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.

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Story Feature: A Tale of Two Sisters

“I had a dream to be in school. Then school was bombed—that dream is now gone.”

Meet 19-year-old Malak (left) and 23-year-old Hana (right), two sisters from Yemen who have lived as refugees for nearly half their lives. Malak was only 12 when the sisters lost both of their parents in Yemen… and they have been traveling on their own ever since. From Yemen the two girls went to Syria where they stayed under the care of UNICEF for 5 years as minors. But when the war in Syria forced them to leave, they decided to search for their future in Europe. Continue reading

Story Feature: Beyond the Stereotype of Young Refugee Men

Meet Muhammad Ali and Fahad, two individuals who may help you break the stereotype you have of young refugee men in Europe. They were both students from a small Kurdish town in Syria before they fled the war, and have found themselves unable to get farther north than Slovenia on their journey into Europe.

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When I asked them about their hopes for the future, Muhammad responded, “I cannot think of the future I want—I need to go back to school, I need an education for my future. I like to learn and need to learn new languages. We left because of the war and fled through Turkey’s mountains with no food and no water for three days trying to get to Europe. And now we are stuck here. No, I cannot think about the future.

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Story Feature: Refugee Life Through A Boy’s Eyes

Meet Ali, an Iraqi boy who radiates kindness and intelligence, but whose life as a refugee is quickly turning from bad to worse.

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When our team arrived at the Šid refugee camp in Serbia, we met Ali and quickly became friends through broken English, a few words in Serbian, and a lot of pantomiming as he explained what was happening in the camp. Here’s the cliff-notes version: two days before we arrived, hundreds of people started to fill the camp as borders to the EU (primarily in Slovenia and Croatia) began refusing entry to large numbers of refugees, including nationalities that had previously been allowed through as asylum-seekers.

Try to picture it all: an overflowing refugee camp (built with large white tents in the shadow of an old butcher/meat factory) with people who are upset and confused — and in the midst of it all, this sweet boy (probably between the age of 14 or 15) who eagerly engages us with the little English and Serbian he knows.

After talking for a few minutes and watching yet another busload of refugees enter the camp, Ali noticed the camera slung over my shoulder and so I gestured for him to come closer. I put the strap around his neck, gave him a 2-minute photography lesson, and then watched as he became my “photography assistant” for the day. The following photos are what he took while we walked around the camp.

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Story Feature: A Fragile Escape to Europe

Today at the Greek-Macedonian border we met one Kurdish family with a story so full of emotion that it took mere seconds to cross from laughter to tears. This may not be an easy story to read.

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Back in their town in Iran, life as they knew it came crashing down with the arrival of ISIS. According to the mother of three (two little boys and one 9 year old girl), ISIS was beheading as many men and little boys as they could in order to take the women and little girls as slaves. ISIS took all of this family’s documents before they could flee, but as the mother explained through laughter and tears, she was simply thankful they got out alive.

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The Refugee Route: Our Journey Begins

Our journey from Greece to Northern Europe to meet with leaders and collect stories along the refugee route has begun! We’re one week in, and in case you haven’t been following my daily updates on The Syrian Circle’s Facebook page, let me give you a quick summary.

GREECE has the weight of the world on its shoulders, or at least that’s what it seems like as of February 2016. Between political unrest, suffocating debt, and a massive influx of people, Greece has been having a pretty rough year (and that’s all I’ll say without getting political)—Now to the reason we’re even in Greece: refugees.

The arrival of refugees in this part of the world is nothing new. It has been happening for hundreds of years with one people group or another as wars have been fought and different populations have fled oppression.

However, what distinguishes this movement of people from any other is the sheer scale of it. With over 1 million refugees arriving on European shores in 2015 alone, that number is only expected to increase exponentially as 2016 progresses. One Greek woman explained to me in Athens, “this is not just a tragedy, this is an exodus.”

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Responding to the Refugee Crisis

When I first started my “Seek the Good” project, it began with a dream to find voices that needed to be heard, to put a megaphone where there had been none, in order to pierce the darkness in our world with light–with hope. Something was stirring in my heart to tell meaningful stories  locally and internationally, and now that dream is becoming a reality.  Let me fill you in on what my Spring will look like…

This December I was asked to join a team working to mobilize locals, aid-workers, missionaries, etc. across Europe to care for refugees in the midst of this historic human migration. If you aren’t aware of what is happening across the Middle East and Europe, I encourage you to start paying attention. Ever since the start of the Syrian civil war, over 11 million Syrians have been killed or forced to flee their country  (that is over half of the country’s entire population). Many have turned to neighboring countries and a growing few are turning to Europe for refuge. And it’s not just Syrians. By the end of 2015, Europe surpassed the 1 million mark of people (Syrians, Afghans, Iraqis, etc.) fleeing their war-torn countries and seeking safety on European shores. The video below powerfully represents the humanity of this crisis.

Many of the relief efforts up until now have been slow to start, but full of sincerity in their efforts to meet the complex needs of this migration. Some of the “big fish” in the humanitarian pond like the UNHCR and Red Cross are already working with refugees, but this issue is too big to be left to large (and often slow-moving) organizations alone. In order to meet the immediate and long-term needs of our brothers and sisters moving to Europe, we need a movement of ordinary people, locals, and churches.

That is where the team I’m joining is hoping to step in. Starting in February a small research team and I will be traveling from Greece to Germany/Denmark along Europe’s refugee highway in order to face this crisis head-on.

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Urban Hands: Giving Meals and Second Chances

Around the corner from a bus stop in North Seattle and down a wide alley is a nondescript white door many walk past without wondering what’s inside. I would have done the same, except on this day I had an appointment with Urban Hands, a nonprofit built around caring for the marginalized in Seattle, primarily by providing meals for the homeless and job opportunities for those in need of a second chance.

I had heard about Urban Hands through my friend Eddie Wang (organizer of the Sleepless in Seattle campaign) and was intrigued to learn the “who, what, and how” behind their use of for-profit businesses to impact the lives of Seattle’s most marginalized. So with my curiosity piqued, they became my first social impact feature for the “Seek the Good” project.

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Project: Seek the Good

In the past few weeks I have been asking myself a lot of big questions…

“What does it mean to be a ‘successful’ 20-something just out of university?”

“What is up with all of my friends suddenly getting engaged and married?”

“Does Ryan Seacrest even age?” (Okay, not totally relevant, but just as perplexing.)

But most importantly, I’ve been asking two central questions: If I was doing what I feel I was made for (no limitations), what would that be? And how do I best use my skills and passions in this season of life to give back? Truth be told, I think we often answer questions like these rashly or we give some “canned” answer that sounds great without intending to follow through. I’ve done both, but I wanted to dig deeper. For some reason I felt like these answers should be so easy to find, yet I quickly learned that finding definitive answers to these questions was more like walking through wet cement than a walk in the park.

However, as I’ve slowly waded through these questions one idea has consistently popped up–an idea for telling stories–specifically stories of people working to impact communities on the margins of society.

Considering how much of the media focuses on the darkness and danger in the world, I started asking myself what it would look like to spread the opposite–hope. So much of my life has been built upon the desire to see the good in others and to find hope in a hopeless situation. From the slums in Kenya to the streets of Seattle, I believe there are stories of joy and hope all over the place. The question is not, “do they exist?,” but, “how do we find them?”

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