IAFR Athens

Ilir and Kate Cami with their children

Ilir and Kate Cami joined the IAFR team this month. They are no strangers as we served together many years ago. They’ve been serving refugees in Athens for more than 2 decades. Their joining IAFR will enable them to continue serving with a Greek nonprofit called One Heart – the Founder/Director of which I have also known for decades.

Ilir came to Greece as a refugee from Albania back in the 90s. He became a Christian there and later received a calling from God to serve refugees. Kate is originally from the US and met Ilir while serving refugees in Athens. Ilir is among the most passionate people I know when it comes to introducing people to Jesus. Kate brings organisation and stability to both their ministry and family.

I have also known Sahar, the founder/director of One Heart, for many years. Originally from Iran, she also came to Athens as a refugee and became a follower of Jesus there. She began serving refugees as a missionary shortly afterwards. Today, she not only provides leadership to One Heart. She and her husband (from the Netherlands) lead a Persian church in Athens that brings together about 100 people from Iran and Afghanistan for worship and mutual encouragement. Of course, Ilir and Kate are also supporting this fellowship.

IAFR is partnering with One Heart by sharing both missionaries and resources because we are pursuing the same vision with similar values and a common faith in Jesus.

Click here to learn more about this new IAFR ministry location!

3 things to ponder

I was introduced to a friend’s mother-in-law after worship this morning. She will be leading a short-term team to serve refugees in Athens with another mission agency later this year. She thinks this might be something God is calling her into in a long term capacity. She was looking for helpful insights.

Her time was limited. So lucky her. At risk of being blunt and possibly rude, I unloaded three things for her to ponder in rapid succession.

First, I encouraged her to see refugees as more than people in need. See them as an important part of the solution to the many challenges they face. See them as partners. I’ve never met a person that likes to be pitied.

I explained how de-humanizing it is for people to be treated only as people in need. Because of this, refugees often feel others view them as less than human. Well-meaning transactional ministries (e.g. I give them something that they need and they take it) can suck the air out of a soul.

But it is re-humanizing when we affirm them as people of value with something worthwhile to offer. This is why is it so important to receive their often generous hospitality. They have something beautiful to give – and we might just need it.

Second, at risk of sounding like a heretic, I shared with her how many Christians frame refugee ministry primarily as an opportunity to “reach” people from “unreached” countries with the gospel. While I am in no way saying it is bad or wrong to share Jesus with refugees, I am saying that if that is the primary reason we pursue them we may well fail to truly love them.

We dare not be like the many people out there who feed on vulnerable people. They see their vulnerability as an opportunity to further their personal agenda. Some exploit refugees for political gain. Some lure refugees and asylum seekers into their human trafficking or drug smuggling rackets. Some exploit and abuse them for their own twisted ego trip or pleasure. Others see their vulnerability as an opportunity to recruit them into their religious group. All of these people see refugees as a means to further their own agenda.

As followers of Jesus, we should step into their lives without an agenda beyond letting them know that we care for them and that spending time with them is valuable in and of itself. Rather than seeing them as “unreached people” we need to see them as people – people caught up in the suffering and chaos of a world turned upside down and inside out. People in a world in which they have been robbed of place.

I began comparing refugee ministry to that of going to a hospital to visit people who are terminally ill. I was going to ask if she thought it was appropriate to go with the primary agenda of preaching the gospel. But she stopped me in my tracks.

I’m a nurse. I get it.

Third, I gave her one parting shot before we parted ways. Read the story of Hagar – camp out in it for a while.

She told me that she had just been reading it. I quickly underlined a couple of often overlooked aspects of the story of Hagar’s forced displacement.

The gospel to Hagar was that God hears, God sees and God cares. God told her to name her baby “Ishmael” – God Hears. She named the place God spoke to her “Beer Lahai Roi” – The Well of the Living One Who Sees Me. She even did what no one else in Scripture did. She named God! El Roi – “God Who Sees”. These truths changed everything for Hagar. And this is a great starting point when sharing gospel with forcibly displaced people today.

Time was up.

Our brief encounter encouraged me this morning. I could see God is at work in her heart as she prepares to take a team of people into the lives of asylum seekers and refugees in Athens. May the refugees they meet experience the love of God and the hope of Jesus as this team goes to love them.

Breaking loose

It seems that there are seasons – and even days – when everything seems to come together and things finally break loose as hoped. Today was one of those days…

A missionary family ready to join our work in Lille, France, were refused their visa by the government in March. This lead to a flurry of activity and a new application (submitted with a lot of prayer). The family received word today that France granted them their visa! Whew! They have already sold their house and quite their jobs so they are ready to go. Thank you, Jesus!

I also received word from a family serving refugees in Greece that they want to apply to join IAFR in order to continue their ministry with an agency that understands this kind of work. You will hear more about them at a later date. Let it suffice to say now that they will be a wonderful addition to the IAFR team.

