In an ongoing effort to share inside experiences from the refugee crisis, I have invited Chris Lewis to share one of his stories from working in Opatovac refugee camp. He and his wife, Karen, traveled through Hungary, Serbia, and Croatia for over a month, serving the refugees. In his own words…
I’ve heard the old cliche about someone being so generous they would give away the shirt off their own back. However, when I saw a teenage boy give away his own sweater to another cold refugee, I saw this principle in action. In fact, I saw this kind of generosity amongst many of the refugees who pass daily through the camp at Opatovac in Croatia.
I’ll call the teenage boy Majid. He came to the clothes tent and told me he spoke both English and Arabic and would like to help. We let him help us distribute clothes to the long line of freezing refugees who had just arrived.
We had spent hours arranging the clothing in the tent. Donations come from various places and are given to us to sort through and organize into boxes so that we can set up the tent kind of like a shop for the people. The main things people needed on this day were coats, sweaters and shoes. The cold weather had come in, and the people were freezing.
As Majid helped us determine the needs of the people and find clothing for them, we often discovered that we didn’t have what the people needed. We ran out of socks first. Then we ran out of coats. Now we were down to handing out sweaters to the shivering people.
As always, I was impressed by the generosity of many of the refugees. People who had extra often came to the tent that day and made donations of their own. If they had a pair of shoes or an extra coat, they gave them to us so that we could give them to others who needed them more.
But it was never enough.
Finally we ran out of adult sweaters. We had a few left for children and one or two tattered sweaters for young people. But the large sweaters were gone.
A grown man came to the front of the line. We were able to give him something for the rest of his family, but he himself was shivering. “Do you have any coats?” he asked. We told him were sorry, but they were all gone. “Sweaters?” Again we were sorry, but we didn’t have anything left in his size.
Majid, however, was wearing a beautiful new sweater he had gotten somewhere. It was a little large for the 14 year old boy, but it was nice and he was proud of it. That’s why I was surprised when he asked me, “Do you have anything a little smaller that I could wear? Anything at all. It doesn’t have to be nice.”
One of the volunteers found a small sweater that could just barely fit. It was a bit old and not very nice, but Majid took his nice sweater off and put the old one on instead.
Then he gave his own sweater to the shivering man.
Every day, thousands of refugees pass through Opatovac. Most of them are hungry, and all of them are cold. We never have enough to give them, but we give them all we have.
What impresses me most, however, is watching how often they also give to one another. It reminds me that these are real people just like you and me. Many have been forced to leave behind good jobs and good lives, and they are uncertain of the future. Many are scared and lonely and hurting. However, their hearts beat just like ours do, and often their hearts beat in compassion for one another.
These little incidents remind me that the media’s picture of this crisis is often incomplete. The fate of these people – male and female, young and old – is often discussed as nothing more than a political problem that needs a solution. This is, however, a human problem that can only be solved through human compassion.
Many of the refugees would give the shirt off their back for one another. How much are we willing to give? How much are we willing to learn from the example of people like Majid?
Chris Lewis has been a minister with the Church of the Nazarene for 22 years. Originally from the United States, he and his wife, Karen, are in the process of moving to Croatia where they will be working side by side with the Red Cross in response to the refugee crisis.