a little more like heaven Virginia Baptists Serve in a Croatian Refugee Camp

Osijek Baptist is on the front lines in Croatia as refugees stream across the border near their town. Their ministry has grown into a partnership with NGO's, local government and other local religious groups that has resulted in a winterized camp that can currently hold up to 6,000 refugees at a time.

In November 2015, nine Virginia Baptists served alongside Croatians in the refugee camp (one is not pictured here).

A very tired boy and his father wait while Red Cross volunteers search for his mother. This is the greatest fear of the refugees; being separated from their families.
This little girl is singing and dancing holding on to her mother's scarf while they wait in line for Red Cross supplies.

The hospitality brigade is ready to receive guests.

Handing out snack bags with bread, fruit, tuna, protein bar, and a juice box. Hot tea. Coats, hats and scarves. And backpacks for women and children filled with toiletries, a rain poncho, blanket and towel.

All of these supplies are purchased locally which helps stimulate the local economy (which is desperately needed).

These items were received with smiles, calls of "thank you" and even hugs and kisses.

One boy said,

See you tomorrow!

There are many people from all over the world who are loving and taking care of these refugees.

A young man hands out hot tea and brandishes his tray like a fancy waiter, making the children laugh with delight as he serves them.

A police officer takes back packs into a special container where a new baby was born yesterday. That same officer makes sure the women who slip through the line receive packs.

A woman tenderly puts hats and scarves on the people who walk by bare headed and shivering.

The Baptists

In the camp, when we are needed, the police and Red Cross call for "the Baptists." When they see us waking about, they say

Hey! It's the Baptists. We love the Baptists!

In a part of the world where Baptists were persecuted and stoned in the not too distant past, we smile when we hear that and realize they see us in a positive light.

It is our last night in the refugee camp in Croatia. It is quiet in spite of rumors that we may have as many as 18,000 guests come through.

Greece finally has everyone moving again after the transportation strike. But you just never know what you will encounter.

Turns out we have only 1,200.

"Only" is not the right word, though, because each of the 1,200 is a precious person who has made unimaginable sacrifices to survive this far, with hope-filled, harrowing tales to tell. Each of these exhausted, sleep deprived souls deserves a warm smile, a human touch, and love filled eyes.

The train arrives at 3:45 am.

As it slowly enters the station, we see people sleeping; children in parent's arms, people leaning against condensation clouded windows or on a friend's shoulder.

No one wakes up when the train stops.

They must surely be exhausted! Police unlock the doors of the cars and tap on the windows with billy sticks, calling for them to wake up. Slowly, they emerge from the train, carrying all their belongings and their groggy children through the early morning mist.

The train will leave to be cleaned for the next group coming from Serbia, so the passengers must remove everything. A new, clean train is scheduled to arrive soon for the next leg of the journey.

As they leave the train, refugees line up to be registered. It takes about 90 minutes for them to finish the registration process and re-board the train. They stand in lines holding babies and all their worldly goods. For some reason, the new train is delayed so after they finish registration, they stand corralled within police barricades awaiting the train.

I wonder if they feel like cattle.

The new train arrives at about 5:15 and the police begin sending the refugees out to the "hospitality brigade" in groups of 50. They form a single file line, receive hot tea from Caritas, a bag of food from the Red Cross, and backpacks from Samaritan's Purse.

This is where the human touch, warm smile and loving eyes of all these volunteers come into play. As they shuffle by, our group hands backpacks to the mothers and children. The men also want backpacks and we explain over and over that they are for women and children.

This often sparks funny conversations where men point to their hearts and say "but I am child here" or cover up their head with a blanket like it's hair and say in a high voice, "I am a lady!" It is fun to laugh and kid around with them.

No one passes any of the hospitality brigade without someone looking them in the eye, smiling, touching them on the arm and wishing them God's blessing and a safe journey. Most people respond. Some keep looking down. Many smile and say thank you. Some put their hand on the heart and pat it with a smile. Some look at us with tears lingering on their faces and I wonder what it is, exactly, that brings tears to their eyes this time. Some people hug us until the police shout to them to keep it moving.

It strikes me that the faces passing by are unique and beautiful and come from such varied people groups, cultures and nations.

The dark angular features of the Egyptians, the deep black radiance of the North African's, the open, round faces of Eastern Afghanistan, the startling blue/green eyes and olive skin of Western Afghanistan, the dark, simmering beauty of the Arabic people, and the gentle grace of Asians.

I marvel at the artistry and nuance of our creative God.

Yet, no matter the nationality, the race, the culture, we all share our humanity: we smile and cry and laugh and touch. And we all would do anything for the peace and security of those we love most. There is great beauty in the humanity that transcends the things that separate us.

And I believe it is when my humanity connects in another's humanity that I encounter God. Or maybe it is the divine we encounter in each other where we catch glimpses of God? I don't know what it is, exactly, but it is tangible and powerful!

Two precious faces out of thousands of precious faces. (Taken with permission and accompanied by silly giggles and warm hugs)

There are no words.

This morning is beautiful. As the sky clears and the sun rises over camp, the air seems to be filled with renewed hope and a sense of promise.

This is the first time we have worked in camp when it wasn't dark or enveloped in fog, so maybe that is why it seems different. But I would like to think that the difference is in the refugees themselves: a sense of anticipation and hope they haven't felt before; that maybe they will actually make it?

Or maybe some of them feel the love of the crazy people who care enough about them to choose to stand in the chilly pre-dawn hours and give them what they need for the next leg of their journey.

Our team heads to the tracks to see our final train off. Because the sun is shining, the refugees seemed full of energy and enthusiasm as they anticipate moving forward on the next leg of the journey. People are hanging out of the windows, talking to police and Red Cross workers. As the train pulls out, we wave, shout good bye, and blow kisses. Every window in every car is full of smiling faces waving and blowing kisses back to us.

As next to the last car passes our group, a young man shouts out the window; "I love you!" "I love you, too!" We shout back. "I love you, too! "

The problems in our world are so large and overwhelming. It is easy to lose hope and throw up our hands in defeat and wait for it all to implode.

But there IS something we can do.

Right now. We can look around right where we are, notice what doesn't look like heaven, roll up our sleeves and go to work to make our little corner of the world little more like heaven. And if we all do that, just imagine...

"On earth as it is in heaven..."

May it be so.

Support the Refugee Crisis Response

Join an upcoming team. Give through Virginia Baptists to support Baptist Response efforts to the Refugee Crisis in Europe.

Your gifts will be used to support our partners as they offer resources and encouragement as refugees pass through their communities.

Team member Ann Whitfield Carter wrote on Facebook and posted to Instagram throughout her experience, and the stories above originally appeared there. Thanks to Ann for her thoughtful words and compelling photos, shared here with permission.

Made with Adobe Slate

Make your words and images move.

Get Slate

Report Abuse

If you feel that this video content violates the Adobe Terms of Use, you may report this content by filling out this quick form.

To report a Copyright Violation, please follow Section 17 in the Terms of Use.