WhatsApp & FB Messenger

A variety of calls and messages from missionaries and refugees in Kenya, Greece, Costa Rica and Uganda lit up my WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger yesterday.

A family from Costa Rica updated me concerning their ministry among refugees from the Middle East passing through their country. They had been quite sick earlier in the week and were struggling to find the strength to serve refugees. They wanted me to know that God was answering prayers and that they were feeling better.

A Somali refugee mother in Kakuma refugee camp wanted to know if the rumors in the camp about the US opening up again to refugees were true. I had to tell her the bad news that nothing has changed on this end of the refugee highway. The door to the US is all but closed.

Meanwhile a missionary (and former refugee from Iran) connected with me via Facebook Messenger to ask for prayer concerning a series of difficult decisions before her related to the growing ministry in Athens. It seems no matter how she proceeds, there will be pain.

While I was chatting with her, another refugee/missionary started messaging me from Uganda. He’s originally from DR Congo and is a Christian leader in the refugee settlement he calls home. Someone has falsely accused him of being a Rwandan spy pretending to be a church leader. The accusation has been published to an online news source. Such an accusation puts his life in danger.

Meanwhile another refugee from Kakuma started messaging me. I know him from the annual refugee youth camp there, as he is one of the leaders. He’s been suffering from debilitating headaches for 3 years. He missed this year’s youth camp due to headaches. The camp hospital seems unable to help. He doesn’t know what to do.

The day ended at 11:30 PM with a series of WhatsApp texts from a dynamic young Christian from Iran who just wanted to say hi.

Just another Friday…

Meeting Jesus on the way

Photo: Refugee camp on the Aegean Sea (Behind the fencing and cement pillars topped with barbed wire)

We stood talking through the bars of the gate behind which security guards stood in their bullet proof vests. They refused to let us in, even though we were with friends who presently call the refugee camp behind the bars and barbed wire walls their home. It was an oppressive sight.

Our friends are young believers in Jesus. The denial to allow us to enter the camp to visit them in their container-converted-into-a-shelter was another dehumanizing moment. The father said how hard it is to feel human in such conditions. The weight of his words was almost visible.

The mother told us how much their Persian fellowship in Athens means to her and her family. They gather with other refugees in a home outside of the camp – in a home where they are welcomed, valued and treated as human. It is a fellowship of travelers from distant nations who have found Jesus to be a faithful friend in every circumstance.

We had joined their gathering the night before. The living room was full of refugees – brothers and sisters from Iran and Afghanistan. They shared how much Jesus means to them. Some spoke of the difficulties of their journey – and then said how it has all been worth it because they met Jesus on the way.

Amen.

Photo: Refugee camp entrance – down the path and through the barred entrance

Refugee worship in Athens

Photo: a refugee church in Athens

I’m sitting in the back pew of a Greek Evangelical Church in Athens where a large group of refugees has gathered for worship. Most are from Iran. Many were found by Jesus here. They have been following Him for only a few weeks or months. Several have brought friends along. Their singing a Persian worship song as I write.

What a privilege to be able to join with them tonight.

Old Friends

Photo: A Persian feast in Athens

I arrived in Athens this afternoon. It is good to reconnect with old friends and colleagues here around a table filled with Persian specialties.

I am encouraged to hear how God is at work in the lives of refugees in this difficult place and look forward to seeing how we might encourage those serving them.

To Athens

I depart for Athens tomorrow to visit the ministry of One Heart, a Christian agency that is serving refugees and asylum seekers in Greece. The founder and director is a former refugee herself. Originally from Iran, she embraced Jesus while in Athens many years ago. We know each other from back when I served with International Teams.

She initially reached out to me a few months ago as her ministry was going through some major changes. As we talked it became apparent that our missions have a lot in common. I couldn’t help but think that if IAFR went to start a ministry in Greece, it would probably look a lot like what One Heart is doing.

We began to explore whether One Heart and IAFR might mutually benefit from a ministry partnership that included IAFR sending them missionaries and helping raise funds for select ministry projects in Greece.

And so my bags are packed and I will soon get a firsthand view of the ministry of One Heart together with our IAFR Europe Regional Leader (Paul Sydnor).

In the 20th Century it seems that missions assumed the way to develop was to establish themselves in as many countries as possible. I think the 21st Century is calling missions like IAFR to pursue a different paradigm – that of forming strategic partnerships with like-minded missions and agencies in other countries.

Greece calling

A leader of a well established refugee ministry in Greece reached out to IAFR this past week to begin exploring the possibility of a close ministry partnership that would include IAFR sending missionaries and resources – basically relating to their organisation as we do our IAFR teams.

This seems to be a promising possibility, so I’m looking at my calendar to find time to pay them a visit this spring. It is important to see their work, understand their context and talk this over in more detail.

Would you please pray with us as we consider this together?