From Greece to Germany: 5 Lessons from the Refugee Route

A few months ago I wrote an article for Nations Foundation about my experience traveling Europe’s refugee route. In light of the tragic events that continue to unfold in Syria, I am reposting this as a reminder of what I learned, why it matters, and why we should be paying attention. The Advent season is one of hope and peace, so read on and discover why I believe refugees are worthy of both–and learn how you can respond.


Imagine this: you are in a massive white tent with 200 people crammed together in rows of shaky bunk beds. The air rings with the sound of multiple languages from men, women, and children all waiting to hear what their futures hold. You walk through the tent’s single pathway and all eyes turn toward you, a young woman with a journal in hand, a camera over your shoulder, and a weight upon your heart. As you head toward a family at the back of the tent one father stops you by placing his child in your way, insisting that you take his son’s photo. He points to the dry cracker in the boy’s hand and cries, “This is all my child has eaten in three days. Please, tell the world what is happening to us!

Now snap back to reality. The scene I just described seems more like something from The Hunger Games than a moment from real life, doesn’t it?

That, however, was exactly what I encountered in a refugee camp in Serbia. And that father’s plea was why I was there in the first place—to hear and tell those stories.

As part of a small research team earlier this year I traveled Europe’s refugee route to discover the humanity behind the headlines of the current refugee crisis. From February to March we made the journey to meet with refugees, volunteers and locals in seven different countries (Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Austria, and Germany) in order to understand and capture the full story of what was happening on the European side of the crisis.

refugees at Greece-Macedonian border -- photo by Giselle Gonzales

While this complex issue continues to evolve, there are five lessons I learned during my journey:

1.) Stories are far more powerful than numbers.

The media tells the refugee narrative through statistics, but I learned about it best from the individuals who are living it. I can ignore a number I hear on the news, but I can’t ignore a family huddled together from the cold right in front of me. The refugee crisis became even more real for me when I heard the plight of the 19- and 23-year-old sisters who have been refugees for half their lives–or when I saw a single mother with three boys standing alone on the street, weeping from fear and anxiety.

The sad truth is we lose our empathy when we reduce people to numbers, and the best cure for that ailment is to seek out the story of an individual.

2.) We are more alike than we think.

In most respects refugees are no different than you and I. The young refugee men I met loved to make music or talk about soccer when I caught them in a light mood. Women and young girls occasionally giggled about boys, and children still played mischievous pranks on older siblings.

Many of those now living as refugees were once lawyers, doctors, and engineers in their own countries before fleeing. I remember one Syrian man telling me he was a designer from Damascus, and when I responded with surprise he pointed to a woman nearby and said, “See her jacket? I designed that.”

The more I learned from refugees the easier it was to see them as friends. And when you realize you have friends going through heartbreak and anguish, you can’t simply look away.

3.) The most effective volunteers began helping when the situation was messiest.

Translation: if you want to make a difference in the world, you can’t sit on the sidelines waiting for a situation to be clean-cut; sometimes you have to dive in headfirst.

One example of this is a man I met in Croatia, Elvis Dzafic. He and his five buddies were living in a tiny town, Slavonski Brod, when refugees started arriving by the thousands. Elvis explained, “When the camp started there were only 6 of us with 14,000 people who needed to be cared for, so we worked nonstop to care for them the best we could.” Because they jumped in to do what no one else was doing the president of Croatia (you heard me–the president of Croatia) called Elvis and asked him to officially establish and run the Slavonski Brod refugee camp.

We heard similarly grand stories along the entire refugee route about ordinary people who have dramatically impacted their country and the lives of refugees—all because they showed up early when things were messy with open hearts and a willingness to help.

4.) We fear what we don’t understand. 

Just before my plane landed in Athens a shiver of fear ran through me. So much was unknown. Would I be safe on this journey? Would the people I meet be as dangerous as some had warned? It’s good to be cautious, but if I had allowed such fears to keep me from stepping out with boldness I would have never discovered the truth.

Over time I have found that the key to combatting fear is to ask questions, learn all you can, and get involved. Learning about what we fear is like turning on a light in a dark room. Because while something or someone might appear daunting at first glance, looks can be deceiving, especially when conclusions are drawn in the dark.

5.) People need to know they are heard and not forgotten.

Stories are important, not just for the listener but also for the speaker. In each of my interviews I saw how the mere act being heard and understood dramatically changed someone’s outlook from hopeless to hopeful. Telling one’s story is more than just conveying facts—at its core, it’s a way to proclaim your humanity. And in the context of the refugee crisis where a person’s humanity is often pushed aside for political or economic reasons, storytelling becomes a bold and beautiful act of defiance.

While you might forget everything else I’ve said, remember this: everyone has a story that deserves to be heard.

So… Now what?

Imagine yourself again in that tent full of refugees. Would you be able to experience that and yet do nothing? If your answer is no, then please continue to learn about the current situation and start advocating for refugees in your own communities.

If you want to respond immediately, join me in supporting two exceptional (and credible) organizations working to alleviate suffering and provide hope for refugees both locally and globally.

  1. Preemptive Love 75,000 people have fled Aleppo in recent days (from a Dec 12 update) and many more are expected to flee as the last rebel-held areas fall. As many as 45,000 are currently in the area where Preemptive Love, one of the only NGOs left, is operating an emergency feeding program. The rations they are using to feed 25,000 people a day will run out on December 25 and with no other aid groups in the area they need your help to sustain their response.
  2. World Relief: Your gift ensures sustainable transformation to provide relief for natural disasters, resettle refugees, and work to bring peace in war-torn regions.
  3. World Vision: Since the Syria crisis began in 2011, World Vision has helped more than 2 million people in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq. Learn about how you can advocate for refugees and/or raise funds in your communities to support World Vision’s ongoing projects.

With the Holidays just around the corner and the plight of refugees more desperate than ever, now is the perfect time to donate if this has been on your heart. So whether you contribute time, resources, or prayers–thank you. May we be people of hope and may we stand with refugees until their sorrow ends.

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