grace Mennonite Church with Impact Middle East.

“We worked with people through a church,” Lester Yoder explained. “Talking was sometimes hard but we had interpreters. I learned a lot. I had opinions of Iraqis but we became friends. I realized they are no different than we are. It was an eye-opening experience.”

Yoder noted that one-third of the population of Jordan is made up of refugees from Palestine (since 1948) as well as Syria and Iraq. “They are supported by families who have gotten out,” he said. “They might get $300 a month and rent is $280 so they have $20 to live on. There could be 12 people in a one-bedroom apartment.”

One day, Yoder went into the downtown area of the community where they were stationed. “I went into a store, and a young boy took me upstairs,” he explained. “He asked me where I was from and if I was Christian. He showed me the word ‘Jesus’ tattooed on his arm. He told me he wants to go to Detroit and when I asked why Detroit, he said the rest of his family is already there.”

That experience moved Yoder. “It reminded me we can all do something,” he said. “We can pray.”

Jamie Rye, who works with Social Services for the Arab Community based in Toledo, also shared as part of the presentation. “If they could share one message with us, it is simple. They’d say, ‘We’re people. We’re suffering.’ It’s that simple,” he explained.

A t-shirt sale is currently taking place to help raise funds to go back to Greece. T-shirts say, “Masha Allah” which translates to “God has willed” which is a term of gratitude in Arabic and one Herrera heard often. Cost is $15 per shirt. Orders can be placed with Herrera.

To contact Herrera directly, call 330-473-0181. To reach out to Hochstetler, call 330-473-5909. Donations can be sent to: Selena Herrera, 5796 State Route 39, Millersburg, OH 44654.